The natural side of the Florida Panhandle
There’s an old map hanging on the wall of a bedroom in the beach house my family rents that shows these last three communities existed before 30A. On the map, they’re all at the end of back roads off US 98, quiet dead-end beach oases between Destin and Panama City Beach. At first, my family worried that the 30A we knew would become like those overdeveloped coastal hotspots with buildings so tall they formed their own weather patterns – a phenomenon known as “condo fog.”
Yes, 30A and South Walton have become more developed and heavily trafficked in the years since, but with 25,000 acres of unspoiled land, the natural treasures remain. And although lodging now costs hundreds of dollars a night and thousands of dollars a week, affordable options still exist at two of South Walton’s four state parks – Grayton Beach and Topsail Hill Preserve – and at gems from Florida such as Hibiscus Coffee and Guesthouse in Grayton Beach, all convenient bases of operations for wilderness getaways. Budget restaurants like Cowgirl Kitchen, Bud and Alley’s Taco Bar, and several pizza places also make dining out easy.
In 2021, US 30A was designated a National Scenic Byway. The Timpoochee Trail runs along the road for most of its length. This 19-mile paved multi-use trail is a good introduction to the area’s landscape and New Urbanism architecture. This is an easy-to-bike trail that skirts dune lakes, state parks, and the Point Washington State Forest. The state forest contains 27 miles of trails, including the popular loop trails of the Eastern Lake Trail System for biking and hiking.
Eastern Lake is one of 15 coastal dune lakes that help make South Walton a naturally unique destination. Coastal dune lakes only exist in a handful of places in the world. They are distinctive in the way they intermittently open and close to the ocean by cutting channels – called outlets – across the beach. As a child, I thought the outfalls, with their brown water that looked like iced tea, were polluted. Later I learned that what turns water brown is the same thing that turns iced tea brown, the tannins of plant life.
Eastern Lake at Seagrove Beach is a good place to take in the contrasting elements of the environment on 30A. Glide from the south end of the lake, surrounded by blindingly white quartz sand dotted with multi-million dollar homes nestled behind the dunes, to the undeveloped north end amid the towering pines of Point State Forest Washington is like visiting two worlds in less than half an hour. Nearby West Lake offers a similar upside-down experience, from the watercolor development at the northeast end of the lake to the pristine one-mile shoreline of Grayton Beach State Park.
Western Lake is a popular gathering place to watch the sunset from 30A on the Timpoochee Trail. People gather on the trail to take photos and sketch or paint the idyllic sight of the multicolored colors of the sky reflected in the waters of the lake.
For coastal solitude, head to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park with its 3.2 miles of undeveloped beach, the highest dunes in the area, two large dune lakes, and an ancient longleaf pine forest. . Topsail’s dune lakes are off-paddling, but a rental shop is available inside the park for gulf excursions. Hiking trails and a bike path allow you to see the lakes up close.
When I last visited during peak season, I encountered no other humans on the 2.5-mile Lake Morris Trail in the western part of the park, and just an occasional long-hauler or fitness runner on the Beach. It takes a bit of work to reach this part of the park, but it’s worth the payoff for those who want to see what the northwest Florida coast was like before the beach mansions and condominiums became Standard.
South Walton, Florida is about a five-hour drive southwest of Atlanta via I-85 and US 331.
The Timpoochee Trail. The 30-mile hiking and biking trail along Scenic Highway 30A begins near Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and ends at Rosemary Beach. Near mile marker 9 is where people watch the sunset over Western Lake. There is no parking here, so you have to walk or cycle to this place. www.floridahikes.com
East Lake. The walk-in point is at 491 Eastern Lake Road. There are no facilities and only a handful of public parking spaces. The staircase leads directly to the outlet portion of Eastern Lake.
Boathouse Paddle Club. A seasonal kayak and paddle board rental facility on Western Lake. $35 and up. 250 Watercolor Blvd. S., Watercolour. 850-419-6188, www.runsup.com/boathouse-paddle-club.
The 30A Rental Shop. Kayaks and paddles delivered to your home. Beach concierge services also available. $65 per day and more. 850-260-0001, www.therentalshop30a.com.
Bike rental 30A. $20 per day and up. 5399 E. County Highway. 30A to Timpoochee Trail. 850-231-0959, 30abikerentals.net.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Cabins $130 and up, camping $24 and up. 7525 W. County Highway. 30A, Santa Rosa beach. 850-267-8330, reserve.floridastateparks.org
Grayton Beach State Park. Cabins $130 and up, camping $24 and up. 357 Main Park Road, Grayton Beach. 850-267-8300, reserve.floridastateparks.org.
Hibiscus cafe and guest house. $165 and up. 85 DeFuniak Street, Grayton Beach. 850-231-2733, www.hibiscusflorida.com.
Cowgirl kitchen. Specialties $8 or more. 54 Main Street, Rosemary Beach. 850-213-0058, cowgirlkitchen.com.
Bud and Alley’s Taco Bar. A la carte tacos $3.50 and up. 2236 E. County Highway. 30A, Seaside. 850-231-4781, www.budandalleys.com/taco-bar.
South Walton Visitor Center. 25777 US Highway. 331 S. 800-822-6877, www.visitsouthwalton.com.