Scenic Gulf Coast Drive – Part 1
Pensacola Beach to Grayton Beach
The scenic coastal drive from Pensacola Beach to Grayton Beach is about 70 miles but considering going through several communities with reduced speeds, figure a 2 hour drive. If you are staying in the Pensacola area, you could do the trip as a day trip including a few hours stopping at destinations along the way. Our favorite was at the end of the drive in the quaint community of Grayton Beach whose unofficial town slogan is “Nice Dogs, Strange People.”
Leaving Pensacola Beach
The first leg of the route is 18 miles long on State Highway 399 on Santa Rosa Island from Pensacola Beach to Navarre Beach. The island along this stretch of road is a narrow strip of sand dunes with Santa Rosa Sound on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. After leaving the community of Pensacola Beach proper, there are no homes or buildings along the route, just dunes and water as far as the eye can see. Every few miles, however, there is a designated beach and parking area. The rest of the terrain however is a protected natural area – off limits.
Navarre Beach Village is a smaller version of Pensacola Beach with high rise beach front condos, a compact shopping-dining-entertainment district and 1500 feet long pier that stretches out into the Gulf of Mexico. Great for fishing or just a walk far out away from shore to catch the ocean breezes. Another attraction is the Navarre Beach Marine Science Center located at the entrance to Marine Park. The Marine Park itself is designed for both snorkeling and diving, the park includes two reefs in Santa Rosa Sound and one in the Gulf of Mexico. Informational kiosks stand at the beach near each reef.
Highway 399 ends at Narvarre Beach even though Santa Rosa Island continues for over twenty miles. There is a half-mile gap in the road from the Marine Park to the end of Santa Rosa Boulevard that extends out from the community of Okaloosa Island. So unless you are driving a dune buggy you are going to have to cross back to the mainland across the bridge to Highway 98 (Navarre Parkway). It is about 16 miles to Fort Walton Beach. This stretch isn’t very scenic just typical semi-urban landscape of homes and businesses.
Fort Walton Beach is located at the western end of Choctawhatche Bay and has a number of attractions for those interested in sampling what the city has to offer. These include the DeFrance Indoor Flea Market, The Bluewater Zoo, and the Heritage Park & Cultural Center.
Most visitors or tourists however will do a drive through of Fort Walton Beach and cross the bridge back onto Santa Rosa Island to the community of Okaloosa Island, which is essentially the beach and gulf playground for residents of Fort Walton Beach. Like Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach there are huge modern high rise condo-hotels on the beach, sugar sand parks and public beaches on both the gulf and bay sides, and an entertainment district.
The drive from Okaloosa Island to Destin is a divided highway and normally takes about 10 minutes. Destin is a bigger and more glamorous version of Pensacola Beach with the requisite high-rise hotels and condos along the beach, a harbor boardwalk and harborwalk village (see our article) with lots of dining and entertainment venues, charter fishing and cruise ships, theaters, galleries, specialty shops, etc. Destin is a big time resort community. Although less than 15,000 residents, they entertain over 4 million visitors a year. Henderson Beach State Park is located east of the main high rise hotel and condo section of town. It has 6000 feet of beach on the Gulf and is one of the most popular state parks in Florida’s panhandle. Just east of Henderson Beach, you can access old highway 98, now called Scenic Highway 98, turning south on Matthew Blvd.
Once on Scenic 98, you’ll exchange high rise condo-hotels for low rise condo-townhouses. Every few blocks there is a public access to the beach. Beach umbrellas stretch for a few miles all along the beach to the community of Miramar Beach, where the line of umbrellas picks up again until you encounter Topsail Hill State Preserve State Park. Prior to the arriving at Topsail park, Scenic 98 actually rejoins US Highway 98 in order to go around Topsail Hill park.
While this section is called Scenic 98, unless you stop at one of the beach access parks or one of the several restaurants and pubs along the route you won’t be able see much of the Gulf or the scenic white sand beaches. It is mainly town homes and condos lining both sides of the road.
Heading East and South to Grayton Beach
Just east of Topsail park, you have an opportunity to return to the oceanside drive, now called Scenic Highway 30A. While there still are condos and town homes along this stretch, they aren’t as tightly packed and you also begin to see some actual single family homes with larger yards.
You’ll also pass several ponds that are called coastal dune lakes, freshwater lakes that drain into the Gulf, providing a unique ecosystem due to the exchange of salt and fresh water. Some of these coastal lakes have preserved, natural shoreline – no homes or condos and therefore indeed offer some natural scenery to justify calling this a scenic drive. About a mile before you get to the community of Grayton Beach you are actually driving through Point Washington State Forest.
While the scenic drives 98 and 30A don’t offer an abundance of notable scenery, they are a much more pleasant drive than taking the major highway alternatives. But there is a genuine scenic and unique destination at the end of your drive in the town of Grayton Beach and in Grayton Beach State Park – see our article here.
Pensacola to Grayton Beach, Florida
See the Google Map (at the top of this page) for driving directions and links on this scenic drive. If you are RVing or camping, we’ve included links to 3 state parks and one national park that offer decent camping, spacious beaches, and hiking trails.
See our next article on the Scenic Gulf Drive from Grayton Beach to Apalachicola, Florida