Gulf Scenic Drive – Highway 98

Apalachicola Sunrise
The sun coming up over St. George Island and Apalachicola

Gulf Coast Scenic Drive – Rosemary Beach to Apalachicola

Previous Article: Scenic Highway 30A Destin to Rosemary Beach

Rosemary Beach to Panama City Beach

After Rosemary Beach Scenic Highway 30A rejoins highway 98 and the average speed of traffic accelerates. On your way toward Panama City Beach, highway 30 splits off and runs along the Gulf shoreline. You go through a few suburban beach communities like Hollywood Beach, Sunnyside and Laguna Beach. The beach front is largely public with lots of parking along the road. Unlike Destin and the beach communities of South Walton along 30A, very few structures are built on the beach itself. Most of the resorts, townhomes, cottages, and condos are on the other side of the highway.

These communities west of Panama City have the look of more affordable beach vacation destinations and or an affordable retirement community. Not at all sparkly and upscale like Seaside and Rosemary Beach.

Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach beach drive. High rise resort condos on beach side of the road, bars & amusements on the other side.

As you get closer and closer to Panama City Beach, things get bigger, denser, and high rise resorts begin to dominate the landscape. Once in the thick of Panama City Beach it is an unbroken chain of huge resorts along the beach flanked by various beach resort entertainment venues usually on the other side of the street from the beach front. While there were a fair amount of people on the street and the traffic was heavy, we saw only a fraction of the people milling around in the three South Walton beach communities. Most people staying in these huge resort complexes must be at the beach or inside enjoying whatever amenities are in these luxury facilities. This is a more urban setting and to my thinking not the kind of place where you could turn your kids loose like you could at Seaside or Rosemary Beach.

With so many mega-resorts per mile there has to be a sizable demographic that finds Panama City Beach appealing. For us, one trip was enough for lifetime. On our return trip we stuck to Highway 98 that ran away from the beach and then through Panama City itself.

However if you are lucky enough to get a reservation at St. Andrews State Park you can escape the maddening crowds of commercial Panama City Beach and enjoy a top-rated beach, hiking trails, kayaking, water sports, and more. The park has three camp stores for provisions and vacation needs so no need to leave the park during your stay.

(By the way, although parts of Panama City got hit real hard from Hurricane Michael, Panama City Beach managed to escape with minimal damage so various tourism and beach destinations are intact and operating normally)

Panama City to Apalachicola

About 10 miles east of Panama City, along highway 98 you arrive at the small community of Mexico Beach where the pace of life slows down quite a bit. There’s an extensive public beach area with lots of free parking. The collection of cottages, vacation homes, and condos are all on the non-beach side of the highway. There is an assortment of restaurants, pubs, charter fishing, a fishing pier and beach related enterprises to give vacationers a variety of things to do. If you like being at the beach, aren’t attracted to the urban beach resorts like Destin and Panama City Beach, or can’t afford a Seaside or Rosemary Beach vacation, Mexico Beach could be the place for you. (unfortunately the 2018 Hurricane Michael did a great amount of damage to the town so it could be a while for tourism to return)

Indian Pass Campground Beach
Indian Pass Campground Beach

The next town Port St. Joe is less a vacation community and seems to have a more industrial or commercial base but it does have a nice downtown waterfront and park area. Port St. Joe looks out across an expansive lagoon to the St. Joseph Peninsula so technically it is not on the Gulf. The lagoon forms the St. Joseph’s Bay Aquatic Preserve. Near the tip of the Peninsula is St. Joseph Peninsula State Park that offers camping, hiking, and an extensive beach fronting on the Gulf. (Port St. Joe was another casualty of Hurricane Michael so camping here in 2019 may be dicey. Likewise camping is at the State Park on the St. Jo Peninsula is suspended because the park is now only accessible by water.)

On your way south of St. Joe, Highway 98 and Highway 30A part company again. 30A is more scenic and runs along the Gulf past the entrance to St. Joseph Peninsula and past Indian Point, a smaller peninsula that is primarily a vacation home community, but has a nice secluded RV and Tent Campground-Indian Pass at the tip (The campground survived Hurricane Michael with minimal damage).  Another noteworthy spot along this route is St. Joe Bay Golf Course (see our review). Along this route there is a string of barrier islands: St. Vincent, Cape St. George, and St. George Island.

Historic Apalachicola

The 1907 Gibson Inn is one of many lovingly restored structures in Apalachicola

Apalachicola, is one of our favorite places along the Panhandle Gulf Coast. Unfortunately because it is protected by those barrier islands, Apalachicola doesn’t have those glamorous white sand beaches. You’ll have to drive out to St. George’s Island to get your “Gulf Beach Fix.” But for many other kinds of vacation entertainment we like Apalachicola a lot. It has several quaint restaurants and bars, even a brew pub, lots of neat little shops and galleries, some interesting parks, museums, a large number of historic register homes and structures, and some attractively restored B&Bs.

Oyster City Brewing
Jo and I enjoyed some Oyster City Brewing nut brown ale out on the Brewery patio.

Apalachicola has a very walkable downtown area that is adjacent to the Apalachicola River Delta. There is adequate public parking in and around the downtown and while busy with tourists, it never seemed crowded. The oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay and the Apalachicola River is reputed to be Florida’s finest so the oysters served here come right off the boat to the restaurant.

Previous Article: Scenic Highway 30A Destin to Rosemary Beach

(Below. Gulf Scenic Drive, Destin to Apalachicola Road Map. if viewing on mobile use two fingers to move map around)

Travel and Visitor Links:

The portion of the Gulf Coast from the St. Joe’s Peninsula and east to Apalachicola and beyond calls itself the Forgotten Coast. So far what we’ve seen of it, we like it. The Gulf Coast Drive continues east and north past the communities of Carrabelle, SopChoppy, Panacea, Shell Point and St. Marks. Look for our article on this part of the drive coming soon.