Scenic Gulf Coast Drive –
Pensacola Beach to Destin
In this article we cover the interesting towns and places to visit along the Florida portion of the Gulf Scenic Drive from Pensacola Beach to Destin. In the article we provide links to visitor worthy attractions, campground reviews and some of our more detailed articles on these places to visit and camp.
See our Directory of all of our Gulf Coast Scenic Drive articles.
The scenic coastal drive from Pensacola or Pensacola Beach to Destin is about 43 miles and without stops would take about an hour. If you are staying in the Pensacola area, you could easily do the trip as a day trip including a few hours stopping at destinations along the way.
Pensacola & Pensacola Beach
Pensacola is one of the oldest cities in Florida (some claim the oldest) and it has done a great job in preserving history in the businesses in its downtown Palafox Historic District and homes in the nearby Seville neighborhood. The Naval Aviation Museum is a fantastic attraction for its wonderous exhibits of planes from the dawn of naval aviation to the present as well as the history of its role in various military and space endeavors. Fort Barrancas offers more Military History together with Fort Pickens across the bay. Top seafood restaurants abound, some decent golf courses, lots of interesting boutiques and shops, musical entertainment, and more. It is a very walkable city and we’ve never had trouble finding parking close enough to all the attractions we’ve wanted to experience.
While Pensacola itself has some beaches, “Going to the Beach” for Pensacola people is driving a few miles across the bridge of Pensacola Bay to Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island, which offers pristine white sand beaches on the Gulf and loads of dining and entertainment attractions to supplement your day at the beach. Adjacent to Pensacola Beach is Fort Pickens National Park, more history exhibits, a large camping and RV park, many miles of uncrowded white sand beaches, and nice hiking and biking trails.
Gulf Coast Drive Attractions East of Pensacola/Pensacola Beach
If you are staying on the mainland in Pensacola, you’ll follow Highway 98 across the bridge to the town of Gulf Breeze and then continue East towards Navarre Beach.
We think the more scenic drive is to cross the bridge into Pensacola Beach and then go East on State Highway 399 on Santa Rosa Island from 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 Navarre 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 pictures and links) 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 has one of the top rated beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Henderson Beach is located east of the main high rise hotel and condo section of Destin. It has 6000 feet of beach on the Gulf and is one of the most popular state parks for campers and RV travelers 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 of Destin for low rise condo-townhouses of the community known as South Walton. Every few blocks there is a public access to the beach for visitors whose lodging isn’t directly on 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. Topsail Park has a large section of camping for RV travelers. 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. But shortly the scenery improves!
See the Next Section of the Scenic Gulf Drive which covers the Emerald Coast from Destin to Grayton Beach to Rosemary Beach along Scenic Highway 30A. This portion of the Gulf Drive includes unique coastal dune lakes, some of Florida’s most attractive beaches, and top campgrounds.
Links to More Articles on Places to Visit along the Florida Gulf Coast Drive
- Pensacola: Things to See and Do
- Best Pensacola Restaurants & Pubs
- Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum
- Historical Pensacola Forts
- Fort Pickens Beach & Campground
- Visitor Attractions Pensacola Beach
- Destin HarborWalk Village
- Gulf Coast Scenic Drive – Scenic Highway 30a
- Quaint Town of Grayton Beach
- Gulf Coast Drive – Hwy 98 – Part 2.
- Neat things to see and do in Artsy Apalachicola
- Top Reviews, Best Places to Eat in Apalachicola
- Campground Review: Indian Pass
See the Google Map below 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 Destin to Rosemary Beach, Florida