Shell Island - Panama City Beach, FL
A favorite spot for locals and visitors alike, Shell Island is an approximately 7-mile long undeveloped barrier island running east to west between the Gulf of Mexico and the St. Andrew Bay. Here you'll find Florida at its most natural, where graceful sand dunes, coastal scrub forest, pine hammocks, and an inland lake provide the perfect home for deer, nesting shorebirds, and all manner of coastal creatures, including ghost crabs and endangered species such as Choctawhatchee Beach Mice, piping plovers, snowy plovers, and loggerhead and green sea turtles.
Shell Island is a very natural environment, which means there are no concession stands where you can buy food or drinks, no restroom facilities, and no picnic tables, trash receptacles or shaded pavilions. If you go, go prepared, and please take out everything you brought in. While Shell Island was named for the abundance of shells found here, in the more heavily trafficked parts of the island shells are few and far between, since so many beachcombers are on the hunt for prize shells.
The western portion of Shell Island is part of St. Andrews State Park, and the two are divided by the St. Andrews Shipping Channel (known to locals as "the pass"). The eastern portion of Shell Island is property of Tyndall Air Force Base.
If you want to get technical (and who wants to get technical while you're on vacation?), Shell Island is not an island at all, but is now and historically has been a peninsula. However, the efforts of man and shifting sands have changed the designation back and forth over time. It became an island when a shipping channel was developed to establish a more direct shipping lane between Port Panama City and the Gulf of Mexico. The majority of the bay's outflow of water also soon followed this route, and the original eastern outlet gradually filled with sand and turned the island back into a peninsula. However Shell Island may be an island again soon if what's known as the "East Pass" or "Old Pass" is opened up again by dredging a channel.
In its history, Shell Island has seen Native American settlement, the arrival of Spanish explorers, and even pirates! More modern efforts at development have usually been quickly undone by hurricanes, including a zoo that was once located in what is now state park owned land.
Getting there: There are numerous tour boats that take passengers to Shell Island, including a Shell Island Shuttle that runs the short distance between mainland St. Andrews State Park and the island. During peak summer season this shuttle runs every half-hour, from 9-5, 7 days a week. Off season schedules vary, so be sure to call ahead and check. Again, keep in mind that there are no restroom facilities, concession stands, trash receptacles, picnic tables or shade pavilions on Shell Island, so take everything you need, and plan on taking it all back with you as well!