Northwest Florida is often referred to as “The Undiscovered Florida Coast,” due to the abundance of natural environment. The Panama City Beach area is a key region where diverse and rare species flourish, and where many travelers explore natural wonders and enjoy outdoor adventures.
Outdoor enthusiasts can hike and bird watch along scenic trails; camp along the shore; enjoy unparalleled boating, fishing, and diving; take kayaking tours; go off-road cycling; stand up paddleboarding (SUP) and more.
In addition, Panama City Beach provides distinctive wildlife viewing opportunities. From bottle-nosed dolphins and large schools of baitfish in the Gulf of Mexico to alligators and egrets in the marshes and dune lakes, wildlife thrives in this area. And, with everything from airboat adventures to glass-bottom boat tours and marine rescue programs, there are many ways to experience and observe the surrounding wildlife.
Even the new Northwest Florida International Beaches Airport was developed in conjunction with the creation of a new nature preserve – the West Bay Preservation Area – offering travelers more outdoor options to explore.
Key points of interest for nature lovers include:
Panama City Beach Conservation Park
Panama City Beach officials – along with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Corp of Engineers, and the Florida Department of Fish & Wildlife – developed an innovative system to restore thousands of acres of protected wetlands, leading to the creation of the newly opened 2,900-acre Conservation Park.
Visitors can enjoy the Conservation Park’s boardwalks and 24 miles of unpaved trails as they hike, bicycle, or run loops that range from half-a-mile to 12-miles. Gayle’s Trails connects the Conservation Park trails with other trail systems throughout the beach and honors one of the project’s visionaries, Mayor Gayle Oberst. Public restrooms, picnic areas, a guide to local flora & fauna, and a pavilion are located near the main parking lot, and an outdoor classroom provides a venue for group educational and enrichment opportunities. Additionally, eight boardwalks totaling over a mile in length are scattered throughout the park, providing excellent viewing of natural wetland areas.
St. Andrews State Park
In 2008, St. Andrews State Park ranked number two on the list of “Top 10 beaches in the United States” by Trip Advisor®. One of the most popular outdoor recreation spots in Florida, the park is characterized by rolling, white sand dunes separated by low swales of pinewoods and marshes. Visitors are encouraged to hike the Blue Heron Trail that winds through myriad plant communities. Here, freshwater and saltwater marshes teem with wildlife and birds. The Gator Lake Trail provides visitors with an elevated vantage point for spotting alligators and a variety of waterfowl, wading birds and other small animals. Button Bush Marsh is a favorite feeding place for a variety of birds including herons and ibis.
The 1,260-acre area, located on the eastern edge of Panama City Beach, has more than 1.5 miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico and the Grand Lagoon. Swimming, diving and snorkeling can be enjoyed in the Gulf and in the shallow, protected pool behind the jetties. A deep-sea jetty and surf fishing offer opportunities for anglers, as do two fishing piers, a boat ramp and concession stands. For visitors who want to get the most of this outdoor experience, two campground loops are nestled in the pine woods along the Grand Lagoon. The park’s 176 campsites can accommodate everything from tents to 40-foot RVs. There is also a “primitive” camping area for non-profit groups, equipped with a bathroom, water pump, and picnic table. Park visitors can also rent bicycles, canoes, kayaks, and snorkeling equipment.
Shell Island, a pristine barrier island situated just across the shipping channel from the mainland, is a 7-mile undeveloped island that provides a peaceful spot to relax in nature or snorkel. The area surrounding the island is home to one of the largest concentrations of bottlenose dolphins in the country. Shuttle boats are available to bring guests to the island in the spring and summer months.
Preserving ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Beaches’
The pure white color of Panama City Beach’s sand results from quartz crystals washing down from the Appalachian Mountains centuries ago. The crystals were bleached, ground, smoothed and polished along their journey, eventually, washing up along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.
To maintain these award-winning beaches, Panama City Beach completed a $16 million beach renourishment project in January 2012. Working with the United States Corps of Engineers, 1.4 million cubic yards of sand were pumped onto approximately 7.5 miles of beach, extending the shoreline by 100 feet in many locations.
The Dune Vegetation Project, an effort spearheaded by the Bay County Tourist Development Council, preserved the dunes just east of St. Andrews State Park through Pinnacle Port on the west end of Panama City Beach. The planted vegetation, all native to the area, include sea oats, dune panic grass, beach elder, sea purslane and railroad vine. In addition, new post and rope fencing lines the seaward edge of the new vegetation to protect the plants and allow them to grow and stabilize. Plantings will help trap and secure windblown sand, thereby growing sand dunes without actual sand replacement.
Pine Log & Point Washington State Forests
Nature enthusiasts find endless recreational opportunities in the area’s two state forests. Pine Log State Forest is a popular spot for picnicking, hiking, off-road bicycling, horseback riding, fishing and hunting. There are 23 miles of hiking trails winding through the forest, yielding great wildlife and bird viewing opportunities. Visitors are invited to camp in the forest, with facilities that can accommodate RV’s or tents. Self-guided tours and interpretive programs help visitors get the most from their experience in Pine Log State Forest. Point Washington State Forest is less developed than its counterpart. It is widely used for hunting, off-road bicycling and hiking on its 19 miles of trails. Point Washington is also a favorite location for wildlife and bird watching.
Camp Helen State Park
Camp Helen State Park is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Powell – one of the largest coastal dune lakes in Florida. Natural areas range from coastal dunes and salt marshes along the Gulf to freshwater wetlands and sand pine scrub along the lake. Activities include swimming, beachcombing, nature study, hiking, and both freshwater and saltwater fishing.
Florida Trail at Econfina Creek