So you want to go to the Florida Panhandle!
The Florida Panhandle is in Northwest Florida.
What is the Florida Panhandle famous for?
The Florida Panhandle is famous for its beautiful Gulf Coast beaches!
And if you want to go inland, then you can find caves and waterfalls too!
Can you swim at beaches in the Florida Panhandle?
Yes, it is possible to go swimming in the Florida Panhandle!
Summer is the best time for swimming in the Florida Panhandle, although you may find people swimming any time of year!
For most people, the water temperature may be too cold for swimming outside of summer season!
In the winter, spring, and fall, the highest water temperature you will encounter will probably be in the low 60s… mid 60s if you’re lucky! 🥶
For many people, this is too cold for swimming.
But there will almost always be a few people swimming along Florida’s gulf coast even in these temperatures!
I was at a Florida Panhandle beach in the month of March and there were people who had just come out of the water when the air temperature was in the 40s!!! 🥶🥶🥶
Yes that’s another thing about the Florida Panhandle weather.
In the cold weather months, you never know what type of weather you’ll get in the Florida Panhandle!
You can get great weather with 70s and sunny, or you can get 40s and cloudy!
See more about this Florida Panhandle activity: What to pack for a trip to Florida beaches
The boring safety message about Gulf Coast swimming in the Florida Panhandle!
In short, take care!
Swimming in the Florida Panhandle CAN be generally safe… IF the water is calm!
The ocean is powerful!
The Gulf of Mexico is powerful!
Rip currents exist!
Know before you go!
Take care out there!
Look for the beach flag warnings… and take extra caution based on the color of those beach flags!
And even if there is a beach flag indicating “calm conditions” meaning it’s relatively safe for swimming in the Florida Panhandle, it’s still the ocean, so take care!
State parks in the Florida Panhandle
There are many state parks in the Florida Panhandle.
In general, Florida state parks have an entry fee. This ranges from $4 to $6 per car.
If you plan on making this the year of visiting many Florida state parks, then there is also an annual Florida state park pass that you can buy when you arrive at any Florida state park that is staffed.
Florida state parks also have picnic tables so they can also make for a perfect stop for a picnic.
So stop by a Publix grocery store for prepared food or picnic food and eat your meal outdoors with views!
What you might want for the beach:
Dolphin tours are a thing in the Florida Panhandle!
There are affiliate links on this page.
What is there to see in the Florida Panhandle?
1. Pensacola Beach pier
Cost: FREE parking for the beach + $2.25 per person for Pensacola Beach pier walking pass
There’s a big parking lot at the main beach of Pensacola Beach, and there’s free parking.
You can use this parking lot to go to the beach.
And you can use this Pensacola Beach parking to go to walk the Pensacola Beach pier!
There is a fee to go out onto the pier.
This cost for a Pensacola Beach pier walking pass is $2.25 per person. A fishing pass is $7.50 per person. See current fees.
See more beyond the Florida Panhandle: Driving from Pensacola to Orlando
Cost: FREE to drive through Santa Rosa area of Gulf Islands National Seashore, $25 per car for entry to official beach day use area
A national seashore is a type of a national park, similar to a national lakeshore.
National seashores are managed by the National Park Service.
The Santa Rosa area can be one of the most convenient to visit, because you don’t even need to get out of the car to see the amazing views of Gulf Islands National Seashore!
You will be driving with views of the ocean at times! (Well, you’ll be driving with views of the Gulf of Mexico, which is an ocean basin of the Atlantic Ocean!)
If you want to make this a longer picnic stop, there is a picnic area at Opal Beach.
The Gulf Island National Seashore beaches that have day use areas do have a national park entry fee of $25 per car.
But if you don’t already have an annual national park pass (which covers Gulf Islands National Seashore), and you don’t want to pay so much for a short stop, then there are other parking areas along the way in the Santa Rosa area that will give you simple beach access so you can walk out onto the sand.
You won’t encounter a national park entry station driving through the Santa Rosa area if you don’t go to the main day use area of Opal Beach.
For camping in Gulf Islands National Seashore, there is one campground in Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida that is in a different area, to the west.
That is the Fort Pickens Campground in the Fort Pickens area of Gulf Islands National Seashore, where you will find Langdon Beach.
Even further west near Alabama is the Perdido Key area of Gulf Islands National Seashore, where you will find Johnson Beach. The Florida state park campground near Perdido Key is the Big Lagoon State Park campground.
See more about this Florida Panhandle activity: Gulf Island National Seashore beaches
Cost: FREE parking for the beach + $1 per person for Navarre Beach pier walking pass
Navarre Beach FL calls itself the most relaxing place in Florida.
The way it goes in Navarre Beach is that there is one main beach, and then you’ll come across some other beach access spots at you’re driving along the main road.
You can stop at those other beach access stops, which you will pass as you are driving from Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The “main beach” is the beach at the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier.
There’s a big parking lot here, and there’s free parking.
You can use this parking lot to go to the beach, and you can use it to go to walk the Navarre Beach pier!
There is a fee to go out onto the pier. This cost for a Navarre Beach pier walking pass is $1 per person. A fishing pass is $7 per person. See current fees.
4. Destin Harbor
Cost: FREE to go to the Destin Harborwalk or walk across the bridge + $5-10 for parking in Destin
Destin is one of the popular Florida Panhandle beach towns.
You can go to see the Destin Harbor from sea level by going to the Destin Harborwalk.
Or you can see Destin Harbor from above!
There is a bridge that connects Destin and Okaloosa Island. (map)
You’ll see the Destin Harbor as you drive across this bridge.
👆 Driving across the Marler Bridge to Destin from Okaloosa Island. (map) You can see the Destin Harbor.
You can also walk across the bridge to see the Destin Harbor!
Walk on the other side of the bridge, and you can get views of Crab Island.
Once you are near the Destin Harborwalk Village, you will see signs for parking. There is parking around for $5-10.
See more beyond the Florida Panhandle: Driving from Destin to Orlando
Cost: $6 per car
There are a few Florida state parks with beaches in the Florida Panhandle.
Henderson Beach State Park is THE beach state park of Destin!
You’ll get the conveniences and beach facilities of a Florida state park with a beach trip to Henderson Beach State Park.
You can head to Henderson Beach State Park for swimming, a picnic spot, or just the views!
You can see some coastal dunes in the Florida Panhandle at Henderson Beach State Park.
For camping in the Florida Panhandle, then there is the Henderson Beach State Park campground.
There’s a trail from the campground to the beach in a separate area from the beach parking lots, so it’s like a private camper’s beach for you and your fellow campers!
See more about this Florida Panhandle activity: Henderson Beach State Park
Cost: $5 per car
Grayton Beach State Park is another one of the Florida state parks with a beach in the Florida Panhandle.
So once again, you’ll get the conveniences of beach facilities here.
Grayton Beach is considered a 30A beach, as it’s located off of the Florida 30A Highway.
Grayton Beach State Park is one of the best beaches in Florida.
You can see some coastal dunes in the Florida Panhandle at Grayton Beach State Park.
This stretch of the Florida Panhandle also has a number of artificial reefs.
These reefs can attract marine life which means that for snorkeling in the Florida Panhandle, you can try snorkeling from Grayton Beach State Park!
For camping in the Florida Panhandle, there is the Grayton Beach State Park campground.
See more about this Florida Panhandle activity: Grayton Beach State Park
Cost: $8 per car
Panama City Beach is one of the popular beach towns in the Florida Panhandle.
The best state park in this part of the Florida Panhandle is St Andrews State Park!
It’s another one of the Florida state parks in the Florida Panhandle with a beach.
It’s also another one of the Florida Panhandle beaches with a pier!
Even if you won’t be swimming, stop by St Andrews State Park to take a walk out onto the pier!
Or you can go for a walk on the beach!
For camping in the Florida Panhandle, there is the St Andrews State Park campground.
See more about this Florida Panhandle activity: St Andrews State Park
Now we will leave the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle behind and head inland…
8. Ponce de Leon Springs State Park
Cost: $4 per car
There are said to be over 1,000 springs in Florida!
And, many Florida springs are for swimming!
It’s said that the water temperature of many springs in Florida are a constant high 60s to low 70s year-round.
This means that in theory, you can go swimming in Florida springs any time of year.
Florida State Parks says the water temperature of Ponce de Leon Springs is a constant 68 degrees year-round.
Bring goggles so you can see the underwater life! (You can bring snorkeling gear if you have it!)
You may also consider wearing a swimming shirt with UV protection for swimming in the Florida springs too.
See more about this Florida Panhandle activity: What to pack for a trip to Florida springs
9. Falling Waters State Park
Cost: $5 per car
At the Falling Waters State Park entry, there’s a sign that says what the water flow of the waterfalls is like.
When I went in March, the water flow was listed as moderate.
Well, when I arrived at the upper waterfalls overlook, it looked more like a trickle to me.
Even so, going down to the lower waterfalls overlook was a wow feeling when you look down the sinkhole where the waterfalls “fall” into!
For camping in the Florida Panhandle, there is the Falling Waters State Park campground.
Cost: $5 per car for state park entry + $11 per person for cave tour
The Florida Caverns Natural Area is a National Natural Landmark, as designated by the National Park Service and U.S. Department of Interior.
You can see a variety of rock formations by walking through the cave underground.
The only way to take a walk through the underground cave is through a Florida Caverns State Park cave tour.
This lasts about an hour.
The cave tours can only be bought in person on the same day, and it’s said that they can sell out. See the current info.
So my plan was to go camping at the Florida Caverns State Park campground to be able to get cave tour tickets in the morning. This worked out well.
It was a Monday morning. When I showed up just after 9am, I was able to go on the next departing tour. I got the last ticket for that timing, but the following timing was 15 minutes later.
Although, when I arrived on a Sunday late afternoon, there were cave tour tickets still available. (But I still waited to go the next day.)
So when I went, it wasn’t all that busy.
Also note that no cave tours are offered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. See the current schedule.
Florida Caverns State Park is in the central time zone.
While the cave tour is THE reason to go to Florida Caverns State Park, if it turns out you have some time before your cave tour (or want to make time afterwards), there are a couple of above ground things to do in Florida Caverns State Park.
You can hike the Bluff Trail to the Tunnel Cave (above ground) and beyond.
And you can also see and/or go swimming at Blue Hole Spring.
Florida State Parks says the water temperature of Blue Hole Spring is a constant 64 degrees year-round.
And then of course, as a Florida state park, you can always go for a picnic!
Also note that Florida Caverns State Park was in large part destroyed by category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018.
According to Florida State Parks:
Florida Caverns State Park lost more than 90% of its thick canopied forest.
There are parts of Florida Caverns State Park where this destruction can still be seen.
When I went in March 2022, the cave tour guide noted that after you exit the cave at the end of the tour, you can still see the downed trees there.
Camping in the Florida Panhandle near Florida Caverns:
- Florida Caverns State Park campground
- Falling Waters State Park campground (30 minutes away to the west)
- Three Rivers State Park campground (30 minutes away to the east)
- Torreya State Park campground (1 hour away to the east)
Falling Waters and Three Rivers are in central time zone. Torreya is in eastern time zone.
At Three Rivers State Park campground, just across the lake is Georgia in eastern time. My phone was showing eastern time in Three Rivers State Park! (I also had limited to no service there, by the way.)
If you look at a map, the Apalachicola River divides the central time zone and eastern time zone in Florida.
For hotels near Florida Caverns, there are chain hotels in Marianna FL (closest to Florida Caverns) and Chipley FL (30 minutes away to the west).
See more about this Florida Panhandle activity:
Tallahassee is the big city of the Florida Panhandle.
It is also the capital of Florida.
Tallahassee is in the eastern time zone.
12. Wakulla Springs State Park
Cost: $6 per car for state park entry + $7.50 per person for Wakulla Springs State Park boat tour
Wakulla Springs are some more Florida springs that you can go swimming at.
But the reason to go to Wakulla Springs State Park is for the boat tour!
You have a chance to see some wildlife, including possibly alligators!
Unfortunately when I went, the weather wasn’t the best for alligator sightings, but I still saw around 5 alligators.
Although 5 alligators is nothing compared to another boat tour I did in Central Florida. But how many alligators you see on these boat tours is always all about the weather: water temperature, air temperature, and sunny vs overcast will affect whether alligators are out or not! If you will be going to South Florida and want to see alligators, you must go to Everglades National Park and the Tamiami Trail!
Apparently there is a stretch that the Wakulla Springs boat goes by that a ton of alligators like to lay around, but because of the weather conditions, they stayed in the water the time the boat went by and there were none in that particular spot.
But despite not seeing as many alligators as you can in optimal conditions, I still thought the boat tour was worth it.
It was a nice boat ride through the “real Florida” as the people of Florida State Parks like to say!
There have also been jungle movies filmed in what is now Wakulla Springs State Park.
There is no camping in Wakulla Springs State Park, but there is the Lodge at Wakulla Springs for overnight lodging in Wakulla Springs State Park.
You can also go dining at the lodge after your boat tour.
You also make the Wakulla Springs boat tour reservations through the lodge.
Wakulla Springs State Park is in the eastern time zone.
And that’s a bit about spending time in the Florida Panhandle!
More for your Florida road trip:
HAPPY VISIT TO THE FLORIDA PANHANDLE!
- Things to do in the Florida Panhandle for VIEWS!
- Best beaches in the Florida Panhandle
- Best state parks in the Florida Panhandle
- Best campgrounds in the Florida Panhandle
- Driving from Florida Panhandle to Orlando
- Best Ocala National Forest springs
- Things to do in Southwest Florida
- Things to do in the Florida Keys
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