Like an oasis in the middle of Destin's development, the 208-acre Henderson Beach State Park, east of Destin Harbor on U.S. 98, allows easy access to swimming, sunning, surf fishing, picnicking, and seabird-watching along its 1 1/2 miles of beach. There are restrooms, outdoor showers, and surf chairs for people with disabilities. The area is open daily from 8am to sunset. Admission is $6 per vehicle with up to eight occupants, $4 single-occupant vehicle, $2 per pedestrian or cyclist. Several good restaurants are just outside the park's western boundary. Pets on leashes are allowed in the park, including the beach and campground. Campers will find 60 sites in a wooded setting here; they cost $30, including electricity, and can be reserved up to 11 months in advance. For camping reservations, call tel. 800/326-3521 or go to www.reserveamerica.com. For more information, contact the park at 1700 Emerald Coast Pkwy., Destin, FL 32541 (tel. 850/837-7550; www.floridastateparks.org/hendersonbeach).
The James W. Lee Park, between Destin and Sandestin, on Scenic Highway 98, has a long white-sand beach and overlooking it are covered picnic tables, a playground, an ice-cream parlor, and a seafood restaurant with great views.
Fort Walton Beach
Do your loafing on the white sands of Okaloosa Island, joined to the mainland by the high-rise Brooks Bridge over Santa Rosa Sound. Most resort hotels and amusement parks are grouped around the Gulfarium marine park on U.S. 98, east of the bridge. Here you'll find the Boardwalk, a collection of tin-roofed beachside buildings that have an arcade for the kids, a saloon for adults, covered picnic areas, a summertime snack bar, and a seafood restaurant. Just to the east, you can use the restrooms, cold-water showers, and other free facilities at Beasley Park, home of the Okaloosa County Visitor Welcome Center.
Across U.S. 98, the Okaloosa portion of the Gulf Islands National Seashore has picnic areas and sailboats for rent on Choctawhatchee Bay, plus access to the Gulf. Admission to this part of the national seashore is free.
Southern Walton County
Sporting the finest stretch of white sand on the Gulf, Grayton Beach State Park, on C.R. 30A, also has 356 acres of pine forests surrounding scenic Western Lake. A self-guided nature-trail system allows for a close-up look at the ecological diversity in the area, including sand dunes, a coastal dune lake, pine flat woods, a marsh area, and, of course, miles of beach. Get a leaflet at the main gate for a self-guided tour of the trail. There's a boat ramp and a campground with electric hookups on the lake. Pets are not allowed anywhere in the recreation area. The park is open daily from 8am to sunset. Admission is $5 per vehicle with up to eight occupants, $4 for a single occupant, and $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist. New campsites were built and cost $25, including electricity. Older campsites are a dollar cheaper. There are also cabins that range from $110 to $130 per night. For camping reservations, call tel. 800/326-3521 or go to www.reserveamerica.com. For general information, contact the park at 357 Main Park Rd., Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459 (tel. 850/231-4210; www.floridastateparks.org/graytonbeach).
Seaside has free parking along 30A and is a good spot for a day at the beach, a stroll or bike ride around the village, and a meal at one of its restaurants. The same goes for Seagrove Beach, which also has some charming eateries.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.