During the off-season, it’s not too difficult to secure a secluded spot to call your own on almost any local beach. But during Spring Break and the sweltering summer months, out-of-town guests are here in full-force, making some locals feel a tad bit claustrophobic. If you find yourself needing to get away from it all, here are a few places you’ll almost always have all to yourself, regardless of the time of year.
1. The Intracoastal Canal (a.k.a. “The Ditch”)
The Intracoastal Waterway is a 3,000-mile network of natural and man-made waterways along the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico that stretches all the way from Manasquan River in New Jersey to Brownsville, Texas. Basically, the Intracoastal Waterway enables barges, cargo ships and small watercraft to travel from New York City all the way to the Mexican border, without ever having to be exposed to the potentially rough open seas of the Atlantic and Gulf. Here in South Walton, the Intracoastal Canal connects West Bay in Panama City Beach to the far east end of Choctawhatchee Bay.
Referred to as “The Ditch” by locals, this untouched narrow valley is difficult to access, but is so worth the effort.
The easiest way to get there is by boat, kayak or paddle board, as there are no official public trails or roads to help you reach the southern shore of the Intracoastal Canal. The shortest route by water is from the public boat launch in Point Washington. Head north on the water from the boat ramp and hang a hard right to find miles and miles of gorgeous canal shores to explore. If you’re lucky, you might even encounter a few dolphins making the Intracoastal trek between bays.
2. Choctawhatchee River Basin
If you want to delve a little deeper, explore the mouth of the Choctawhatchee River to discover some truly incredible pristine habitats. The Choctawhatchee River is Old Florida at its purest, so don’t be surprised to see bald eagles, giant osprey nests, turtles, blue heron, and if you’re lucky, an alligator. This is as good as any Costa Rican jungle tour, minus the howler monkeys. It’s quite a long paddle though, unless you cross the bay and drop in from Live Oak Landing or at a public access point along Black Creek. If you don’t quite have that much paddle power, there are some fantastic local guides who will gladly give you the grand tour, including Backwater Tours.
3. Morris Lake at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is a 1,640-acre preserve that’s home to 3.2 miles of pristine and isolated beaches, majestic sand dunes (some over 25 feet tall), three coastal dune lakes, wetlands, sand pine scrub and long-leaf pine forests. Topsail Hill Preserve is also part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, and with over 13 miles of deserted trails, it’s a hiker’s paradise. The Morris Lake Nature Trail is a 2.5 mile loop through some spectacular white sand dunes and old Florida bush. Along that trail, you’ll find a bench with a serene view of Morris Lake.
4. Hiking Trails at Eden Gardens State Park
Just 4 miles north of Seagrove and Seaside, Eden Gardens State Park is 161-acre trove of ancient moss-draped oaks, punctuated with views of Tucker Bayou. While you may not have this local treasure 100 percent to yourself, there’s plenty of room to spread out for a private picnic. There are also hiking trails starting from the north end of the pavilion picnic area, making Eden Gardens an ideal excursion. The park office offers free trail maps.
5. Point Washington State Forest
Networks of sandy roads and hiking / biking trails cross-cross their way through 15,400 protected acres in Point Washington State Forest. The forest is home to ten different natural habitats, including sandhill, cypress swamps, basin swamps, wet flatwoods and wet prairie communities. There are numerous public access points into the forest along Scenic Highway 30-A and its feeder roads. Once inside, it’s a breeze to find plenty of beautiful and quiet places to enjoy in complete seclusion. For overnighters, there’s even a primitive public campground with grills, picnic tables and a bathroom…. but we’ll let you find that secret spot all on your own. =)