Santa Rosa Sound/Emerald Coast
Emergency contact information:
Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office: 850-651-7400
Walton County Sheriff’s Office: 850-267-2000
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 24-hour wildlife
emergency/boating under the influence hotline: 1-888-404-3922
Navarre Beach Bridge
Grayton Beach State Park
The second half of this segment covers the open waters of the Gulf where
paddlers will first encounter the Emerald Coast’s famous white sand
beaches. While this means that paddlers can land virtually anywhere to
stretch and take a rest break, it also means they will be more
vulnerable to high winds and waves. Special care should be taken during
stormy, windy or foggy periods. There is an alternate ‘inland’ route
across the north side of Choctawhatchee Bay and through the ICW to
Apalachicola if weather conditions are hazardous.
If conditions improve there are several locations where the
‘outside’ route along the Gulf Coast can be rejoined.
Advance reservations are recommended for motels and campgrounds,
especially during holidays.
Part of the attraction of the Emerald Coast can be attributed to its
stark white sand and emerald waters. The sand originated in the southern
Appalachian Mountains, primarily from quartz rocks, and was carried down
the Apalachicola River system eons ago. Many of the Gulf beaches in this
area are currently isolated from sediment-laden rivers, so the water is
often clear. Sunlight reflecting off harmless micro-algae suspended in
the shallows gives off the emerald green hues.
The makeup of the shoreline has changed over time. All of Destin, for
example, was once an offshore island. Storms, wind-driven sand and sea
level changes prompted a gradual transformation into a peninsula.
Human history began with Native Americans about 12,000 years ago. Early
paleo Indians were largely nomadic hunters who fished and followed game
herds. Eventually, when agriculture was introduced, native people
established large villages and ceremonial complexes. Remnants still
exist. Modern-day visitors can tour a large
Temple Mound Museum in downtown Fort Walton Beach. The 17-foot tall
mound, one of the largest along the Gulf Coast, was created by an
estimated half-a-million basket-loads of earth.
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers used the mound area as an
encampment in order to guard part of the Santa Rosa Sound known as “The
Narrows.” Soldiers set up a tent to display artifacts found in the
mound, but Union troops set it ablaze. Once known as Brooks Landing and
Camp Walton, the town was named Fort Walton in 1932 when a Civil War
cannonball was unearthed from the temple mound. Tourism became popular
and the town’s population grew by 700 percent between 1950 and 1970.
The town of Destin, named after an early fishing captain, eventually
followed with a huge growth spurt. Once a quiet fishing village, the
first condominiums framed the skyline in the 1980s, and the cranes are
still at work. While about 12,000 people call Destin their year round
home, the population swells to 40,000 during the tourist season. More
than 80 percent of the Emerald Coast’s 4.5 million annual visitors are
directly attributed to Destin.
In this segment, paddlers will continue through Santa Rosa Sound and
eventually emerge into Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Terrain varies from undeveloped military lands along Santa Rosa Island
to Destin’s condominium-lined shores.
Three Florida state parks are featured:
Topsail Hill Preserve and
Grayton Beach. All three contain unspoiled tracts of wind-sculpted
dunes and coastal forest, with Topsail Hill and Grayton Beach being
larger and more remote, featuring miles of nature trails and rare
coastal dune lakes. The endangered Choctawhatchee beach mouse, which
feeds on sea oats and other dune vegetation, can be found at Topsail.
Henderson Beach and Grayton Beach offer tent camping in shaded
campgrounds. For reservations, visit
America or call (800) 326-3521.
For primitive camping described in this guide, please utilize
Leave No Trace principles.
1. Navarre Beach Bridge to Fort Walton Beach, 12-13 miles
You’ll be paddling through the Santa Rosa Sound as it gradually narrows
Fort Walton Beach. There are few if any suitable places to stop along
the mainland, and a large chunk of land is part of Hurlburt Field, home
of the 16th Special Operations Wing and off limits to
non-military personnel. Much of Santa Rosa Island in this segment,
however, is undeveloped military land and is okay for rest stops.
Several spoil islands in the Santa Rosa Sound, beginning just before
Fort Walton Beach, are available for primitive camping. We have provided
a GPS point for one of them (see map).
If a motel stay is desired, the Bayside Inn (1-866-599-66741-866-599-66741-866-599-66741-866-599-6674866-599-6674)
is located just after a city park along the mainland, adjacent to a
restaurant. You can land on a narrow beach and pull up your kayak near
the motel. Several restaurants and a grocery store are within walking
2. Fort Walton Beach to Henderson Beach State Park, 13-14 miles
After passing through a narrow stretch of the Santa Rosa Sound known as
the Narrows, you’ll enter the wide Choctawhatchee Bay.
This is where the
Alternate Inland Route
for Segments 2,3, and 4 begins. A short distance beyond the US 98 bridge
is Ross Marler Park with bathrooms, several pavilions, an outdoor
shower, and restaurants within walking distance. Keep skirting along
Santa Rosa Island toward the Destin Bridge and be cautious of heavy boat
traffic and strong currents and waves crossing the pass.
There are a number of places to eat in Destin near the
waterfront. A great place for a lunch break is the Clement R. Taylor
Park about a half mile east of the bridge near Destin (see map) Mature
live oaks and magnolias shade a covered picnic area. There are also
restrooms and water.
Once you pass through East Pass, you’ll be paddling along the Gulf of
Mexico along white sand beaches.
Henderson Beach State Park offers a natural alternative to Destin’s
row of condominiums. You may want to first land at the park’s picnic
area as it is only a quarter mile to the entrance station where you can
register for a campsite. About a half mile or so farther down the beach
is the end of the boardwalk leading to the campground. Since the
campground is about 1400 feet away, you’ll likely need to pull up your
kayak away from the water and possibly lock it up on the boardwalk
pilings, carrying your camping gear to your campsite. Make sure to take
your paddle with you.
The Henderson Beach Campground is nestled in a pristine coastal forest
of oaks and pines, many of which are twisted and bonsai-like due to
coastal winds and storm surges. In this scrub habitat, look for wild
rosemary, sand pine, wax myrtle oak, Chapman’s oak, stunted southern
magnolia, saw palmetto and ground lichens. The wild rosemary, which
mostly grows in coastal and deep sand habitats, is the only member of
the crowberry family found in Florida.
If you need to stock up on supplies, a supermarket is across the road
from the state park. Several restaurants are in the area and a huge
outdoor sports store is less than a mile east along U.S. 98.
3. Henderson Beach State Park to
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park (first access point), 9.5 miles
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is a must stop for exploration,
with two large coastal dune lakes and a wide stretch of unspoiled
coastal dunes and forest. At the first access point, you can utilize a
composting toilet and find the trailhead of two nature trails. The
second access point (about 1.3 miles past the first) is for the
boardwalk and tram that leads to a tent campground. Like at Henderson
Beach, you’ll need to pull up your kayak near the dunes, with the option
of locking it onto a boardwalk or post. The campground is about a mile
from the beach, but you can utilize a park shuttle at the end of the
boardwalk that leads to the ranger station. It runs every two hours in
winter (9, 11, 1, 3 and 4:30 CST), and every hour in summer, beginning
at 9AM and ending around 7:30 PM. The schedule shift is marked by
daylight savings time. For reservations, visit
America or (800) 326-3521.
A private campground about two miles before the state park is the
Camping on the Gulf Campground(see
map). This is an RV campgrou nd, but tent camping is allowed near the
office, not by the water. No reservations are allowed for tent camping.
For more information, call (877) 226-7485.
4. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to Grayton Beach State Park, 9.5
In this scenic section, you will glide along more high dunes and white
sand beaches. There are several small public beach access facilities
that have restrooms, picnic pavilions and showers (see map). These spots
are usually marked by flags that tell swimmers the level of safety for
swimming. Red is for extreme caution (strong wind, strong surf, or
strong currents and riptides), yellow is for normal conditions, and blue
is for potential problems with jellyfish, stingrays or other marine
Grayton Beach State Park, you’ll need to take an inlet leading into
the park and to the campground (see map). Hurricanes or other strong
storms may close this inlet to Western Lake, so you may need to make a
short portage over sand. If staying in the campground, you should try to
reserve even-numbered sites from 10 through 20 as these are on the water
and accessible by kayak. There are also several trails that lead from
the water to interior sites if waterfront sites are booked. Odd numbered
sites from 9 through 23 might work for this option, but you’ll need to
use trails that do not cut through another camper’s site. There are also
cabins available for overnight stays. Take time to enjoy this 2,227-acre
park that offers three coastal dune lakes, 13 distinct natural
communities, and four miles of hiking trails.
If the campground is full, contact the park headquarters about tent
camping at a nearby overflow site, (850) 267-8300. You can still land at
the park’s campground.