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No clouds allowed in Florida’s Panhandle

Courtesy Panama City Beach CVB

Panama City Beach
Abundant natural resources surround Panama City Beach and make it easy for groups to connect with nature. Oceanfront state parks, intracoastal waterways and spring-fed rivers offer plenty of outdoor recreation and ecotourism.

At St. Andrews State Park on the city’s eastern border, a boardwalk runs from the parking area to the beach. Bottlenose dolphins often frolic offshore. Swimming and snorkeling are available, and camping is allowed on the one and a half miles of Gulf waterfront. Two bike trails also loop through the park. Visitors can rent snorkeling equipment, bicycles, kayaks and canoes on-site.

“Certain times of the year, when the conditions are just right, the water is as clear as [that in] the Bahamas,” said David Demarest, spokesman for the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Consistently, the best snorkeling in our area is around jetties between St. Andrews State Park and Shell Island. It’s a good little ecosystem, with fish ranging from bright yellow and blue to black-and-white striped.”

Shuttle rides to seven-mile-long Shell Island run year-round. The pristine barrier island boasts sand dunes, deer and good shelling. Groups should be forewarned: The island has no restrooms or concession facilities.

Camp Helen State Park, on the city’s west side, contains an interesting mix of ecosystems: scrub oak forest, pines coastal dunes and even a coastal dune lake. It’s one of the few places in the world where the ocean regularly breaks through to a freshwater lake. Visitors can swim in Lake Powell and then hike 40 yards across the sand to the gulf.

“I consider it a hidden gem,” said Demarest. “Trails are shaded by big oak trees, and people usually have the beach to themselves.”

Another spot that offers a break from the sun is the Panama City Beach Conservation Area, which can be explored by way of pine-shaded walking trails. Boardwalks stretch across marshy areas. Several companies will deliver bicycles to the park so that groups can access its many miles of off-road biking.

For a quintessential Florida experience, an airboat ride along the intercoastal waterways in North Bay gives visitors an opportunity to catch a glimpse of an alligator. Tours also stop and allow for some off-water exploration. Further inland, the Econfina Creek Canoe Livery takes groups canoeing, kayaking or tubing along a shaded, winding waterway.

“Our rivers are spring fed,” said Demarest. “The springwater is always crystal clear at the source until it joins with the river, so the springs are amazing for snorkeling and swimming. Springwater remains at 72 degrees year-round. It gives a good shiver, even in midsummer.”

Chances of seeing a bottlenose dolphin are good on a catamaran tour; the gulf supports the world’s largest concentration. For a more educational slant, ecotours drag a net behind the boat and bring up the catch for closer viewing. Sunset cruises offer peaceful and relaxing trips. And a moonlight cruise under a star-studded sky makes a memorable ending to any trip.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.