Northwest Florida is renowned for the pristine white beaches and emerald waters. While these two distinct features are treasures of the Panhandle, the state parks in Walton County are the hidden gems.
Six state parks lie within the county and they include: Ponce de Leon Springs, Topsail Hill Preserve, Grayton Beach, Eden Gardens, Deer Lake and Camp Helen State Park. Each park has its own unique native Florida scenery to boast about.
Ponce de Leon Springs is named after Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who came to Florida in 1513. These natural springs stay at a cool 68 degrees all year round. Park visitors can enjoy a dip in the springs as well as nature trails within the 406-acre park grounds. The state park is located on 2860 Ponce de Leon Road in Ponce de Leon, Fla.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is located along 7525 W. Scenic Hwy 30A in Santa Rosa Beach. Topsail has plenty of campground and RV space for visitors looking to stay a while and enjoy the sights of the white sand beaches, hiking trails and fishing as well as enjoying three rare coastal dune lakes.
“It is a 1,640-acre preserve with two coastal dune lakes, Morris and Campbell Lake,” said Park Ranger Christopher Horkman. “We have 3.2 miles of natural coastline; there are no condos, it’s pristine.”
Horkman said one of his favorite tasks at the park is the sea turtle watch, where he and other park rangers drive along the beach to document and record nests. He said sometimes the dolphins swim by during his morning beach drive.
The state park has cabins, bungalows and a newly renovated amphitheater that features Americana music like folk, jazz and blues Thursday nights at 6:30 p.m. called “Americana under the stars.”
Nestled along Scenic 30A, Grayton Beach State Park has many amenities for park visitors to participate in. Parks Services Specialist Patrick Hartsfield said visitors can canoe, kayak or paddle board on the beach or Western Lake and Alligator Lake.
“We also have one of the few nature trails that take you through the dune ecosystem and famous tree line,” said Hartsfield.
“On the North side of the road, there is a four and a half mile hiking or biking trail. That trail was the brain child of the Friends of Grayton Beach and Deer Lake State Parks.”
Grayton Beach even has a campground with cabins and 59 camping sites for tents and RVs. Grayton Beach State Park is located on 357 Main Park Road in Santa Rosa Beach.
Eden Gardens State Park has beautiful ornamental gardens, nature trails and spots for fishing, but what makes the park so special is the historical Wesley House. The Wesley House has been renovated to reflect the elegance of when it was first built in 1897.
Event Reservationist Nancy Meehan said the park has many live Virginia oak trees like the Wedding tree, which is a popular spot for couples tying the knot. Other treasures of Eden Gardens are the flora and fauna at the park, Meehan added.
“It has a different flora than most state parks in the area,” she said.
The park offers guided tours of the Wesley House Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Eden Gardens is located on 181 Eden Gardens Road in Santa Rosa Beach.
Deer Lake State Park shares the name of the coastal dune lake within the park. Visitors can take in the natural Florida scenery while hiking the trails, spending time on the beach as well as fishing and bird watching in the park.
“It has a gorgeous boardwalk that goes over last of the ancient Florida sand dunes,” said Hartsfield. “It’s a very pristine beach and has a lot of solitude.”
Deer Lake is located on 6350 East County Road 30A in Santa Rosa Beach.
Camp Helen State Park is surrounded by water on three sides by the Gulf of Mexico and the large coastal dune lake, Lake Powell, making the park like a peninsula. Located beside inlet beach, Camp Helen has prehistoric mounds that date as far back as 4,000 years ago.
“We are an historical day use park, that once was a private home to the Hicks family,” said Park Manager Sasha Craft. “They built the rainbow cottages and later sold the property and ran a summer camp in 1947. Camp Helen has history, beauty and nature preserves.”
All Florida state parks are open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to sunset. For more information on state parks in the area, select the “Find a park” tab at https://www.floridastateparks.org.