The Heart of Florida’s Emerald Coast hosts a variety of unique and beautiful natural areas to enjoy. A visit to the Gulf of Mexico and the beaches of Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island are a must on any itinerary. The Gulf of Mexico is about 1,000 miles east to west and oval in shape. Many migratory species utilize the water of the Gulf, including sharks, whales, sea turtles, and game fish. The Gulf of Mexico yields more finfish, shrimp, and shellfish annually than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake and New England areas combined. Bottlenose dolphins can often be seen at play and 400 species of shells can be found in the Gulf. Take some time and explore the Gulf of Mexico with activities such as diving, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking, and paddle boarding.
Fort Walton Beach is best known for its barrier island, officially known as Santa Rosa Island or Okaloosa Island, or simply the “the Island”, as the locals call it. The pure white sand is made up of 99% quartz and is a perfect complement to the emerald-green water of the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond the Gulf of Mexico there are other water options such as blackwater rivers and streams. Okaloosa County is home to three blackwater stream systems. The banks of the Shoal River, Blackwater River, and Yellow River are beautiful and natural scenic areas. The rivers are grounds for the rare and endangered giant, prehistoric fish known as the Gulf sturgeon. Florida contains the world’s largest concentration of freshwater springs, and northern Florida is home to most of that state’s springs. These deep artesian springs originate from Florida’s massive underground aquifer, known as the Floridian aquifer. Fortunately, Okaloosa County contains one of these lush and biologically productive ecosystems, known as Eglin’s “Blue Spring.” Enjoy swimming, canoeing, kayaking, and viewing wildlife in and along the rivers, streams, and springs in the area.
The Heart of Florida’s Emerald Coast is home to the Choctawhatchee Bay. “The Bay,” as it is called by the locals, is characterized by brackish water, the mixing of freshwater from the bayous with salt water that flows directly into the Bay from the Destin East Pass, the Bay’s only direct connection to the Gulf of Mexico. The Bay supports vital sea grasses, which serve as critical nursery areas for the local marine life, and harbors unique species such as seahorses. Much of the freshwater entering the Choctawhatchee Bay originates from various streams that flow into the County’s 14 bayous (Marler, Joes, Jones, Cinco, Poquito, Garmier, Dons, Weekley, Toms, Bayou, Rocky, Shirk, Johns, and Sunken Boat) that fed the Bay. The Bay and the bayous both contain abundant redfish, speckled trout, shrimp, oysters, gulf menhaden, blue crab, flounder, striped mullet, white mullet, dolphins, and even the endangered gulf sturgeon.
Moving in land, our area contains one of the largest stands of longleaf pine trees still in existence. The long leaf pines are essential habitats for various plants and animals, many of which are a considered rare and endangered. The long leaf pine tree areas are great for bird-watching, hiking, camping, fishing, biking, and trail riding. The Heart of Florida’s Emerald Coast boasts an array of beautiful natural areas to explore beyond just our sugar-white sand beaches. Take a moment to appreciate and experience the all that there is to offer in Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island.