Canadians flock to Florida's Emerald Coast for fun in the sun, but we’re not the only creatures doing so. Joining us is a wide array of four-legged and finned visitors. They too enjoy exploring the beaches, waterways and parks of Destin, Okaloosa Island and Fort Walton Beach. Ecotourism, as some would dub it, is simply a natural way of life on the Emerald Coast. Here's where human visitors can expect to find the wilder ones. 

 

Guided Beach Walks

emerald coast okaloosaEmerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau

Get acquainted with the area's most prominent ecosystem by participating in an educational beach walk. These guided wanderings are the perfect way to explore the Emerald Coast; take in the tropical surroundings while gleaning insider knowledge. Local experts point out places of interest, in addition to unique flora and fauna. Free to the public (our favourite price), the topic and location for these educational walks changes throughout the year. Check the schedule here to see what's being offered during your Emerald Coast holiday. 

One of the most popular guided beach walks is the nighttime sea turtle walk. A great way for people to learn about sea turtles is to understand how we can help their populations survive! The first step is being aware that, yes, sea turtles actually live and lay eggs on the beaches of the Emerald Coast. Hosted by George Gray, “Sea Turtle Coordinator”, groups of 20 people are led to the beaches of Okaloosa Island and Destin during the summer months. Since sea turtles generally come to the beach at night to their lay eggs, most day trippers won’t encounter these impressive animals. With the help of George, your chances of spotting them greatly increase. The more people who learn about sea turtles, the better it is for turtle populations. Plus, we have a feeling that this is an experience the kids will never forget. 

Other featured beach walks focus on plant life, such as maritime hammock and sea oats. Or, stop in for bird walks and tours detailing the geographic characteristics of the area. 



Go for a Hike

grassy beach emerald coast destin okaloosaEmerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau

From steephead ravines to beaches to pine forests, there is a wide range of unique habitats within the Emerald Coast. Explore them by foot! Here are a few of our favourite hikes and trails:

Henderson Beach State Park in Destin

At 200 acres this state park has a bit of everything, with bird watching, swimming and biking all counted among popular activities. For hikers, the Hiking Nature Trail showcases specimens of coastal scrub vegetation. Look for endangered/protected species: Cruise's golden aster, Godfrey's golden astor, gulf coast lupine and large leaved jointweed. The trail itself is less than a mile in length, so it's suitable for anyone who wants just a bit of a walk. Be prepared for some loose (sandy) ground and stretches of rolling terrain. The highlight of the trail is a nice lookout from atop one of the high sand dunes in the area. Capture a panoramic shot of the dunes, Gulf of Mexico and surrounding area. If you're visiting from April to October keep your ear open for migrating songbirds. Henderson Beach State Park is home to six listed and protected species: pover, egret, kestrel, brown pelican, skimmer and least tern. Take care not to disturb beach-nesting birds, which are often cryptic and blend easily with the sand they nest upon.

Ferry Park in Fort Walton Beach

Sometimes escaping the city for a nature fix isn’t always possible...or necessary.  Luckily Fort Walton Beach has many parks within city limits. If your interest in walking and hiking is partially for fitness, then head to Ferry Park. There is a one mile fitness trail that meanders around the park, which is also has baseball diamonds, tennis courts and a recreation center.

Gulf Islands National Seashore on Okaloosa Island

There are plenty of hiking trails to enjoy on Okaloosa Island. Plus, one can pretty well walk the length of the island if they feel so inclined. One particular highlight in this part of the Emerald Coast is the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The perfect place to base yourself for a day, the protected area extends far down the coast, into Santa Rosa and beyond. Wildlife flock here as the landscape offers shelter from coastal storms. Further there's a rich diversity of animal life here where the hinterland bayous and sounds are less salty than the gulf. Find shrimp, herons, egrets and fiddler crabs. Visit the Gulf Islands National Shore for a leisurely wander in search of wildlife, or simply for a little seclusion and swimming.

 

Off the Beaten Beach Path

If you want to get away from the beaches, then the Pine Forests at Black River State Forest, steephead ravines and Shoal River Sanctuary and bayous at Fred Gannon Park are all great options for a bit of variety on your hiking adventures.



The Life Aquatic

sea turtle

Snorkeling 

We love snorkeling for its inclusivity; it can be enjoyed by pretty well everyone. There are just a few pieces of necessary equipment and a life jacket can keep less confident swimmers effortlessly buoyant. The clear water of the Emerald Coast are great for this spectator 'sport'. Expect to see starfish, schools of tropical fish and hermit crabs. If you're lucky you'll spy a dolphin or sea turtle. Take the kids, teens and the grandparents and make like your own school of familial fish! 

Scuba Diving/Snuba

There's an incredible amount of life below the waterline. Scuba diving allows us a novel way to explore this entirely foreign environment. Not certified? Snuba offers a full immersion with only novice skill; just breathe through a regulator attached to a boat. With either equipment you'll be exploring the underwater habitats of fish including snapper, grouper, triggerfish and amberjack. You're also likely to see lobsterdolphins and turtles. Divers will find concealed treasures in the form of artificial reefs, wrecks and a limestone shelf. 

 

Wildlife Viewing

bird emerald coastEmerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau

No matter what time of year you visit the Emerald Coast, wildlife is watching you – so you need to learn about the best ways to watch them! Whether you’re out in the water, walking along the beach, or hiking amongst pine trees, there is wildlife to be seen.

The sea turtles that nest here can be found along the beaches any time from April to November. Occasionally you may see turtles in the shallow waters, just off the coast. Be sure to keep your eyes out for those who are nesting. 

dolphinEmerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau

One of the larger, more frequent visitors to the Emerald Coast are dolphins. These finned friends can be seen leaping and jumping in the emerald-green waters. Spend enough time on the Emerald Coast and you’re sure to spot some. If you want to guarantee a sighting, then check out Southern Star Dolphin Cruises in Destin. They offer year- round dolphin cruises.

 

Birding Along the Emerald Coast

bird emerald coastEmerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau

With a wide breadth of habitats, including quartz sand beaches, rolling dunes, freshwater rivers and oak forests, the Emerald Coast offers birders the opportunity to see over 300 species throughout the year.

The Okaloosa Island Area of the Gulf Islands National Seashore provides pristine shorefront for relaxed beach birding and walking. Waterfowl are abundant in the winter, while the sand provides amazing opportunities to see migratory and wintering species.

The pine trees and abundant vegetation at Veterans Park at Baywalk host a great blue heron colony that cannot be missed. Fall and spring brings unique opportunities to bird in a true migratory hotspot, with dozens of warblers and other rarities making appearances. Look for sora, purple gallinules, yellow-billed cuckoos and white-eyed vireos, just to name a few.

Birders can explore the forest at the edge of one of the region’s many bayous at Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park. Ospreys nest nearby, while the park’s nature trails give views of breeding prothonotary and black-and-white warblers, in addition to migrating indigo buntings, vireos and more.

With these and many other easily accessible birding sites, the Emerald Coast is a premier birding destination. Which birds will you see next?  

 

Guaranteed Gulf Critter Spotting

For an extra dose of wildlife, you can head to the GulfariumDiscover everything from sharks to penguins and stingrays to alligators! All in the Emerald Coast. Who would have thought? 

 


Ready to plan your Emerald Coast holiday? 
Click here to view the official Visitor's Guide

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