The Emerald Coast is a great place for a beach vacation, but sometimes the crowds on Destin and Fort Walton Beach don’t give you the relaxed vibes you are looking for. Fear not, there are plenty of secluded beaches on the Gulf Coast and we’ve compiled a list of our favorites. From snorkeling on artificial reefs and hunting for seashells, to nature reserves that are home to endangered plants and animals, our best beaches near Destin are sure to catch your eye. All but one of our recommendations is free for the general public where everyone is welcome.
John Beasley Park
As one of Okaloosa Island’s largest beaches, it never feels overcrowded, even on weekends. There’s plenty of sugar-white sand for everyone and unlike many beaches in the area, it’s open 24 hours. You don’t have to walk that far through the sand dunes to find less crowded spots. It’s well-maintained year-round and known for being much cleaner than some of the larger Destin beaches. What’s more, it’s easily accessible for wheelchair users and there are beach wheelchairs available on site.
The beach at John Beasley Park strikes the perfect balance as it has plenty of amenities without the commercial development that ruins many of the beaches along the same coastline. There is a free parking lot with plenty of spaces, restrooms, and outside showers where you can rinse off the salt and sand before getting in your car to go home. There are no snack stands, so if you’re planning on spending the whole day there, be sure to pack a picnic or a few snacks to keep you going. If you’re passing through Destin and don’t have all the beach gear, there are plenty of chairs and umbrellas you can rent to ensure next-level relaxation.
Wildlife lovers will also be in their element here with opportunities to spot hermit crabs, sand dollars, dolphins, stingrays, and a variety of fish. The fact that many people choose this location for their weddings should tell you how beautiful it is. The classic pastel tones of the emerald water, the white sand, and the rustic pavilions make a picture-perfect backdrop to your day on the beach.
Navarre’s charm is so enticing that it has its own loyal fan club. Visitors return year on year to create memories on its expansive stretches of sand. Many know Navarre for its famous pier, which is the longest in Florida. Not only does this structure attract anglers hoping to bag a catch to grill up for dinner, but as it also gives you access to further out in the Gulf making it a great spot to watch a sunset or sunrise.
The beach became famous after the 1978 classic Jaws 2 was filmed here. Don’t let this put you off, however, as it’s not sharks you’ll see but dolphins twirling playfully along the coastline. This wildlife haven is also a sea turtle habitat and during nesting season (May through October) the beautiful animals come ashore to lay their eggs.
If you’re looking for fun ocean activities, there is a near-shore artificial reef(opens in a new tab) where snorkelers can view marine life and ecosystems. These carefully preserved areas are home to animals such as green turtles, jellyfish, Atlantic spadefish, and octopuses.
This is the only beach on our list which requires an entry fee and we had to include it for good reason. Opal Beach is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a national park chosen for preservation due to its outstanding natural beauty. The $25 week-long pass puts some people off but guarantees visitors a more secluded experience. Quoted by many as their favorite beach in Florida, Opal Beach’s unobstructed views of the Gulf and its unspoiled natural habitats make it an oasis.
There are no vendors or stands in the area but there are pavilions with grills where you can cook up a feast. If you prepare beforehand, it’s the ideal beach situation— you get lunch with a view and don’t have to worry about losing your space on the beach. Many visitors fall in love with the wild atmosphere at Opal Beach and it’s thanks to the conservation efforts of the national park team that it has remained untouched by development.
James Lee Park
The James Lee Park beach is the perfect all-rounder. Grab your bathing suit and towel and that’s all you’ll need. Being that little bit further from Destin it sees much less of the summer party crowds. One thing to note is that parking is more restricted than at other beaches so be sure to arrive early or in the late afternoon to get a spot. To avoid parking hassle altogether, opt for an Uber from Fort Walton or Destin.
The waves are great for bodyboarding and there’s even a small playground, making it a popular choice with families. When it comes to lunchtime, head over to Crab Trap(opens in a new tab), a legendary local restaurant serving up a variety of fresh seafood. Think crab cakes, mahi-mahi, fried shrimp po’boys, and more.
Henderson State Park
This beach sits next door to the James Lee Park and is one for nature lovers. The park was established for the preservation and protection of the area’s natural features. It is the last remaining coastal scrub area in Destin and home to tree and plant species such as sand pines, scrub oaks, and dune rosemary. You can explore these natural features by following one of the many hiking trails that weave through the 30-foot sand dunes. There will be plenty of opportunities to spot local wildlife too.
If you’re in the mood for fishing, rent equipment from one of our recommended outlets and set up your spot on the beach. It’s a great place for surf fishing and a fun activity to keep your group occupied. If you can’t bear to leave the beach at the end of the day, book a campsite beforehand(opens in a new tab) and make it an overnight adventure.
Topsail Preserve State Park
Topsail Preserve State Park is named for its sail-like dunes that billow above the emerald water shoreline. This is not the beach’s only natural spectacle, it is also home to freshwater dune lakes. This rare phenomenon only occurs in Florida, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia, and Madagascar. The rest of the landscape is made up of old-growth pine forests, sandy scrubland, and wetlands – all homes to endangered animals. The three miles of pristine white beach is an ideal spot for birdwatching (Easter bluebirds, red cardinals, osprey, and snowy plovers), hiking, and paddleboarding.
A day on the beaches near Destin doesn´t need to be a wild party. Relaxation is not an unrealistic goal, you just need to know where to go. Finding the right beach for your group is the key to a memorable beach vacation. Our list is a glimpse at some of the best secluded beaches on the Gulf Coast meaning they are great for spotting wildlife and you won’t need to fight for space when you go for your ocean dip!