Northwest Florida hidden gems include countless natural areas, secret beaches, and other Florida secret spots for intrepid and adventurous travelers. Our recommended Florida hidden gems along the panhandle are fun, worthwhile, and memorable.
The phenomenal Florida Panhandle beaches are favorite destinations for spring break, summer beach trips, family vacations, or weekend getaways. There is nothing wrong with spending a week of sun and fun in the beach in front of your Destin condo and at nearby restaurants and bars. When you crave exploration and discovery, try one or more of these hidden gems along the Florida Panhandle.
And you gotta see and savor those phenomenal Gulf Coast sunsets.
Northwest Florida Hidden Gems: Basic Info
Some of the best beaches in Florida appear along the Florida Panhandle coast. They include Pensacola Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, Grayton Beach State Park, Inlet Beach (next to Panama City Beach), Rosemary Beach, Destin, and others mentioned below. Drive iconic scenic coastal highway 30A to discover a variety of the coolest Florida beach towns.
Even among crowded Florida Panhandle spots you can find hidden gems and secret spots. For instance, from Flora-Bama, drive past the condos to the western edge of Perdido Key State Park. A hidden entrance on Lafitte Reef leads to a wooded hiking trail and is a cool secret Florida nature spot.
Our suggested hidden gems in Florida Panhandle areas appear below. It is easy to discover your own Florida secret spots by paddling, walking, or driving away from the crowds. Many Florida Gulf Coast hidden gems are available only by boat and liquid road trips are a fantastic way to explore coastal areas.
Florida Panhandle Hidden Gems: Nature Areas
The Northwest Florida Gulf Coast includes nine Florida Aquatic Preserve protected nature treasures—from Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve in Pensacola Bay to Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve at Cedar Key. Outstanding Florida Water (OFW) areas are some of the coolest places in Florida. See details for Aucilla River OFW and Perdido River OFW on this list of OFWs.
Some favorite Florida State Parks are located along the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast. They include St. Andrews State Park (and the secluded Shell Island beaches!), Bald River State Park, Econfina State Park, and St Joseph Peninsula State Park. Experience the nature of Old Florida at federal Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) properties.
St Vincent NWR, Big Bend WMA, Flint Rock NWR, and Aucilla WMA are fun hidden gems in Northwest Florida. Gulf Islands National Seashore manages coastal island areas from Johnson Beach on Perdido Key to East Pass between Santa Rosa and Destin.
Travel writers and media contributed their favorite Northwest Florida Hidden Gems and they appear below. These cool secret Florida spots are listed in geographic order—from Cedar Key and along the Florida coast to Perdido Key and the Alabama border. A link goes either to an article they wrote or their home page.
Recommended Northwest Florida Hidden Gems
Located 3 miles off the coast of north Florida in the Gulf of Mexico is the small, secluded island town of Cedar Key. When looking for lesser-visited hidden gems in northwest Florida, Cedar Key should be near the top of your list.
Surprisingly, Cedar Key is just 150 miles south of the state capital of Tallahassee and 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, and is a perfect stop on any road trip through north Florida. The only road into the island is Highway 24 and as you cross over the #4 Bridge, you will begin to think you have stepped back in time.
The Cedar Key village is a surviving example of Old Florida rich in history and natural beauty with quaint cottages, historic buildings, a small but interesting museum, and a working waterfront with some of the best seafood restaurants on the Florida Gulf Coast.
The island has long been a mecca for artists and there are a number of boutique shops and galleries in the lovely shopping area. Park along the street or in the lot at the east end of town and walk at your leisure.
Surrounded by extensive tidal flats, Cedar Key may not have the white beaches Florida is famous for, but it is a paradise for bird watchers, anglers, hikers, and paddlers.
A visit to Cedar Key is as authentic as it gets. Go for the sunsets, or the supremely fresh seafood—whatever your reason, just go!
Contributed by Lori from TravlinMad
Looking for a place off the beaten path in Florida? Visit Steinhatchee, Florida. Located 1 hour 20 minutes north of Cedar Key off Highway 51, Steinhatchee offers a secluded getaway. Stop by Steinhatchee Falls where you can enjoy nature. Primitive trails meander through the area for biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Areas for fishing and hunting are available as well.
Nearby, visit the River Haven Marina where you can charter a boat to go scallop diving. Captain Steven Kroll will show you how to dive for scallops. Have them shucked at the marina and take them back to the resort to cook for dinner.
The Steinhatchee Landing Resort has a mixture of different size rentals from large groups to honeymoon cabins, all nestled among shady trees and wandering paths. The facility has an outdoor pool, an indoor Jacuzzi with sauna, and a petting zoo. Cabins have full kitchens and BBQ grills. Pick up groceries before arriving, as this is a remote area.
If you are looking for a lazy, relaxing weekend, Steinhatchee is the place to be.
Contributed by Donna from Explore the Road With Donna Marie
Tide Swamp WMA
The Tide Swamp Wildlife Management Area is a beautiful hidden spot in Northwest Florida. Come here for incredible hiking opportunities, fishing, hunting, or simply to experience the great outdoors and get back in touch with nature. Tide Swamp WMA is also very popular among off-road bikers and kayakers.
With plenty of trails to choose from you will rarely run into too many other people here and will almost always get the best spots all to yourself. As the name suggests Tide Swamp has plenty of little pools and streams and of course a huge area of marsh to explore. Campsites are available for those who want to spend a few days in the area.
Contributed by Victoria from Guide Your Travel.
Found on Florida’s Forgotten Coast at the easternmost corner of Franklin County, Alligator Point provides eight miles of pristine coastline along a tiny beach peninsula. This coastal community attracts those looking for a quiet retreat and is renowned for its tranquil beaches, unmatched fishing, and wildlife viewing. Despite the solitude, the area has an abundance of activities including swimming, hiking, kayaking, biking, birding, and canoeing.
Parking is somewhat limited with a $4 per car admission fee. Facilities include BBQ stands, picnic tables, and a full-service marina. A highlight of an Alligator Point visit is witnessing the birds and wildlife that have made homes in the sand dunes, pine forests, and marsh habitats of the surrounding region. Alligator Point is a must visit for those looking to experience Florida in all its natural splendor.
Contributed by Rai from A Rai of Light.
Port St. Joe
It may be a part of Florida’s Forgotten Coast, but one visit to Port St. Joe and travelers quickly discover this Florida Panhandle destination is unforgettable.
Port St. Joe’s appeal is its natural beauty and the activities related to it. Visitors come here to unplug, unwind, and reconnect with each other and/or nature through various adventures. One day it can be charter fishing along the Intracoastal Waterway, and the next day, kayaking around St. Joseph Bay. Port St Joe also offers horseback riding on the beach for those interested in taking things at a slower pace.
Plan out the trip around scalloping season and go scalloping. For those wanting to stay on land, rent a bike and explore the Port St. Joe Trail. Round out your Port St. Joe experience with a visit to T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park for wildlife viewing, swimming, or relaxing.
Contributed by Apryl from Southern Hospitality Magazine.
Panama City Beach Hidden Gems
Staying in a Panama City Beach high rise condo building is popular but if you want to escape the crowds and find some peaceful natural Florida areas, here are two suggestions.
Laguna Beach is a relatively quiet section of Panama City Beach, about two miles west of Arnold Road. I like to park in the beachside lot on El Reposo Place and savor the nearly empty Laguna Beach at sunrise and sunset. And after either, pop over to Thomas Donut & Snack Shop for incredible fresh donuts or magnificent small batch ice cream.
Oaks by the Bay Park is a phenomenal park overlooking St Andrews Bay, located in Panama City, about 12 miles from PCB’s Pier Park. In the park, look for the The Old Sentry (a 300-year-old oak tree), many other wonderful oak trees, several carved Angel Trees, and a boardwalk leading to the waterfront. For a memorable lunch experience, do what I did and bring a takeout po’ boy from nearby local favorite Hunt’s Oyster Bar. I impressed one regular customer, the order taker/oyster shucker, and the cook/owner by ordering a custom half grouper, half oyster po’ boy with a couple of shrimp thrown on for good measure.
Written by Charles from McCool Travel
Alys Beach is a seaside community on the Florida Gulf coast that is elegant and exudes luxury! It is a master-planned community designed by the team that built Seaside and Rosemary Beach. With whitewashed homes and shutters in French lavender and Provençal blue, visiting Alys will have you wondering if you landed in Bahamas, Provence, or Santorini.
It is hard to miss Alys Beach when you are driving on scenic highway 30A, a pair of butteries sit at the entrance of the town along with rows of Medjool date palms on either side of the road. The colonial architecture of the homes here will remind you of Bermuda, Antiqua, or Guatemala.
We usually stay in Rosemary Beach which is right next to Alys and ride our bikes over to get coffee and donuts from Charlie’s Donut, a converted Sunbeam bread truck. Stop for an afternoon or stay the week, wander the streets, secret gardens, courtyards, and you can pretend you are somewhere far away!
Contributed by Priya from Outside Suburbia
Florida is known for some of the best (and busiest) beaches in the USA. When you seek solitude and simplicity, look no further than Navarre Beach. It is a largely undiscovered beach where you can relax, enjoy sunbathing, swimming, and picnic without crowds. Located in the Florida Panhandle, Navarre Beach features 12 miles of coastline and pristine white sand beaches where you can spend some quality time with your family far from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Navarre beach offers more than just relaxation and sunbathing. Rent a kayak (see paragraph after next photo) and explore the waters of the Florida Gulf Coast and Santa Rosa Sound. Scooters are also available for rental to explore the Gulf Island National Seashore. There is a beautiful fishing pier in Navarre beach where you can meet local people or enjoy a long stroll during sunset. Navarre beach is one of the cheapest places in Florida, so finding affordable accommodation is not hard at all.
Contributed by Trijit from BudgetTravelBuff
Editor’s Note: Navarre is a unique US Gulf Coast spot because of the massive size of the sound—water area between the Gulfside barrier island and the mainland (also called the Intracoastal Waterway). Between Navarre Beach and Navarre is the Santa Rosa Sound, which is ideal for watersports (as mentioned above by the contributor).
Two amazing, unique, and super fun ways to explore the Santa Rosa Sound (I did both) are a WaveRunner Dolphin Tour with Navarre Family Watersports and a nighttime kayak in a clear kayak with Glow Paddle. Glow Paddle has two locations—one at Navarre Family Watersports and another at Margaritaville Beach Hotel in Pensacola Beach (which is where I did it). And, yes, I saw plenty of dolphins on the WaveRunner tour. See my video.
Nestled in a small corner of sand on the edge of Pensacola Pass is the boater’s paradise of Ft. McRee. Ft. McRee becomes more popular every year. Avoid visiting during the busy summer weekends and discover the peace and quiet that make the Florida Panhandle so special. The boating area of Ft. McRee has Johnson’s Beach National Seashore to the south and a sand island to the north created by dredging operations.
Sometimes the water runs through the two sections of land and other times it forms a cove. All that remains of the fort itself are some parts of the battery. The rest has been washed away by tides and storms. Still the remaining structures are fun to explore. You can only get here by boat and the nearest boat ramp is an hour away. Ft. McRee is a beautiful Northwest Florida hidden gem.
Contributed by Lori from Fitz 5 On Go.
Big Lagoon State Park
Big Lagoon State Park is one of the best Northwest Florida coastal hidden gems. It separates the mainland from Perdido Key and the Gulf of Mexico making it a perfect place to visit on a Pensacola day trip. The park is a gateway site for the Great Florida Birding Trail where 2,000 miles of Florida land is protected bird habitat.
Besides bird watching, other things to do at Big Lagoon State Park include spending the day swimming at the beach, biking on the bike path, or hiking along four miles of trails. The park also has a boat launch where you can launch a boat to explore more of the area.
One of the most popular activities in Big Lagoon State Park is kayaking around the Grande Lagoon and seeing the native endangered species. Spend a weekend in the campground and really get to know the park. Big Lagoon State Park is a wonderful Florida hidden gem that is worth checking out.
Contributed by Jessica from Unearth the Voyage.
Recommended Northwest Florida Places to Stay
Some of the best Florida Panhandle beach hotels include:
- Henderson Beach Resort
- Embassy Suites Destin Miramar Beach
- Home2 Suites by Hilton Destin
- Hampton Inn & Suites Destin
- Hyatt Place Sandestin
- Hilton Garden Inn Destin Miramar Beach
- Residence Inn Sandestin
For the best rentals in Destin see our article Destin Florida Rental: Fun Florida Panhandle Rentals.
Tell Us Your Favorite Hidden Gems in Florida
Was your favorite secret spot in Florida Panhandle listed? Or do you have any suggestions for Florida hidden gems in other parts of the state? Leave a comment so that we can check them out.