Exploring Northwest Florida
Exploring Northwest Florida
South Walton isn’t known for theme parks, crowds, or wild night life. It hasn’t had a diet named for it, and it doesn’t have a speedway. But if you’re looking for outstanding hiking and paddling trails, historic sites, wineries, art galleries, and some of the best beaches in Florida, you’ll find it all here.
Once the hunting grounds of the Creek Nation, SoWal, as the locals call it today, was a remote, gulf coast retreat, where the mosquitos outnumbered the settlers and steamboats brought needed goods to the area
down the Choctawhatchee River and across the Bay. Sawmills sprang up in places like Santa Rosa Beach, and at Point Washington at the Wesley homestead which is today Eden Gardens State Park. Beach-front lots sold for $100 or less and logging, turpentine, farming, and fishing were the main occupations.
In 1880, DeFuniak Springs was established as a railroad town, serving as a stop on the route of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad on its way to Pensacola. The town later became the county seat of Walton County, and by 1885, it was the winter home of the Chautauqua Assembly of New York attracting visitors from all over the country to its arts, educational, and cultural programs.
Today Defuniak Springs is the county seat of Walton County and it still plays host to the annual Chautauqua Festival in January. It is also home to the oldest continuously operating library in the state, a testament to the area's enduring love of the arts and learning.
During World War II, the military used present-day Coffeen Nature Preserve as a rocket launching test site, and residents experienced nightly black-outs as German U-boats prowled the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the sounds of F-35s and test bombing on the range attest to the presence of Eglin Air Force Base, the world’s largest land mass military installation.
The beaches of South Walton stretch from Destin and the Okaloosa County line on the west to the Bay County line and Panama City Beach on the east. It’s possible to walk the entire 26 miles of beaches, although sections of beach are considered private.
South Walton is actually the southern-most portion of Walton County which encompasses 1037 square miles. The county is home to the highest point in Florida, Britton Hill, elevation 345 feet, located near the town of Paxton on the Alabama state line. There’s also a top-notch research and education facility that is open to the public called the E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center near Freeport north of the Choctawhatchee Bay, and some very rare natural lakes.
One of those is Lake DeFuniak, an almost perfectly round lake in the center of DeFuniak Springs that for centuries attracted both Native Americans and early settlers to its clear, spring-fed waters. It is one of only two such lakes in the world. The other is located near Zurich, Switzerland.
In South Walton itself there are 15 other rare lakes called coastal dune lakes. These lakes are fed by rains and watershed that create a unique ecosystem for both plants and animals and are found in only three other locations in the world. Once or twice a year theses lakes “blow out,” emptying their natural tea-colored waters into the blue-green waters of the gulf.
The county is also home to five state parks, including Grayton Beach State Park, Deer Lake State Park, Eden Gardens State Park, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, and Morrison Springs, a popular diving spot.
A sixth park located in Bay County, Camp Helen State Park, sits on the Walton County line. In addition, the 15,131-acre Point Washington State Forest is located in South Walton and there are over 200 miles of hiking, biking, and horse trails.
South Walton is comprised of 15 beach communities, none of which are incorporated municipalities, but two of them, Grayton Beach and Santa Rosa Beach, are over 100 years old and are considered historical. The rest are a mixture of classic Florida beach towns and high-end beach resorts.
Several of these resort-towns, like Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and WaterColor, offer community activities that are open to the public. Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, the largest resort at over 2400 acres, opens its doors to area residents and visitors, offering golf, tennis, shopping, and dining.
The main SoWal strip is Scenic Highway 30A, the only county road in Florida to be designated a scenic highway. It runs parallel to the beach for about 20 miles, accompanied by the Timpoochee Trail, a paved hiking and biking trail. Together 30A and the trail meander over the coastal dune lakes and pass by ice cream shops and art galleries that beg to be explored.
The Village of Baytown Wharf at Sandestin is a hotbed of activity throughout the year. It features several restaurants, some overlooking the bay and harbor, shops, entertainment, and children’s activities that grown-ups can also enjoy. There’s a zipline that glides over a manmade pond filled with ducks, a ropes course, a climbing wall and a 5-acre nature preserve with a trail called Jolee Island. Winter activities include an ice skating rink.
Walton County is also home to two of Northwest Florida’s eight wineries. Chautauqua Vineyards and Winery is located just off Interstate 10 in DeFuniak Springs and features several acres that include a Muscadine vineyard, a winery gift shop, wine tasting, and winery tours. Emerald Coast Wine Cellars in Miramar Beach is a sister winery to Chautauqua and houses an extensive wine and gift shop and a wine tasting bar.
The county has twelve golf courses and three golf academies, tennis, and beach activities such as parasailing, jet skiing and Yolo Board Stand Up Paddle (SUP). There are many locally owned shops and boutiques as well as Silver Sands, the nation’s largest designer outlet center. You can also take your pick of local produce and Tupelo honey at the Seaside Farmers Market every Saturday morning.
In 1994, Stephen P. Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach, named Grayton Beach State Park as the country’s best beach, putting the region on the map for those who were looking for new beach experiences. Almost overnight the Florida vacation rentals in the area seemed to double, then triple. Options grew from 1950s-style beach-front motels and old wooden beach houses to luxury condos and high-end homes in gated communities.
Today, the county’s population is made up of an eclectic mix of Native Americans, old Southern families, and Yankee transplants looking for their place in the sun. Writers, musicians, and artists have flocked to the area, bringing their talents to writing colonies, music festivals, and art galleries.
North of the Bay, the township of Bruce is the seat of the Muscogee Nation of Florida. Their headquarters is a 1913 two-room school house that includes tribal offices, a small gift shop, and a gallery of Creek Indian artifacts, crafts, and jewelry.
In addition to dozens of independent art galleries, there are live theater performances at the Seaside Repertory Theater, the annual Chautauqua Assembly, and an annual performance of the local folk-life production Grit & Grace. ArtsQuest, a juried art show held each May, the FlutterBy Arts Festival for children, and the annual naming of Artist of the Year are just some of the events art enthusiasts look forward to each year.
When you’re through gallery hopping, you can check out the restaurants and fun eateries both on and off the beach. There’s everything from AAA Four Diamond dining at places like Fish Out of Water at the WaterColor Inn and Seagar’s at the Sandestin Hilton to beach-front seafood shacks like Pompano Joe’s and the Whale’s Tale, both in Miramar Beach. The Red Bar in Grayton Beach is a popular hangout for tourists and visiting celebrities, and Bud & Alleys’ in Seaside advertises nightly sunset celebrations.
There’s a lot to do in South Walton, for sure, but don’t miss the history and nature to be found north of the Bay as well. A little Exploring is a great way to find new adventures. Click here to Visit South Walton for more information about things to do and places to stay.