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Florida Panhandle Tour
Exploring the Emerald Coast & Capital Region
This is a loop tour; we’ll cover it both starting and ending in Pensacola primarily following U.S. 98 along the coast for a while, along with some offshoots that take you along barrier islands and keys brimming with white sandy beaches. Communities range from bustling to quiet, from Fort Walton Beach and Panama City to smaller places like Apalachicola and beach towns adjacent to forested state parks.
We’ll head inland past national forests and into Florida’s capital, Tallahassee. We’ll then head west back across the inland portion of the Panhandle to explore some countryside and historic small towns like DeFuniak Springs and its unique circular lake before returning to Pensacola.
Why not start at the Best Western PLUS Blue Angel Inn? It’s right along I-10, the main east-west Interstate corridor across the southern tier of the country, at Exit 7, Pine Forest Road.
Pensacola (pop. 52,000) is the westernmost city in the Florida panhandle with a history going back a long way – at least by American standards. Long inhabited by Native Americans, Spanish explorers started visiting the area in the 1500s. A more permanent presence in the form of a Spanish presidio was established in 1699, and since then the city has been part of Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederacy, and the U.S., hence its nickname “City of Five Flags.” Pensacola also bills itself as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” owing to the presence of Pensacola Naval Air Station, the first Naval Air Station in the U.S. and still one of the largest. The famous Blue Angels flying team makes their home here, and the Naval Air Station grounds feature attractions like the National Naval Aviation Museum, Fort Barrancas (which dates back to 1821), and the Pensacola Lighthouse & Museum, the highest focal point in Florida. Considering the area is also near Eglin Air Force Base, it’s no wonder the Pensacola is considered a major military town.
Downtown Pensacola holds numerous historic buildings, museums, and an active historic district. Enjoy a walk down Palafox Street and take in the shops, bars, and restaurants; explore Seville Square, where the center of original Spanish settlement in the city; or head along the waterfront for a Pensacola Blue Wahoos game and enjoy AA Baseball in one of the highest-rated minor league baseball stadiums in the country.
Head out of Pensacola via U.S. 98 east and over Pensacola Bay on the 3-mile long Pensacola Bay Bridge (the bridge, which opened in 1960 to replace an original 1931 bridge, is slated for replacement soon, so anticipate possible construction.) The bridge lands you on Fairpoint Peninsula, which separate Santa Rosa Island – a barrier island along the Gulf of Mexico – from the bays that border Pensacola and points east. On this peninsula you’ll find the little community of Gulf Breeze, where U.S. 98 becomes the Gulf Breeze Parkway. To head east toward Navarre, you have two options; Highway 399 allows you to head onto the barrier island instead of following the busier but faster U.S. 98.
Option One: Gulf Breeze to Navarre, U.S. 98
This way is faster but less scenic. U.S. 98, a.k.a. Gulf Breeze Parkway, runs through Gulf Breeze as the main commercial thoroughfare and then through a segment of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Here, you’ll find the Gulf Islands National Seashore Visitor Center Headquarters, which offers not only information but birding trails, a boardwalk, and accessible beach.
Further east, you’ll find the Gulf Breeze Zoo, a truly Florida-esque experience with 50 acres of animals from birds to lowland gorillas to alligators. Kids and adults of all ages can enjoy the train ride around the grounds – considered best for viewing the hippos and gorillas – and a petting zoo area allows you to feed certain animals, too. Further east, you reach Navarre, where the alternative option (Highway 399) also meets up with U.S. 98.
Option Two: County Road 399 along Santa Rosa Island
This way is slower, but very scenic for water and beaches. In Gulf Breeze, follow County 399 south off U.S. 98. You’ll cross from Fairpoint Peninsula on a causeway and bridge (watch for a toll heading southbound) to Santa Rosa Island, a true barrier island. First up is the tourist- and snowbird-heavy area of Pensacola Beach, which offers public beaches, restaurants, and access westward towards Fort Pickens. We head east through Pensacola Beach, which is growing rapidly again with homes – although some are unusual. Look for a few homes constructed of round concrete or with a spherical dome on top (including the “Dome of a Home), designed to withstand even the strongest hurricanes. Otherwise, houses on stilts are generally the rule along the barrier islands, to avoid storm surge.
East of Pensacola Beach another long, beautiful stretch of the Gulf Islands National Seashore begins; for almost 20 miles, you wind through and around white quartz sandy beaches and dunes, with views of the Gulf of Mexico to the south and Santa Rosa Sound to the north. Several turnarounds and parking areas provide access to beaches, considered among the whitest sandy beaches in the world. Buildings on the horizon signal the approach of Navarre Beach, home to the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier, the longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico – nearly one mile long. At Navarre Beach, you turn north and head across Santa Rosa Sound to meet up with U.S. 98, and we continue our journey eastward.
Whether you choose U.S. 98 or Highway 399, the two meet up again in Navarre, a small community known for being more laid back than many of the larger beach cities. Enjoy a stop at the East River Smokehouse with its barbecue and deck overlooking the water, or TC’s Front Porch across U.S. 98. Both are popular stops – especially for bikers – just west of where U.S. 98 and Highway 399 meet up again at the Navarre Bridge. The Best Western Navarre Waterfront is just to the east, which also offers terrific water views.
Navarre Beach, along the key, lays claim to the longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico; there’s also a Marine Science Station with the Gulf Coast Discovery Center slated to open in summer 2014. On the mainland, along and just off U.S. 98, you’ll find boutiques with unique shopping, walking and hiking trails, and a relaxed atmosphere you won’t find in some of the bigger towns and touristy areas.
Fort Walton Beach
Continuing east on U.S. 98, the next city up is Fort Walton Beach, which bustles with visitors who take in the beautiful beaches along this part of the Emerald Coast but who also like to explore the shops and history of the area. Early inhabitants had what is known as a “Mound Builder Culture”, similar to Native Americans in the Midwest United States.
The Indian Temple Mound Museum preserves Temple Mound, a National Historic Landmark that was constructed sometime before 1400 A.D. After all this time, it still stands over 12 feet high and measures 223 feet in diameter. The Museum itself features artifacts from the mound and the surrounding grounds have original buildings from the town’s early days. The downtown area, where U.S. 98 is called Miracle Strip Parkway, has a number of shops, antique stores, and some restaurants. Behind that block is the Emerald Coast Science Center, a fun stop for kids. You can also detour up Highway 85 to Eglin Air Force Base and check out the Air Force Armament Museum.
Back in Fort Walton Beach, Highway 98 leaves downtown by leapfrogging over the inlet and landing on Okaloosa Island. Just to your right along Santa Rosa Boulevard is the Best Western Fort Walton Beachfront. Check out their beautiful beachfront, the retro Florida styles throughout the hotel, and the Swizzle Stick Lounge, perfect for a colorful cosmo or some Sinatra on the jukebox.
Along Okaloosa Island, you’ll find plenty of bars and restaurants, the Emerald Coast Convention Center, plenty of shopping, and of course the longtime popular Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park all clustered tightly together. Right after that, open sand beaches and dunes dominate for the next several miles, from John Beasley Park to Eglin Beach Park. Then it’s over another high bridge over the East Pass of Choctawhatchee Bay and on into Destin.
Destin calls itself “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”, having both a large fishing fleet and experiencing a large rise from small fishing town to booming tourist destination. The beaches of Destin are as beautiful as any along the Emerald Coast and Destin Harbor is a sea of boats (literally). Harborwalk Village is a throng of shops, bars, restaurants, and slips for charter and private boats. Walk the harborfront, watch the pelicans flying overhead, or sample some fresh-caught fish from the boats coming in. Along with boat tours, you can also rent kayaks and surfboards. Just east of Harborwalk, some longer-established places dot U.S. 98, including the Red Door Saloon, long popular with bikers, and behind it down the path toward the water, the Boathouse Oyster Bar.
Nature returns with Henderson Beach State Park, which offers great beach access and a playground as well as a boardwalk that lets you view sand dunes, birds and other wildlife, and the emerald green waters of the Gulf.
The Scenic 30A Route
Further east past the rest of Destin and resort community of Sandestin, you can jog off U.S. 98 for a while and hit Scenic Highway 30A, which runs closer to the water and through beach communities. U.S. 98 serves as a faster four-lane highway to Panama City if you’re in a hurry, but otherwise enjoy 30A. The road runs through Seaside (where the movie "The Truman Show" was filmed), Grayton Beach, and Rosemary Beach.
Seaside and Rosemary Beach are master-planned communities; Grayton Beach dates back to 1885, when Army Major Charles Gray chose the location for his homestead. Grayton Beach describes itself as a “funky little beach town full of free-spirited folks with a laid-back attitude” - it says so on their official website. (Ironic that now sits between two master-planned communities, no?) In Grayton Beach you’ll find access to the beautiful Grayton Beach State Park as well as some older neighborhoods filled with longtime locals. Find them, as well as people traveling through, at Red Bar. “Eclectic” defines Red Bar, from the interior décor to the people to the food to the bands that play. On 30A, you’ll also cross Draper Lake and notice a covered bridge adjacent to the road for biking and walking.
Through Rosemary Beach, which has quite a few palm tree-lined stretches of its own along 30A, which becomes Florida Highway 30, you begin to see taller buildings on the horizon and you nestle back up along the shoreline. Ahead beckons Panama City Beach and Panama City, a mecca for Spring Breakers and plenty of other travelers looking to bask on beautiful beaches.
Panama City Beach thrives on beaches, shopping, nightlife, and tourist attractions. Coming in on Highway 30, you’re right along the beach; US 98, the main road on our Panhandle Tour, runs parallel about a mile or two inland (it’s also called Highway 30A). In between the two roads, you’ll find attractions like Pier Park, loaded with restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. Pier Park includes restaurants like the Hofbrau Beer Garden, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Back Porch Seafood and Oyster House, and Dick’s Last Resort; nightlife like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge for country music and Rum Runners Tropical Grill for dueling pianos; over 120 stores in both an enclosed shopping mall and walkable streets; and a Grand IMAX Theater.
Across from Pier Park is Panama City Beach Russell-Fields Pier. The Pier, which can be accessed for a small fee, offers walkers beautiful views of the water and beaches while offering those looking to fish plenty of opportunities for a fresh catch.
Other highlights in Panama City Beach include all of the non-beach attractions, such as Gulf World Marine Park, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum, Race City, Coconut Creek Family Fun Park, WonderWorks (look for the upside down White House), ZooWorld Zoological Conservatory and the Aqua Park. Many of these are located along or near Front Beach Boulevard, which is the very Highway 30 we’re touring.
Past several of these attractions, Highway 30 angles back to U.S. 98 for the ride over St. Andrew Bay [picture: panamacity_98bridge01.jpg] and into Panama City itself. Shortly after passing Gulf Coast State College, follow the Business US 98 branch towards downtown Panama City. Nearing St. Andrew’s Marina, where you’ll find a lot of oyster bars and other places you can enjoy very, very fresh seafood, you’ll come upon Oaks by the Bay Park. Besides being a lovely park in itself, you’ll find a tree known as The Old Sentry, a heritage oak tree believed to be over 250 years old. It was given the nickname “The Old Sentry” during the Civil War because it seemed to “stand guard” over St. Andrews Bay. You’ll find a fascinating Pindo palm tree, named Butia Capitata, is a four-headed palm – the only one of its kind known to exist.
Here, Business U.S. 98 zigzags around the park and through older, tree-covered neighborhoods of Panama City and along the waters of St. Andrews Bay. This area is where history returns – not just with 250-year-old trees, but with historic markers about things like the St. Andrew Skirmish, where a small battle took place in March, 1863.
Approaching US 231, you can head north to access the Best Western Suites Panama City, which is a few miles in that direction, or the Science & Discovery Center of Northwest Florida if the kids need some science or discovery activities; heading south on US 231 (as Harrison Avenue) takes you through the old downtown Panama City. You’ll get to see some of “the real Florida” as Floridians call it, including older city buildings, the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida, Old City Hall, and more.
Port St. Joe
From downtown Panama City, follow Business US 98 east and south over some bayous, past some industrial areas, and back out over the East Bay portion of St. Andrew’s Bay. You’re on the grounds of Tyndall Air Force Base, and will be more the next several miles. Tyndall AFB dates back to 1941 and today hosts the 325th Fighter Wing of the Air Combat Command.
Following U.S. 98 along the water, the next town up is Port St. Joe. One of the town’s nicknames is “Florida’s Constitution City”, because the constitution for what eventually became the State of Florida was ratified here in 1838. Just off US 98 you’ll find Constitution Convention State Park & Museum, which includes a museum with exhibits and a big train to explore. The rest of Port St. Joe’s downtown is located a few blocks in from U.S. 98 and includes the Port Theatre and a few other buildings of historical significance. Port St. Joe averages only 3 feet above sea level; the highest point in town sits 8 feet above sea level and is known as “Highland View.” See if you can find it.
Just past Port St. Joe, another offshoot of Highway 30A is available; if you’re in a hurry, follow U.S. 98 to get to Apalachicola faster, but if you’re not, take 30A. You’ll find the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve Center, which includes a nice observation tower for great views along the shoreline. The Preserve protects an intact natural coastal landscape with one of the highest concentrations of rare plants in the Southeast, as well as contains 20 known archaeological and historical sites, dating from prehistoric times to the 20th century. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park offers some of the highest sand dunes in the country as well as plenty of opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, and more.
From there, follow Highway 30A back to U.S. 98 for the ride into Apalachicola, right past the Best Western Apalach Inn. Long a trading center due to its location where the Apalachicola River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, it was originally called Cottonton (guess what was primarily traded then?) and then incorporated as West Point in 1827. Four years later, their name changed to Apalachicola. The sponge trade became a dominant part of the town’s activity, as well as the seafood catches hauled in each day. Even today, more than 90% of Florida’s oyster catch comes from Apalachicola Bay; it’s no coincidence Apalachicola hosts the annual Florida Seafood Festival.
Trivia: In the late 19th century, Apalachicola was the third-busiest port on the Gulf of Mexico, behind only New Orleans and Mobile.
Apalachicola is a cool town for another reason: this is where Dr. John Gorrie discovered the cold-air process of refrigeration and patented the first ice machine in 1849. The John Gorrie Museum State Park, one block off U.S. 98 in Apalachicola, chronicles his work and includes a replica of his original ice-making machine. There are also exhibits detailing Apalachicola’s colorful (and cooling) history. Across the way is a monument to Dr. Gorrie, right in front of the historic Trinity Episcopal Church, which was originally built of white pine in New York – it was dismantled and floated by vessel around the Florida Keys to Apalachicola to be rebuilt… and yes, this was in 1836.
Downtown Apalachicola brims with boutiques, oyster bars, classic old Florida architecture, and historic sites. Orman House Historic State Park is a lovely antebellum mansion to tour, as is the historic Raney House Museum (both built by men who made their fortunes in the cotton trade in the 1830s). Take in local artists’ works at the Apalachicola Museum of Art, revisit the city’s maritime past and present at the Apalachicola Maritime Museum, tour the or do some shopping in the building where the first Sponge Exchange was housed back in 1831. There’s also the old Dixie Theatre, the old Fort Coombs Armory dating back to 1901, and plenty of shopping in areas like The Bowery and Grady Market, all located within a few blocks of each other downtown. Oyster bars like Up the Creek Raw Bar, restaurants and taverns like Owl Café, and a sweet treat from the Apalachicola Chocolate Company can keep taste buds occupied as you enjoy the atmosphere of this old school Florida town.
From Apalachicola, U.S. 98 also becomes U.S. 319 and cuts across Apalachicola Bay – which is no small feat. The bridge heading east from the town rises to tower over the bay before dropping to a causeway lasting several miles to Eastport. In Eastport, you have the option of a brief side trip on Florida Highway 300 to St. George Island State Park, the long barrier island protecting the Bay.
Side Trip: Highway 300 to St. George Island
Off U.S. 98, follow Florida Highway 300 to find yourself on the third longest bridge in Florida, crossing four miles of Apalachicola Bay. On the other side, St. George Island greets you with the Cape St. George Lighthouse (built quite recently, replacing an earlier one that dated all the way back to 1833 but was sadly destroyed in a storm in 2005.)
The island has a high-end residential area and also the beautiful St. George Island State Park, which Forbes rated in 2013 as having the third most beautiful beach in the country. The park offers abundant recreation opportunities in the Gulf and also with nature trails through the area. It’s also a well-known breeding ground for loggerhead sea turtles – so don’t disturb them.
Back to Eastport, U.S. 98 continues east along the coast. Unlike much of the tour so far, this area of the Florida coast gets more heavily wooded because the Apalachicola National Forest begins here; the result is some nice views of the Gulf waters on one side and woods on the other. Shortly after Tate’s Hell State Forest, you’ll find the Crooked River Lighthouse, which opened back in 1895. It stands 100 feet tall and while it was deactivated in 1995, a local civic group arranged to replace the lens and from 2009 on it became a fully functional navigation aid once again. There’s a museum at the base and on weekends you can climb the stairs and take in the view from the top.
The next town is Carrabelle, which holds the World’s Smallest Police Station. It’s the phone booth on the corner of U.S. 98 and County Road 67 downtown. It has an interesting history dating back to 1963, beginning with tourists using police phones to make unauthorized long-distance calls (remember “long distance calls”?) The local police moved their police phone to other locations before it ended up in a regular phone booth. The whole story is more complicated than that,.
Carrabelle remains a small, friendly fishing town, but the area was actively preparing people for duty during World War II. Camp Gordon Johnston opened here in 1941 and served as an amphibious training base housing around 10,000 troops at one time and rotating between 24,000 and 30,000 soldiers until its closing in 1946. Dog Island and St. George Island, both nearby, were used as landing points for exercises. The Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum showcases the history of the war and the contributions toward the war effort made in and around Carrabelle. The Camp wasn’t the only notable place that trained soldiers; Carrabelle Beach, right along U.S. 98, was the last place troops trained for the invasion D-Day of Normandy before shipping out to England.
Past Carrabelle, U.S. 98 and U.S. 319 split; U.S. 319 heads north into the National Forest area and Ochlockonee River State Park, which is a significant habitat for the endangered but amusingly named Red-cockaded woodpecker. Past the park, U.S. 319 comes to the small and also interestingly-named town of Sopchoppy, which sprouted up along a railroad line in 1894. It hosts the Worm Gruntin’ Festival, where “worm charmers” use methods such as pounding wooden stakes into the ground and then rubbing them with metal slabs. This causes worms to surface, and they are usually gathered and used (or sold) for fishing bait. Taking place annually on the second Saturday in April, the festival also features bands, a 5K race, horseshoe and hula-hoop contests, and a variety of vendors to add to the worm gruntin’ activities.
The U.S. 98 option stays along the coast juuuust a tad longer, leaping over Ochlockonee Bay and going through the old fishing village of Panacea before joining U.S. 319 again just east of Sopchoppy. The reunion is short-lived, however; they split again not much more than a mile later. Along U.S. 98 just past the split, you’ll find the Best Western PLUS Wakulla Inn & Suites.
For the Panhandle Tour, we bid goodbye to U.S. 98 (it heads east and then south into central and southern Florida) and follow U.S. 319 north into the town of Crawfordville. County seat of Wakulla County, Crawfordville is the only unincorporated county seat out of 67 in the state of Florida. The courthouse, right along U.S. 319, was built in 1893 and is the oldest wood-framed courthouse still in use in Florida.
A popular draw in the area – worth a side trip – is Wakulla Springs State Park, which can be accessed via Florida Highway 267. Filled with beautiful trees draped in Spanish moss, a handsome 1937 lodge with older Florida and Spanish-style architecture, and springs that feed the Wakulla River, this park is filled with beauty and things to do. Boat rides along the Wakulla River, including some boats that are glass-bottomed, are very popular.
The Visitors Center offers exhibits about the area and Florida’s wealth of natural springs, and you can swim in the lake – possibly amidst some manatees. To stay on land, rent a bike or walk to explore miles of nature trails to check out the woods, the riverbank, and more. Wakulla Springs is a National Natural Landmark.
You can follow Florida Highway 267 back to U.S. 319 northbound to continue the Tour.
Trivia: Florida contains more springs than any other place in the world. The terrain, climate, rainfall, and large amounts of decaying vegetation combine to form the ideal natural setting for formation of springs.
It’s a short ride up U.S 319 from Crawfordville and Wakulla Springs into Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city. Tallahassee became the capital of Florida Territory in 1824, 21 years before statehood. Its selection was largely due to its location halfway between Pensacola and St. Augustine, two early and longtime Florida settlements that served as former capitals of West Florida and East Florida.
Trivia: During the Civil War, Tallahassee was the only Confederate state capital east of the Mississippi River that was not captured by Union forces.
For a true tour of Tallahassee, head east on the bypass (which stays US 319) and go to the east side of town; you can access the Tallahassee Automobile Museum on the far east side where U.S. 90 meets I-10, right across from the Best Western Seminole Inn. Closer in on the east side, follow U.S. 27 (Apalachee Parkway) from U.S. 319 for the best view going into downtown Tallahassee. Not too far past the Best Western Pride Inn & Suites, you’ll find a sweeping curve and, perched on the hill in the distance, both Florida’s original and current state capitol buildings. It’s a magnificent sight as you drive up the Apalachee Parkway to Monroe Street, the intersection where the capitol buildings are located.
The Florida State Capitol, is the 25-story tower visible for miles that in the 1970s replaced the Florida Historic Capitol Museum, a more traditional capitol building right in front. Both anchor downtown Tallahassee’s Capitol Complex and have free tours available. The Museum of Florida History, right behind the capitol buildings, has no shortage of topics given the complex and colorful history of the Sunshine State.
Just behind it down the hill west of the capitol, you’ll find the sprawling campus of Florida State University. Their beloved Seminoles are of course powerhouses in college sports, especially football. Bobby Brown Field at Doak Campbell Stadium sits on the southwestern corner of campus and holds over 82,000 for football; it’s the largest continuous brick structure in the United States and generates plenty of noise and energy on football Saturdays. Florida A&M University, the nation’s largest historically African-American university, is also located just to the south of the capitol and FSU’s campus; these two schools and some smaller ones add up to make Tallahassee one of the largest college towns in the country.
Some are “drawn” to Tallahassee for the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, which is the largest of its kind in the world. The Tallahassee Museum is also nearby and offers natural and cultural history exhibits and outdoor trails.
Heading to the north side, history buffs who like to go WAY back will like Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park, one of the most important archeological sites in Florida. Similar to back in Fort Walton Beach, the mound-building Native American culture dominated this area from roughly 1050-1500, and remnants of original mounds, public plazas, and village residences can still be seen. The park is located just off US 27 a few miles north of I-10, right near the Best Western PLUS Tallahassee North Hotel. For more recent history, Goodwood Museum and Gardens on the northeast side offers a look at Florida’s 19th century plantation living amidst extensive horticulture across the grounds.
As you can see, Tallahassee, the largest city on the Panhandle Tour, offers everything from capitols to universities, with plenty of museums and history. Out of Tallahassee, follow I-10 or U.S. 90 west; the two come together in Midway, where the Best Western PLUS Panhandle Capital Inn & Suites is located.
Quincy to DeFuniak Springs
Heading back west across the inland of the Panhandle, you can follow I-10 for speed or U.S. 90 for small towns and scenery. U.S. 90 winds through Quincy, a town with a long history as a tobacco center. The downtown features an historic district that includes the Leaf Theater, a classic cinema named after the tobacco leaf variety that helped make Quincy prosper in its heyday. U.S. 90 then flirts with the Georgia state line in Chattahoochee, where you cross the Apalachicola River (which emptied into the Gulf back where we went through Apalachicola on the coast) and back into the Central Time Zone.
U.S. 90 continues through Sneads and into Marianna, home of Chipola College and the nearest city to Florida Caverns State Park, which offers a highly decorated tour cave and seven miles of multi-use recreation trails. West of Marianna and Ponce de Leon, where Ponce de Leon Springs State Park is a popular stop, U.S. 90 continues to parallel I-10 as both head into DeFuniak Springs.
DeFuniak Springs was established as a railroad town in the 1880s, as well as a potential resort town. It became a center of the Chautauqua Movement and today houses the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood.
The Circle Drive Historic District features over 170 historical buildings, including the Walton County Heritage Museum, housed in the former L&N Train Depot. The Walton-DeFuniak Library opened in 1886 and remains the oldest continuously operating library in Florida. The Library not only holds books; it contains arms and armor from a local college professor’s private collection, willed to the Library after his passing. Weapons, including muskets from 18th century Kentucky and items dating back to the Crusades era and from across Europe and the Orient, are featured.
Many of these heritage buildings are on or near Lake DeFuniak, a nearly perfect round, natural spring-fed lake considered one of only two of its kind in the world – the other being in Switzerland. The historic downtown area holds a popular shopping and antiques district, including the notable “Little Big Store.” The nearby Walton County Courthouse not only is a handsome American courthouse, but the Florida’s first Confederate monument is located right on the grounds; it went up in 1871.
You can also check out Sun Bright along U.S. 331 at Live Oak Avenue, a lovely historic home which once served as the home of Florida’s twenty-second governor, Sidney Catts. The Best Western Crossroads Inn is located on the south side of town, along I-10 at Exit 85. Across the freeway, you’ll find the Chautauqua Vineyard & Winery, where you can enjoy free wine tastings from locally-grown grapes, tours, and the opportunity to pick up a good a variety of wines and other items at their gift shop and tour center.
Trivia: DeFuniak Springs is the county seat of Walton County, home to Florida’s highest natural point: Britton Hill, at 345 feet above sea level. It’s the lowest “high point” of any state in the U.S., including the District of Columbia. The lowest point of sixteen U.S. states is higher than Britton Hill.
Following I-10 or US 90, you’ll make your way back west across past fast-growing Crestview, where a connection to Highway 85 makes for an easy ride south to Eglin AFB or Fort Walton Beach if desired.
Milton features the West Florida Railroad Museum and an original section of brick and concrete roadway from 1921 – the first paved highway in Florida – that served as the original Florida State Road 1, later U.S. 90. You’ll find the museum downtown and the original road sections along today’s U.S. 90 near Florida Highway 87.
Your choice of long bridges brings you back to Pensacola, where you can once again take in the sights and enjoy everything from Perdido Key on the Florida-‘Bama state line to the fun of Palafox Street in downtown Pensacola. The Best Western PLUS Blue Angels Inn is right there on I-10 to give you a great place to stay after enjoying your Florida Panhandle Tour!