Grayton Beach State Park

An award-winning natural beach amid a line of private oceanfront in South Walton County.

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Grayton Beach State Park's waterfront is only a mile long, but it is an almost perfect Florida beach mile. [Joshua Gillin | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Pros
  • Picture-perfect water and postcard-ready sand.
  • A true natural wonder.
  • In the heart of more mainstream beaches.
Cons
  • Limited parking because it’s so popular.
  • Delightful, but somewhat small.
  • In the heart of more mainstream beaches.

Amid the burgeoning development of South Walton County (“SoWal,” as the ubiquitous marketing calls it) is one of the best beaches not just in the Panhandle, not just Florida, but in all of the United States: Grayton Beach State Park.

A frequent award-winner, this piecemeal park boasts the best of the region’s oceanfront characteristics: Sand dunes, scrub oaks, turquoise water, gentle tides and that trademark squeaky sand, thanks to the unique quartz in the area. You almost forget that you’re in the heart of a mass of planned developments and million-dollar properties.

What is now Grayton Beach State Park wraps around the township of Grayton Beach, the oldest coastal settlement in South Walton. (While the two form a symbiotic relationship, we’ve chosen to write about them separately.) The park runs both north and south of County Highway 30A, the main drag through the communities that have built up south of Choctawhatchee Bay.

The park opened in 1968 after the state obtained about 350 acres for parks use a few years prior. More land was added 1985, 1993 and 1995, leading to its current upside-down U shape.

The main park, with a mile of stellar beachfront, is south of 30A, east of Grayton Beach and west of the WaterColor development. There are campgrounds, a coastal lake for paddling and fishing and a pretty neat wildlife trail in this part of the park. North of 30A there are several hiking and biking trails, while duplex cabins with their own beach access are on the other side of the township. The park is also part of the Great Florida Birding Trail.

The mile-long beach has been among Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman’s top 10 beaches in the United States for years, topping the list in 1994. Most recently the state park came in at No. 3 on the list in 2018, up from No. 6 two years before that. All we can say is, he’s not wrong to heap such praise upon the place.

Throw in just about any amenity you could want in the surrounding communities, and you’ve got the makings of an exceptional (and natural) beach destination.

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GETTING THERE

Western Lake is a rare coastal dune lake that is ideal for paddling. There's a boat ramp and rentals in the park. [Visit South Walton photo]

Around here you’ll see signs for County Highway 30A, which is the scenic roadway cutting through SoWal known throughout the area as simply “30A.” The alternate route is the leisurely road south of U.S. Highway 98, from Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in the west to Inlet Beach at the eastern edge of Walton County.

Built in the 1970s to both serve and encourage the boom in vacation communities in SoWal, 30A has become the status-seeking calling card of the series of villages and neighborhoods along the largely privatized beaches in this neck of the Panhandle.

The designation is plastered on just about every available surface in the region via stickers, signs, t-shirts and billboards. It’s become shorthand for a manicured and carefully curated Florida beach experience for well-heeled vacationers. These visitors mostly come from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, and seem to outnumber people from any other state at least 5 to 1.

Because they are geographically close by, it’s easier for most of these visitors to drive, but there are a couple of airports that serve the area.

Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) is west of 30A, technically sharing runways with Egland Air Force Base in Okaloosa County. The airport has flights from several regional airlines like American Eagle, United Express and Allegiant, with expanded seasonal offerings. Typical ground transportation options are available, including rental cars, taxis, shuttles, buses and limousines. Uber and Lyft are available.

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) is a brand-new airport just north of Panama City. Opened in 2010, it serves regional airlines similar to VPS, but ECP most notably offers Southwest flights. Similar ground transportation options are available, including Uber and Lyft ride-sharing options.

In any case, getting to Highway 98 is the key to reaching SoWal. State Road 79 comes south from ECP, while VPS travelers can either head south through Fort Walton Beach to get to 98, or take State Road 20 to State Road 293, the Mid-Bay Bridge across Choctawhatchee Bay. Drivers coming in from Interstate 10 to the north will most likely take U.S. Highway 331 south from DeFuniak Springs and cross the bay at Freeport. From Highway 98, virtually any southern turn will lead you to 30A.

The entrance to Grayton Beach State Park is a short drive east of County Road 283, which incidentally drives right into Grayton Beach itself. There is an admission fee, although the cost is less for pedestrians and bicyclists than it is for cars.

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PARKING

Being a state park, parking here is relatively straightforward. There’s a main parking lot along the mile-long strip of beach, with bathrooms, vending machines and foot showers available. There’s also parking at the boat launch into Western Lake.

Grayton Beach State Park is a popular park, and can get plenty crowded, especially on summer weekends. Weekday visits are far less contentious.

If you’re looking to explore the trails on the northern end of the park, you’re usually going to be fine. There’s a small parking lot north of 30A for that section, although we will note on our last visit this lot was closed because of a prescribed burn in the area.

If you’re staying in one of the rental cabins west of the village, you can park at your cabin and go to your private section of beach. There’s also a few parking spaces at the access point, if you don’t want to walk. A keypad allows access to the sand.

Bicycling is very popular in the area, with many people opting to take the bike trail that runs parallel to 30A for almost 19 miles from Dune Allen to Inlet Beach. Known as the Timpoochee Trail, it allows hearty vacationers to take one of their rental cruisers to the state park and chain up at the bike rack. We rode all the way from Seacrest with no ill effects.

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BEACH SCENE

The award-winning beach here truly earns its accolades. [Joshua Gillin | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Even with all the park has to offer, the main event is its mile-long stretch of beach.

It truly lives up to the hype, with a walkover crossing the dunes between Western Lake and the Gulf of Mexico, revealing white sand and jewel-toned water. A mile is plenty of room to tune out the WaterColor development to the east and Grayton Beach’s cottages to the west.

Once you get into the surf, which breaks on a rise in the sand at the water’s edge, you can see straight to your feet well offshore. That gives anyone who may be a bit shy about marine wildlife tickling their toes fair warning about mullet schools and seaweed tangles.

This is a family friendly and public access paradise. Alcohol is not allowed, nor is your dog (although dogs are allowed at the campground). Chairs and umbrellas are fine, of course, but there are no rentals on the beach.

One thing to keep in mind is that Western Lake, a coastal dune lake, occasionally meets the Gulf of Mexico at the western end of the beach in what’s called an outfall. That’s a stream that serves as a spillover to keep the lake from flooding, sending water into the gulf and essentially marking off where the village of Grayton Beach begins.

People can and do walk across from one part of the beach to the other here, although conditions can vary. If the water from the lake — which can vary from fresh to brackish — looks a little brown, don’t worry, that’s just tannic (decaying organic matter from the lake), which can’t hurt you.

There are no lifeguards on the beach. A beach wheelchair is available to reserve through the park.

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CAMPING

There are plenty of housing options at any of SoWal’s neighborhoods. The main draw at the park is its campground and cabins

There are 59 RV and tent sites with electric and water, and even some with sewer hookups. Showers and restrooms are available, and some sites are handicapped accessible. As noted, leashed dogs are allowed.

There also are cabins, which are really more like duplexes for families. These can accommodate six people, and offer everything but TV and Wi-fi, which may be a dealbeaker for some. Cabins have gas fireplaces and their own beach access, but are behind a beachfront housing development to the south that is not part of the park.

Reservations can be made 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica.

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THINGS TO DO

A nature trail that starts and ends in the parking lot winds through an otherworldly copse of scrub oaks and magnolias in the dunes. [Joshua Gillin | Florida Beach Insider photo]
HIKING

In addition to going to the beach or taking the trails north of 30A, the main parking lot just off the beach offers a trail that winds through the dunes and into the woods. A small hill covered in scrub oaks and magnolia trees offers a unique glimpse at an ecosystem in short supply pretty much anywhere in Florida. It carries on through a hammock with slash pine and salt marshes.

PADDLING

Western Lake is one of a series of 15 coastal dune lakes in Walton County. The lakes are a rare geographical feature found in far-flung locations in New Zealand, Australia, Africa, Oregon and in Walton County. Fed by freshwater sources like groundwater, rain, seepage and runoff, the lakes offer opportunities for licensed fishing and paddling just inside of the Gulf of Mexico. Canoes and kayaks are available to rent through the park. Licensed fishing also is allowed on the beach.

BICYCLING

As mentioned, the Timpoochee Trail runs most of the length of SoWal’s beach communities. While there are no bike rentals in the park, practically every neighborhood/township/village/development will rent you one for a reasonable hourly, daily or weekly price. The ubiquitous cruisers aren’t great at off-roading, but they are fairly compliant and easy to use, even with coaster brakes.

PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK

The new open kitchen at FOOW allows diners to watch what goes on behind the scenes. [St. Joe Club & Resorts photo]

There are no bars or restaurants in the park. Check our other SoWal profiles for lots of suggestions, or try these nearby options.

FEATURED RESTAURANT: FOOW

For an age, Fish Out Of Water was the fine-dining option around these parts.

The WaterColor Inn staple, situated in the development right next to Grayton Beach State Park, featured typical restaurant fare at the resort since it opened in 2001. But WaterColor, from St. Joe Club & Resorts, decided it was time for a change.

The menu, the kitchen and the dining room underwent a major overhaul, to the tune of $2.7 million. Even the name adopted a trendier feel, getting shortened to FOOW (pronounced “foo”).

The result is a more laid-back, eclectic vibe, shedding any perceived stuffiness and showcasing a playful spirit. Executive sous chef Preetam Pardesh and chef de cuisine Christopher Mayhue combine forces to present a menu that combines South Asian and Southern U.S. flavors in a relaxed atmosphere.

A pimento cheese dip shares space with a cobia ceviche. A sweet tea fried chicken vies for attention from a well-made tandoori-grilled grouper gyro. New Orleans-style oysters and beignets join forces with what may be the most adorable side dish, spiced bubble chips (Ping Pong ball-sized potato chips that are a hoot to break in half with your tablemates).

Throw in seasonal live music, more-than-reasonable happy hour selections and prices and a free menu for kids (from 5 to 6 p.m.) and you have an ideal stop for an escape-the-heat lunch or a sunset dinner. The restaurant is open to the public, not just WaterColor guests, and has its own wine room with a prix fixe menu that takes large parties.

The Red Bar

An absolutely iconic bar and grill right off Grayton Beach, filled with eclectic decor in a rambling old building that used to be a general store. The menu is limited, but the food is good, and there’s live music much of the time.

AJ’s

The archetypal roadhouse with seafood, steaks and live music. This joints turns into a late-night party spot on even the quietest nights.

Roux 30A

Elegant dining in Grayton Beach, with seaside-inspired cuisine and an open kitchen. They have a Sunday brunch with bottomless mimosas.

SHOPPING

Besides campsites, boat rentals and the vending machines by the bathrooms, there’s nothing for you to buy here. Please check our other SoWal profiles for nearby shopping.

WHAT'S BREWING

Grayton Beer Company

There are two locations for the local beer brewer: The brewpub is right in the heart of Grayton Beach on 30A, while the actual brewery and taproom is on Highway 98 north of Deer Lake State Park.

Idyll Hounds Brewing Company

Just up Serenoa Road from Grayton Beer Company’s taproom is this smaller option. Idyll Hounds plays more on the beachfront theme. Note that the taproom tends to close up early.

TIPS FROM TOWNIES

The woodlands trail in the beachside section of the park goes from dunes to hardwoods along Western Lake. [Joshua Gillin | Florida Beach Insider photo]

If you haven’t noticed by now, bicycling is the way to go. Even if you’re not good at it, don’t rule out a bike rental. It make exploring and just plain getting around much easier — but beware Timpoochee Trail and 30A can get plenty dark after sunset.

The beach on the western end of the park can be practically deserted, since a keypad code is necessary to get to it. If you don’t mind a few houses between you and the rest of the beach, staying in one of the cabins nets you a pretty secluded getaway.

The park is a great place to visit even if you don't plan on going to the beach, especially for the hiking and biking trails. Be sure to bring some sturdy shoes or boots to go along with those flip-flops.

Joshua Gillin is Florida Beach Insider’s Beachcomber-in-chief. When he’s not actively looking for a clear spot on the sand with his family, he enjoys hiking, martials arts, comparing drink specials and shopping for American-made products.

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