Roadtripping Florida: Is the Panhandle Worth a Stop?
With so many unique and interesting places in the state of Florida, narrowing down the best road trip stops can be tough. With only 51 days to get across the country and back, we didn’t have the luxury to explore them all. From the incredible and diverse Florida Keys, the Everglades swampland, to the Gold Coast and Miami area, the Panhandle as a road trip destination can get lost in the shuffle. But midway between where we were (Jacksonville) and where we wanted to go (New Orleans) sits some of the most picturesque coastline in all the lower 48. And that was the next stop on our trip. It made the most sense for us to cut the almost 9 hour drive in half, and find a seaside park in the Panhandle to crash for the night before we headed into the Big Easy.
After a homey and refreshing stay in Ponte Vedra, FL at Aaron’s Aunt and Uncle’s house, it was time to get back on the highway. I’ve always been a little curious about this less talked about area of Florida. I’ve been all over the state and most of the surrounding states, but never to the actual Panhandle. Aaron had prepped me that the drive across I-10 (which goes all the way from Jacksonville to Los Angeles) was an easy and beautiful drive, as well as the area that the Tom Petty song “House in the Woods” was written about. Mr. Petty hails from Gainesville, FL. I was curious and ready to see what the Panhandle was all about.
We decided before we left Columbus, OH (the start of this adventure) that we didn’t want too many day trips that were more than 5 hours in order to be able to enjoy the time we have in the places we stop. So of course, what better way to break up the drive to the Crescent City than a night on the beach. We called around to several places a few weeks prior to our expected arrival date, and to our disappointment, we discovered that our top picks were completely booked.
This conundrum brings us to our 1st big learning experience on this RV adventure: Balancing spontaneity that makes a cross county road trip so enjoyable with the organization that it takes to make it a reality. In a perfect world, I wish we could to go to a city, decide we love it, and stay for a few extra days. But we quickly discovered, just like this instance, that if there were parks we wanted to experience (Yosemite, Monument Valley, etc.), we had to book them well in advance to secure our stay. This can really limit how “fly by the seat of our pants” we can be. Don’t get me wrong, there has been plenty of random adventure and ‘in the moment’ decisions that have redirected our trip in minor ways thus far, but you truly need a few anchor dates and reservations to make things easier and more functional while you’re on the road.
We ended up finding a beautiful RV park located near Destin, FL called Topsail Hill Preserve State Park right on the Gulf Coast. They only had a few spots left so we booked right away.
Throughout this cross-country tour, we’ve been using a pretty nifty tool, Roadtrippers.com, designed to make planning your trek much easier and more efficient. Roadtrippers is where we start when looking for places to stay. Once you’ve mapped your route, you can enable the “Camping & RV” lodging widget on the website, which will highlight places to stay within 10-30 miles of your route. When we find a few places that look like contenders, we take that info to TripAdvisor.com to do a little more digging to make sure it’s in a safe area of town, and not owned by Norman Bates. No Psycho shower scenes needed on our excursion. This is been our research method so far, and it seems to be working as long as we have internet access. Side note – ‘Nationwide coverage’ from pretty much any cell phone provider is BS. That’s another lesson you learn when adventuring into the less populated areas of the country.
Topsail is a large park consisting of countless rows of RVs set in the pines between a major thoroughfare and the ocean. It was a short bike ride to the beach from our campsite, which is surrounded by some of the most majestic sand dunes we’ve ever witnessed.
We took a long walk on the beach as the sun was setting over the Gulf. The sand felt like cool, white powdered sugar between our toes. It just goes to show that you don’t have to travel outside of the United States to experience a beautiful, sprawling beach virtually untouched by human interference. We knew this was going to be our last encounter with something we love so much – the warm waters of the eastern U.S. and Gulf Coast. Although we were really excited to head west, it’s always a bit bittersweet to leave the ocean.
So is the Florida Panhandle worth a stop? The answer is yes. It has so much to offer, from delicious seafood, to quiet pearl white beaches, and is definitely worth seeing at some point in your life! If you’re looking for a low-key state park to visit while traveling in the area, we would recommend this beautiful, pristine piece of nature. Bring your bikes, beach towels and an easygoing attitude, and Topsail Hill Beach Preserve will not disappoint.