Wide view of Pensacola, Florida Beach and Seashore.

Emerald Coast, Florida

The Emerald Coast is an informal name referring to the Gulf coast area of the Florida Panhandle that stretches for about 160 km through five counties. It includes some of the state's most beautiful beach towns that border the Gulf of Mexico's emerald waters. The Emerald Coast serves as a major tourist destination for people from all over the country. With a rich history, as well plenty of modern-day entertainment, and high-energy activities, there is something for everyone to do on the Emerald Coast, no matter what time of the year they choose to visit. 

How The Emerald Coast Got Its Name

Emerald-green waters at St. Andrews State Park, near the eastern edge of the Emerald Coast
Emerald-green waters at St. Andrews State Park, near the eastern edge of the Emerald Coast. Image Credit: Royalbroil, via Wikimedia Commons

It is interesting to know how many name changes the area went through before it finally became known as the Emerald Coast. In 1946, everyone knew it as the “Playground of the Gulf Coast.” In 1952, a local journalist named Claude Jenkins used “Miracle Strip” to refer to it, and that became its name until 1983, when a teenager named Andrew Dier participated in a school competition to come up with a new handle for the region. He won $50 and the honor of telling posterity that he named the “Emerald Coast” after the gorgeous emerald green waters of the sea that surrounds its beaches.

Notable Geographical Features Of The Emerald Coast

Aerial view of West End of Famous 30A
Aerial view of West End of Famous 30A.

The Emerald Coast stretches across five counties, namely Escambia, Santa Rosa, Walton, Okaloosa, and Bay. Its famous beach cities are Destin, Navarre Beach, Pensacola Beach, Fort Walton Beach, and Panama City Beach. Some other communities on Emerald Coast include Perdido Key, Mexico Beach, Inlet Beach, Sandestin, Grayton Beach and Santa Rosa Beach. The white sugary sands are actually very fine quartz that came down the Appalachian Mountains with melting snow, millions of years ago. The ocean refined the quartz and carried it to the beaches, which are now known for their smooth, soft, white sands. 

Beach view from Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, Florida
Beach view from Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, Florida. Editorial credit: Alejandro Guzmani / Shutterstock.com

One of the most well-known roads of the region is 30-A, which stretches on for 26 miles and passes through several beach towns. It also leads to around fifteen Dune Lakes, which are a defining geographical feature of the area. These lakes combine both fresh and saltwater, making them unique and stunning ecosystems, and one of the reasons why the Emerald Coast is one-of-a-kind. The three Barrier Islands, namely St. George Island, Santa Rosa Island, and Okaloosa Island, are another unique geographical feature of the Emerald Coast. Formed of sand, Barrier islands are  found parallel to the main coast, but are separated from it by a bay or lagoon. They protect the coast from storms and hurricanes and considerably lessen the impact these natural disasters can have on the region.

Must Visit Places On The Emerald Coast

Visitors are spoilt for choice when visiting the beaches on the Emerald Coast. Here are some of the most famous beach cities and what makes them so desirable as a tourist destination.


Aerial view of Destin, Florida
Aerial view of Destin, Florida.

With 4.5 million people visiting it annually, Destin is probably the most popular beach city on the Emerald Coast. One reason for this is the fact that it has the whitest sand of all. Known as the world's luckiest fishing village, it has direct access to the Gulf of Mexico and the biggest fishing fleet in the Coast. Naturally, that means that it houses many amazing Gulf-to-table seafood restaurants, which cook the visitors' catch of the day and serve it to them to enjoy while taking in the beautiful view. Another highlight of Destin is the shopping opportunities it has for tourists, as well as Big Kahuna's Water and Adventure Park, which is the largest water park on the Emerald Coast.


A panoramic view of Pensacola Beach, Pensacola, Florida
A panoramic view of Pensacola Beach, Pensacola, Florida. Editorial credit: ABEMOS / Shutterstock.com

With its crystal clear waters, Pensacola Beach might be the second most-visited beach on the Emerald Coast. One of the most popular activities that takes place here is the Polar Bear Plunge, which takes place on New Year’s Eve. People of all ages come together to walk in the cold waters of the sea. The beach also holds many other festivals and events all year round. Pensacola is also home to the Naval Air Station, where all naval aviators have to come once before they begin flying. This beach city is also known for a sunken ship that has formed an artificial reef offshore. It is therefore also a great place for scuba diving and snorkeling.


Aerial view of the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier in Navarre, Florida
Aerial view of the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier in Navarre, Florida. 

Visitors love Navarre for its small town vibes, its proximity to bigger beach cities like Destin and Pensacola, the fact that its the best place to find the loveliest seashells, and because it is a protected and flourishing sea turtle habitat. On a clear day, visitors can catch sight of resident sea turtles and dolphins that may be hanging around close to the pier, or they can make their way to Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center where they are sure to see them. 

Fort Walton Beach

Aerial view of Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Aerial view of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Editorial credit: pisaphotography / Shutterstock.com

Apart from the stunning beach itself, Fort Walton is home to the Landing Park, which is known as the best place to watch the sun set over the Choctawhatchee Bay. It has a lively boardwalk, which hosts festivals, concerts, and farmers' markets all year round. The Air Force Armament Museum, in Fort Walton, is free for visitors, and has artifacts dating back to World War II. Other attractions include the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park where visitors can see dolphins, stingrays, alligators, penguins, and seals, and the Indian Temple Mound Museum, which owns many authentic, indigenous artifacts. Located between Fort Walton and Destin, Okaloosa Island is also a favorite fishing spot for locals and tourists.

Panama City Beach

Beach scene in Panama City Beach, Florida at sunset
Beach scene in Panama City Beach, Florida at sunset.

Especially popular among students, Panama City Beach has a more hip, and happening sort of vibe. Visitors can indulge in the more common beach activities of kayaking, snorkeling, jet skiing, and fishing, or they can take advantage of the trails and spend time hiking, biking, or walking. For those looking for indoor fun, there are plenty of theaters, art galleries, shops, and restaurants to choose from. 

There is no dearth of beauty on the Emerald Coast. Visitors can choose to visit any of the beach cities along the coast and rest assured that they will experience breathtaking views of the gorgeous emerald-green seas, white sands, and blue skies. There is plenty to do for those seeking an adrenaline rush, as well as for those looking to wind down and gaze inward. 


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