With 8,436 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west, Florida offers abundant sunshine, warm temperatures and great beaches with water-based adventures, unique shops, delicious restaurants and fun family attractions.
Given all that they have to offer, these beaches often draw huge crowds, requiring a bit of endurance along with your enjoyment. But that’s not the case for all of Florida’s amazing beaches. Among the state’s sandy treasures are also a handful of lesser-known beaches that provide a measure of seclusion and deep serenity along with their crystal-clear waters, sugar-white sands, incredible marine life and awe-inspiring sunsets. If you visit these beaches, which are often located on barrier islands and in state parks, your experiences will leave you wondering why on earth more people don’t know about them. But you’ll also be very glad they don’t.
Santa Rosa Beach in South Walton
Santa Rosa Beach is located on Florida’s renowned Emerald Coast, a 26-mile stretch of some of the most magnificent shoreline in the U.S. (and, yes, the water is the color of emeralds).
Feel the white sands between your toes, watch the hypnotic ebb and flow of the waves, feel the breeze on your skin, tune into the sounds of the surf — they all add up to inner peace. And once you’ve recharged, tap into the adjacent historic neighborhood’s thriving arts scene,restaurants serving up fresh Gulf seafood and craft breweries. This is charm at its best. Another great way to leave the sands but stay in nature: walk or bike the flat, sandy trails of nearby 15,000-acre Point Washington State Forest featuring wet flatwoods, wet prairie and cypress swamps.
St. George Island State Park on St. George Island
On St. George Island, a 22-mile barrier island on Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, you can hang out in your own private oasis. The beach in St. George Island State Park is nestled on the island’s eastern end. Not only is it uncrowded, it’s also unspoiled – just the kind of destination that nature lovers dream about. Explore nine miles of shoreline, soaring dunes, salt marshes and a bay forest of pines. Swim, shell and beachcomb to your heart’s content. And keep an eye out for crawling ghost crabs and prancing shorebirds, like American oystercatchers and black skimmers.
Various fish species inhabit the waters including redfish, flounder and sea trout. You can count on healthy catches and also on spotting pods of cavorting dolphins and brown pelicans diving for their fill of fish.
Further inland, in the state park, you can bike paved roads and nature trails, birdwatch (the observation platform overlooking the dunes and the main park drive are great spots for birding) and hike through the pine flatwood forest to the bay. You can also canoe and kayak on the bay (watercraft are available to rent at the ranger station) and camp in the park. Don’t miss the incredible stargazing opportunity over the Gulf of Mexico from the observation platform. You’ll see the Milky Way and constellations.
Whitney Beach on Longboat Key in Sarasota County
Siesta Key, a barrier island community off Florida’s southwest coast, features Siesta Beach, which consistently rates among the top beaches in the U.S. But just north of it lies laid-back Longboat Key, another barrier island that is roughly 11 miles long and has only a few public access points and limited parking.
Pristine and compact Whitney Beach is located on this Longboat Key’s northwestern tip on the Gulf of Mexico. It may lack amenities found at other more well-known beaches (you may feel a bit like Robinson Crusoe here), but its isolation, beautiful blend of translucent light blue and turquoise waters and white sand all make for inner healing — and perfect photos.
Hunt for shells, walk out to the peninsula known as Greer Island (only accessible at low tide) and take pictures of the sculptural piles of weathered branches and fallen trees — they’ll be your main ‘companions’ out here. Or, watch the sea oats dance while listening to tropical breezes and lapping waters. In the distance, gaze at boats passing through Longboat Pass, which separates this key from the more populous Anna Maria Island to the north. These are the sorts of tranquil, mesmerizing activities it makes sense to pursue in a spot where nature reigns.
Grayton Beach State Park in Walton County
One-mile-long Grayton Beach in Grayton Beach State Park, located on the Florida Panhandle Gulf Coast, is the kind of dazzling natural retreat that invites you to plant your chair and umbrella in the soft sand and linger. Come for a golden sunrise and stay right through the spectacular sunset and moonlit evening.
Or leave the sand and blue-green waters to fish and paddle on beautiful Western Lake — a rare coastal dune lake, hike along four miles of trails through the wind-bent scrub oak forest and magnolia stand (breath that scent in deeply!) or get out your binoculars and bird watch. There are numerous shorebirds and bald eagles to ogle.
Cayo Costa Island in Lee County, North of Captiva
The Calusa Indians once used this undeveloped barrier island in Cayo Costa State Park, located west of Bokeelia on Pine Island in the Gulf of Mexico, as a fishing ground. Today, it’s still packed with abundant underwater life that thrives in the crystalline waters off the island’s 9 miles of beach.
But it’s not only fish that are abundant here. You’ll also find miles of empty space and many birds and shells — Cayo Costa Island is considered one of the top shelling beaches in the world. There are also 9 acres of pine forest and 6 miles of trails at the island’s north end. Bikes and kayaks can be rented at the State Park Dock in this area, and there’s a free tram to the beach from here, too.
Access Cayo Costa Island by private boat or Captiva Cruises (they offer half-day and full-day cruises), based at McCarthy’s Marina in Captiva Island.
Caladesi Island in Pinellas County, off Dunedin
The St. Pete/Clearwater area on Florida’s Gulf coast and Tampa Bay features hugely popular, award-winning beaches like St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach. But nearby Caladesi Island, a barrier island off Dunedin to the north of Clearwater, provides a relaxing experience like none other. The island, which is also a state park, is virtually untouched and is only accessible by ferry or private boat. It possesses the kind of high-level wow factor that derives from nature at its rawest, most remote state.
Though there are no paved roads, the island has a 3-mile nature trail that weaves through old growth slash pine and live oak forests and a paddling trail that meanders through tropical mangroves. As you explore, it’ll be easy for you to imagine Caladesi State Park as your very own deserted island paradise.
To access it, take a personal boat, catch the Caladesi Island Ferry (a fun 20-minute adventure in its own right) from Honeymoon Island Docks in Dunedin or kayak over from the also-beautiful Honeymoon Island State Park.
Spend the day sunbathing on the white sands, taking dips in the clear sparkling waters, collecting shells, surf fishing, walking the nature trail (see the historic Scharrer Homestead ruins) and kayaking through the bayside mangrove forest on the paddling trail (there are 1-mile and 3-mile loops). You may spot wildlife like dolphins, manatees and bald eagles. Kayaks, as well as beach chairs and umbrellas, are available to rent at Cafe Caladesi next to the ferry dock. You can also pick up snacks perfect for an island picnic.
Amelia Island in Nassau County, north of Jacksonville
With 13 miles of uninterrupted stretches of sand and broad sea oat- and palmetto-peppered dunes as high as 40 feet, Amelia Island, the northernmost barrier island on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, keeps visitors smiling. It’s the ultimate natural escape for your bustling life — a place to kick back on golden Appalachian quartz sand and watch dolphins play in the Atlantic. And you can count on 82-degree waters inviting you in for a slower pace.
Search for shells and shark’s teeth, fly a kite, fish and view shorebirds. Or explore the blissful beach on horseback — a unique and memorable activity that’s long been a favorite of visitors. Amelia Island is one of the few east coast beaches where you can go horseback riding.Other things to do on the Island include: walking around the downtown area of historic Fernandina Beach and taking in the Victorian architecture; seeing Florida’s oldest lighthouse, built in 1838 — it’s on a bluff over Egans Creek and Fort Clinch State Park and kayaking in nearby rivers, creeks and salt marshes. Kayak Amelia provides guided paddle tours from Amelia Island State Park, which covers the southern tip of Amelia Island and also offers spectacular birding opportunities.