From Florida to Mississippi, the Gulf Coast is not only a beautiful spot for a beach vacation, but an important ecosystem that thousands of sea turtles, seabirds and other wild creatures call home. Volunteers continue to assess the damage from the Deepwater Horizon Spill and clean up the waterways and beaches that were impacted by the disaster. But despite the damage in the Gulf region, the Panhandle beaches continue to welcome visitors to appreciate the beauty of the Gulf Coast and learn more about its delicate ecosystem. Set off on a road trip along Route 98 through the region's best state and national parks, and appreciate the wonders of the Gulf Coast.
Tallahassee to Apalachicola
Stay: The Gibson Inn has a spot on the National Historic Register of Historic Places thanks to its storied past as the area's first luxury hotel and the first in the Panhandle to boast steam heat back in 1907. Today, its charming mix of history and modern amenities make it a comfy stop for a few nights while you explore the area.
Do: Set off from Tallahassee on Route 363S for a 30-minute drive to Wakulla Springs State Park where you can spend the day exploring the large freshwater springs. Take a riverboat tour or glass-bottom boat tour to get a closer look at the wildlife including alligators, turtles and plenty of birds. Or opt for a dose of old-school pop culture with a ranger-led tour that explores the park's history, including its role as the setting for classic cult films including the Tarzan movies and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Then Continue on 319S to 98W to Apalachicola, a small town on Florida's Forgotten Coast. Nature lovers can set off on a kayak trip along the Apalachicola Paddling Trail System and spend another 2 days exploring the 9 miles of undeveloped beach at St. George Island State Park with rolling sand dunes and gorgeous seashells rolling in with the tides.
Eat: South America meets South Florida at Tamara's Cafe Floridita in Apalachicola with dishes including grilled pork chop with shrimp and scallops and pecan-crusted grouper with creamy jalapeno sauce served alongside black rice and beans.
Apalachicola to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
Stay: Campers can pitch a tent at the primitive sites or campgrounds with facilities just a short walk from the beach or opt for the rustic cabins at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. For plusher accommodations, the Port Inn in Port St. Joe is in the town of Port St. Joe just across the street from the Bay.
Do: It's less than an hour to the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park continuing on 98W to Cape San Blas Rd. There are 10 miles of white-sand beaches along the peninsula, perfect for swimming and sunbathing, and 3 nature trails that wind through the coastal hammock area and the salt marshes. Shorebirds and Loggerhead sea turtles build their nests in the tall sand dunes. Head to nearby Cape San Blas for an early morning or sunset horseback-riding trip along the Gulf's pristine shores with Two Bit Stable.
Eat: Indulge in a plate of briny raw oysters at the Indian Pass Raw Bar, a casual Port St. Joe seafood shack known for its supremely fresh oysters, shrimp and crab legs.
Port St. Joe to Seaside
2 hours, 15 minutes
Stay: The setting for the Truman Show, Seaside is a peaceful enclave on the Gulf of Mexico with vacation cottages available for rental as well as the 9-room Vera Bradley-designed Inn by the Sea.
Do: Hop back on 98W to continue to the idyllic beach communities at Seaside or WaterColor with quiet streets, upscale shops and colorful bungalows along the lovely stretch of beach. To truly appreciate the Gulf's natural wonders, head to nearby Grayton Beach State Park where the pristine beaches are frequently rated among the top in the country. Volunteers still walk the beach watching for any ill effects from the devastating oil spill, but thankfully the white-sand beaches were spared, and visitors still flock here to enjoy swimming, sunbathing, kite-flying and beach strolling.
Eat: The WaterColor Inn and Resort is a vacation destination in itself along the Gulf of Mexico, but even if you don't spend a night at the plush resort, check out the flagship restaurant, Fish Out of Water. This seaside spot is known for its fresh seafood, tasty meats and vibrant wine selection.
Seaside to Gulf Shores National Park
1 hour 25 minutes
Stay: There are plenty of campsite options within the Gulf Shores National Park compound in both Florida and Mississippi, with developed sites and primitive camping available on the beach at spots in Perdido Key and the wilderness islands in Mississippi.
Do: The Gulf Shores National Park sea turtles, already threatened and endangered, were affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, destroying their natural habitats and compromising their food sources. You can do your part when visiting by reporting oiled turtles to the Wildlife Reporting Hotline at 866-557-1401 and vacationing responsibly: avoiding nesting sites, minimizing the use of bright lights or flashlights at night and removing any beach litter you see on your excursions. Ranger programs, including the Full Moon Walks at Langdon Beach, explore the importance of the dark night sky to the resident turtles.
Eat: Stop on the way to pick up picnic fixings to enjoy at one of the beach pavilions.
Extend your trip through Mississippi or head back to Tallahassee. You may backtrack along 98 to your starting point, and build in some time for more oysters, or travel inland along 10E and cut almost 2 hours off your trip.