Pretty crystals of white quartz like sugar and raised in the Appalachians which make The beaches of the Emerald Coast Shine is also found on lesser-known islands, cliffs, and shorelines, as well as the bottoms of fast flowing rivers north of the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the best ways to explore the beauty of these still somewhat mysterious waterways adjacent and further away from the coast is by kayaking.
Here are some places where you can paddle through paradise while shaking Mother Nature’s hand more firmly:
First, make sure you have a Jackson Guard Recreation Permit from Eglin Air Force Base to access Rocky Creek.
One way to reach the creek is to launch out from the shore of Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park, just east of Niceville, after paying an entrance fee to the park.
Cut northeast through the bayou, which is a popular spot for motorboats, to the mouth of Rocky Creek.
The clear stream flows quickly and provides a hearty workout upstream. You will feel the coldness of the stream water reaching you through your plastic kayak. Look to either side of you to see darting fish and grasses swaying above the white sands. Swamp lilies will make you look left and right. Polarized sunglasses help fight glare.
Shortly after paddling under the overpass at State Road 293, you’ll see the decades-old wreckage of an Air Force jet on both sides of the creek. Continue, then pause on a cool wooden landing built over very shallow water.
Then paddle deeper into nature, where the chances of seeing alligators, banded water snakes, owls, songbirds, and even wild boars increase. Upstream, cables and bridge remains hang where the military used to train.
Sound of Santa Rosa
The Mary Esther Strait area has several white sand islands for paddling and exploring. Public launch sites include one at the end of Misty Water Lane in Mary Esther and one at Liza Jackson Park in Fort Walton Beach.
The islands are piles of ‘loot’ that the US Army Corps of Engineers dredged decades ago to provide a deeper waterway for commercial / fuel vessels. Among other creatures, these man-made oases attract geese, ospreys, brown pelicans, crabs and tramps.
Paddling to the islands from the mainland can make you feel like you’re in a full-size Frogger game, as you often have to stop and restart as motorboats pass by. Take out their wakes, then put them on the ground.
Discover the shallower and generally quieter south side of most islands. If you’re quick enough, you too can get your own temporary slice of heaven.
The main way to get your feet wet in this large, shallow coastal dune lake and South Walton County’s world rarity is to launch out from Grayton Beach State Park after paying a park fee.
Paddle up to a canal that circles the white sand dunes and cliffs on your left and the tall marsh grasses and vacation homes on your right, and you’ll eventually reach the tip of the gulf, where salty waves wash over you , but the beach either persists or disappears.
Sometimes the beach gives way enough to allow the water from the lake to join the salt water. Locals tell tales of dolphins heading for Western Lake.
After some time at the beach, paddle to the public boat launch at the end of Hotz Avenue in Grayton Beach. While drying off, head to the Red Bar to soak up a Bloody Mary and a bowl of okra, plus live music from Dread Clampitt or other funky musicians.
Wayside Park, run by Okaloosa County, off the Cox Bridge section of State Road 85 near the south end of Crestview, is a convenient way to get to the Shoal River.
Nature, surprisingly with almost no other boater, is found on long stretches upstream or downstream. From the river you can spot large stands of cypress trees or large white sandbanks that make you stop and relax.
You may be able to park your kayak under overhanging tree branches to get a better view of a barred owl looking down. Just watch out for wasps.
East Bay River
This river, which forms part of the southern boundary of Eglin Air Force Base in Santa Rosa County, is reminiscent of the Shoal River due to its large meanders and forests. You can access the East Bay River from a public boat launch off State Road 87 in Holley, near Navarre.
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Paddle uphill past a handful of houses to nothing but woods on either side.
You can see silent baby owls and noisy baby songbirds peeking from nests in a tree stump and a half-submerged log. Sometimes huge clouds of smoke from controlled fires over Eglin’s Land rise like ghosts against a blue sky as you paddle east.
Pitchers, wildflowers and twisted dead trees that resemble driftwood art installations dot the shores, all inviting inspection and respect.