The best beaches in the USA (not counting Hawaii), are along the 30-A Highway in Florida. We don’t want to take anything away from the surrounding Gulf Coast beaches; All along the Florida panhandle, from Pensacola to Panama City, the beach is consistently amazing for 80 miles. The water is postcard blue and the sand is fluffy along the entirety of this mesmerizing shoreline.
That said, the most lovely portion of the Emerald Coast is the eighteen-mile-stretch from Topsail Hill Preserve to Rosemary’s Beach along the 30-A Highway. The dazzling water and flawless sand are not significantly better here, but the vibe is capricious as you float from town to pristine town.
If you would like to know what we consider the Best Florida Panhandle Beaches, check it out!
We absolutely love spending time on The Emerald Coast. This is our #1 go-to vacation spot when the cold weather gets us down. The way we see it, if we’re gonna spread sunshine all year, we need to recharge on a Florida beach every now and again.
When you find yourself visiting this part of the country, be sure to check out the 30-A Highway.
Best bet is to come in the shoulder season. April and May have perfect mid-70’s to mid-80’s weather. September, October, November are good as well.
Forget about June, July, August because the crowd is nuts and the heat is formidable.
December through March is fine, but you might not get beach weather. We visited in late-March one year, it was between 63-69 degrees. We spent our days at the beach in jackets.
Destin draws 3.4 million annual visitors and many of them make their way to the 30A beaches. As a result, traffic on the one-lane road can be hellacious during the summer months. Also worth mentioning is teenagers on bikes and golf carts notoriously run adults off of the sidewalks.
Moreover, the umbrella and beach chair mafia have taken over beaches like Seagrove and Rosemary Beach. Beachgoers are stacked five rows deep and forced to pay $160-170 daily rental rates on top of the expensive condo they reserved in a nice part of town. Additionally, those who bring their own equipment are forced to relax in crowded, roped-off beach boxes — even if they paid thousands to rent a condo across the street! Damn the umbrella mafia. It would seem they own the public beach.
These two things have folks downright angry these days. Just read Trip Advisor reviews: “Seaside isn’t what it used to be! Boycott Rosemary Beach! Who raised these teenagers!!”
And to them that complain, we say: GO TO THE RIGHT BEACHES DURING THE SCHOOL YEAR.
Now with that out of the way, here are the ten absolute best things to do on the 30A Highway!
This might just be the best beach in the continental United States. The sand and water are perfect and the coastline rambles like a Grateful Dead medley for miles of lapping shoreline.
The hours are 8 AM to Sundown, 365 days a year. The cost is $5 per car. Cabins and campsites are available at affordable prices. Be sure to book FAR in advance.
In addition to a beautiful and pristine beach, Western Lake offers fishing and paddling, and those who want to explore on foot have 4 miles of trails to traverse through a coastal forest where scrub oaks and magnolias are bent and twisted by salt winds.
Lakes and hiking are great for breaking up the time, but you’re here for the surf, sand, and solitude. Be sure to bring your fishing pole, too. Ocean fishing is one heckuva way to pass those lazy Florida days.
Topsail Hill Preserve is one of four incredible State Parks on the Emerald Coast. The perfect place to anchor your vacation, Topsail is close to US Highway 98, which gives good access to the beautiful trappings of the 30A as well as the convenient shopping and restaurants near Destin.
The campground and facilities are located atop the dunes about a mile from the beach, so the park operates a continual shuttle from the campground to the beach. Throughout the park are 15 miles of hiking trails. Other activities include swimming, paddling, bike riding, geocaching, birding and fishing.
The Beach Tram trail and the Campbell Lake Bike trail are both paved, making them terrific for bike rides. This is also an excellent place to spot deer! The No Name Lake trail leads to the smallest of the coastal dune lakes in the park. On the Gopher Tortoise trail you will see saw palmettos where the gopher tortoises roam. Along the Deer Track trail you will see Campbell Lake as well as carnivorous plants.
The combination of beach, campground, activities, and location makes Topsail Hill Preserve State Park one of the very best things to do on the 30A beaches highway.
If you’re driving the 30A Highway you’re going to visit the town of Seaside. This is the most obvious place to stop along the road, a picture-perfect holiday setting boasting wood framed cottages and wide bike lanes. Seaside and Seagrove Beach are the perfect places to anchor your beachside getaway if you can afford the rent.
The city center is a horseshoe circle of businesses surrounding an amphitheater. Everything from wine markets to food trucks draw huge crowds of good looking, well dressed wayfarers. Bicycle and golf cart rentals are abundant — the constant flow of low-speed-vehicles and beach cruisers adds to the chillaxed luxury ambiance.
A word about beach access: If you are renting in Seaside, Watercolor, or Seagrove Beach, you will have beach access. Otherwise you will need to rent a chair and umbrella for $160 to set foot on the beach.
The town of Seaside has placed fences atop the dune to block views of the beach and placed Cabana-boy sentinels on the stairways to spurn barbarians. Vallum Hadriani it is not, yet it is a formidable barrier. Some folks are upset the peasants are allowed to shop in the highfalutin markets but forbidden from denigrating the beaches (without offering tribute).
We don’t care. The town of Seaside will always be one of the best things to do on the 30A Highway. We’ll just spend our 30A beach hours at Grayton, Topsail, Miramar, etc.
The 30A beaches have no shortage of fancy towns with posh housing and overpriced trinkets. This is part of the reason we love it so much! Rosemary Beach is the major installation on the southern end of the 30A strip, with twice the residents of Seaside. For one reason or another, Rosemary feels less bright and airy than Seaside, with a more subdued vibe and darker, more classical tones in the architecture. We prefer Seaside, but both towns are gorgeous.
Like Seaside, the beach at Rosemary Beach is private/public, which means they require confiscatory tribute if you aren’t staying here. Don’t pay it. Screw the man. And like Seaside, Rosemary Beach has some overprivileged personalities that dominate the landscape at times. It can become obnoxious with pretense, especially when the jags are fourteen-year-old kids. Always remember — and embrace — this is a playground for the rich. It’s why you don’t see gomers smoking blunts and yelling profanity.
If rich douchebags are too much to handle on your vacation, or the umbrella mafia rankles your sensibilities — we get it — you might want to pass on Rosemary Beach. In other news, the place is beautiful, with sumptuous stores to unload your guffaws and restaurants to dump excessive cash.
Be sure to walk beyond the small horseshoe of shops on the ocean side of 30A. You’ll find a street drops over the hillside toward the beach, with a park at the bottom and stunning shops on both sides.
A suburb of Seaside, Watercolor is a charming little town full of monied, earthy types that forsook city living for a beachier lifestyle. The architecture is something to behold. They have an enviable little school. We strongly recommend getting lost walking the neighborhoods of Watercolor. It is one of the best thing to do along the 30A beaches.
As you wander about you’ll surely come across Cerulean Park. A pool with a fountain typically catches the eye, then the brightly colored garden plants, and the long path that runs beneath picturesque trees.
Feel free to stroll the entire length of the park. Eventually it terminates in a neighborhood of pleasant homes. From here you can turn south (right) and perambulate to your heart’s content. You’ll see some of the most amazing porches this side of Charleston, South Carolina. Eventually you’ll land back in Seaside, or somewhere pleasing. It doesn’t really matter. This is a good place to get lost.
Ed Walline Regional Beach is one of the best things to do on the 30A Highway. A small parking lot with a boardwalk ramp is about all you’ll notice from the road (see map at top for location). You might have to park somewhere else later if you arrive too late in the day.
Ed Walline is another beach option in a long stretch of options, better than most, but not the best. Tell you what though: I would sit on this beach 100 times before I would pay $100 to sit on a beach in Seaside or Rosemary Beach. Across the street from the parking lot are a few nice restaurants, a pizza place, an ice cream shop, and a candy store.
Every child’s beach memory includes a candy store or ice cream shop. Hopefully both (we wouldn’t want children getting cheated on their memories). Somewhere between Topsail and Grayton Beach is the Blue Mountain Beach Creamery ice cream shop and candy store, about a block from the beach.
If you like to keep it simple, you could rent a condo in Blue Mountain, hang at the beach, and grab a cone when it gets too hot. Sand, Sherbet, Sleep. Peel some shrimp. Watch the sunset. Repeat tomorrow.
Alys Beach is the second most stunningly beautiful thing you’ll notice along the 30A highway. The houses are magnificent — like the Pueblos Blancos in Spain were remodeled by rich Americans. One house in particular might be the most fantastic-looking space-age aquarium you’ll ever see. Spend a few minutes walking around here and you’ll be flabbergasted at the display of unadulterated wealth.
The problem is, there’s nothing to do but gawk. That’s fun for twenty minutes, but eventually you’re going to get bored and go looking for boiled peanuts or some other proletariat snack, and Alys Beach will fail to deliver the goods. This is all by design. We must accept that some people are rich beyond belief, and they don’t want us lingering and bringing down the property values.
Dune Allen Beach might be the victim of incredible beach fatigue on this list. The sand and water here are as good as anywhere else and there’s less competition for the real estate. Not much here, honestly — Stinky’s Fishcamp is across the street — but you can walk a few blocks to Ed Walline Beach.
You might notice in the above photo that there is sea grass on the beach. This can happen during the late spring and summer. We’d visited a few times and this had never happened. On our most recent trip a whole mess of grass landed the day after we arrived and it hung around for two weeks. We didn’t love it, but what are you gonna do?
We couldn’t make a list of things to do without recommending a restaurant, so here it is. The Old Florida Fish House is like a family compound with an assortment of activities in addition to food.
Here is what they have to say for themselves: “Old Florida soul in the heart of 30A nestled on Eastern Lake showcasing coastal flair. Whether you are looking for a lunch with a view, a sushi experience like no other, or a traditional Old Florida fresh seafood dinner, we have something for everyone at Old Florida Fish House.” We didn’t intend this to be a commercial, but if you want a memorable meal along the 30A beaches, this is a great place to have one.
Once upon a time the 30A beaches were a secret vacation spot. Local families treasured the clean towns and pristine beaches they had to themselves. Those same families are the ones today lamenting the traffic and cabana boy bouncers. Can’t say we blame them — Our hush-hush holiday jaunt, Cannon Beach, Oregon, suffered the same fate 20 years ago.
Don Henley said it well, “Call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.”
Thankfully, the 30A beaches are alive and well and beautiful as ever. We still view the Emerald Coast as a family treasure, even though we are part of the congestion. If you can’t avoid the summer months, just start your days early to get parking and utilize the state parks for your beach excursions.
We hope you enjoyed reading about the 30A beaches and all the things to do along the highway. Feel free to drop us a line if you have any questions. Be sure to read our other article, Beautiful things to do in Destin Florida for more ideas of what to do in the area.
God bless and happy travels!
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