Panama City Beach may sometimes be associated with party animals on spring break, but they aren’t the only wild things to populate these shores. The Emerald Coast is teeming with unique fauna, from the pods of bottlenose dolphins that play in the Gulf of Mexico to black bears and endangered gopher tortoises that live in nearby forests. These parks and beaches should be on any animal lover’s Florida Panhandle itinerary
Camp Helen State Park
Once a company resort for the employees of an Alabama textile mill, this state park is sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Powell, Florida’s largest coastal dune lake. Its 180 acres are home to whitetail deer, opossums and the occasional black bear, plus a host of birds that includes ospreys, kingfishers, Cooper’s hawks and even bald eagles. 23937 Panama City Beach Parkway, Panama City Beach, floridastateparks.org.
St. Andrews State Park
Dr. Beach called this 1.5-mile stretch of sand at the eastern end of PCB one of the best beaches in the country. The jetties here are a popular gathering point for bottlenose dolphins, while two hiking trails allow access to whitetail deer, alligators and raccoons. Keep your eyes peeled for the park’s most elusive inhabitant: the highly endangered Choctawhatchee beach mice, which makes its home among the dunes. 4607 State Park Ln., Panama City Beach, floridastateparks.org.
This 2,900-acre park uses reclaimed city water to rehydrate the wetlands, which is attracting an ever-growing number of birds like black-bellied whistling ducks. You can explore the pine forest and cypress dome on miles of boardwalks and hiking/biking trails, but beware of pygmy rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and alligators! 100 Conservation Dr., Panama City Beach, pcbeach.org.
Named for former Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst, this growing system of trails connects Frank Brown Park to Conservation Park. The paths cut through a wildlife-rich forest, where you might encounter raccoons, rabbits, whitetail deer and ospreys. Gayle's Trails, Panama City Beach, pcbgov.com.
Pine Log State Forest
Fourteen miles north of Panama City sits Florida’s oldest state forest, which was established in 1936. You can explore its roughly 11 square miles on horseback, foot or bike. The forest is home to a number of rare and vulnerable species, including flatwoods salamanders, gopher tortoises and Eastern indigo snakes, in addition to the endangered white-top pitcher plant, which is carnivorous like a Venus fly trap. Long Leaf Rd., Ebro, fdacs.gov.
Oaks by the Bay Park
This small urban park in the historic village of St. Andrews is known for its collection of unique trees, like a four-headed Pindo palm and a 250-year-old oak known as The Sentry. The waterfront boardwalk is a great place to easily spot shore birds like brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, herons and egrets. 2715 W. 10th St., Panama City, pcgov.org
Point Washington State Forest
Boasting 19 miles of trails, this largely undeveloped forest 20 miles west of Panama City Beach is a favorite among birdwatchers, thanks to residents such as southeastern American kestrels, myrtle warblers, red-headed woodpeckers and common ground doves. S County Hwy 395, Santa Rosa Beach, fdacs.gov.
Parker Environmental Exploratorium Park
This ecology park on the shores of Lake Martin features a butterfly garden that attracts species like the common buckeye and the bright orange Gulf fritillary, as well as the occasional ruby-throated hummingbird. 4640 Lake Dr., Panama City, prodenv.dep.state.fl.us