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A Picturesque Road Trip Along Florida's Panhandle and Beyond

Find inland lakes and natural springs, serene state parks and pristine beaches

partial map of florida with a road trip route and city stops highlighted collaged with a photo of a glass bottomed tour boat on a florida lake

Alamy / Getty / AARP

En español | Miami's glitzy beaches and Orlando's theme parks hog the spotlight and draw big crowds in Florida. But the Sunshine State will surprise you with plenty of less-visited draws that also make pandemic-era social distancing easy. This road trip takes you from the Panhandle to the state's crook and then south and inland — with fun excursions on land and in the water all along the way. Oh, and be ready to chow down on fresh, delicious Florida seafood, too.

Eden Gardens State Park grounds with the plantation style house of William Henry Wesley

Rick Lewis / Alamy Stock Photo

Eden Gardens State Park

Day 1: South Walton County — Miramar Beach to Santa Rosa Beach (20 miles)

Start your road trip in the Panhandle in Miramar Beach for easy access to South Walton County's coastal dune lakes. Freshwater oases that exist in only a few places in the world, dune lakes are created when wind redistributes sand and creates shallow pools. You'll find Western Lake, one of Florida's prettiest, at Grayton Beach State Park, 15 miles east of Miramar Beach along scenic Highway 30A. Rent a kayak from the park ranger station to explore the backwaters of this 100-acre lake surrounded by wetlands. Then, switching gears to saltwater, see for yourself why Dr. Beach named the park's stretch of powdery perfection America's No. 1 beach in 2020. Come lunchtime, head to nearby Grayton Beer Brewpub for a shrimp po'boy and one of its 15 local beers (try the 30A IPA, with bright citrus and tropical notes) on its outdoor patio.

After lunch, make a short five-mile trek northeast to Eden Gardens State Park, on Choctawhatchee Bay in Santa Rosa Beach. Here, Spanish moss-draped oak trees frame the Wesley House, a stately 1897 mansion with tall white columns, a wraparound porch and an antiques-filled interior. The park has temporarily paused mansion tours due to the pandemic, but you can walk right up to the porch and peek inside the windows, as well as ramble around the lovely, sprawling grounds. In this serene setting, spend a quiet afternoon fishing for crappie off Tucker Bayou's dock, but bring your own gear and a Florida fishing license (available for purchase online).

Where to stay: Near Grayton Beach State Park, one-bedroom apartments at the Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse come with kitchenettes or full kitchens and private balconies overlooking tidy gardens. Or pitch a tent or park your RV at Grayton Beach State Park Campground, a shady spot near Western Lake.

Avenue East in historic downtown Apalachicola, Franklin County, Florida

Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo


Day 2: Grayton Beach State Park to Apalachicola (97 miles)

Continuing east on 30A toward Apalachicola, stop about 34 miles down the road at St. Andrews State Park, near Panama City, for more beach time. Although it's a popular park, you'll have plenty of room to chill on its 1 1/2-mile stretch of pristine sand. Fish from a pier that extends 500 feet into the Gulf of Mexico or cycle along the park's flat roads (an onsite general store rents bikes).

Make sure to arrive in Apalachicola, about 70 miles on, in time for dinner. You don't want to miss the local oysters at the Station Raw Bar, an erstwhile service station. The kitchen bakes the bivalves and gives them an extra flavor boost with toppings such as bacon, crabmeat, garlic butter and Parmesan. Outdoor seating available.

Where to stay: Southern Living called the Gibson Inn “the coolest place to stay in the Panhandle.” The sumptuous marble bathroom in your one-bedroom suite should win you over, and the suite's exterior entrance will help you keep your distance from staffers and other guests.

Seashells, model ships, nautical souvenirs, and memorabilia are crowded onto shelves in Apalachicola, Florida

Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright / Alamy Stock Photo

antique shop in Apalachicola

Day 3: Apalachicola to Steinhatchee (142 miles)

Florida's Forgotten Coast — a string of less-developed beaches, blink-and-miss-them gulf-front fishing towns and quiet barrier islands — stretches from Apalachicola east about 50 miles to Alligator Point. A morning walk around Apalachicola's well-preserved downtown, along the Apalachicola River, will give you a good feel for what a quintessential Florida fishing town looks like. Duck into Tin Shed Nautical and Antiques, a fascinating store with antique maritime wheels, vintage brass ship lamps and the like.

Moving on, make your way east on U.S. Route 98 for 22 miles to Carrabelle for lunch at Carrabelle Junction, where the cheerful 1950s décor will have you waxing nostalgic. Its blue-plate specials (perhaps a roast beef Philly sandwich or French dip) aren't as cheap as meals in that bygone I Love Lucy era, but they're a bargain today — about $10 for a sandwich, chips, salad, dessert and drink. If you need a pick-me-up, order one of the barista-brewed espresso drinks.

Now, backtrack 2 1/2 miles to Tate's Hell State Forest for a stroll along its boardwalk to see centuries-old dwarf cypress trees that stand just 15 feet high. Also, keep your eyes peeled for the black bears and gopher tortoises that live in this forest.

Back on 98, count on a two-hour drive around the Big Bend (the crook where Florida turns south) and down to Steinhatchee, another Old Florida outpost where you should arrive in time for sunset and a seafood dinner alfresco. At Roy's Restaurant, a longtime favorite on the Steinhatchee River, order the sweet bay scallops, broiled or fried. Tinier than Atlantic sea scallops, Florida scallops are irresistibly sweet and extra tender. Note: Roy's offers curbside pickup if you don't want to sit and dine there.

Where to stay: At Steinhatchee Landing Resort, oak and pine trees surround one-, two- and three-bedroom cottages ideal for overnight accommodations with no shared elevators or a hotel lobby.

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Visitors take boat ride on Silver River at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala, Florida

RSBPhoto / Alamy Stock Photo

Silver Springs State Park

Day 4: Steinhatchee to Mount Dora (144 miles)

Begin your day early, scalloping in the grassy shallows of Deadman Bay (from mid-June to early September). From Sea Hag Marina, Captain Kyle Skipper takes out up to six people aboard the Marker One to forage for the tasty mollusks. The captain will clean and bag your haul if you want to stash the scallops in a cooler in your car to prepare later, or just leave them for the crew.

Next stop: Silver Springs State Park in Ocala, 97 miles southeast — first on 98 and then U.S. Route 27 — for an inland freshwater experience. On a half-hour tour aboard a glass-bottom boat, peer down into the crystalline water of one of the country's largest natural springs. You can also rent kayaks to explore on your own, or just enjoy the views from the shore.

Driving another 50 miles south along County Road 452 takes you to the pretty Central Florida lakeside town of Mount Dora in time for another Florida sunset, this one with views over Lake Dora from an outdoor table at Pisces Rising restaurant. Menu standouts: peel-and-eat shrimp, pan-seared grouper and smoked ribs.

Where to stay: From the four-room Mount Dora Historic Inn, walk to downtown shops, restaurants and parks. Or book one of its roomy vacation cottages scattered around town.

Colorful red and white striped lighthouse located in a lake at Mount Dora

Elizabeth W. Kearley/Getty Images

Mount Dora Lighthouse

Day 5: Mount Dora to Sebring (150 miles)

Wake up early with the birds again for a stroll around Palm Island Park, an in-town nature preserve on Lake Dora with a pathway and boardwalk that wind for about a mile through ancient live oaks, cabbage palms and other native plants. You'll likely see alligators, cormorants, herons and other wading birds. After your walk, sink your teeth into jumbo Belgian waffles at the nearby Highland Street Cafe, which should fortify you for a morning of serious antique shopping, Mount Dora's specialty. You just might come across some vintage finds you've got to have at Renninger's Antique Center or the Village Antique Mall.

When you tire of antiquing, set out for Sebring, via several county roads and then 27 and 98 again. About 75 miles into your drive (on 27), take a break at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales and wander through renowned gardens designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr.

Lakes and parks surround Sebring, your final stop, a hideaway slice of interior Florida where you'll want to explore the virgin hardwood forest at Highlands Hammock State Park. It has more rare and endemic plant and animal species than any other Florida state park. As you meander along the elevated boardwalk through the cypress swamp, look for alligators and deer.

If you're a golfer, make time for twilight golf at one of Sebring's many courses along the Citrus Golf Trail. Then go for margaritas, guacamole and ceviche on the patio at Don Jose Mexican Restaurant to toast a final Florida sunset over Lake Jackson.

Where to stay: Relish the water views at the 155-room Inn on the Lakes, which sits between Little Lake Jackson and Lake Jackson. Or camp in your tent or RV at Highlands Hammock State Park (book through Reserve America).

Enjoy some music along the route with this road trip playlist compiled for AARP by Jeff Nolan, a Florida-based musicologist and the Hard Rock Café’s music consultant.

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