Content Produced in Partnership with Visit Panama City Beach
The word’s getting out about Panama City Beach. What used to be known as North Florida’s Spring Break Central has transformed over the last decade into a more sophisticated, family friendly beach town, complete with luxury high-rise condominiums, four-star restaurants, newly invigorated historic communities, and a renewed dedication to preserving the natural environment. Perhaps the city’s best-kept secret, though, is the best time to see it all: fall.
“October used to be our time,” a local laughed recently during our family’s recent visit to Panama City Beach. “Not any more!” She’s right-- Plenty of vacationers looking for a Fall Break destination are setting their sights on PCB, and now that we’ve experienced it for ourselves, we can understand why. Milder temperatures, lower humidity, and crystal clear waters make Panama City Beach a paradise in the autumn months, particularly for those of us who love the great outdoors.
Check out these 8 outdoor adventures that are perfect for Panama City Beach’s fall season:
St. Andrews State Park is also a favorite spot for hiking, particularly in the fall when the cool breezes and milder temperatures make even inland walks enjoyable. You’ll find two great trails at this park-- Heron Pond and Gator Lake. The Heron Pond Trail leads to the Grand Lagoon, a mecca for birdwatchers and photographers (Look for the osprey nest atop Buoy #5), while the Gator Trail circles a large lake, offering the best chance for an alligator sighting. No matter which trail you choose, be sure to stop first at the interpretive center to learn more about the park’s history, including the surprising story of a Norwegian sailor who shipwrecked here and decided to stay, living as a hermit on the property for the rest of his life!
Conservation Park is quickly becoming a favorite with both hikers and bikers. With 24 miles of trails and an additional mile of boardwalk, you can spend an hour here or a day and get your fill of nature. We took a short stroll down the boardwalk and saw turtles, birds, and even a chameleon. Another good option for a walk is the Green Trail, a 1.8 mile hike that takes you through two cypress domes without taking up too much of your time.
Camp Helen State Park is bordered on three sides by the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Powell, one of the largest coastal dune lakes in Florida. The Oak Canopy Trail winds through a dense canopy of trees overlooking the salt marsh and pond. Pick up a walking tour guide at the visitors center when you arrive to help you find your way.
SUP (Stand Up Paddleboarding) and Kayaking
Stand Up Paddleboarding is the latest water sport craze and Panama City Beach is the perfect place to try it out for yourself. The calm, clear waters of the Gulf inspired scores of vacationers to try out the boards during our week at the beach -- We even noticed a pair of moms paddleboarding with their kids sitting (and wearing life vests, of course) on the front of the boards! You’ll find plenty of places to rent paddleboards for an hour or two-- one likely place to look is out on the beach in front of your condominium or resort.
Kayaking is also hugely popular with Panama City Beach visitors in the fall and it’s not unusual for kayakers to be joined by a pod of inquisitive dolphins. The best kayaking can be found in St. Andrews State Park -- Take the shuttle to Shell Island where you can pick up your kayak rental and explore the waters surrounding this 700-acre natural area. In addition to marine life, you’re likely to see deer, raccoons, osprey and even a pair of bald eagles known to live and raise their young on the island.
Want to catch your own dinner? One inexpensive way to do it is to head to one of Panama City Beach’s city or county piers -- Both have rod rentals, bait and tackle available onsite, as well as one-day fishing licenses. If you have your own gear, St. Andrews State Park is another great option, with one pier that extends into the Gulf of Mexico and another in the Grand Lagoon.
For a real thrill, head out on a chartered boat for a few hours of deep sea fishing. Don’t worry about your experience level -- The crew will help you figure everything out and even bait the hook for those of us who are squeamish. I’ve been on three deep sea fishing charters over the years and can tell you it’s a true thrill-- and definitely worth your time and money! Most charters will also clean and fillet your catch so that it’s ready to cook for dinner that night.
Gayle’s Trails is a system of paved greenways and trails for bikes and pedestrians that will eventually span all of Panama City Beach. Currently, you can take Gayle’s Trails from connects Frank Brown Park over to Conservation Park. The trail starts in the back of the Frank Brown Sports Complex-- Check in at the park office if you have trouble finding it. This map shows you which parts of Gayle’s Trails are ready for riding on.
Conservation Park has miles of dirt trails that range from 1.7 miles to 11.2 miles long. Mountain bikes are best for these trails and cyclists are certainly making use of them-- When we went to this park, almost all of the cars in the parking lot belonged to mountain bikers.
Need bikes? Bike the Beach PCB will bring the bikes to you!
The Gulf is generally calm and clear in autumn, making it an optimal time for snorkeling. My kids enjoyed snorkeling in the Gulf right outside our condominium, but more serious snorkelers will want to test the waters of Shell Island beside the jetty, in St. Andrews State Park. There, the water stays waist deep for a few hundred feet and snorkeling conditions are as good as they’re going to get. You’ll find a lot to look at if you stay close to the jetty-- If the waters are calm, carefully check under and around the rocks for sea urchins and fish.
If the wind is up and you’re looking for something a little (well, let’s be honest, A LOT) more extreme, check out Emerald Coast Kiteboarding. Kiteboarding is a relatively new sport that combines windsurfing, snowboarding, paragliding, surfing, skateboarding, and gymnastics. At Emerald Coast Kiteboarding, you can rent or buy kiteboarding gear and sign up for lessons to learn the ropes -- Don’t worry if the water’s chilly; wetsuits are available as well!
You don’t have to go to extremes to enjoy a cruise along the Emerald Coast, and fall is arguably the loveliest time of year for this Panama City Beach staple. Cruise options here abound -- You might opt for a pirate or dolphin cruise aboard a large boat or splurge on chartering a smaller boat for your crew. We chose a late afternoon private tour with Dolphin and Snorkel Tours and had the time of our lives. Our expert guide, Croix, let us determine the itinerary -- We ended up snorkeling and shell seeking on Shell Island, searching for birds, raccoons and marine life, and getting up close and personal with plenty of dolphins, including racing alongside a pod of dolphins playing in the wake of a large boat at sunset. It was an unforgettable experience and our favorite of the entire trip.
Other cruise options include eco-tours, photography and bird watching tours, and airboat tours in search of Florida gators. Whether you’re looking for an adrenaline rush or a little rest and relaxation, there’s definitely a cruise option in PCB that’s sure to suit your taste.
Jet Ski and Boat Rentals
For those of you who feel confident on your own, Panama City Beach’s jet ski and pontoon boat rentals offer a unique opportunity to see the area your way. Take your pontoon boat to Shell Island and explore its beauty on your own or ride your very own waverunner on a jet ski dolphin tour -- The choice is yours, and we saw plenty of vacationers taking advantage of both opportunities while we were on the water.