Five places to kayak in Northwest Florida: Explore off the Emerald Coast's beaten path
Pretty sugar-white and Appalachian Mountains-bred quartz crystals that make Emerald Coast beaches shine also are found on lesser-known islands, cliffs and banks, and the bottoms of fast-flowing rivers north of the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the best ways to explore the beauty of those still somewhat mysterious waterways adjacent to and farther from the coast is by kayak.
Here are some places where you can paddle through paradise while shaking firmer hands with Mother Nature:
First, make sure you have a recreation permit from Eglin Air Force Base’s Jackson Guard to access Rocky Creek.
One way to reach the creek is by launching from the shore of Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park just east of Niceville after paying a park admission fee.
Cut northeast across the bayou, which is a popular spot for motorboats, to the mouth of Rocky Creek.
The clear creek flows swiftly and provides a hearty upstream workout. You’ll feel the coldness of the creek water reach you through your plastic kayak. Look down on either side of you to see darting fish and swaying grasses above the white sand. Swamp lilies will make you glance left and right. Polarized sunglasses help with the glare.
Not long after paddling under the State Road 293 overpass, you’ll see the decades-old wreckage of an Air Force jet on both sides of the creek. Keep going, then take a break at a cool wooden landing someone built above very shallow water.
Then paddle deeper into nature, where the chances of seeing alligators, banded water snakes, owls, songbirds and even wild boars increase. Way upstream, cables and bridge remnants dangle where military members once trained.
Santa Rosa Sound
The Mary Esther area of the Sound has several white sand spoil islands to paddle to and explore. Public launch spots 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 “spoil” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged up decades ago to provide a deeper waterway for commerce/fuel-powered vessels. Among other creatures, these manmade oases attract geese, ospreys, brown pelicans, crabs and beach bums.
Paddling to the islands from the mainland can feel like you’re in a life-size game of Frogger as you must often stop and go as passing motorboats dictate. Ride out their wakes and then floor it.
Check out the shallower and usually calmer south side of most of the islands. If you’re quick enough, you too can snag your own temporary piece of paradise.
A main way to get your feet wet in this large, shallow coastal dune lake and global rarity in South Walton County is by launching from Grayton Beach State Park after paying a park fee.
Paddle to a channel that curves around white sand dunes and cliffs on your left and tall marsh grasses and vacation homes on your right, and eventually you’ll make it to the tip of the Gulf, where salty waves wash over you but the beach either endures or fades away.
Sometimes, the beach gives in enough to allow lake water to join saltwater. Locals tell tales of dolphins making their way to Western Lake.
After some beach time, paddle to the public boat ramp at the end of Hotz Avenue in Grayton Beach. While still drying off, walk up to the Red Bar to soak up a Bloody Mary and a bowl of gumbo, as well as live music from Dread Clampitt or other funky musicians.
The Okaloosa County-managed Wayside Park next to the Cox Bridge section of State Road 85 near the south end of Crestview is a convenient way to get on the Shoal River.
Nature, surprisingly without hardly any other boaters, is found for long stretches either upstream or downstream. From the river, you may spy big stands of cypress trees or fat white sand banks that lure you to pull over and chill.
You might be able to park your kayak under overhanging tree branches to get a better view of a barred owl peering down. Just watch out for wasps.
East Bay River
This river, which is part of the southern boundary of Eglin Air Force Base in Santa Rosa County, is reminiscent of the Shoal River because of its big bends and forests. You can access the East Bay River from a public boat ramp off State Road 87 in Holley near Navarre.
Be on the lookout:Eglin AFB facing possible 'nightmare' from invasive plant
Paddle upstream past a smattering of homes to nothing but woods on either side.
You may see silent baby owls and noisy baby songbirds peeking out from nests in a tree stump and a half-submerged log. Sometimes massive clouds of smoke from controlled fires on Eglin land rise like ghosts against a blue sky as you’re paddling east.
Pitcher plants, wildflowers and twisted dead trees that resemble driftwood art installations dot the banks, all beckoning inspection and respect.