Wild about nature? You've come to the right place.

Artists and sun worshippers aren't the only species drawn to the Emerald Coast. Our breathtaking beaches are popular with wildlife and ecotourists as well. Here on the Emerald Coast, it isn't unusual at all to be joined by a heron as you walk on the beach, to see a pelican out fishing while you’re casting a line in the bay or to come upon bottlenose dolphins at play while you’re out Jet Skiing. Read about our plant life, wildlife and ecotourism opportunities here.

Natural Areas of the Emerald Coast

Longleaf Pine Forests

The longleaf pine ecosystems once covered the vast majority of the southeast landscape until they were logged out in the early 1900’s. Now only 1.4% of the original 92 million acres still exist.  Fortunately, Okaloosa County contains one of the largest stands of longleaf pine still in existence.  The pine forests are essential habitats for various plants and animals, many of which are considered rare, threatened or endangered.

Activities in these landscapes: Bird-Watching, Hiking, Camping, Hunting and Fishing, Biking, Scenic Trail Riding

Places to go: Fred Gannon, Eglin AFB, Blackwater River State Forest

Blackwater Rivers & Streams

Okaloosa County is also home to three blackwater stream systems that were once the County’s primary inland transportation networks (Shoal River, Blackwater River, and the Yellow River).  Much of the area’s history can be witnessed along the banks of these beautiful and scenic natural areas.  These streams are characterized by their dark (tea-colored) water, which is due to the presence of tannins, particulates, and dissolved organic matter and iron from the adjacent swamps and marshes.  The rivers also serve as spawning grounds for a rare and endangered giant, prehistoric fish known as the Gulf sturgeon.  The sturgeons seasonally migrate into the river systems along the gulf coast to spawn and live the rest of the time out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Activities in these landscapes: Swimming, Canoeing, Kayaking, Bird-Watching, Hunting and Fishing

Places to go: Blackwater River State Park, Fred Gannon, Turkey Creek Boardwalk, Anderson Pond Recreation Area, Shoal Sanctuary

Steephead Ravines

Okaloosa County is home to rare natural areas called steepheads, which occur only in northwest Florida. Shallow underground springs seep from the sandy floors of steep-sided, amphitheater-like ravines. The steepheads harbor plants and animals more typically associated with the Appalachian mountain areas and offer wonderful biodiversity.  These areas form seepage streams that are nearly crystal clear and maintain a year-round temperature of approximately 68-73 degrees Fahrenheit, and even contain a very rare species of endangered minnow known as the Okaloosa darter, which occurs only in the streams that flow into the Boggy and Rocky Bayou watersheds.

Activities in these landscapes: Bird-Watching, Hiking, Camping, Swimming

Places to go: Fred Gannon, Anderson Pond Recreation Area, Shoal River Sanctuary

Springs

Florida contains the world’s largest concentration of freshwater springs, and northern Florida is home to most of that state’s springs.  These deep artesian springs originate from Florida’s massive underground aquifer, known as the Floridian aquifer.  Fortunately, Okaloosa County contains one of these lush and biologically productive ecosystems, known as Eglin’s “Blue Spring.”

Activities in these landscapes: Bird-Watching, Hiking, Camping, Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Tubing, Snorkeling, Scuba Diving

Places to go:  Eglin's Blue Spring

Bayous & Estuaries

Okaloosa County is home to the Choctawhatchee Bay, which was once the backbone of the area’s early transportation network, as it connected the coastal communities with the inland communities.  “The Bay,” as it is called by the locals, is characterized by brackish water, the mixing of freshwater from the bayous with salt water that flows directly into the Bay from the Destin East Pass, the Bay’s only direct connection to the Gulf of Mexico.  The Bay supports vital sea grasses, which serve as critical nursery areas for the local marine life, and harbors unique species such as seahorses.  Much of the freshwater entering the Choctawhatchee Bay originates from various streams that flow into the County’s 14 bayous (Marler, Joes, Jones, Cinco, Poquito, Garmier, Dons, Weekley, Toms, Bayou, Rocky, Shirk, Johns, and Sunken Boat) that fed the Bay.  The “bayous” are extremely slow-moving bodies of brackish to freshwater that serve as additional marine nursery areas.  The Bay and the bayous both contain abundant redfish, speckled trout, shrimp, oysters, gulf menhaden, blue crab, flounder, striped mullet, white mullet, dolphins, and even the endangered gulf sturgeon, a giant, prehistoric fish that seasonally migrates through the Choctawhatchee Bay and into the local river systems to spawn.

Activities in these landscapes: Bird-Watching, Hiking, Camping, Fishing, Boating, Kiteboarding, Kayaking, Canoeing, Waterskiing, Scuba Diving

Places to go: Fred Gannon, Eglin AFB, Turkey Creek Boardwalk Niceville, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Barrier Islands & Beaches

Okaloosa County is best known for its barrier island, officially known as Santa Rosa Island or Okaloosa Island, or simply the “the Island”, as the locals call it.  The pure white sand is made up of 99% quartz and is a perfect complement to the emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Barrier islands such as this one are natural protective barriers, important habitats, and homes to many unique species such as the Santa Rosa beach mouse.

Coastal features such as sand dunes are found on barrier island and mainland beaches.  Dunes form by the movement of sand with waves and wind.  This sand travels through the air until it hits the dune building plants like sea oats.  These plants become stimulated to grow by the sand hitting the blades.  As a result the plant grows taller and fine roots go deeper, eventually creating a stable dune. Because of this important role, sea oats are protected by law.

Activities in these landscapes: Bird-Watching, Hiking, Camping, Fishing, Biking, Swimming, Snorkeling, Paddleboarding, Parasailing, Boating, Kiteboarding, Kayaking, Scuba Diving

Places to go: Beasley Park, Wayside Park, Henderson Beach State Park, Eglin AFB, Destin Pass, Gulf Islands National Seashore

The Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico is about 1,000 miles east to west and is oval in shape.  Many migratory species utilize the waters of the Gulf, including sharks, whales, sea turtles, and game fish.  Though we know of many species in the Gulf and treasure the wonderful fishing and recreation opportunities, there is still much to learn.  Like most of the oceans in the world, much of the Gulf is unexplored.  Just like the land, the water is home to many habitants, each with its own unique life forms. This makes this great feature even more exotic and interesting. 

The Gulf of Mexico yields more finfish, shrimp, and shellfish annually than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake and New England areas combined. More than 400 species of shells can be found in the Gulf of Mexico. Bottlenose dolphins are the most common dolphin species in the Gulf and are estimated to number up to 45,000.

Take some time and get to know this wonderful feature, its emerald-green waters and the exciting life it offers. 

Activities in these landscapes: Scuba Diving, Bird-Watching, Fishing, Swimming, Snorkeling, Paddleboarding, Parasailing, Sailing, Kiteboarding, Kayaking

Places to go: Beasley Park, Wayside Park, Henderson Beach State Park, Eglin AFB, Destin Pass, Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, Gulfarium, Dolphin Cruises