Shell Island, Panama City Beach
I picked this park to visit because it was close. The fact that it was named by Dr. Beach (Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman) as America¿s Best Beach in 1995 didn't really matter to us as it was January and cold. At other seasons this might be a selling point for the park which s 1,260-acre park is located on a peninsula with over 1.5 miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico and Grand Lagoon.
In addition to beaches, summer activities might include (in alphabetical order), bicycling, boating and boat tours (boat launch is $12 for one person with a boat), camping, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, picnics, a playground, scuba and snorkeling, surfing, and swimming.
We primarily did the wildlife viewing after we went to the Interpretive Exhibit at the Environmental Interpretive Center. There are two trails in the park to choose from: Heron Pond, and Gator Lake trails. The Heron Pond Trail takes you on a hike through the flatwood pine forest, and past the Turpentine Still. The trail at Gator Lake takes you on a scenic view of Gator Lake. We did the Gator Lake trail
$8.00 per vehicle. Limit 2-8 people per vehicle.
$4.00 Single Occupant Vehicle.
$2.00 Pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass.
St. Andrews State Park, located directly adjacent to Panama City Beach, is a must -see. When you're at St. Andrew's you can imagine what the area looked like before the high-rise condos, hotels, and clubs took over.
In 1995, Travel Magazine named St Andrews “The World’s Best Beach" and for good reason. St. Andrews consists of more than 1,000 acres of spotless sugar white sand, dunes, and emerald waters. While here, you can snorkel (rentals available), and do traditional beach activities or just explore. If you're lucky you may get a glimpse of some wildlife. Foxes, deer, coyotes, and other animals call St. Andrew's home. Also, be on the lookout for the rosemary that grows wild here.
A word of caution, while exploring, make sure you stay off the sand dunes and leave the sea oats alone. These serve as very important erosion protectors. So important, in fact, that disturbing them can result in a hefty fine.
Besides the beach activities there is also a great campsites and hiking trails. Camping fees are $8 in the off peak season (Oct.1-Feb.28) and $15 during spring/summer (Mar.1-Sep.30). Add an extra $2 each for a waterfront spot and/or electricity. The admission fee for non-campers is $5.00 per vehicle.
Finally, as one who loves to fish and has been spoiled by the great fishing in the area, St. Andrew's is a GREAT place to throw out a line. Fishing opportunities includes deep-sea jetty and surf fishing. Two fishing piers and jetties provide excellent vantage points year-round. The best part is the many differnt types of fish you can catch. Catches include spanish mackerel, red fish, flounder, sea trout, bonito, cobia, dolphin and bluefish. A shop in the park offers snacks, souvenirs, bait, fishing licenses, and limited grocery items.
Shell Island is covered by the tide every night, and by morning the tide is back out to sea, and there are new sea shells lying all over the beach. The ferry drops you off at Shell Island and your free to roam about. Be sure to wear shoes, because there are alot of broken shell on this island and it could cut your feet. I bypassed the snorkling pool and went straight to the edge of the island. The thing I like about this, was that the waves are a lot bigger, and there is a naval base nearby. The day that I was here, three things stood out. First thing was that the waves were very high. I remember a wave going up and before it came down, I saw three dolphins swim by. Best way to describe it is to imagine a wall that you could see through and while looking at that wall, you see the three dolphins swim by. Yes, it was that high. Luckily, I was close to the beach (not as scary as it sounds). Number two, while facing the direction from where the waves were coming from, if I turned to my right, I could see a naval helicopter. I found out what they were doing later. Apparently in the Gulf War, the navy had to watch out for underwater mines and the way they searched for them is by sonar, while on a boat. This particular time that I saw this helicopter was way after the war. This helicopter was hovering about 40-50ft from the ocean surface, moving about 3-5 miles per hour, and was pulling a device that floated on the ocean surface. This device I found out later, was used to search for underwater mines in shallow water, using sonar. Not a bad idea. It was cool to watch them do their practice. Also on Shell Island, there's a small pool of water that you will see as you get off the ferry. This is where I went snorkling just before time to get back on the boat. A warning I should tell you is that the last boat to get on is 4pm. After that, you better hope you can swim. After 4pm, I don't think it starts immediately, is when the tide starts to rise. If I remember correctly, the boat comes to and from the island every hour.
St. Andrews Park is a great Camping/Day Use Area. There's a little bit to offer for everyone:
Divers and Fishers will love the Jetty.
There is a protected beach area behind the jetty that is great for young swimmers who might not like the surf.
There's the beach with the surf for the skim boarders.
A Boat Launch is available for watercraft.
There are nature trails to walk through.
If you tire of all this, you can take the boat to Shell Island which is an undeveloped island on the opposite end of the channel. Warning:There are no facilities on Shell Island and you would be wise to bring some cold water.
The trails are fun to walk and I've dove the Jetty which is interesting once but probably not much else. Be aware of the urchins on the Jetty. They range from Golf-ball to Grapefruit size and they all have sharp spines that like bare feet.
The boat launch is nice but the water close to shore is REALLY shallow. I've seen people beach suddenly and throw everyone out. Use caution until you get out in the open water.