Some 15 dune lakes stud the southern coastline of Walton County, with others lying eastward in Bay County. These unique bodies of water—fed by groundwater seepage and freshwater drainage, and typically connected to the Gulf of Mexico via outfall channels—are found in significant numbers only in a few parts of the world, and Northwest Florida is one of these hotspots.
At Deer Lake State Park, you can enjoy the striking beauty of a coastal dune lake that—unlike many in the area—is basically entirely protected. Deer Lake’s shoreline is completely within the state park (aside from where Highway 30A cuts across it), the boundaries of which also include much of its watershed. This makes it a particularly pristine example of these globally significant water bodies.
Actually, the state park also includes a bit of frontage along part of another dune lake to the east: Camp Creek Lake, the namesake stream of which mainly flows through the park’s interior. Deer Lake and Camp Creek Lake are, with Eastern Lake, part of a cluster of coastal dune lakes lying between two of the very biggest in Florida: Western Lake to the west and Lake Powell (or Powell Lake) to the east.
It’s not just the lakes themselves that are treasures, but also the dunes that enfold them. Deer Lake State Park’s protected lands offer a glimpse at these Emerald Coast sand-scapes in their natural guise: some open and grassy, others—older ones—stabilized with southern magnolias, sand live and myrtle oaks, and other more established vegetation.
Inland of the dunes, Deer Lake State Park harbors fine examples of pine-oak sandhills, mesic flatwoods, various shrub and forested swamps, and wet prairies.
These habitats include an impressive share of rare and imperiled native plants, from pitcher plants and Curtiss’ sand grass inland to Gulf coast lupine and golden asters in the dunes.
Wildlife’s rich here, too, as you might imagine given that diverse and mostly intact ecosystem mosaic. The beach at Deer Lake State Park supports such nesting creatures as sea turtles, snowy plovers, and least terns as well as the one-of-a-kind Choctawhatchee beach mouse. The flatwoods, scrub, swamps, and wet prairies host their own rich roster of birdlife.
Birdwatchers, landscape photographers, and other nature lovers have some pretty trails lacing through some of Deer Lake State Park’s habitat spectrum, including the milelong Interpretive Forest Loop north of the highway and the half-mile Lake Trail accessing the shoreline. Then there’s the quarter-mile boardwalk leading over the gorgeous dunes to the equally gorgeous white-sand beach.
That beach, unsurprisingly, draws a lot of visitors: not just for lounging and sunbathing, but also doing a little surfcasting. The day-use parking area, meanwhile, includes a first-come, first-served covered picnic pavilion.
Accessed with a small day-use fee (paid on the honor system), Deer Lake State Park is a wonderful place to spend a few hours, whether hiking the pinelands, savoring a meditative moment or two on the dune lake’s shore, or sinking those toes into Emerald Coast sugar sands.