Beaches of pristine white sugar sand, set against the blue-green of the Gulf of Mexico, understandably command much of the attention along the Florida Panhandle’s Emerald Coast. Yet there’s a lot more natural beauty to be uncovered here, with precious native ecosystems and serene scenery awaiting inland of the plush strand and grassy dunes. Going hand in hand with this terrestrial ecological loveliness is ample opportunity for outdoor recreation and fresh-air exercise.
The Watersound Trail is a great example of all of the above. It’s a five-mile, multi-use path dominated by crushed gravel that runs between Walton and Bay counties, providing walkers, joggers, and bicyclists with a chance to get away from trafficky streets and thronged beaches and soak up some of the Northwest Corridor’s backcountry flavor.
The route, which follows an old logging track, links the Watersounds Origin community in Santa Rosa Beach with Conservation Park in Panama City Beach. The Watersounds Origin trailhead is in the community’s Village Commons.
Open to walking, running, and biking from dawn till dusk, the Watersound Trail passes through slash and longleaf pine flatwoods and glades with occasional cypress domes and other wetlands in view. Birdlife’s abundant, and you’ve got the chance of seeing white-tailed deer and other mammals as well.
At roughly the halfway mark you’ll find a shade structure with benches, offering the chance to take a breather, rehydrate, and bliss out amid the birdsong and pinewood breeze.
Conservation Park at the east end of the Watersound Trail serves up plenty of options for extending your cycling or hiking adventure. Nearly 3,000 acres in area, the park boasts a dozen asphalt and sand trails as well as a boardwalk through bald-cypress, accounting for about 25 miles of on-the-go exploration. Part of this mileage links with Gayle’s Trails system, which connects Conservation Park with Frank Brown Park to the east.
That all means that cyclists in particular—as well as walkers and joggers who’ve arranged a shuttle or like pounding out a lot of mileage—can really make a day of it amid mostly undeveloped, flatwood- and wetland-dominated Emerald Coast scenery in Walton and Bay counties, using the Watersound Trail either as a springboard or a detour off a Gayle’s Trails circuit.
You’ll generally be able to enjoy plenty of solitude on the Watersound Trail. For nature lovers, walkers, and cyclists, it’s a welcome stretch of quiet beauty within shouting distance of the area’s busier towns and beachfront.
-Definitely dress for full sun and tote sunscreen and lots of water when tackling the Watersound Trail: Shade’s in short supply along its five miles, and it’s all too easy to underestimate how quickly dehydration, heatstroke, and sunburn can set in under that strong Panhandle sunshine.
-The Watersound Trail’s open to dogs on leashes, making it a fine path for exercising with Fido. Keep in mind, though, that no more than two dogs are allowed per person.