You wouldn’t think New Zealand, Madagascar and the Florida panhandle have much in common. But these are the locations of a rare geologic phenomenon found in only a few spots on Earth: coastal dune lakes. Walton County, Florida is home to 15 such lakes, including Western Lake.
Western Lake is located along Highway 30A, between the village of Watercolor and Grayton Beach. The lake is technically part of Grayton Beach State Park and one of three such lakes at the site.
What is a coastal dune lake?
We were well acquainted with marshy areas near the coastline. It seems every beach community is bounded by wetlands. But coastal dune lakes are a different thing altogether. They are located with a few feet of the seashore. Sand dunes or berms create a barrier between the lake and the ocean. Rainwater or groundwater feeds the lake until the lake volume gets so high that it breaks the sandy barrier. At that point, the freshwater in the lake spills into the Gulf of Mexico, creating an “outfall.” The intermingling of the seawater with freshwater creates a salt marsh ecosystem where a wide variety of plants and animals thrive. When the lake water recedes, the outfall disappears, cutting off access from the lake to the Gulf.
At approximately 200 acres, Western Lake is one of the largest coastal dune lakes in Florida. It has extensive interconnected wetlands and marshy areas. Like all coastal dune lakes, Western Lake is quite shallow at about five feet. That makes it a great place for exploration. Western Lake is perfect for kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding. You might even try your hand at water skiing. Be aware though, alligators live in the lake so it’s probably not the best spot for a leisurely swim.
Expect to see large sand dunes around the lake, lily pads, eagles, osprey, deer, turtles, and, if you’re lucky, the endangered Choctawhatchee beach mouse. If you walk the trails, you’ll encounter magnolia trees, pine trees, and sea oats.
Is Western Lake accessible?
Many of Florida’s coastal dune lakes are different to access, but Western Lake isn’t one of them. That makes it the most popular and heavily utilized of these special lakes. Within Grayton Beach State Park, you’ll find a boat ramp along with canoe and kayak rentals. Some of the park’s trails meander around the lake where you can watch all sorts of birds, look for fish in the water, and if you’re lucky, spot deer along the shoreline.
If you enter via the park, be prepared to pay $5 per vehicle. If you want to avoid the fee, we discovered you can access Western Lake from the town of Grayton Beach. Use the public boat ramp down from the Red Bar on Hotz Avenue.
If the water in Western Lake looks a little brown, don’t worry – it’s not pollution. The water is tannic, meaning pine needles, grasses, and other organic matter break down in the water, giving it a tea-stained look. The contrast between the emerald green waters of the Gulf and the copper-brown lakewater makes the difference starker.