Words by Kristin Luna

Bordering Panama City Beach to the far east, St. Andrews State Park is a former military reservation with Gulf access and some of the best beachfront real estate along the coast. More than 1,200 acres now comprise this bustling section of the shoreline, quadrupling its original size from when it was first established in 1947 as bits and pieces have slowly been added to the state park over the past 60 years.

Occupying a protected area spanning a mile and a half in length, this peninsula jutting out into the Grand Lagoon is rife in kitesurfing, boating, fishing and standup paddleboarding opportunities. Kayaking, too, is a favorite park pastime thanks to a sheltered cove and placid waters that lead out into the bay. For those not traveling with their own gear, water sports equipment is available for both rental and purchase on site from a shop at the park.

St. Andrews has several beach access points and intersecting ramps that lead out onto the sand, though it lived other lives before it became such an expansive state park. When German U-boats in the 1940s threatened the integrity of the U.S. borders in the Gulf of Mexico, it was designated as a coastal gun battery with 155-millimeter cannons on circular mounts. Remnants of these military installations surfaced in the aftermath of the Category 5 Hurricane Michael that struck the area in 2018 and are still visible.

With easy access to nearby Shell Island, St. Andrews is a popular spot for boaters to dock, and there’s a public access boat ramp that’s available for just $12 for a boat with a single passenger or $16 for a boat carrying two to eight people. The Shell Island Shuttle also departs from St. Andrews several times a day; reservations are recommended, particularly in the off-season when service isn’t as regular.

Those adventurous travelers who have always wanted to try scuba diving should consider getting their fins wet at St. Andrews State Park. The protected lagoon, with its relatively calm waters, is a great place to practice buoyancy and perfect all the other skills that accompany exploring beneath the water’s surface with an oxygen tank strapped on your back. The nearby Diver’s Den offers PADI certification and introductory experiences—otherwise known as Discover Scuba dives—in addition to boat dives for more experienced divers that depart right out of the state park. For those not quite yet comfortable with the idea of fully submerging in a wetsuit, snorkeling is a fun, flexible, commitment-free alternative to scuba diving, and with dolphins, turtles and plenty of large marine life like 600-pound groupers prowling the waters, you never know what you might spy.

Perhaps St. Andrews most unique attribute is, in fact, its biodiversity. More than 6,300 species of land and aquatic plants, marine life and wildlife have been identified in the area, with 2,900 of those dependent on St. Andrews’ waters. As you drive into the park through its entrance, you’ll be able to observe the many habitats that form this impressive state park: bay waters, seagrass beds, shorelines, intertidal mud flats, salt marsh wetlands, bogs and swamps, and upland meadows and forests.

Trails snake their way in and around St. Andrews—like the Heron Pond Trail that weaves its way through a flatwood pine forest and the half-mile Gator Lake Trail through the electric green marshlands—offering visitors a way to see the wildlife up close and personal, from deer and raccoons to waterfowl, herons and even alligators.

Fishermen dot the Tiller Pier, which stretches over the Grand Lagoon and into the Gulf of Mexico, and there are plenty of places to cast a line from the jetties—to potentially catch mackerel, flounder, red fish, trout, cobia and other fish native to these waters. If you’re planning to fish, a license is required.

Beyond simply offering visitors day use of the state park, St. Andrews also has camping facilities available. Campers who are scouts or part of a non-profit or faith-based group can take advantage of the primitive camping area, which is equipped with water, a portable toilet, fire ring and picnic tables. Other travelers can choose from the 176 tented or RV sites that offer electricity, water, picnic tables and grills. The cost for camping is $28 per night, plus tax. Those not camping must leave the park by sunset, the official closing time. Admission to the park is $8 per vehicle—or $4 for a single occupant—and $2 for a pedestrian or cyclist.

Panama City Beach and St. Andrew’s State Park are both open and welcoming visitors for travel, don’t wait and plan you vacation to the Real. FUN. Beach. today.

For more information, visit www.visitpanamacitybeach.com/.