Dog Fun on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Florida’s hidden gem
By Robin Tierney, November 2009, Updated February 2015

Roll through Florida’s northwest panhandle and you’ll find yourself in a world presumed long-lost. On one side, the Gulf of Mexico shimmers like molten silver beyond stretches of wetland prairie; on the other, slash pines stand in perfect formation. Clouds billow above white sand beaches, where long walks and calm, clean water refresh both human and canine spirits. This piece of Old Florida is often bypassed by travelers seeking big-name beaches, but the locals love to share lore and haunts, and are always ready to bond over dogs.

Downtown Apalachicola. This quaint-meets-quirky coastal town is a place where people savor each sunrise and sunset and live life slow enough to keep streets traffic-light free. There’s the Gibson Inn, a historic Victorian dating to 1907, which welcomes furry boarders in guestrooms and on its wraparound porch. Share a budget gourmet al fresco meal with your furry companion at Magnolia Grill, where Chef Eddie wows diners of various species (including pups on special diets). Blue, a funky home decor store, showcases wonderfully witty canine sculptures in clay by Leslie Wallace, and at Petunia Boutique, you’ll find pet goodies whimsical and practical. Seasonal events include animal-centric fun; in August, don’t miss the Dixie Theatre’s “Dog Days of Summer,” a doggie talent and fashion show.

Island Hop. There are plenty of dog-friendly trails and public beaches around St. George Island, Carrabelle—an old-fashioned little beach town with flip-flop-based dress codes—and secluded Dog Island. Regional wallet-friendly, pet-friendly camping choices include St. George Island State Park, which offers 60 full-feature campsites in a breathtaking setting. Many Forgotten Coast beach houses welcome canines, too, and are far more affordable than rentals in higher-profile vacation spots. Explore the islands in a kayak or on a boat tour offered by Journeys of St. George Island, which welcomes dogs.

Take a Hike. More than 87 percent of Franklin County is government-protected land, Within 202,000-acre Tate’s Hell State Forest, dazzling birds refuel up amid 150-year-old dwarf cypress trees, lily pads, scrub mint and carnivorous pitcher plants. Hike with your leashed buddy in the forest’s High Bluff Coastal Trail off US 98. Nature Note: The Apalachicola River/Bay basin, designated as one of America’s top six biodiversity hotspots, supports more than 1,300 plant species and 50 mammal species, and is among the world’s top bird habitats.

Robin Tierney is an award-winning writer based in Washington, DC; she's currently on the road in northwestern Florida.