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Sand, Sun, & Fun In “The Real Florida”

North America


The best places to visit in northern Florida.

Photos in collaboration with Quin Schrock

Northern Florida – The Most Underrated Destination In The South

Some destinations are known for iconic visuals. They occupy permanent spots on our bucket lists, grace the pages of coffee table books and travel magazines, and enjoy household name recognition. But the places that stick with me long after I’ve returned home, are the ones that catch me off guard. Places that defy expectation, highjack my senses, and captivate my imagination. Where the air, people, and tea are all just a little bit sweeter, and unexpected adventure abounds. Welcome to Northern Florida.

Distinctly separate from Orlando’s manufactured experiences, or Miami’s clubbing culture, Northern Florida is where quiet sandy stretches line calm, emerald waters; local swimming holes defy logic with their otherworldly blue hues; and country roads proudly welcome you to “The Real Florida.”  When you’re here, it isn’t about vast iconic landscapes that make you feel small, it’s about the small details that make you feel alive. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to explore this magical destination on our Road Trip Across The Southern United States.


Sunrise views at Navarre Beach, Florida.

Sunrise views at Navarre Beach, Florida.

Top Places To Visit In Northern Florida

Every time I visit Northern Florida I find new places that I want to visit. Places that I want to spend just a little more time. Places that I can’t believe I’ve never heard of before! And that’s okay, because my favorite places are the ones I’m never quite done with. So, while I’m sue I’ll be back to discover even more hidden gems in this stunningly beautiful state, until then, I hope that these top places to visit in Northern Florida will keep you busy. Happy adventuring!

Pensacola Beach


The view of Pensacola Beach from the enormous peer that jets out into The Gulf.

The view of Pensacola Beach from the enormous peer that jets out into The Gulf.


Hanging out in the sun at Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Hanging out in the sun at Pensacola Beach, Florida.

The beach was obscured by sand dunes as we pulled into a vacant parking lot adjacent to Pensacola Beach. I stayed in the van to change while Quin left to explore. When he finally returned it was with a signature flurry of energy that I knew all too well – he liked what he’d seen!

Some may satirically refer to it as the “Redneck Riviera,” but Florida’s Emerald Coast is home to some of the Sunshine State’s best-kept secrets. Pensacola is built to cater to tourists in search of a classic beach vacation, and all the amenities that accompany that, but you don’t have to go far to find solitude. The entire stretch of coastline along the Florida Panhandle between Pensacola and Navarre Beach is scattered with empty stretches of sugar white sand beaches, calm turquoise water, and hidden state parks. If you’ve ever wanted a slice of paradise all to yourself, this place is as close as you’re likely to come in the lower 48.

Navarre Beach


Sunrise views at Navarre Beach, Florida.

Sunrise views at Navarre Beach, Florida.

My first morning in Navarre, I beat the sun to the beach. Standing waist deep in the warm water, a quarter mile of empty white sand on either side of me, I watched as the sun slid up over the horizon. Just as I was about to grab my camera from the beach I saw them. A pair of dolphins slowly dancing through the shallows a few feet in front of me. I was consumed in the magic of the moment.

That was three years ago, on my very first solo photography assignment. But the experience stuck with me long after I returned home. And I found myself thinking about the Emerald Coast a lot more often than I expected. Still, I never expected to be back. Standing on the cool powdery white sand for the second time, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the crazy journey that brought me back to this small town in northern Florida. I’d been all over the world since then, and yet, it was my brief visit to this remote corner of Florida that had left a lasting impression.


The peer at Navarre Beach, Florida.

The peer at Navarre Beach, Florida.

Milton & The Blackwater River


Canoeing down Blackwater River is the perfect way to spend a hot afternoon.

Canoeing down Blackwater River is the perfect way to spend a hot afternoon.

The Blackwater River is one of the only pristine sand rivers left in the United States. Because of that, it is now largely protected in two designated areas – Blackwater River State Forest, and Blackwater River STate Park. While the water may not be blessed with the same brilliant blue hue as the freshwater springs farther east, the clear, cool water is safe for swimming (no Alligators!), making it a refreshing escape from the heat. You can float it, canoe it, fish it, and even camp out on the soft sand beaches that line the shores . . . Just don’t rush it!

Coldwater Gardens


The Treehouse at Goldwater Gardens.

The Treehouse at Goldwater Gardens.


The cozy bead inside the treehouse at Coldwater Gardens, Florida.

The cozy bead inside the treehouse at Coldwater Gardens, Florida.

When I first moved to Seattle, it was so quiet at night that I couldn’t sleep. The silent nights have grown on me, but I will always be drawn to places where darkness is thick with the pulsating glow of fireflies and the hypnotizing chatter of a million creatures chirping, squawking, and rumbling lullabies to each other. Where afternoon thunderstorms roll in and then disappear like clockwork. And golden sunrises are as reliable as the distant roosters calling. Give me a tree house in the middle of it all, and I might never leave!

Coldwater Gardens offers a number of different accommodations, from tent camping on the riverbed, to glamping in yurts, and luxury treehouses. I rarely talk about places to stay, because it’s not a priority for me when I travel. I don’t generally spend a lot of time at resorts or hotels, and at the end of the day I kind of feel like a bed is a bed. But Coldwater Garden is not just a place to sleep. It’s an experience, one I won’t soon forget.

Madison Blue Springs State Park


Madison Blue Springs Park, Florida.

Madison Blue Springs Park, Florida.

Walking excitedly down the boardwalk to the first freshwater spring on our itinerary, I had no idea what to expect. I’d seen so many photos, but was trying to manage my expectations. Morale was already a little low that morning. On the drive over, I’d discovered that we were too late in the season to see the Manatees. A fact that was apparently common knowledge to everyone but me.

Turning the corner, the first thing I saw was yellow caution tape. The main staircase and entrance down to the water was under construction and completely closed off. Maybe it was the caution tape, maybe we were intimidated by the scuba divers, or the fact that we weren’t quite sure if it was even open, but for whatever reason we left without swimming.  In hindsight it was probably a mistake. But now there’s just one more thing to go back for!

Ginnie Springs


Paddle Boarding at Ginnie Springs in Florida.

Paddle Boarding at Ginnie Springs in Florida.


Free diving in Ginnie Springs.

Free diving in Ginnie Springs.

I heard the truck before I saw it. The bass reverberated through the van as we waited to pick up our paddle board from the rental shop. Finally, a huge black truck with giant chrome rims rolled into view. It slowed down momentarily before continuing down the sandy road toward the springs. The bed of the truck was filled to the brim with half-dressed teenagers brandishing an arsenal of what was possibly every inflatable toy available that side of the Mississippi. We had been traveling through the south for a little over a week, but it wasn’t until Ginnie Springs that I knew I was in for a different type of cultural experience.

Ginnie Springs is its own world. It’s like an all ages summer camp where anything goes, and competing interests manage to seamlessly coexist. There’s volleyball, river floating, scuba diving, and copious amounts of drinking. It’s a quiet retreat into nature, and a block party all at once. But for all Ginnie Spring’s eclectic charm, there are two things I can pretty much guarantee; you’ll have fun, and the water will blow your mind.

Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park


Enjoying more of Northern Florida’s beautiful fresh springs.

Enjoying more of Northern Florida’s beautiful fresh springs.

Just down the road from Ginnie Springs, Blue Spring State Park is equally beautiful. If I had to choose just one spring to visit—which I wouldn’t recommend—then Blue Springs with its “Cool Blue” Gatorade colored water and conveniently placed observation deck would probably be it. Plus, because it’s a state park, as opposed to privately owned like Ginnie Springs, you can enjoy it for a fraction of the cost.

The beautiful natural freshwater springs in Florida are a critical habitat for a number of different species, and an important clean water resource. As always, if you are lucky enough to visit them, please leave no trace and take only photos. If you’d like to learn more about the freshwater springs, their aquatic ecology, or ways you can help preserve them, the Florida Springs Institute is an excellent resource!

Devils Den


Resembling one of Mexico’s cenotes, Devils Den is now a privately owned scuba training center.

Resembling one of Mexico’s cenotes, Devils Den is now a privately owned scuba training center.

It might sound dramatic to say that we drove across the entire country just to see Devils Den, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Resembling one of the underground cenotes that the Yucatan Peninsula is so famous for, photographs of Devil’s Den have been popping up on social media for years. Eventually curiosity got the best of us. Was there really a cenote in the middle of Florida? The answer of course is yes. Yes there is.

Devil’s Den is a privately owned scuba training center – and the operators are pretty intense about keeping it that way. It’s only open to scuba divers and snorkelers – not swimmers, casual visitors, children under 6 years old, or photographers there fore the “gram” (only kind of joking). So if you plan on visiting, and you want to get a photo of your experience, be prepared to spend a pretty penny on gear and entrance fees. Also, and I cannot stress this enough: GET THERE EARLY! Like before it opens early. And don’t go on a weekend… unless you have to.

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  1. Kim says:

    Wow! You really made me change my perspective on Florida with this post. I definitely have always just associated it with the hustle and glamour of Miami. Cool to see a new take on it. Definitely going to keep it in mind for future vacations!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks so much for stopping by Kim! Florida really exceeded my expectations as well. I almost didn’t take that first job out there because I couldn’t find anything about it on the internet, and it just felt like a huge risk. But I’m so glad I did. 🙂

  2. Ian Warner says:

    I missed too many of these places on my last trip to Florida. I’m sure my pics won’t be as good but now i have to go back again. Great post Jess:)

    • Jess Dales says:

      Miami is fun too though! We should all get together and do a north Florida trip. I could be a tour guid. 😉

  3. MDTwo says:

    Love seeing and reading about places that are beautiful and fascinationg, but don’t necessarily involve 12K foot peaks or yet another pristine alpine lake. Next time I have to fly across the country for a meeting in Orlando, I’m gettin’ in my car!

    • Jess Dales says:

      I hear you! As much as I love those epic locations, I often have equally rewording experiences elsewhere. I find it’s incredibly rewarding to realize that there is beauty everywhere, if we just allow ourselves to see it. Opens up a lot of possibilities!

  4. Lindsey says:

    Yes!!!! Thank you fo gesturing our beautiful area! You have given me many new places to check out and I can’t wait to capture my own moments and share my version of the real Florida!! Amazing post!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks for the comment Lindsay! I really appreciate you taking the time to read the blog. I’ve only been to that part of Florida twice (which is actually kind of a lot for a girl from Seattle), and I feel such a unique connection to it. I hope you enjoy all your new adventures!

  5. Amy says:

    Wow. I really love ALL of your blogs so much. I can tell so much time and detail is put into this blog. Your travels sound amazing and the photos are just beautiful! Keep up the good work!!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks Amy! That’s so lovely to hear. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you take the time to read them, and the leave sweet comments! It makes all the work that goes into it worth it. 🙂

  6. Ekta says:

    Always love your blog posts!! And your pictures are soooo stunning!

  7. kahfi syu says:

    I really like your blog cause your story make me felt emotional and your photos show how wonderful your travel activity

  8. Anthony Metaco says:

    Growing up in North Central Florida, I got numb to all that surrounded me. I had spent many summers in the panhandle and have been part of the obnoxious Ginnie springs crowd; Devils Den is located literally 5 miles from the house I grew up in. I have lived in Los Angeles, then Seattle and now I am back home. Your "outsiders’ perspective was refreshing and inspires me to explore it all again…this time with my son!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story Anthony! It really resonated with me. I think we all tend to fall into the trap of taking the things around us for granted. I know I do! That was actually one of the inspirations for this trip. I get so many messages from young people who feel like they can’t take photos or experience anything meaningful because they can’t afford to travel. But often there are so many beautiful places right in our own backyards. 🙂

  9. Mariah says:

    Your writing style is so captivating and beautiful!

  10. Radhe sihag says:

    Hello mam im radhe from india since im following your account .im excited to places ,you have visited and posted on your account .your posts always thrilles me.im watching your every story and photos ,you upload .these beautiful pictures and beauty of your soul inspires me to do something . additionally i want to say mam can you follow my account .

  11. Rachel says:

    Fantastic post!!! Florida did not feature on my list of places to go back to but having read about these hidden treasures, that has completely changed!

    • Jess Dales says:

      That’s so great to hear Rachel! The first time I went to Florida as a child we stayed on a small island in the keys and I remembered the experience so fondly. Then I went back as an adult and did the whole Miami thing, and it was fun, but I remember thinking I didn’t need to go back to Florida. But the job I randomly got a few years up north really changed my perspective. It’s a state with so many different sides!

  12. Michelle says:

    I never read travel bloggers’ posts in full but this really caught my eye because I’m all about discovering places that aren’t advertised but really deliver in terms of experience. Great post–this is definitely being bookmarked for a future trip. My only suggestion is that there be information on when the best time is to go to all these places!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Michelle! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I really appreciate the feedback. I shy away from giving advice about things I have no experience with. And since I have not been to this area during other seasons, I’m not sure I could give competent advice on when the best time to go is. But my feeling is that, like most places, spring and fall would be the ideal times to visit. During those months the weather would be mild, and the crowds would probably be at a minimum. But winter would be the best if you wanted to see Manatees!

  13. Melinda says:

    Oh you have to come back to see Econfina creek, vortex springs, Morrison springs, ponce de Leon springs, the wolf sanctuary and riding beach cruisers through Alys beach on the off season when the tourists are all gone, and of course the Manatees!!! After you had gone through we had a rare occurance of over 200 sharks migrating through Navarre Beach!!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Haha you literally have me looking at tickets! I can’t seem to get enough of that area. And I can’t believe that 200 sharks migrated through Navarre Beach! Would would have been so special to see. And a little scary! lol

  14. Sandy says:

    I’m specheless with your blog I just love your posts new here

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much Sandy! It makes me so happy to hear that. The blog is a relatively new pursuit of mine – and it has become a bit of my passion project because so much more work goes into each post. As a result, I feel very invested in each article. Which is exciting and nerve racking all at once!

  15. Tyler says:

    Wow! I loved reading this post, very well done! One hundred percent I have to go there now, it looks amazing.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks Tyler! It’s so exciting to hear that I might have inspired someone to check out a place that wasn’t really on their radar before. I hope you have a wonderful time when you go! 🙂

  16. Chris H says:

    Thanks so much for this! I live in one of the barrier islands of the east coast FL and decided this year I’m going to try to travel local a bit more. It’s shocking no one really knows where to go for quieter adventures in this state full of tourism. You definitely gave me some great ideas

    • Jess Dales says:

      That’s so great to hear! I know what you mean. I’m endlessly amazed by how many different sides there are to Florida. Sometimes it feels like a few different countries all wrapped up into one state! I hope you have fun exploring your backyard. Sometimes "staycations" are the most rewarding.

  17. Elise says:

    I’m going to Florida in July and found this soo helpful – thank you!!! Xx

    • Jess Dales says:

      Yay! So happy to hear that Elise! You’ll have to let me know how your trip goes – and if you discover any additional places you think would be fun to check out. 🙂

  18. Aaron says:

    Nice photos/article, though this is just scratching the surface of all the great places in North Florida! Plus we’ve got our hidden local spots that we like to keep a secret. 😉

    • Jess Dales says:

      Oh I’m sure!! I’ve only been twice, and both times for 2-3 days. I can’t imagine the gems you would find if you had a little more time – or lived there!

  19. Karin says:

    I love this so much! I was hoping you would share the places your visited, because I got so curious by your insta posts. I feel very inspired for my own trip visiting this summer. Thank you for sharing!

    • Jess Dales says:

      That’s awesome to hear Karin! I’m working on a post that touches on the southern US road trip as a whole. But people seemed so interested in Florida, that I figured I would dedicate an entire post to it. Glad you found it helpful!

  20. Anam says:

    The photographs are beautiful your expressive writing even more.

  21. Lauryn says:

    We love Florida, but I didn’t even know about the majority of those places! Thanks for sharing. The photos are beautiful!!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you Lauryn! There are so many beautiful places worth visiting and protecting in Florida. 🙂

  22. Tessa Skiles says:

    Beauitful, Jess, just beautiful. I was unaware of how incredibly passionate of a writer you were until you made a trip to the “Springs Heartland”. I knew immediately that I had to explore deeper into your adventures in Florida when you shared that this blog was up. My Sister-In-Law actually owns Ginnie Springs and my close family friend just recently sold Gilchrist Blue Springs to the State of Florida after having it in her family for decades. I’m a local UW photographer & videographer myself and my entire life I’ve been observing the popularity of these oases grow substantially, all while a mix of overpopulation and political greed draines and pollutes these seeminly prestine springs and our drinking water source. Without getting in depth with those issues or tainting the beauty of your destinations, I want to share with you an oppurtunity you have to create a massive positive impact on the state of Florida, its people, its water quality, and its springs. If you have it in you, the next time you post a photo of one of the springs, I urge you to attach a short & sweet message about the need to conserve water and leave nothing but footprints behind at every travel destination your audience visits. 🙂 Tagging @floridaspringsinstitute will give your audience a legetimate source to ask questions and learn more about these particular destinations as well. Anythting from more trip worthy springs to the science that helps us understand them. They have so much great info on the subject! Thanks so much for reading this far, please let me know if I can help you with any fact checking on FL springs in the future. Cheers!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Tessa! Thank you so much for your comment. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you bringing this issue to my attention. And the respectful and productive way in which you did it! I’m more than happy to share that information with my readers.

      I have added a section about the ecological importance of the springs to the section on Gilchrist Blue Springs, as well as a link to the Florida Springs Institute. I also updated my most recent Instagram post. And will make sure to provide similar information on any future posts. It’s such a special area – I feel grateful that I was able to experience it. Thanks again for the information! Have a wonderful weekend.

  23. Marina says:

    Pictures are incredible! I want more! What a great trip

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you Marina! I’m so glad you like them. I took a lot of them on my very first photography assignment. So they hold a special place in my heart. 🙂

  24. Taylor says:

    I just recently moved to Florida and this blog helped me out tremendously and was so fun to read! Thank you for sharing!!

  25. Shardul says:

    Love the Blog!! I live in Florida and your blog inspired me to travel so many places I never knew about earlier. Thank you

    • I love hearing that! I find that so many of us, including myself, tend to neglect exploring our own backyard. Sometimes the best adventures can be found close to home! Happy exploring. 🙂

  26. I am a Florida native and prefer the "real" Florida spaces to all the artificial theme parks. This is a wonderful post with gorgeous photos. Sharing on Pinterest.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much Deborah! I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog. It always makes me feel good to get positive feedback from a local. You truly live in a beautiful place. Thanks for sharing!

  27. I was inspired by your upload and decided to create my own Florida travel blog! https://charliestarblogs.com/2018/06/30/florida-2018-exploring-the-sunshine-state/

  28. Jennifer says:

    I absolutely love your blog. I came across it tonight while looking at your pictures of Colorado. I used to live there and wish I still was. Your pictures of the mountains are incredible. I also was born in Sarasota so I’m familiar with all of the amazing things Florida also has to offer. If you get the chance you need to also check out their surrounding areas. You have inspired me to start thinking about what really makes me happy and just doing it!!! Also wanted to tell you that I think you might have a great way of writing about your adventures in the blog. You’re a terrific writer 🙂 🙂

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much for the sweet words Jennifer! You have no idea how much it means to me when people take the time to write a comment. It always gets me excited to keep writing! Colorado was really beautiful. I had actually never really been before, so it was a very eye opening experience. I’m constantly amazed by how beautiful and diverse this country is. 🙂

  29. Tus descripciones son buenas y tus fotos mucho mejores aun…Felicitaciones!!

  30. SHENNON says:

    What a hidden gem! I’ve never thought about this place but this write up is awesome. Florida is a pretty friendly and bright destination for being on my bucket list!)

  31. Lyle says:

    I love all the photos and places you have been to..
    When I get caught up in the Rat Race, I follow your Instagram..
    Life is a journey,,,,
    Not a destination…

  32. Corey Whaley says:

    Ginnie Springs looks incredible!! Thanks for sharing Jess! Can’t wait to see what’s next

  33. Absolutely captivating perspectives. These places are far from chaotic heavily populated parts of Florida I have experienced. Thank you for sharing!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks Alan! I know what you mean. The first time I went to Florida I was in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and that was a completely different experience.

  34. Trevor Carstens says:

    Jess your blog and photos are amazing! I was wondering what kind of camera equipment you use/which is your favorite? I am looking to upgrade from just my iPhone when I travel. Thanks for all the honest info you post!

  35. Dixie Smith says:

    I’m currently living in the Balkans, and I absolutely love it here, but I’ve been pretty homesick for North Florida lately! Reading this post brought me back to some of my most beloved memories. I can’t wait to be home this summer and spend some quality time with North Florida’s outdoors. Thanks for a great post!

    • It’s such a special area! I miss it, and I’m not even from there. 😉 I’m so glad that you liked the post, and I hope you’re able to visit some of your favorite spots when you get home.

  36. Susan Thompson says:

    My husband and I just moved to the FL panhandle after 20 yrs and several hurricanes-in southwest FL. We did all the tourist stuff we could manage until our health changed. Our next-door neighbors are a son and daughter in law, so when we moved, they decided to help us find things to do that don’t require much physically. We moved literally 1week before lockdown so our “kids” are trying to keep us away from crowds. I truly wish we had done more north FL visits before now and fewer theme park trips. The photos you’ve posted are amazing! Hopefully, we will still be able to visit some of the springs soon. Before the crowds find out! Happy journeys.

    • Hi Susan! Thank you so much for stopping by my blog. I have traveled to quite a few places, and northern Florida remains one of my very favorites. I’m glad to hear that you are staying safe. I hope that once things settle down a little you are able to experience some of these beautiful places for yourself!

  37. Rafaela says:

    Hi Jess,

    The water looks so blue on the photo with subtitle "Hanging out in the sun at Pensacola Beach, Florida." It looks beautiful!

    What time of the year was it?

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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