The Destin and Fort Walton Beach area of the Florida panhandle is a big vacation draw for folks living in the southeast and central US. With terrific white sand beaches and clear blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this part of Florida offers a lot to like. The bicycling can be a little hit-and-miss, however and you are wise to do some research before you go out.
For serious recreational cyclists -- riders who'll routinely bang out 15-50 mile rides, not take a cruiser bike to the beach -- there are a handful of very pleasant routes, but also stretches to avoid. Here's the skinny on cycling in Destin.
1. U.S. 98 is generally not much fun
Highly-traveled U.S 98, the main east-west route along the Florida Panhandle is by necessity usually going to be part of your route if you are going to ride for any distance because of the way the Destin area is pinched between a big bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Though stretches of U.S. 98 have marked bike lanes and/or shoulders, they can be littered with debris like small bits of glass, trash and gravel. Having good, flat-resistant tires is a smart idea.
U.S. 98 has a fairly high speed limit along most of its length, so you'll need to be comfortable with cars whizzing by at 45-60 mph. Be aware that cars piloted by distracted tourists are frequently turning on and off the roadway, and they are not always watching for cyclists.
2. Sidewalks Abound; Bike Lanes are Sketchy
Going along 98, it's nice to have the marked space where bike lanes exist, but be aware that it's not perfect. The bike lanes are not continuous, and it's clear that many drivers in this part of the country do not expect to see cyclists in the roadway and are not sure how to drive around them. Though any vehicular cyclist worth her salt knows the safety and inportance of controlling the lane, many drivers in this area act as though cyclists should be on the sidewalk, a particularly difficult opinion to counter given the ready presence of sidewalks along this route and relative lack of pedestrians. Some of them are broad enough to be both shared pedestrian and bike paths, so feel free to jump off and ride if that's where you feel safest.
3. 98 Highway Through Downtown Destin by the Harbor is the Worst Stretch
The most problematic stretch of 98 goes through "downtown" Destin, by the harbor. There, the highway chokes down to two lanes in either direction with no bike lanes. This is a congested area with lots of pedestrians ambling around the stores and restaurants along the way. The speed limit ought to be about 25 mph, max. However it's 45 mph through much of this part, which is way too fast. You'll make it through fine early in the day when traffic is light, but as traffic picks up, this is not a pleasant ride. However, this portion only stretches about two miles, so the pain is over relatively quickly.
And, despite my dislike of riding on the sidewalk (see above), this might be an area where you consider jumping off to ride there if need be.
4. Old Scenic 98 is a Shorter, But Much Nicer Option
When your route takes you along U.S. 98/Harbor Bay through the main part of Destin east of the harbor, by all means take Old 98/Scenic Gulf Drive/Highway 2378 bypass at your first opportunity. This piece of road is the most pleasant riding in Destin proper by far, and takes you right along the water, past some of Destin's most beloved restaurants such as the Back Porch and the Crab Trap.
From Matthew Boulevard on the west end, just past Henderson Beach State Park, old 98 runs five full miles to where it ties in again with U.S. 98 on the east end, at the Winn-Dixie grocery story. You'll see lots of roadies riding in full kit, getting in their training, along with plenty of people walking and jogging on the footpath on the side.
5. Best Choice is 30-A from Miramar Beach to Seaside, Rosemary Beach and beyond
For long ride with low traffic and terrific scenery, your best bet is to ride West County Highway 30A going east from Destin/Sandestin. Pick it up in Santa Rosa Beach off of U.S. 98 just past Topsail Hill Preserve/State Park and the east Donut Hole Bakery and Cafe location, and ride it as far as you want. It's 10 miles to Seaside, and 18 miles to Rosemary Beach, where it ties in with U.S. 98 again.
If you want to keep going, after just a short stretch on U.S. 98, you're back on quiet Front Beach Road in Panama City, and you can take that all the way to St. Andrews State Park on the southern-most point of Panama City Beach, which gives you an out-and-back 75 mile ride.
Another option for a 15 mile (total) out-and-back ride is to go from Destin to Fort Walton Beach. Though not as lovely as the 30-A choice, it's not as bad as the routes around the bay. The double bridge crossing and the long run across Okaloosa Island with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Choctawhatchee Bay on the other make for pleasant riding.
A long stretch of the north side of the highway crossing Okaloosa Island offers an entire lane laid for access to the beach. It's neither for parking nor a through lane for traffic, and that makes it perfect for cyclists, a defacto bike lane. I used it for both east-bound and west-bound riding. 7.5 miles one way, including Santa Rosa Boulevard once you cross the bridge into Fort Walton Beach.
7. Loops Around the Bay (40-80 miles) are an Option When You Just Need Miles
If you just want to bang out miles, several loop options around the Choctawhatchee Bay are available. These are not going to be as lovely as the ride out 30-A to Seaside, however. The loops "feature" stretches with lots of traffic and rumblestrips on the shoulders placed by the Florida trafficmeisters in exactly the wrong spots. Plus, portions of the ride are away from the water and offer little more than Florida scrub to look at.
- 50-mile East Loop: Mid-Bay Bridge then east around the bay to the 331 Bridge and back west on U.S. 98.
- 40-mile West Loop: Mid-Bay Bridge to Niceville, then west past Eglin AFB and the airport, then down and back to Destin through Fort Walton Beach.
- Full Loop around the Bay: 80 miles that circles the bay.