Travel

10 Road trip-worthy Northwest Florida destinations and attractions that won't break the bank

St. George Island is a desirable jumping off point for Northwest Florida adventures.

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

There's a lot of wide open America to fall in love with between your home and your destination. Taking the long way or the road less traveled isn't a bad thing. It can lead to new adventures that end up as fond memories.

Almost as important as the destination itself is the vehicle you choose to road trip in. Click here to see AutomotiveMap's picks for best road trip SUV and here to see the best road trip cars. Click here to see AutomotiveMap's advice for planning the perfect road trip.

The next time you're planning a road trip to Northwest Florida, consider the following destinations, which are not on the usual tourist roster.

Grayton Beach State Park

Grayton Beach State Park

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

With over 2,000 acres of parkland, Grayton Beach State Park has something for nearly everyone. Bicycling, hiking, birding, paddling on the backwaters, fishing, a beach, and a boat ramp are among the amenities. There are camp sites and cabins available for rent including accessible camping options.

​Bald Point State Park

Bald Point State Park is perfect for budding wildlife and nature photographers. Grab your camera and your bicycle and head to explore the park where each autumn bald eagles and other migrating raptors, and monarch butterflies, all stop to take a break on their way South for the winter. The park also has beaches, canoe/kayak launch, and bathing station. There is only one primitive camp site available and reservations must be made in advance.

Downtown Pensacola ghost tour

Friends in front of Pensacola Mural

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

Grab your sneakers and get ready to head out to learn more about the history of Pensacola, one of the earliest-founded cities in Florida, and its macabre (and often humorous) past. Each tour features a minimum of six people and starts at Fleet Landing. Though it's not long (about one mile), there's plenty of standing and listening during the one-hour tour. Want more fun? Take the ghost and graveyard tour, offered by the same company.

Deer Lake State Park

Coastal dunes are rare in Florida but if you're a fan, Deer Lake State Park should be on your list. It has a coastal dune lake, an exceptionally rare geographic feature. Additionally, visitors can enjoy the white sandy beach of the Gulf Coast, birding, and hiking on the interpretative trail. Swimming is allowed. There are no camping facilities at this park.

Florida's caverns

FLORIDA CAVERNS MARIANNA

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

One of the best parts of the Sunshine State is kept out of the sun entirely. Florida Caverns State Park is home to large underground rooms where visitors can see the usual array of cavern features (including wildlife) in addition to chisel marks made by 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps workers. Guided tours of the caves are available, but sell out quickly.

Florida’s Big Bend National Scenic Byway

If you're the type that likes to put the windows/top down on your car and take in the sights and sounds of a long drive, the Big Bend National Scenic Byway may be right up your alley. The 220-mile scenic drive winds through coastal and forest portions of Leon, Wakulla, and Franklin Counties. Guides that break down the route by your specific time allowance and interest are available at the website.

Florida's highest waterfall

Falling Waters State Park

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

Hop off of I-10 and visit Chipley, Florida, home of Florida's highest waterfall. Measuring 100 feet deep, 20 feet wide, the cylindrical pit that the water flows into starts from a small stream and falls 73 feet to the bottom. Where does it go from there? No one knows.

Adventure further and explore the Sink Hole Trail at Falling Waters State Park, which features a path that winds under a canopy of trees and includes a wooden boardwalk where visitors can see migrating butterflies, take a dip in the lake, or enjoy a picnic. Campsites are available.

World’s Smallest Police Station

The World's Smallest Police Station is located in Downton Carrabelle, Florida, next to the post office. While there's not a lot to see, it makes for a great selfie spot and Instagram moment. The best news is, seeing it is free!

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

TOPSAIL HILL PRESERVE STATE PARK

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

The emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico serve as the tipping off point for a fabulous visit to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. White quartz dunes, old-growth pine forests, sandy scrubland, and wetlands are all part of the park's surrounds. Bicycling, birding, fishing, hiking, and paddling can all be on the agenda. Guided tours are available. Camping, cabins, bungalows, and glamping are available, as are accessible accommodations.

Dog Island

Dog Island is one of the most unique parts of Florida. No vehicles are allowed on the barrier island that sites just 3.5 miles off-shore from Carrabelle. It's a space where time slows to true island time. There's only one hotel on the island and most of the environment is unspoiled.

Trending News

 
 

Family vehicles

Two minivans that make family hauling fun

The latest minivans are actually quite desirable.

Toyota

There are people who wouldn't be seen dead in a minivan and then there are people who are lying. That's the long-held mentality around America's most useful but most maligned family-hauling vehicles, but the latest offerings from Toyota, Honda, Kia, and Chrysler are out to prove the old way of thinking wrong. Two of them, the newly redesigned Toyota Sienna and brand-new Kia Carnival are truly compelling vehicles that bring style and substance to the category. Here's a look at what makes them so cool.

2021 Toyota Sienna


2021 Toyota Sienna The new Sienna features sharper styling and comes exclusively with a hybrid powertrain.Toyota


Toyota overhauled the Sienna for 2021 with an all-hybrid powertrain across the board, sharp style, and a gorgeous interior. The Sienna's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine pairs with two electric motors for a total output of 243 horsepower. The van is offered with all-wheel drive, which adds a third electric motor that drives the rear wheels. Though it won't win any drag races, the Sienna makes up for its leisurely acceleration with great fuel economy that can reach 36 mpg city with front-wheel drive and 35 mpg city with all-wheel drive.


2021 Toyota Sienna Toyota's 2021 updates to the Sienna include a more upscale interior.Toyota


Along with its new, efficient powertrain, the Sienna got a refreshed interior that is both comfortable and easy on the eyes. The Toyota does lack some of the clever seating features that make such a difference for families in rivals such as the Chrysler Pacifica, but the van does carry sliding second-row seats that can move a little over two feet forward and backward to allow for more legroom when needed. The top two trims also offer optional reclining seats with fold-away ottomans and an available built-in vacuum cleaner.

2022 Kia Carnival


2022 Kia Carnival Doesn't look all that much like a minivan, does it?Kia


The all-new 2022 Kia Carnival should be viewed as a defining vehicle in the minivan segment. It doesn't exactly look like a minivan, with styling that more closely resembles a stretched SUV than a blobby family-hauler. The Carnival is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 290 horsepower. It's paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. Acceleration is strong and the powertrain is refined, but unlike the Toyota there's no all-wheel drive option.


2022 Kia Carnival The Carnival's interior is truly luxurious and looks great.Kia


Where the Kia truly sets itself apart is its interior. The top SX Prestige trim offers soft, luxurious leather upholstery and reclining seats with footrests like the Toyota. The available panoramic sunroof opens far enough to allow air over the second-row seats and the Carnival's interior finishes are among the best in its class. An optional dual 12.3-inch display covers a large portion of the dash, and offers a responsive, intuitive infotainment experience. The SX and SX Prestige trims both come standard with a rear-seat entertainment system as well.


2022 Kia Carnival The Carnival is sleek and stylish - two things not commonly associated with minivans.Kia

Trending News

 
 

The Arteon is VW's take on modern art.

Victoria Scott

The way I like to review cars is to imagine myself as the target buyer. Rather than ripping a high-end sports car as an adrenaline-and-estrogen-addled 26 year old girl driving it like she stole it, I imagine that I'm a classy, restrained mid-50s woman with a career, grown kids, and a mortgage - the person that they're trying to sell the car to. Whether or not I think it's fun is almost moot - I want to tell people with the actual coin to purchase one if I could see them enjoying it.

So when Volkswagen offered me a 2021 Arteon R-Line, their current flagship model, I decided to play up the luxurious lifestyle to enter the right mindset. Make no mistake - this is not a Passat, an entry-level sedan I could actually afford. It's priced and designed for a wholly different clientele. The Arteon is styled like modern art - there are none of the girl-racer fender musculature and gaping vents of the GTI and GLI; despite the R-Line moniker, it's clearly designed to impress with restraint and taste rather than shock and awe. And rather than the volume-sales aspirations of most modern Mexico-built VWs, the Arteon's cleanly designed but feature-filled interior is a throwback to the days when VW was a less ostentatious BMW or Lexus. The Passat has long since fallen into the mass-produced, low-price trap, with generic styling to match, but the Arteon seems like it's been built by a different company entirely. This company remembers their roots in Teutonic comfort and form, and it's a welcome change of pace.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon The Arteon is the perfect companion for a day out in Los Angeles.Victoria Scott


With this as my ride for a weekend, I lived it up. I took a close friend of mine to dinner and the Omni Hotel, a welcome respite from the camping and couch-surfing I'd been doing in LA, because this car encourages the mantra of "treat yourself". On our initial drive, I indulged further, letting the Travel Assist mode on the Arteon handle the stop-and-go traffic of the 101 while I talked with my partner. The car handled it surprisingly well, even as the sun set, accelerating and winding through the traffic-choked Los Angeles highways seamlessly. Most premium manufacturers offer an adaptive cruise mode that's usually passable on freeways, but the Arteon's version surprised me with its adeptness even in situations where I'd have expected it to fail. In "Comfort" mode, the atrocious California highways were at least passable, even with the mammoth 20" wheels the R-Line is equipped with as standard. The Harman Kardon stereo pumped Left at London's newest album through the cabin with clarity as we approached our destination isolated from the commotion of LA rush hour.

We pulled up to the hotel for the evening and as trite an ad-agency trope it seems, the valet seemed stunned that we rolled up in a Volkswagen this nice. "Brand new?" he questioned. "Yes, just got it", I replied, enjoying my roleplay as a somehow wealthy yet restrained twenty-something perhaps slightly too much. But it truly is a little hard to believe that it's a Volkswagen - it's more luxurious than the outgoing CC it replaces, and it's vastly prettier than the Bentley-based halo car Phaeton of the mid-00s ever was. Still, his compliment set us up for a lovely evening of wining and dining, and at this point, my literary technique of envisioning myself as the target buyer for this gorgeous car was as much for my own enjoyment as it was for any imagined story.

And of course, enjoying yourself in Los Angeles is what you're supposed to do, and we did. All of that wining and dining that a night of indulgence at a fancy hotel offers meant that we slept through two alarms. We made the checkout just fine, but my friend had a train to catch that morning. Now, unfortunately, all pretense had to drop - she legitimately needed to get to Union Station about 15 minutes before we woke up. When the valet gave us our Volkswagen back, I stomped it. I changed it to Sport mode at a red light, hoping that it would give me more rapid throttle response or faster shifts, and it did. Gone was the relaxed cruise of the night before - this was white-knuckle city carving at its finest; my entire demeanor had changed, but so had the Arteon's.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon All-wheel drive and 268 horsepower add up to surprising performance.Victoria Scott


When we finally skidded into Union Station and my knuckles started to regain their color, I realized the Arteon had performed vastly better than I'd expected. Granted, the Arteon R-Line has 4-Motion - VW's all-wheel-drive system - and the 268 HP 2.0 liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder, both of which are proven technology from the Golf R and the GTI, respectively. Those cars are sporty - they're hot hatches that I wouldn't have to envision myself as anyone else to review well. I am the target market for VW's five-door four-banger hatches. So perhaps I was doing the Arteon a disservice to imagine myself as anyone else at all when I drove it.

And for the rest of the day I left it in Sport mode, slid the seat back, and let Paul Wall blast from the 700 watt, 12-speaker system with the windows down as I headed for the switchbacks of the iconic Angeles Crest Highway. No longer was I Miss Victoria, Wealthy Businesswoman - I was Tori, and I was here to shred. And it was time to figure out just how quickly it would make work of the twisting hairpins that wound through the mountains.

And I found out it's not too bad, honestly. It's not quite a Golf R, of course, and it feels a bit weightier than a GTI, but the underlying handling dynamics of Volkswagen - phenomenal steering feel right up to about 8/10ths, which is as far as I'll push it in the canyons anyway - are still present and prominent when pushing it hard through the twisties. It's not perfect, because VW's insistence on a heavily-delayed accelerator response somewhat kills the ability to nail it out of a corner, and the eight-speed's shifting even in Sport mode is never going to match the violence and rapidity of a true DSG, but at the price point with all the other features, there's a need to pick and choose what you're getting, and it was fun enough that I didn't feel like I was lugging a rental car through the mountains.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon Image matters, and the Arteon understands this.Victoria Scott


As I piloted the bright red sedan through the canyons, chasing another auto journalist in his loaner Lotus Evora GT, I had a flashback from another era. I worked at a software job in a previous life, and I used to daily-drive a horrid Mitsubishi Mirage and then my heavily-modified Supra. My coworkers constantly ribbed me for my youth and foolishness in car choices. This was my introduction to the professional world, and I soon learned that driving a 30-year-old car with a welded diff and a leaky main rear seal is not the path to career advancement. Image matters, and the Arteon understands this. This was a refined, classy car meant for the office five days a week, and just dabble in a little fun in those precious weekend moments. Ironically, there was no mindset shift required to understand the true purpose or target for this sedan - it was simply me a few years ago, working in those green cubicles, a lust for speed and a healthy paycheck landing in my account every few weeks, but with a desire to move up the corporate ladder. I just didn't want to sacrifice my love of cars and driving. The Arteon would fit the bill perfectly for that past self.

But, unfortunately, for fifty-grand, I have to nitpick. The Arteon suffers from some obvious modern day Volkswagen cost-cutting that feels jarringly out of place in such an otherwise well-finished car: The volume knob is a single piece; when rotated, the iconography rotates. This, quite frankly, drives me insane. The cluster screen flashing ECO TIP: Close the sunroof for reduced wind resistance! made me question why they'd included such a gorgeous, expansive sunroof if they were going to instill me with guilt for using it. The center console touchscreen required a hard press to activate, and its placement relative to the wheel made it hard to operate seamlessly, which seems to defeat the purpose and ease of standard CarPlay.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon Volkswagen still clearly remembers their roots in German quality and design that established them in America.Victoria Scott


And then, finally, the closest thing to a dealbreaker for me: The steering wheel. The capacitive-touch steering wheel holds no fewer than a dozen buttons, all cryptic and way too easily activated. I lost count of the number of times I turned on the steering-wheel-heater with the edge of my thumb in the middle of the LA summer, only to realize it was cooking me once my palms started burning. The genuinely helpful Travel Assist cruise control becomes downright annoying to activate by being hidden in a steering wheel menu of vaguely demarcated buttons. It was a constant aggravation in an otherwise pleasant car; if I owned this thing I'd have to forgo an airbag and swap in a Nardi just to prevent a stroke from pure frustration.


2021 Volkswagen Arteon The capacitive-touch steering wheel holds no fewer than a dozen buttons, all cryptic and way too easily activated.Victoria Scott


Outside of these minor irritations and the war-crime steering wheel, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Volkswagen still clearly remembers their roots in German quality and design that established them in America, and the Arteon drives like a callback to those better times. In short - VW has built a competent enough sporty sedan with looks paralleled by none, and comfort only rivalled by a few. It shows the flaws of a manufacturer still trying to recall the glory days of high-end automaking, but it's close enough to the mark in a nearly empty market segment to be worthy of at least a test drive. Just watch those thumbs on the steering wheel.

Trending News