Destin is known for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the Florida Panhandle. With its emerald green waters and white sandy beaches, it’s no wonder millions of tourists flock here every year. But where do the locals go when they want to enjoy the beach without all the crowds? As lifelong residents, they have the inside scoop on the best beach spots in Destin that only the locals know about.
Why Do Locals Avoid the Main Public Beaches?
Destin has several public beach access points that are popular with visitors. While these beaches are stunning, they tend to be very crowded – especially during spring and summer. Locals avoid these busy beaches for a few reasons:
- Lack of parking – The main public beaches have a finite number of parking spaces. Locals know how hard it can be to find a spot when thousands of out-of-towners have the same idea.
- Crowds – The main beaches get very crowded, which diminishes the relaxed, peaceful beach experience locals enjoy.
- Traffic and congestion – The main beach roads are clogged with traffic during peak season. Locals know the backroads and alternate routes to get to the beach while avoiding the crowds.
The Best Local Beaches in Destin
While tourists flock to the big name beaches, locals head to their hidden favorites. Here are the best beaches in Destin for avoiding crowds and enjoying the peaceful, easy feeling of a day at the beach:
James Lee Beach
James Lee Beach is east of Destin Harbor off Scenic Highway 98. There is free beachside parking here, though it’s limited. James Lee Beach is popular with locals thanks to its gentle surf, picnic pavilions, and playground. The shallow, calm water makes it one of the safest beach options for families with young children.
Norriego Point offers everything locals love: free parking, powder soft sand, emerald green waters, and plenty of space to spread out. Because there are no high rise condos or hotels nearby, Norriego Point lacks the crowds of the main beaches. The point also boasts an ADA-accessible boardwalk trail that leads to a scenic bay overlook.
Henderson Beach State Park
Located just east of Destin, Henderson Beach State Park is a prime spot for locals. The park has picnic pavilions, nature trails, and a playground. It also has plenty of parking and the beach rarely gets crowded here. Locals love Henderson Beach for swimming, surf fishing, or just taking a relaxing stroll along the shore.
Tucked away west of Okaloosa Island, Beasley Park is popular with Destin locals. The park features picnic areas, a playground, fishing spots, and tranquility. Because Beasley Park has an entrance fee and limited parking, it deters tourists and stays relatively uncrowded year-round. The calm, shallow waters make this an ideal family beach.
Just north of Destin in Choctawatchee Bay is Crab Island. This iconic spot can only be reached by boat, so it stays off the tourist radar. Crab Island is essentially a giant sandbar with crystal clear shallow waters. Locals love spending the day here swimming, paddleboarding, boating, or just relaxing in the gentle waves.
When Do Locals Hit the Beach?
The best times to visit the beach in Destin are early morning, late afternoon, and evening after the crowds have left. Mornings are stunning with calm waters, perfect beach combing conditions, and amazing sunrises. Late afternoons and evenings also have fewer people and incredible sunset views.
Many locals take advantage of their flexible schedules to hit the beach on weekday mornings when most tourists are still sleeping in. Locals suggest avoiding the beach from 11am to 4pm on weekends during peak season when crowds are at their peak. Visiting earlier or later avoids congestion in parking lots and on the sand.
Some additional insider tips from locals:
- Go early to claim a spot – Arrive by 9am (or earlier on weekends) to secure beach chairs in a prime spot.
- Avoid spring break and summer if possible – Student spring breaks and family summer vacations are the busiest times. Visit in fall or winter for fewer crowds.
- Walk if possible – Parking fills up fast on nice days. Walk or bike to the beach from nearby accommodations to skip the parking headache.
- Follow beach flag warnings – Locals heed the colored warning flags advising of rip current risks or dangerous surf.
- Pack a lunch – Many locals pack picnic lunches and snacks rather than buying pricey food at beachfront restaurants and bars.
Local Beach Etiquette & Tips
Destin locals also share their tips for respectful beach behavior:
- Leave no trace – Clean up all trash, belongings, and sand toys when leaving. Locals make sure beaches stay pristine.
- Keep the sand pure – Avoid bringing glass bottles or containers which can shatter and litter the beach.
- Leash pets – Dogs are allowed at some Destin beaches but should always be leashed and cleaned up after.
- Fill holes – For safety reasons, fill any holes dug in the sand before leaving the beach.
- Limit smoking – Smoking cigarettes on busy beaches is frowned upon. Locals recommend staying downwind or vaping instead.
- Share the shore – Be mindful of giving others space. Don’t spread out towels or chairs in a giant area if it’s crowded.
- Watch noise levels – Be courteous of noise from radios, speakers, or shouting. Sound carries easily on the beach.
Beach Safety Tips
In addition to beach etiquette, locals also follow important water safety rules:
- Swim near a lifeguard – Only swim when lifeguards are on duty and stay in view of the lifeguard stand.
- Learn rip current signs – Rip currents are dangerous, so learn how to spot and safely escape them.
- Stay hydrated – The sun and heat dehydrate quickly, so bring water and reapply sunscreen often.
- Watch alcohol intake – Consuming alcohol increases risk of dehydration, sunburn, and injury.
- Mind the wildlife – Don’t disturb seabirds or touch jellyfish and avoid areas with shark sightings.
- Never swim alone – Always have a buddy when swimming in the ocean.
By following beach etiquette, safety guidelines, and seeking out lesser-known spots, locals enjoy the beaches without the headaches of overcrowding, traffic, and congestion. Visiting earlier or later in the day and avoiding spring and summer peak times allows tourists to experience Destin’s beaches the way locals do.
With its Panhandle location along Florida’s Emerald Coast, Destin is renowned for its stunning beaches. While tourists flock to the main public beaches, local residents retreat to lesser-known spots around Destin, like James Lee Beach, Norriego Point, Henderson Beach State Park, Beasley Park, and Crab Island. By visiting earlier or later in the day and avoiding busy spring and summer months, visitors can also enjoy the calm, crowd-free beaches that locals cherish. From beach etiquette to water safety, take the local’s advice on how to make the most of a beach trip in gorgeous Destin, Florida.