In Santa Rosa County by Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Milton is a lovely old city at the lower reaches of the Blackwater River. The historic downtown area backs onto the riverfront, with a long view upstream.
Milton is renowned as a center for paddlesports. This reputation comes from beautiful stretches of the Blackwater River upstream and along its tributary, Coldwater Creek.
These watercourses are like nothing I’ve seen before, with gleaming white sandy beds and a strange but beautiful tea-colored tone. Without doubt you need to spend as much time as possible on or by these rivers.
Milton’s hinterland is also scattered with farms, inviting you for U-Pick or seasonal fun, while there are some engrossing historical museums to check out in town.
1. Coldwater Creek
A tributary of the Blackwater River, Coldwater Creek twists southwards for almost 20 miles through beautiful hardwood and pine forests.
As with the Blackwater River, the creek has a curious tea-colored appearance. This is caused by the near-perfect clarity, brilliant white sands, and tannins from the pine and cypress trees on its banks.
It is partly thanks to the creek that Milton is a regional paddling destination. The designated trail here starts at the SR 4 bridge and ending at the CR 191 Bridge. The flow is noticeably faster than almost any other Florida River, and I adore the white sandy beaches on the many bends.
There’s a little economy centered on the creek, with outfitters and adventure companies offering tours and rentals. I’ll come to one, Adventures Unlimited, later in this article.
2. Blackwater River State Park
Upstream from Milton the Blackwater River is another extraordinary environment for paddling. You have the same white sands and crystal clear waters with a tint that comes from the tree tannins.
Something that makes the stretch in Blackwater River State Park so beautiful is a magnificent stand of Atlantic white cedars. These are some of the largest and oldest of their entire species.
The river winds at a gentle pace around pristine sandbars, ideal if you want a break or picnic. One of a few companies serving the park is Blackwater Canoe Rental, meeting all of your canoeing, kayaking and tubing needs.
Resting beneath the park’s longleaf pines is a pair of campgrounds with 30 site and a large bathhouse between the two loops.
3. Milton Historic District
Along US 90 and the intersecting Willing Street, Milton has an attractive downtown area, even prettier for being on the Blackwater riverfront. Packed into just a few blocks are almost 120 historic buildings, and I’ll talk about a couple later in this list.
Almost all of the commercial buildings date to the same period, as the 1909 Great Fire of Milton, which took out a lot of the downtown area.
Some minor sights to take in are the Mount Pilgrim African Missionary Baptist Church (1916), the Santa Rosa County Courthouse (1927), and the Milligan-Whitmire House (1889) on Berryhill Street.
The gorgeous Milton River Riverwalk spans the entirety of downtown’s waterfront. Lovely at sunrise, this area has a boat dock, gazebo, landscaping, and a lot of benches.
As far as I’m concerned, the best time to be in Milton is on a Friday night, for the free Bands on the Blackwater concert series. Held at Jernigan’s Landing, each week is like a little music festival.
4. Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site
The largest Antebellum industrial complex in Florida was located on Milton’s western outskirts. Powered by a large dam on Pond Creek, the Arcadia Mill was a sawmill operating from 1830 to 1855 when it was lost to a fire.
The dam is thought to have been destroyed by Confederates in the Civil War to prevent it being used by the Union Army.
Now the site is couched in a steamy cypress swamp, with a boardwalk along the 1.3-mile interpretive loop.
This is furnished with a lot of signs explaining the mill’s various components, from its waterworks to sawing configuration. I also appreciated the signs identifying the wildlife that has taken over.
Finds unearthed at the site are on show at the museum exhibit, which also has hands-on educational elements for kids.
5. The West Florida Railroad Museum
Opened in 1989, this attraction is at an historic freight and passenger depot for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.
The indoor exhibits are in the Milton station building, dating back to 1909, while you can check out railcar displays outside. My eye was drawn to this rolling stock, including a pair of dining cars, two caboose cars, two converted Pullman Company sleeper cars, a boxcar, and a flatcar.
Interior displays go into the history of the L&N, and other railroads, with lots of interesting pieces, from preserved seats to maps, tickets and conductor hats.
Also on the property is a section shed with a motor car, and a bridge tender’s house from the nearby Escambia Bay trestle.
6. Blackwater Heritage State Trail
You can break out into Santa Rosa County’s unspoiled countryside and wilderness along a rail trail that runs through the middle of Milton.
Just under ten miles long, the Blackwater Heritage State Trail is on the railbed of an old lumber railroad. There’s a bike shop by the trailhead as well as a few places where you can grab a packed lunch.
After that you can breeze through the countryside, crossing creeks on wooden bridges and passing through fields and woods embroidered with wildflowers in spring.
In the north there’s an extra 1.5 miles along the Military Heritage Trail, ending at the Naval Air Station Whiting Field.
7. Adventures Unlimited Recreation Center
This outdoor recreation center is yet another reason to head to the picturesque landscapes north of Milton. Adventures Unlimited offers a wide range of intrepid experiences, especially on the clear waters of Coldwater Creek.
You can go kayaking, canoeing, tubing, and paddleboarding through undisturbed nature. This is a wonderful experience, with lots of stunning river beaches with sugar-white sands along the way.
These are perfect for breaks and picnics, and you can swim in these tranquil waters. There’s a whole menu of lessons, as well as overnight camping trips, zip-line tours, and on-site accommodations, from bunkhouses to private cottages.
8. Imogene Theater
Another of the properties owned and operated by the Santa Rosa Historical Society is this historic opera house from 1913. The Imogene Theater was built after the Great Milton Fire of 1909, which claimed much of the downtown commercial district.
Then known as the Milton Opera House, construction was funded by the president of the city’s First National Bank.
The building eventually closed in 1946, and was put to a variety of uses before being abandoned in 1980. After decades of fundraising by the society, the theater finally reopened as a performing arts venue in the 2010s.
Look out for concerts, comedy shows, and seasonal events like a popular Halloween ghost walk. The society also runs a compelling local history museum, which I loved.
9. Carpenter’s Park
On the Blackwater River by Munson Highway, this passive park brims with things to do, all in a lush setting.
Carpenter’s Park is on a bend, facing a large river island, with a dense stand of pines. You’ll find boat ramps and a little fishing pier on the water. For me, the riverbank here is great for nature spotting, with turtles, waterfowl, wading birds and an occasional gator showing up.
There’s also children’s playground equipment, paired with a splash pad that sits on the other side of a little stream. Clustered around these play areas you’ll find eight pavilions, all lighted.
10. Krul Recreation Area
Centered on a beautiful lake, this recreation area is just off SR 4 in the vast Blackwater River State Forest.
Encompassing just over six acres, Krul Lake is manmade, but is replenished by natural springs near the north shore.
It’s a stunning place to relax or be active, with a beach, extensive swimming area, and lots of picnic spots among the pines. You can also get on the Sweetwater Trail, which is my favorite park.
This path heads east for 1.3 miles through the woods to the Bear Lake Recreation Area. The first half-mile leads you over a boardwalk, and you’ll see the remnants of an old grist mill as you go.
11. Holland Farms
As well as large areas of wilderness there’s a lot of pretty farmland on Milton’s outskirts. One place where you can get in touch with rural life in northwest Florida.
This family owned and operated farm grows a diversity of row crops, but specializes in peanuts. For me, this is a go-to if you’re hankering for Florida-style boiled peanuts. You can get a free cup full here, and enjoy them in the comfort of a rocking chair.
From late September the farm comes alive with all kinds of family fall fun. There’s a pumpkin patch, pick-your-own sunflowers, a corn maze, a playground, zip-line, hay rides, barnyard animals, gentle horseback rides, and a children’s train.
12. The Strawberry Farm
The joy of the climate on the Florida Panhandle is that strawberries are in season as early as mid-March. Typically the season lasts right through April and into May, and there’s a local U-Pick farm in the countryside north of the city.
The Strawberry Farm is a delight in every sense, with pastoral scenery, barnyard animals in neighboring fields and long rows of strawberry plants covering several acres.
The berries are some of the largest I’ve seen, and the price is determined by weight rather than container. Naturally, the season depends on weather conditions, particularly during the preceding winter, so it’s worth keeping up with their facebook page.
13. Southern Raceway
One of the top dirt racing tracks in the South is by the Naval Auxiliary Landing Field in the east of Milton. This ⅜-mile oval has racing most Saturdays in a long season that runs from February to mid-October.
Among the many categories at the Southern Raceway are Street Stocks, Pure Stocks, Open Wheel Modifieds, Bay Area Modifieds, Stingers, Late Models, and Motorcycles.
It’s all good, reasonably priced family entertainment, with occasional demolition derbies in the calendar. My one pro tip is to hit the food stands early to avoid a long line.
14. McKinely’s Sandwich Shop
Before I hit the Blackwater Trail, I stopped at this independent sandwich shop near the trailhead. McKinely’s Sandwich Shop is known for its large portions, fresh ingredients, and affordability.
I have no complaints about my Reuben, which was stuffed full of pastrami, swiss cheese and sauerkraut.
A few other classics on the menu include grilled cheese, chicken salad, club, turkey & cranberry, pimento BLT, as well as a selection of paninis, wraps, and salads.
Don’t forget to pick up something for dessert, as the treats would be worth the trip alone. Favorites are the blueberry white chocolate cheesecake, and the orange dream or lemon cupcakes.
15. Weber’s Skate World
I know it’s increasingly hard to find thriving roller skating rinks, but there’s a great one in Milton. On SR 87 in the north of the city, Weber’s Skate World opened in 2018, renovating a rink previously known as Skateland.
The aim of the new owners was to bring the facility back to what it was in the 1980s when roller skating was at its peak. What you get here is a super-smooth wooden surface, and a variety of themed nights throughout the week.
For instance, Thursday is usually for family skating, while Tuesday is Oldies’ Night. Weber’s Skate World is also home to the Emerald Coast Speed Team, competing against the top speed-skating teams in the nation.