Fronting Choctawhatchee Bay and the bayous that feed it, Valparaiso is a city at the East Gate of Eglin Air Force Base.
Dating back some 90 years, the base is the home of the 96th Test Wing, and occupies a vast area to the north and west. There’s a sensational museum on the base, dedicated to the history of armaments used by the Air Force.
To my mind, many of the best things about Valparaiso relate to the bay and bayous. You can picnic or swim at waterfront parks, fish for monster trout, or launch a kayak or paddleboard.
Dolphins show up all the time in these waters, especially early or late in the day. Valparaiso’s bayfront parks all face east, so the scenery is sublime at sunrise.
1. Air Force Armament Museum
It feels like everything in this area is in the orbit of Eglin Air Force Base. Dating way back to 1935, this facility is simply immense, covering more than 450,000 acres and extending for miles inland.
Eglin AFB hosts the test and evaluation center for a variety of Air Force systems, from air-delivered weapons to special operations command, guidance, navigation, and control systems.
The museum here was established in 1975 and figuratively blew me away with its massive cache of missiles, bombs and rockets. The collection covers everything from Tomahawks to the formidable MOAB (Mother of All Bombs).
To go with all that, there’s an awe-inspiring assortment of aircraft on show, including the legendary SR-71 Blackbird.
2. Turkey Creek Park
In the very north of Valparaiso you can access a trail along the banks of the stunning Turkey Creek. This watercourse wriggles southwards through dense swamplands before flowing into Boggy Bayou.
The creek itself is often perfectly clear, with the kind of tea-colored waters that define many of the rivers on the Panhandle. In summer you’ll see people swimming in the creek or floating downstream on tubes—in fact, I can’t think of a better way to spend a hot day.
A boardwalk, a mile long, traces Turkey Creek, and is fitted with signs to help you identify the vegetation all around. This has several rest areas and offers access to the various swimming holes on the creek.
3. Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park
You can head around the north end of Choctawhatchee Bay to this breathtaking state park, established in 1966.
Before that time, this landscape was a WWII gunnery and bombing practice range. Now it’s a big tract of sand swamp, presided over by enormous longleaf pines. I was amazed to discover that some of these trees have been growing for more than three centuries.
In a sheltered nook of the bay, Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park is an awesome place to launch a canoe, kayak or paddleboard. If you don’t have your own vessel, you can rent a canoe or kayak here.
Last but not least, the park has full camping facilities, but these were temporarily out of action when I visited.
4. Tommy’s Water Adventures
I don’t think it’s possible to set eyes on Choctawhatchee Bay and not feel the need to explore these waters. Well protected, the bay is a dream for kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding.
Around Valparaiso you can navigate a maze of tributaries, like Toms Bayou, Boggy Bayou, Shirk Bayou, and Rocky Bayou. I love how there’s quite a lot of public land on the shores, so you’re never far from a boat launch or covered picnic area.
If you get lucky you might find yourself in the company of bottlenose dolphins. This species is known to swim up to the bayous to hunt in the mornings and evenings.
One rental service operating in the area is Tommy’s Water Adventures. This company offers free delivery and pickup, and rentals include lifejackets, paddles, and other necessary items.
5. Fishing Charters
Choctawhatchee Bay is primed for inshore saltwater fishing. In fact, these shallow, brackish waters offer some of the best fishing to be found anywhere in Florida.
One of many things going for the bay is that the fishery is strong for the whole year, even accounting for seasonal fluctuations in certain species.
If there’s a perfect time to plan a trip, I’d say it’s spring and summer. At this time of year the trout are breeding and can be caught all over the bay, and there are abundant redfish and black drum.
The goal for most people is to catch a trout large enough to qualify as a “gator trout” (roughly 25 inches or longer).
A few fishing charters operating locally when I was in town were Have Fun Charters Company, Sunshine Fishing Charters, Charter Boat Big John, Flyliner Charters, and Destin Angler Charters.
6. Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida
Here since 1971, the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida is a lot larger than it seems from the outside.
Exhibits document the long history of the area, going back to the Paleoindians and Archaic People. Displays from these periods include stone tools, flint spear points and pottery shards.
I was also enthralled by the displays of more recent history. You can learn about Okaloosa County’s fisheries, the still important turpentine industry, and check out scenes of daily life from the 19th century up to post-WWII. Among these are a schoolroom, salon and the interior of a railway depot.
The museum is deeply engaged in the community, with seasonal events, camps, and bespoke tours.
7. Lincoln Park
I’m smitten with Valparaiso’s waterfront parks, sitting on the bayous feeding Choctawhatchee Bay. Perhaps the best of these is Lincoln Park, which is the largest of all of these properties.
With lofty pine trees all around, Lincoln Park has a welcoming stretch of sandy shore. Here you can swim in the crystal clear and shallow waters.
There are large pavilions right by the beach, as well as showers, benches, a playground, a dock and boat ramp. Lincoln Park is traditionally the setting for Valparaiso’s 4th of July celebrations, while you can watch Niceville’s display from the other side of Boggy Bayou.
8. Valparaiso Fishing Pier
Another lovely place to hang out by Choctawhatchee Bay, Valparaiso maintains this T-shaped pier at the mouth of Toms Bayou.
Well-maintained, the Valparaiso Fishing Pier is spacious, with two fish cleaning stations, 24-hour restrooms and running water. Catfish are the main species landed here, but redfish, mullet, pinfish and speckled trout are also in these waters.
As well as a place to drop a line, the pier shines for its scenery, especially early in the day. In my few minutes at this spot, I was met by a great blue heron and a couple of pelicans. Behind, North Bayshore Drive is a beautiful stretch of road, with fabulous views of the bay between the live oaks.
9. The Boathouse Landing Restaurant
As a quiet kind of place, Valparaiso isn’t stacked with places to eat. But the ones that are here deserve a mention.
The Boathouse Landing is one of a couple of spots with a perfect location, directly on the water. Here you’ll find yourself on Boggy Bayou, with views that become magical as the sun goes down.
So you can enjoy market-fresh fish and seafood, with dolphins breaching in the bayou, and pelicans perched close by (but not too close). A couple of specialties I should mention are the gulf-caught grouper, and blackened mahi.
This is primarily a seafood restaurant, but there’s something on the menu for all ages and all tastes, from burgers to pasta. Live music adds to the atmosphere Friday through Sunday.
10. Doc’s Oyster Bar
I doubt there’s a better location for an authentic Louisianan eatery than the lush banks of a bayou. That’s exactly where you’ll find Doc’s Oyster Bar in Valparaiso, on the shore of Toms Bayou.
It’s a quant shack with a lovely waterside terrace and a little dock below, this place specializes in Cajun and Creole favorites. We’re talking seafood gumbo, shrimp boils, po’ boys, and blackened mahi mahi sandwiches. Oysters of course are essential, whether you get them raw, baked or fried.
There’s also a wide choice of more universal dishes, from fried baskets, burgers and fish tacos.
11. Mattie Kelly Arts Center
Culture and entertainment are never a problem in Valparaiso as you’ve got this top-notch performing arts venue close by at Northwest Florida State College.
Anchored by a 1,650-seat mainstage theater, the center is a $25 million complex with an exciting schedule. There’s a wealth of visiting shows, artists and dance and opera companies.
These are complemented by NWF State College productions, and performances by the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra and its members, as soloists or small ensembles.
NWF State College maintains important art collections, renowned for its decorative arts (especially glass), and painting by Emil Eugen Holzhauer (1887-1986). The center’s galleries are always worth checking out, and I was here for a compelling exhibition, with selections from this rich inventory.
12. Henderson Beach State Park
Destin’s Gulf shoreline, famed for its ethereal white sands, is less than 30 minutes from Valparaiso. The great news is that the most convenient option is also one of Florida’s best beaches.
This is Henderson Beach State Park, with an undeveloped ¾-mile stretch of snow-white shore. The beach is so dazzling you’ll need shades on sunny days. To the rear are dunes that resemble snowy peaks, and are constantly shifting and growing.
You can spend your time sunbathing, swimming and discovering the dunes on foot. Among the park’s many features are restrooms, showers, a children’s playground, and a picnic area with grilling stations.
13. Eglin Golf Course
Belonging to Eglin AFB, this twin-course facility in Niceville is open to the public throughout the year. Eglin Golf Course is officially one of the best military golf facilities in the country, and ranks highly among all courses in Florida.
For starters, this is an official Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, with a chain of lakes linked by a creek that eventually flows into the bay. I made a few wildlife sightings on my round, including deer, tortoises, snakes, and several wading birds.
In a gently rolling landscape, the courses’ (Falcon and Eagle) sharp elevation changes add an interesting dimension, especially compared to a lot of courses in Florida.
14. Spend a Day Shopping at Destin Commons
After crossing the bay via SR 293, you’ll arrive at this lifestyle center. Destin Commons is at once chic and family-oriented.
There are close to 90 stores, restaurants and other services on hand here. For a snapshot of the directory, you’ve got Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Forever 21, Sephora, American Eagle, H&M, and Bath & Body Works, to name a few.
You can browse stylish, one-of-a-kind boutiques for local gifts and souvenirs, and kids will be thrilled with the splash pad and miniature train rides.
With an AMC multiplex and a lot of dining options, I’d plan for a whole day at Destin Commons.
15. Florida Park
If you’re looking for somewhere to launch a boat, take a picnic or maybe catch the sunrise, there’s a cute park on the bay, not far from Eglin AFB’s East Gate.
Florida Park is small, at little more than three acres, but has quite a few worthwhile features. One thing that caught my attention was a walkway, paved with bricks dedicated to various local businesses and families.
The boat ramp here is available 24 hours a day while there’s a pair of picnic shelters and playground equipment, all at the foot of some towering pine trees.