Dune Lakes, Longleaf Pines, and Biodiversity
South Walton is one of Florida’s original green destinations – a true pioneer in sustainability and responsible environmental practices. Our 26-mile stretch of shoreline is recognized for its unspoiled beauty and continues to attract travelers year-round for Florida ecotourism.
Forty percent of South Walton's 56,000 acres is owned by the State of Florida and protected from future development, providing plenty of places for individual exploration as well as guided tours. The area’s four Florida State Parks and Point Washington State Forest provide miles of pristine nature where native wildlife, such as deer and fox, as well as endangered species, including the Gopher Tortoise and Red Cockaded Woodpecker, call home.
Dune Lakes – Rare Coastal Jewels
In South Walton, beachgoers are well familiar with the beautiful turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But the area is also home to 15 coastal dune lakes, a geographical feature so rare that it only exists in a handful of places on Earth.
The dune lakes of South Walton were created by wind and waves thousands of years ago and are constantly evolving. They’re unusually shallow, with an average depth of about five feet, and the dunes surrounding them can get as tall as 30 feet high. Water in the dune lakes is brackish, meaning it contains a widely varying mix of salt and fresh water.
Occasionally, the water level in a dune lake reaches a critical level due to rainfall and inflows from streams. At that point, the lowest elevation of the beach gives way (locals call it a “blow out”), sending lake water into the Gulf via a temporary waterway called an outfall. Depending on tidal flows and wind conditions, saltwater from the Gulf may enter the lake along with saltwater plants and animals. The exchange between Gulf and dune lake continues until it reaches a natural equilibrium, and the connection closes again.
Because of those ever-changing water conditions, the lakes are known to be a biologically diverse, critical habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals, as well as an important natural estuary between the Gulf and upland areas.
Another key feature of South Walton’s unique ecosystem is its longleaf pine forestlands. The longleaf pine was once a dominant species throughout the southeastern United States, but rapid development and deforestation has left it on less than five percent of the land it once called home.
Today, the longleaf pine can be found on much of South Walton’s protected parkland, and the longleaf pine forest is the focus of extensive preservation efforts in Point Washington State Forest and at Nokuse Plantation, home of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center. The tree is at the heart of an ecosystem that sustains woodpeckers, tortoises, deer, rabbits, and squirrels, and its preservation is considered vital to the sustainability of many native plants and animals.
One great way to get an up-close look at this ecosystem in action is to hike or bike the Longleaf Pine Greenway Trail, an eight-mile trail that cuts east and west through the heart of the Point Washington State Forest.
- Dunes are formed by the wind and are a function of the vast amount of sand that has been deposited along our coast. Approximately 10,000 years ago, the sea level rose, trapping huge quantities of sand at the mouth of the Apalachicola River. Subsequently, the long shore transport current moved the sand west to South Walton. Dunes offer the first line of defense against wave action during storms and are a very important part of the ecosystem of the beaches.
- Sea oats are nature's dune builders and are protected by state law. Sea oats comprise more than 85 percent of plant life on the dunes. They are the only plants with an extensive root system that grows both vertically and horizontally. This unique root system not only stabilizes the core of the dune but also adds protection to the surface from blowing sand. The plant builds the dune as it grows, spreading and capturing more sand. Because of the critical role the dunes and the sea oats play to the health of the beaches, it is easy to understand why foot traffic on the dunes is extremely destructive.
- Walton County is home to two of the highest points in Florida. Located in the northern part of the county, Britton Hill is recorded as the highest point in the state of Florida, while the neighborhood of Blue Mountain has the highest elevation along the Gulf Coast.
- Beach restoration is of vital importance in South Walton for storm protection, habitat preservation and recreation. The American Shore and Beach Preservation Association recognized South Walton with a 2008 Best Restored Beach Award for its successful nourishment program.
- The South Walton Turtle Watch Program is an organization that locates turtle nests, protects them until hatching and, if necessary, helps baby turtles make it safely to the water. Posters, signs and brochures can be found throughout South Walton educating residents and visitors on ways to protect the native wildlife and vegetation. Protecting endangered species such as the Loggerhead Sea Turtle and the Green Sea Turtle that nest along South Walton's beaches from May through October is a top priority among residents.