When one thinks of epic vistas along Scenic Highway 30A in Walton County, Florida, this is certainly one of the most iconic. While sunsets over the Gulf are always an Instagram crowd-pleaser, there’s something unique about watching a burnt orange orb gently dip behind the wind-swept dunes that define Western Lake’s southern edge.
Western Lake is 100 acres, making it the second largest of 30A’s coastal Dune lakes behind Lake Powell, about 10 miles to the east.
Western Lake is shallow, only about four to five feet at its deepest point. And there’s no single vantage point where you can take her in all at once. In fact, each side of Western Lake offers very different views and experiences.
The southern side of Western Lake is contained within Grayton Beach State Park, which officially opened in 1968. There’s public beach access here with ample parking and amenities, but locals and those in the know will tell you that the real treasure on the south side of this lake is a one-mile nature trail that leads east from the parking area. This unassuming trail winds through a dune ecosystem, along the salt marsh, circling back through the pine flat woods. But one of our personal favorite places on 30A is what some call the “hobbit hole”, a hidden dome created by the live oaks that lay low across these domes. Look for this poignant sign and take a much-needed moment to breathe in the salt air and the blissful stillness of nature.
Much of the west side of the lake is also part of Grayton Beach State Park, including a fantastic campground with nearly 60 campsites, many of which bump right up next to the water’s edge. There are fire pits and waterside trails and places to drop in your YOLO Board and kayak. “I’ve camped in campgrounds all over the United States, and I can honestly attest that Grayton Beach State Park is one of the best campgrounds you’ll ever find, ” said 30A’s Mike Ragsdale. “As a result, it usually books up far in advance, so plan way ahead or roll the dice, show up last minute, and pray for a coveted cancellation. But not all of Western Lake is contained within the park. A few lucky and most longtime locals enjoy this view every single day.”
“I first came down here in 1960. Every summer, every single holiday, we spent at Grayton Beach. There was nobody here. There was a lot we could do that you can’t do now. At a young age, I was on my dad’s shoulders out here water skiing. I had a little Jon boat out here, a little five-horsepower motor on it. And then when that wouldn’t pull us up, we went to a six and then we got this crazy idea. We’d put two motors on a 10-foot boat. We were out here twice a day, at 10 o’clock in the morning and 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We were water skiing, playing under these docks, and this was kind of our little playground, this lake over here,” said Cole Taylor, a lifelong 30A local and resident.
Right down Hotz Avenue, from the world-famous Red Bar, is a public dock and boat ramp. Locals often paddle out onto Western Lake from here. Hang a left, and you wind your way back to the largest section of the lake, visible from Scenic 30A. Hang a right, and well, you’ll find ample room to paddle.
“I knew this was a special place and somewhere I was gonna work to end up,” said Taylor.
The north side of Western Lake is the least utilized and so it’s worth ahead if you’re one of those road less traveled types. There’s an unassuming trailhead here on the north side of Scenic 30A, just west of the lake. Perfect for hiking or biking, these sandy trails wrap nine miles round trip around the north side of the lake. These trails offer scenes and solitude that very few people ever bother to soak in.
Finally, there’s the mildly oxymoronic eastern side of Western Lake. Here you’ll find the gorgeous coastal community known as Watercolor. This 30A resort community has all the amenities one could ever dream of, including manicured parks and gardens, a multi-level golf front beach club, a fitness center, an award-winning Watercolor inn, boutique shops, and restaurants. You can also find 30A’s first Beach Happy Cafe here for anyone who needs their daily dose of 30A’s trademark happiness. But to the north of Beach Happy Cafe and Watercolor’s beautiful Cerulean Park, you’ll find an entirely different perspective on Western Lake. An artistically inspired pedestrian bridge connects Watercolor’s residential communities and gives you a seagull’s eye view of the lake. The boathouse team also offers all kinds of ways to explore Western Lake, including paddle boards, kayaks, and even eFoils.
“I’ve lived here for over 20 years, and obviously, this is a special place, ’cause it’s the lake and the trails and I’d like to run and I’ve always liked water sports. And about 15 now, I think 16 years ago, I got into standup paddle boarding, and I remember my first-time paddle boarding on this lake, and it was this time of year and it was beautiful. And I do remember having a wetsuit on for some reason ’cause I came from a surf background. Paddleboarding versus even kayaking was the new perspective I had because I was standing on a board and it’s almost like you’re hiking but getting a different perspective,” longtime local Tom Losee told us. “You’re on the other side of the lake and actually get really close to nature. You never know what you’re gonna see.”
Western Lake is undoubtedly one of 30A’s signature calling cards, an eco-asset worth passionately protecting and exploring. But do yourself a favor. Don’t just drive or stroll or jog or pedal across Western Lake and assume you’ve seen her in all of her glory. She has so many different sides, so many different levels, and every perspective is as unique as it is beautiful.