Paddleboard Adventures in South Walton, Florida

Get yourself in balance and in touch with nature on a YOLO stand up paddle board


Standing in the middle of Western Lake, I stop for a moment to take in the beauty of the nature that surrounds me. The water is so still I can see a near-perfect reflection of myself in the surface between the small ripples I make. Scrub brush huddles around the base of the tall, skinny pines that line the shore, and I hear a screech overhead as a lone hawk glides toward the trees. But wait… Standing in the middle of a lake? I’m not working a miracle; I’m atop a stand-up paddle board, or YOLO Board, as they’re affectionately known in this part of the Florida Panhandle. The name comes from the local brand that designs and manufactures the boards used by many paddle boarders in South Walton County — one of the regions that contributed to stand-up paddle boarding’s massive surge in popularity across the country.

Tom Losee, co-founder of YOLO Board (which stands for You Only Live Once) is my guide on this eco adventure through the area’s varied natural settings. Western Lake is a rare coastal dune lake — a body of water separated from the Gulf of Mexico by sand dunes, but connected when the water level rises. The area also offers great paddle boarding in the Choctawhatchee River and Morrison Springs, known for their cypress forests, crystal-clear water and underwater caves. With such an abundance of gorgeous scenery, its no wonder paddle boarding caught on here so quickly — and continues to be wildly popular.

South Walton Paddle Board

The lakes, rivers and protected coastal waterways of South Walton, Florida, are ideal for perfecting the skills of stand up paddle boarding, and offer ample opportunities for exploration. Photo: Shelly Strazis/Visit South Walton

Even though Western Lake is calm, my natural imbalance threatens to send me off the board and into the water at any moment. “This is the easy part,” Losee says of the lake’s still water as we paddle toward the pines. To the south I can see the towering white sand dunes of the beach, but the water level is too low for us to paddle between them to and reach the Gulf. No worries, that’s for tomorrow. Paddling in the lake is a relaxing journey where I lose myself in the silence, but tomorrow’s adventure will be more of a challenge.

I’m certain I’ll end up going overboard while paddling through the surf, but Losee is reassuring. “This is a sport where falling is fun,” he says. I could think of worse places to fall, and I can’t wait to see the wonders in the Gulf. Losee explains that paddle boarding is a great way to see marine life, since standing gives you a wider view of what’s beneath you than while sitting in a kayak, and the quiet movement of the board and paddle doesn’t scare away animals like a boat can. Dolphins and manatees are known to swim right by or even approach paddle boarders off of Santa Rosa Beach, where we’re set to launch tomorrow. Sweet, I’m ready for some close encounters.

South Walton Paddel Boarding

Stand up paddle boards continue to grow in popularity, and are suitable for all ages. From their standing vantage point, paddlers have a clear view of anything swimming past. Photo: Sean Murphy/Visit South Walton

The Gulf doesn’t disappoint. Sure enough, I end up swimming part of the way as I’m knocked off my board several times while getting past the light surf. But once we’re beyond the breaks, the sight of stingrays, a school of cobia and even a couple of baby sharks swimming in the pristine aquamarine water below have me in awe, forgetting the embarrassment of having repeatedly fallen. So much so that when it’s time to head back to shore, I jump into the water one more time, just for fun.