So it’s not what most people consider your “typical” hiking destination: rock-strewn paths circling up towering mountain ridges and terminating at snowcovered summits. But there is something to be said about hiking in the Florida Panhandle, especially in the Pensacola area where pine savannahs create homes for beautiful blooming pitcher plants, marshes that bring out an incredible variety of wildlife, and where a bit of history can be found. All the while, listening to soothing sounds of gulf waves crashing along the shoreline.
When you’re planning a trip to the Pensacola area, be sure to take a hike on one of these six amazing trails. All are relatively flat and easy walking hikes that make the perfect getaway for an hour or two in the great outdoors.
1. Tarkiln Bayou State Park
Along the banks of Perdido Bay, where the Perdido River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, there is an amazing state park that brings you incredible picturesque views of a coastal bayou and ushers you up close and personal to an awesome variety of wildlife and rare plants — Tarkiln Bayou State Park.
The park encompasses 4,000 acres of wet prairie habitat that plays host to more than 100 species of rare or endangered plants and animals. Two trails allow visitors to access this watery environment. The first is the Tarkiln Bayou Trail, a half-mile ADA-accessible sidewalk and elevated boardwalk trail that meanders through the prairie and a stunning cypress forest, where the knees of the trees protrude through the damp, often flooded earth: It reminds one of above ground stalagmites. The pine seepage bogs foster homes to four species of endangered carnivorous pitcher plants that thrive on insects drawn to the wetlands and also feature a beautiful view of the park’s namesake bayou from an observation platform.
The second is the 6.5-mile long Perdido Bay Trail. This path is a bit more rugged but still easy enough for average hikers. You will get wet as you navigate oozing streams and several swales that collect water after a good rain, but it is all worth it as this loop trail arrives at the beaches of Perdido Bay, which delivers magnificent views.
Pro Tip: Day-use admission is $3 per vehicle. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. And don’t forget to put on the bug spray if you visit from spring through early fall.
[PHOTO: JoeCuhaj-HikesPCola-PerdidoRiver.JPG; Caption: Joe Cuhaj]
2. Betty And Crawford Rainwater Perdido River Nature Preserve
The Nature Conservancy sums up the Perdido River Preserve nicely: “If you or I are ever in need of stress reduction, this Conservancy preserve may offer the remedy — it’s a balm that soothes the soul.”
The Perdido River defines the border between Florida and Alabama. Its dark, tea-colored water is the result of the tannin from the trees along its banks, hence the term “black water river.” White sandbanks are in stark contrast to the water color. Deer, fox, and black bear roam the forest surrounding the river, while high above, eagles and hawks soar in the brilliant blue Florida sky.
The Perdido River Preserve is a Nature Conservancy-managed property that affords hikers a chance to experience the river environment as it flows south to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s filled with a series of dirt footpaths and boardwalks that guide you through an incredible landscape where towering longleaf pines stretch into the sky and rare panhandle lilies bloom. You will also encounter beautiful Black Lake, which can be so extraordinarily still that its surface projects a mirror image of the sky, trees, and foliage that lines its banks.
Pro Tip: The preserve is open from dawn to dusk. Be sure to slather on the bug spray beginning in early spring.
3. Estuary Trail
Big Lagoon State Park
Five miles of trails wind their way around the 678-acre Big Lagoon State Park, including the most picturesque, the Estuary Trail.
This 2.8-mile out-and-back hike is easy walking (although you will be walking in some fine beach sand at times, making the going a bit tough), and leads you past wetlands lined with wildflowers and graceful blue heron watching your every move. It meanders along Long Pond and its white sandy banks, and through forests of short sand pine, needlerush, and the gnarled trunks of sand live oaks before arriving at the banks of the park’s namesake. Here you can do a little swimming and get a panoramic view of the park and lagoon from atop a 4-story observation tower.
Pro Tip: The park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail so bring along binoculars. The trails do not afford much shade, so be prepared by wearing sunscreen and a hat in the hot summer months. Big Lagoon has 75 improved campsites all set in a gorgeous pine flat with electricity, water, and picnic tables, as well as primitive tent campsites. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset. There is a $6 per vehicle entrance fee, $4 for single-person entry.
4. Fort Pickens Trail
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Following the War of 1812, the federal government began constructing massive stone forts along the Gulf Coast to protect the country from foreign invaders. One of those was Fort Pickens.
Now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a visit to Fort Pickens is a fascinating trip back in time and while you could drive directly to the fort, the best way to visit is by hitting the Fort Pickens Trail.
This 5.2-mile out-and-back hike begins at Battery Langdon, a massive cement structure built in 1923 that housed the largest guns in the area. From here, the easy walking sand and crushed-shell path follows the orange-blazed Florida Trail to wind its way through a beautiful wetland and bayou. You will encounter bright red yaupon holly berries, prickly pear cactus, and wild rosemary gracing the path. Osprey nests can be seen high above in the trees before you arrive at the fort’s visitor center and the fort itself. There are several side trails on the north side of the path that lead to expansive views of Pensacola Bay.
Pro Tip: Once again, shade is at a premium, so wear that sunscreen and hat. The trail passes through the campground where water fountains are located. Snacks and drinks are available at Ferry Plaza adjacent to the fort. This is also where you can catch a ride back to your car on a free tram if you don’t want to hike back. Park hours are 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. March through October, 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. November through February. Admission is $25 per vehicle (National Park Service passes are accepted) and gives you access to the seashore for seven days. Tent and RV camping are available. Some areas may still be closed due to COVID-19 and damage from Hurricane Zeta and Sally. Check the National Park Service website for updates.
5. Naval Live Oaks
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Two more hikes await you in the Gulf Islands National Seashore at the Naval Live Oaks Area. Located in Gulf Breeze just north of Fort Pickens, the sprawling 1,300-acre preserve was the site of the first national tree farm. President John Quincey Adams set aside the land in 1828 to supply the navy with wood from the live oaks to build and repair their ships.
In all, there are 7.5-miles of old logging roads and trails that meander through the north half of the preserve, leading you to a beaver pond, a nice view of Pensacola Bay on the 0.3-mile North Bay Trail, and the 2.4-mile (one-way) Andrew Jackson Trail. The latter was established by Native Americans living in the area before becoming the Pensacola-St. Augustine Road in 1824.
Most people who visit Naval Live Oaks hike the 0.8-mile Brackenridge Nature Trail, a nice ADA-accessible interpretive boardwalk loop through a maritime environment. It contains a picnic pavilion, restrooms, and an observation deck that provides nice views of Santa Rosa Sound. The trail begins at the visitor center on U.S. Highway 98.
Pro Tip: The Brackenridge Nature Trail has plenty of shade but the trails on the north side of the highway have none, so be prepared and bring plenty of water. The north side trails can be accessed from a trailhead one-half mile south of the visitor center on U.S. 98. Simply turn right onto the National Seashore Trail and travel north 0.2-miles. Naval Live Oaks is open year round from 8 a.m. to sunset and there is no entrance fee.
6. Garcon Point
Located on a finger of land jutting out slightly east of Pensacola and separating Blackwater Bay from East Bay is Garcon Point Park where you will find a nice walk in the woods. This 1.7-mile loop hike makes an excellent short trek to just get away from it all.
The easy walking Garcon Point Trail takes you through waving stands of prairie grasses, a pine forest, wildflowers, blooming sundews, and spectacular fields of carnivorous white top pitcher plants. The pitcher plants bloom from April through June in and around small bogs.
To make it a longer trip, there is the Garcon Point Spur Trail that connects to the main loop, making it a 2.8-mile lollipop loop hike.
Pro Tip: The Garcon Point Trail trailhead is located just before the Garcon Point bridge Toll Plaza on Florida-281 South. To do the extended trip, park one mile north at the spur trailhead. You will be walking through some marshy areas especially after a good rain so wear waterproof boots.
Northwest Florida is known for its beaches, but there is so much more here: