Winter on Pensacola area beaches provides a unique experience unlike any other time of the year.
For people like me who enjoy the beach for its soul-reviving qualities, winter is the best time to find smaller crowds and less traffic than the peak summer season. In fact, it’s possible to have a long stretch of beach to yourself.
Some landscapes across the country turn colorless in the winter. But, here, cold fronts sweep away humidity, clarifying the air in a way that makes the colors of the sky and water more vivid. North winds flatten the surf which provides the perfect palette for the sun to create a sparkling display across the Gulf of Mexico. Even our quartz crystal sand sparkles more. Trust me, when you see the effects you’ll grab your smartphone or camera to capture the dazzling sight.
I also love how the winter sun -- riding lower in the sky – casts long shadows across the sand. A tiny seashell’s shadow becomes humungous. With fewer beachgoers, you can actually be one of the first people to leave your footprints in the sand on some of the beaches outside of the residential and commercial districts. I love the beach in the winter and look forward to long cycling rides to enjoy these five things to do on the beach in the winter:
Fewer beachgoers and northerly winds create the perfect conditions for beachcombers desiring to add to their seashell collections. Pensacola-area beaches are popular among shell collectors who check tide charts to catch the Gulf at its lowest tide in the morning. On some days, the low tide occurs between 6 to 8 a.m. – the perfect time to get out and hunt for those new shells that washed up overnight before most people hit the beach. Winter low tides can push the Gulf waters past the tidal shelf, where many shells collect. What I find fascinating is hunting through what’s called the shell hash, the broken and small shells that get trapped along the swash zone -- where the waves wash over the beach. You can find tiny lightning whelks and turbans, colorful coquina and fragile baby’s ears, and even sharks' teeth and many other types of shells.
While South Florida beaches are jammed with tourists in the winter, Pensacola beaches are appealing for people who want to unwind, relax and wander down long stretches of beach with very few beachgoers. It’s the perfect time to read a book, take a nap, meditate or share quality time with loved ones without the interruptions of throngs of beachgoers competing for a piece of sand around you. Take beach chairs and a blanket, relax and breath in the tranquil beauty.
Our mild winter days often start out chilly but warm up nicely to enjoy most activities the beach has to offer – walking, cycling, running and even wading. Even a dip in the Gulf is not out of question for the hardier souls. And, there’s no reason not to enjoy water sports. You may need to wear a wetsuit, though. Our waters become much clearer in the winter with fewer storms and boat activity, providing a better opportunity to see more marine life on a paddleboard or kayak excursion in either the Gulf of Mexico or bays. One major caution; strong north winds can blow you out into the Gulf and even the bay is faster and farther than your skills may be able to deal with. So checking wind speeds and directions are a must if you kayak or paddleboard, and go with another person.
Not too long ago, seeing a bald eagle on Pensacola Beach would have been a rare sight. Our national symbol is being spotted more frequently these days, thanks to a rebound in the population. Some of the eagles migrate to the area to winter and a few are year-round residents. Waterfowl adorned with beautiful plumage also winter in our estuaries around Perdido Key and Pensacola Beach. Horned grebes and common loons are fun to watch as they as the dive searching for fish.
Dining, wining and barhopping
Pensacola Beach and Perdido Beach bars and restaurants are popular year-round, but they’re less crowded than in the summer. Winter is the best time to get seated quickly and avoid the hour-long wait for a table that’s common in the summer, allowing you more time to sample a variety of fare on the beaches. You’ll most likely find an empty bar seat more easily and enjoy some the local signature drinks our bartenders mix up.
Kimberly Blair is an outdoor enthusiast who never really felt at home in the concrete- and steel- covered prairie of Houston, Texas, where she grew up. After falling in love with the long stretches of undeveloped beaches during a spring break trip to Pensacola Beach in 1980s, she planted her roots in Gulf Breeze where she raised two children. Kim enjoyed a nearly 30-year career as a journalist at several Northwest Florida newspapers where she reported on business, the military, coastal lifestyle and the environment, earning numerous awards including being a team finalist for the Pulitzer Prize while at the Pensacola News Journal.
In 2015, she decided to leave journalism to join the creative communications team at Gulf Power as a media relations specialist. Kimberly and her artist husband enjoy strolling through the National Seashores, paddle-boarding, kayaking and, as newbie empty-nesters, long-distance cycling.