It’s easy to understand why Pensacola and its surrounding communities are considered among the top Eco-tourism spots in Florida. Compared to other coastal areas, we have the best access to an abundance of natural resources and designated natural attractions — such as hiking and paddling trails — created, specifically, for the eco-traveler in mind.
Of course, the turquoise Gulf of Mexico and its sugar-white sand beaches are the biggest natural attraction to our shores, luring millions of tourists to the area, annually. Most of them come for the traditional sunbathing, seashell collecting, swimming and water sports.
But a growing number of eco-explorers –– those folks who want more of an educational experience that supports conservation –– are seeking water exploration. They’re being swept away by the near shore snorkeling reefs off of Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key. Just a few fin-flips away from shore, these reefs offer a fantastic snapshot of the marine life –– tropical fish, octopuses and seahorses –– that is otherwise elusive in the vast, sand bottom desert of the Gulf.
Eco-explorers are also discovering there are so many other natural attractions that showcase our natural gems beyond the Gulf, which have been created specifically for the eco-traveler in mind.
I consider myself an eco-traveler who seeks out vacation destinations spots where I can convene with nature. Occasionally I have to remind myself that I have an abundance of this opportunity in my backyard. What I love about our area is that it’s considered one of the most biodiverse hotspots in the United States, a sanctuary where you can see rare and beautiful sights. Our rivers run clean, our estuaries and forests are teeming with life and you never know what wildlife or rare flower you’ll come upon on designated trails, some of which will take you wandering far beyond Northwest Florida. The best part: these opportunities only take a hike, or paddle, or pedal stroke to explore.
Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail on Pensacola Beach
If you’ve ever gazed out over the sand dunes of Pensacola Beach and wondered why the signs say, “Don’t pick the sea oats,” or your curious child wants to know why the birds are darting along the shoreline, then you’ll definitely want to explore the Footprints in the Sand Eco-Trial.
Spanning 8.5-miles along the beach, the trail consists of 29 stops with educational signs that highlight the island’s ecology and answer all those questions about the plants, animals and birds, complete with colorful photos and maps. You’ll gain a better understanding and respect for the special marine life –– sea turtles, dolphins and, yes, even our much-misunderstood sharks –– and discover what the famous soft, sugar white sand is made of. Biking the trail is a perfect way to fully enjoy it. Take advantage of scanning QR codes on many of the signs with your mobile device to dig and dive deeper into the coastal ecosystems. Once you’ve completed the tour, you’ll fully understand why Pensacola Beach visitors are asked to “Leave behind only your footprints.”
The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail
Birding and wildlife enthusiasts, forgive the pun, flock to the Pensacola area with their birding books in hand and high-powered binoculars and cameras hanging from their necks. Some come to snap photos of nesting osprey or migrating warblers. Others, including myself, want to witness the migration of monarch butterflies.
If this is your thing, you’re in luck. Big Lagoon State Park is the gateway to the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a network of 510 of the best viewing sites for native and migrating birds, butterflies and other creatures and their unique habitats across the state.
Exploring the trails is a perfect way to appreciate the efforts of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and dozens of other agencies across the state that designated the trails in regional districts. Check out the amazing offerings for our area: http://floridabirdingtrail.com/trail/trail-sections/panhandle-section/.
Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail
Grab a kayak, canoe or even paddleboard, and float along what’s called “Florida’s longest and most ambitious sea kayaking trail.” The Florida Cicumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail is divided into 26 sections across the state, and also starts at Big Lagoon State Park, which features waterways and marshes that are worth exploring alone. I’d encourage you to continue paddling east after enjoying Big Lagoon.
I love kayaking or paddleboarding near shore where it’s easy to have close encounters with dolphins and fish and majestic Great Blue Herons, which are not spooked away like they are with motorized boats. Just remember to enjoy the view and don’t feed or get too close to them.
You can follow the paddling trail all along Northwest Florida, nosing your vessel up to a beach or dock to take in historical sites, marshes and quite estuaries. You’ll want to stop for a seafood lunch or dinner at one of many coastal eateries. Most kayakers paddle a few hours a day. If you’re salt-hardy enough and have the time, you can keep on paddling along the entire 1,515-mile trail that will take you all the way to the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic to Fort Clinch Park at Georgia border.
The Florida National Scenic Trail
Every eco-tourists needs to explore Gulf Islands National Seashore that spans Northwest Florida’s coast from Perdido Key to Destin. One way to do this is by foot on the Florida National Scenic Trail. The trailhead starts at Fort Pickens on Pensacola Beach, just on the north side of the Seashore’s historic Civil War-era fort. Similar to the paddling and birding trail, this trail will also take you far beyond Northwest Florida as it meanders across the state all the way to Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida.
The 1,000-mile trail is one of 11 National Scenic Trails in the country. Many people have taken on the challenge to hike it in its entirety, over a span of time. Me, I’ve only hiked and biked portions between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach, and through the Blackwater River State Forest. I love the way the trail at time takes you through the most scenic and historic features of our area. I’ve seen all kinds of wildlife. I’ve been told by hikers, they’ve encountered some of the nicest people along the way too, as they experienced Florida nature and culture more deeply than they ever could by vehicle.