You’ve probably already heard the news that the Florida Gulf Islands National Seashore was recently awarded “Best Florida Beach” in a USA Today readers’ choice poll… But did you also know that our sand can bark? Yes, you read that correctly. Our sand can bark. Not only is the sand of Santa Rosa Island almost-blindingly white – it also talks. Why, you may ask? The answer is Quartz. The beaches here are like a bar of Ivory soap, 99.4 percent pure quartz crystal. The bleached mineral is the result of thousands of years of erosion of the Appalachian Mountains and nature carrying its remnants down rivers and streams around the south, eventually powdering the shorelines of Florida’s Panhandle. Visitors to Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore soon discover the “barking” noise the crystal sands produce as they walk in the softer areas. To some the sound may be more like a squeak, but a barefoot walk on our beaches proves they talk back.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore is a 150-mile long, discontinuous string of undeveloped barrier islands that begins at Santa Rosa Island, Fla., and extends into Mississippi. They became protected by federal order in 1971. For me, the Seashore is a personal paradise, providing endless opportunity for solitude and relaxation. It’s where I go when I want to escape the beach crowds, clear my head and truly connect with nature. The seashore offers miles of unobstructed views and access to the Gulf. A short hike, bike ride, or kayak trip always ensures a swath of beach, sans humans. Even without the presence of people, rest assured that you are never truly alone.
An abundant ecosystem of marine and terrestrial wildlife encompasses you. Osprey and great blue herons are often nearby or overhead, their huge nests visible in the treetops. Dolphins, sea turtles and rays are commonly spotted swimming near the shore in the crystal-clear waters. And for much of the year, the Seashore provides an ample nesting ground for various seasonal shorebirds, like the beautiful black skimmers and tiny least terns.
For adventure seekers, the Seashore offers a wide range of recreational activities including snorkeling, kayaking, boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, biking, camping, fort tours, ranger-led programs and more.
For history buffs, the Seashore offers a unique look into the military significance of Pensacola going back before the American Revolution. Originally built by the British Royal Navy, Fort Barrancas sits on a hill on the western shoreline of the bay and is the oldest of the structures, having been used by the Spanish as well as U.S. navies. Fort McRee on Perdido Key was built in 1834 to protect the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Erosion and numerous storms over the years have buried it beneath sand and water, so be sure to grab a snorkel, mask and fins to take an underwater tour of Fort McRee today. Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island is the most accessible to tourists. The remnants of the fort, including gun turrets and earthen embattlements, can be easily seen on the western end of the island. Fort Pickens attracts thousands of visitors, including overnight campers, every year.
Though the shape of our barrier island has naturally shifted and changed over the centuries, the federally protected Seashore has remained largely untouched. It’s easy to imagine the setting would have looked quite the same as it does now, centuries ago. How fascinating it is to know that you’re likely experiencing the environment much in the same way the Native Americans must have, or the first Spanish settlers did, or even the Union soldiers arriving at Fort Pickens. It is my hope that future generations will also have that same luxury. That the commitment to preserve the natural beauty of our magnificent area remains for many generations to come, as does the motto, “Leave behind only your footprints.”