Let me guess, you brought some hiking shoes along to the beach and you’re expecting to make a 2-hour trip to get to the nearest place with a secluded trail, woods or a quiet waterway. Well, you and your hiking shoes are in luck.
Even as our community grows, the Pensacola Bay Area stays connected to the natural beauty of Northwest Florida. And you can discover it – or rediscover it – with a short walk or drive, or even on your way home from brunch!
From Perdido Key to Pensacola Beach, and into the coastal bluffs, you can explore nature right here, maybe while you’re sipping on a nice, cold latte.
PART 1: IT’S ALL UP(LAND) FROM HERE
Bay Bluffs Park – Traveling through East Pensacola along Scenic Highway, you might notice the small parking lot with an attached boardwalk. Welcome to Bay Bluffs Park. It’s not really a nature hiking trail; more like a nature coffee break.
The boardwalk steps take you down the sandy bluffs to a shaded view of Escambia Bay—which is across the railroad tracks, and then back up the other side. It’s an extremely short hike, or a hardcore step-running loop for locals. Me? I like to take the dogs and sit in the shade for a sandwich and a beverage, watching the mullet jump and the occasional osprey plummet for mullet.
UWF Hiking Trails – Just northeast of Downtown Pensacola, the University of West Florida is perched on a remarkable habitat where Escambia Bay meets Escambia River, and the coast turns to upland. UWF offers hiking and biking trails on and around the campus, with open parking on weekends.
The UWF Edward Ball Nature Preserve Trail is a half-mile loop that takes you through Thompson’s Bayou – a hardwood swamp. But there are plenty of other trails to step out into the woods.
The West Campus Trails range from 1.75 miles to 12 miles. These undulating narrow trails wind through creek beds and wooded inclines. Some trails are accessible from off-campus and are frequented by mountain bikes and running groups and occasional equestrians (no moto-anything). It is upland Florida woodlands in some areas, and you can see the transition to the coastal habitat. There are lots of hills here, so remember to keep your water handy. Thankfully, you’re almost always in the shade under tree canopy.
PART 2: BEACHY HIKES
See the wildlife – Don’t tread on us! It’s beach nesting season and you can get an eyeful and an earful from the protected least terns and black skimmers that nest along our beaches – especially in Gulf Islands National Seashore (Opal Beach, Fort Pickens, Johnson Beach.) Black skimmers, with their colorful orange bills and wide, sweeping albatross-like wings, soar at bell-height over the water to skim small fish and crustaceans. They can nest among the smaller least terns. Watch where you step though, these birds nest in tiny, clawed indentions in the sand. And please, stay clear of the marked nesting areas.
Sea turtles nest here too! Loggerhead, green sea turtles and the smaller Kemp-Ridleys crawl ashore at night during the spring and summer to dig a nest for 80-130 eggs, which they bury in the sand before crawling back to sea. Volunteers and park staff patrol the beaches at dawn and will mark the nest. Please don’t disturb the nests. If you spot a disoriented turtle, contact Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922), or *FWC on your cell phone.
Big Lagoon State Park – Tucked into rows of coastal subdivisions along Gulf Beach Highway are 700-plus acres of natural coastal beauty and recreation. You’ve found Big Lagoon State Park. It’s across the Intracoastal Waterway from its federal park cousin, Johnson’s Beach, which is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Some five miles of walking trails take you along boardwalks over saltwater marshes to sandy pine flatwoods. Beaches, shallow bays, palmetto-lined trails and open woodlands let you experience natural Northwest Florida. Take a break from all that hiking and rent a canoe!
Johnson Beach — You might see the name Gulf Islands National Seashore a lot. That’s because it’s actually a series of national seashore/parks from Santa Rosa Island to Mississippi. Johnson Beach is the eastern tip of Perdido Key, and it provides an unspoiled coastal habitat with the Gulf on one side and the protected waterways of the Intracoastal on the other. You can walk along either shore and enjoy the Gulf and the waterway that leads into Pensacola Bay.
Take the Discovery Nature Trail, a half-mile boardwalk leading through dunes, pine trees and salt marsh. Better yet, hop over to the beach side and walk around the point. It’s a good 4 miles, and you can see the transition from Gulf-side to bay-side habitats.
Fort Pickens – Up for a long hike along the Gulf of Mexico, or a short loop along Civil War relics? Fort Pickens has it all. It’s about 7 miles of unbroken beach one way from the Fort Pickens gate to the sea wall.
See steep dunes and breached areas where the hurricanes pushed the storm surge through. The park has recently rebuilt the roadway farther from shore, so it will allow more protection to the road and more undisturbed habitat for the shorebirds that nest here. If you’re driving, watch for curves that might not be on your GPS yet.
There are some beach lots to park along the way. And at the fort and ranger station, there are more trails that lead through the campgrounds and along the beach. The fort itself is worth the trip. Hiking it makes the trip unforgettable.
PART 3: THE SWAMP HIKE
Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park – Dubbed the Perdido Pitcher Plant Prairie, Tarkiln Bayou is a haven and homeland for rare pitcher plants, which reside in the boggy wetlands. They emit a sweet scent that insects find attractive until the insects get trapped inside the plant’s sticky throat and become lunch. The red blooms and white tops of the pitcher plants fire up in April – a spectacular sight. Osprey and bald eagle roam the skies and maybe, if you’re skulking around sunrise or sunset you could spot a secretive bobcat.
The preserve also has two hiking choices:
Tarkiln Bayou Trail – A half-mile ADA-accessible trail with a sidewalk and elevated boardwalk that meanders through prairie, cypress and swamp scrub, leading to an observation area with a scenic view of the bayou.
Perdido Bay Trail – It’s more than 6 miles of trails lined with oak and pine leading to the beaches along Perdido Bay. You’ll cross creek beds and muddy areas, so not a great place for your Cole Haan loafers.
From beaches to swamps to rugged woody hills, you’re never far from a nature hike in Pensacola!