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Gulf Islands National Seashore

USA Today recently affirmed what folks in Pensacola always knew: The Gulf Islands National Seashore is the best beach around. The news site’s readers named Gulf Islands not only the best beach in Florida, but the best beach in the eastern United States.

It’s easy to see why.

Perhaps the key to Gulf Islands’ appeal is its unspoiled simplicity. As its name suggests, much of the park is located on islands – Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key – giving the park the feeling of isolation and distance many beachgoers crave.

Three of the park’s sections in Pensacola – the Santa Rosa Area on the east side of Pensacola Beach, Fort Pickens on the western edge of Pensacola Beach and Johnson Beach on Perdido Key – feature miles of Gulf front roadway sided only by rolling white sand dunes, sea oats and endless horizon.

Only occasional parking lots, picnic pavilions and restroom facilities hint that humans have ever been here. Otherwise, visitors are more likely to encounter a dolphin, sea turtle or osprey than neon lights, amplified music or a billboard.

To learn about the sea life, plant life and birds and butterflies you see along the island, check out the Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail along Pensacola Beach and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The trail features about 30 informative, educational signs stationed across the island, each one exploring a different ecological topic. 

The Santa Rosa Area and Johnson Beach offer daytime access to the beach. Johnson Beach also offers primitive overnight camping.

Fort Pickens includes the historic military installation, built in 1829 as part of the fort system to protect Pensacola. It offers guided tours, a museum, a snack bar, camping and more.

Another area of Gulf Islands National Seashore, Naval Live Oaks, adjoins Gulf Breeze to the east. Naval Live Oaks – home to the park’s visitor center – offers a landscape filled with the area’s namesake trees. Once the live oaks here were harvested to construct warships, like the U.S.S. Constitution.

In addition to the visitor center, Naval Live Oaks offers miles of trails, picnic pavilions and shorelines on Santa Rosa Sound and Pensacola Bay.

Picturesque Perdido

Along with Johnson Beach, Perdido Key and the southwest corner of Escambia County offer hidden gems of natural beauty at several parks.

Big Lagoon State Park features an amphitheater, fishing, wildlife, swimming and more to take in. It's a favorite location for outdoor weddings. It also serves as a prime location for crabbing.

Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park, located on Perdido Bay, offers the unique environment that is home to four rare, carnivorous pitcher plant species, all of which may be viewed from an elevated boardwalk. The park offers a 6.5-mile Perdido Bay trail as well as the 1.5-mile Tarkiln Bayou Trail which is wheelchair accessible.

Perdido Key State Park – located on the island itself -- also offers undisturbed access to both the Gulf of Mexico and Old River. It provides picnic facilities, fishing opportunities and more.

Beauty of Pensacola

On Escambia Bay, Bay Bluffs Park features a network of wooden boardwalks and trails that descend from the aptly-named Scenic Highway to the shoreline below.

On the north side of Pensacola, the University of West Florida offers a variety of woodland and wetland trails, including the Edward Ball Nature Trail, which includes a half mile of boardwalk on Thompson Bayou, a beautiful hardwoods swamp. Just off the board walk lie a web of bike paths. The campus also offers more than 20 hidden-treasure “geocaching” sites.

Wherever you walk in Pensacola’s picturesque natural parks, be mindful of your step – that’s Mother Nature’s back yard you’re exploring.

Not only does Pensacola offer a variety of large, natural parks, but Downtown Pensacola also has a menu of compact historical parks. For more on those, click here.

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