Florida Panhandle: Gulf Islands National Seashore
Soft, white sand beaches mounded up into tall dunes covered in sea oats is a common site along the panhandle of Florida. But there is no more lovely a place for this site than the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Stretching from Cat Island, Mississippi 160 miles eastward to Fort Walton Beach, Florida the National Seashore offers history, wildlife, and delightful recreation areas for all who venture there.
We visited the section called the Santa Rosa Area. All that white sand is the product of sediment washed down from the Appalachian Mountains over thousands of years. With a high quartz content, the soft sand 'squeaks' underfoot. That's part of the experience of this National Seashore, along with hundreds of seabirds, dolphins, and jellyfish. The best time to visit without crowds of beach-goers is in the winter. The long stretches of beach are nearly empty and the sun and surf are lovely even if it is not warm enough to swim.
On the eastern end of the Santa Rosa Area is Navarre Beach while Pensacola Beach bookends this section of the seashore on the western end. But there's more to the National Seashore than a mere beach. You'll find historic military fortifications, trails through protected wildlife habitats, and picnic areas waiting to be discovered. Add to that the convenience of nearby Pensacola with its great restaurants and vibrant entertainment, you can find something to please every member of the family.
For the past two years, we have spent the week between Christmas and New Year's at Navarre, Florida. We found a great little private park there right on the bay. Emerald Beach RV Park is a "parking-lot-type" of a park with very little trees or greenery, but, it is neat and well managed. The site pads are concrete and offer the standard picnic table, water, and electrical hookups as well as cable TV.
What makes the park great is the proximity to the water. Several sites have their own private decks overlooking the bay, but all can access the fishing pier along with the community pavilion and fireplace area. They also offer a sandy beach complete with lounge chairs and umbrellas. The beach provides direct access to the water. No campsite is further than a five-minute walk to the water. The bath house is very well maintained as is the entire park. Many of the campers return seasonally, so making reservations is essential.
The location is convenient, with quite a few local eateries within a five-minute drive. Just a few blocks from the bridge which leads to the National Seashore, we were on the beach within ten minutes of leaving the park.
Things To Do
Beach - Well, you can't get much better than the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Soft, white sand beaches and turquoise water. The surf is typically gentle and there are lifeguards and picnic pavilions in designated areas.
On The Water - Stand up paddle boarding or kayaking is superb in the bay, although many days the Gulf waters are calm enough for enjoying paddling there. Equipment rentals can be had in Navarre Beach or Pensacola Beach for kayaks, SUP, jet skis, as well as finding a local captain to take you deep sea fishing.
For The Kids - Pensacola Beach is a mecca for amusements with lots to offer for the kids. Everything from mini-golf to zip lines and go-carts, maybe even catching a Double-A ballgame with the Pensacola Wahoos. For something more adventurous, take the family to the Gulf Breeze Zoo or catch a practice session of the Blue Angels performance team at their home base at Naval Air Station Pensacola. While there, check out the National Naval Aviation Museum or head into downtown Pensacola to the Children's Museum.
Don't Forget To Bring
- Camera (or cell phone camera) the beach and dunes are stunning. If you have a steady hand, a video of the wave action or seabirds could be terrific!
- Beach Chairs. You are going to want to sit on the beach and watch the waves, right?
- Inflatable Kayak. The Gulf is often calm enough to enjoy a quiet paddle down the coast, or in the bay.
- Fishing Gear and fishing license. You can hire a charter for deep sea fishing or just cast a line right from the beach.
Although December is not the best time to visit the Panhandle of Florida, we found a great little RV park in Navarre close to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. With our own deck overlooking the Bay, and proximity to quite a few local restaurants, Navarre is a good alternative to the more touristy Pensacola Beach.
The National Seashore /Santa Rosa Day Use Area is a short trip over the bridge and then a drive through the Navarre Beach resorts. At what looks like the end of the road, appears the National Seashore Sign. Beyond is nothing but white sand dunes, spiked with beach grass, and beautiful turquoise waters. The diamond effect on the water caused by the sunlight makes the place seem that much more special.
We ambled down the two-lane road that runs through the park, slowing down at each parking lot entrance to see where we would have the best view of the water. We found a great spot where the sand runs over the edge of the asphalt and the dunes frame a glorious view of the gulf waters. As we pulled into the parking area we found ourselves alone. There were no other cars, no people, just sand, waves, and wind. We parked the RV to take advantage of the view and block the bay-side breeze, then set out the chairs, made lunch, and enjoyed our private beach.
The Santa Rosa Day Use Park is one of five National Seashore parks in this area and is situated between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach. In season, there is an entrance fee for the Pavillion areas, but we were quite happy at the deserted parking areas beyond the Pavillions. The Santa Rosa area is also a "pack in, pack out" park, which means there are no trash cans - you take home whatever you brought in, and leave the beach in its pristine state. That was fine with us, and we were grateful for the unspoiled look of the place.
Birds abound, and we saw herons, seagulls, terns, and sandpipers. The jellyfish washed up on the beach was a bit of a surprise. They were quite large- about the size of a grapefruit, with multi-colored sails and tentacles. A few young seabirds picked at smaller jellies, but stepped gingerly around the larger specimens -as did we! Quite an unusual "litter" problem, but we managed a good long walk on the beach near the surf, dodging the jellies as they washed in after the night's storm.
The sand dunes are a lovely sight themselves, rising up from the beach in groups dotted with sea oats bowing in the breeze. The sand is fine and white - "sugar sand" as our host put it, and indeed it has that same texture. The waters are clean and clear turquoise in color when the sun is bright and turn to a brooding gray when the clouds move in. Surf was gentle during our stay and the water too cold for us to venture in deeper than our ankles, but in summer, the Gulf waters are quite warm and tranquil providing a great shallow area for swimming and paddle boarding.
Just a note to beach lovers; this particular beach area does not seem to have many shells. It could have been the time of year or the gentle surf, but there were few large shells. Most of what we found were tiny clam and scallop shells and many broken larger shell pieces. We did, however, find a perfect little sand dollar!