All photos: Molly O’Connor
More and more visitors to the Gulf coast are seeking nature encounters when on vacation. Of course there are still the amusement park fans but there is an increasing number interested in visiting “The Real Florida” that our state park system promotes. Actually, I have found that many lifelong residents of the Florida panhandle have not visited many of the scenic natural areas of our state.
There is no doubt that to conserve something you need to love it… and to love it you need to experience it. We think if you visit some of our natural areas you will fall in love with the area and hopefully we can conserve much of it. Nature-based tourism is a way to support the local economy but we need natural areas for this to happen… fishing is not much fun without fish.
So we are going to begin a series of posts highlighting some of the nature-based tourism locations that visitors and locals can enjoy throughout the panhandle – from dunes of the coast to the forest of “north-end”. To begin the series, we will follow the Intracoastal Waterway from the Alabama state line to the Aucilla River (basically the Florida Panhandle). We begin at the western tip… Perdido Key. But first let’s talk about the Intracoastal Waterway itself.
The concept of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) dates back to the 19th century but construction on the northern Gulf section began in 1925. The ICW begins in Brownsville TX along the U.S. coastline to Carrabelle, FL. From here you follow a series of markers across the open Gulf to Anclote Key (near Tampa) where again the inland ICW heads to Ft. Myers. There is a canal that cuts across to Lake Okeechobee, and the east coast of Florida, but many boaters take the Florida Keys route. If crossing the state through the lake you will arrive at Jupiter Inlet on the east coast the ICW which travels north from here to Virginia – a total of about 3000 miles. The waterway was developed to make commercial shipping safer. Plans to cut a canal across north Florida from the Crystal River to the St. Augustine area never happened. The ICW consists of manmade canals, protected lagoons and sounds, and open sections of local bays.
In the Florida panhandle the ICW begins at the state line in Perdido Bay. It follows a narrow section of water north of what the locals call “Old River” between Ono Island AL and Innerarity Point FL. It eventually enters Big Lagoon in Escambia County before crossing the lower portion of Pensacola Bay. It is this portion of the ICW we will focus on in this article.
Perdido Key is a 15-mile-long barrier island stretching from the mouth of Perdido Bay to “Ft. McRae” near NAS Pensacola in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The western end is actually in Alabama. The state line is near Ono Island and the famous Flora-Bama Bar. North of the Key is “Old River”, then Ono Island AL, then the ICW itself, and eventually Innerarity Point FL. For the nature tourist you have miles of white sandy beaches to the south which are great for shell collecting, birding, and fishing. In the summer the beach comber can find ghost crabs, flowers, and maybe a nesting sea turtle. The “river” side of the island has numerous small islets and seagrass beds that offer good birding, snorkeling, and fishing. Be aware though to stay out of the ICW here. It is very narrow and the passing barges are very large. Dive flags are required of snorkelers in Florida. There is a public kayak launch on the north side along “Old River”. Perdido Key is home to the endangered Perdido Key Beach Mouse. Many locals have lived on the island all of their lives and have not seen one… maybe you will be lucky!
As Perdido Key Drive heads north off of the Key you will find a small side road leading to Johnson’s Beach and a section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Just as you turn onto Johnson’s Beach Road you will find Sandy Key Road to the south. There is a public access point here and a public nearshore snorkel reef provided by Escambia County. These Gulf side reefs attract a variety of small reef fish, including many tropicals, as well as larger species such as sheepshead and snapper. Be sure to have your dive flag with you.
The last 12 miles of Perdido Key is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The road only goes about 2 miles of that but you are allowed to hike the rest. The southern shore is more beautiful white beaches and the north is bordered by Big Lagoon. Big Lagoon is pretty shallow and outside the ICW host a lot of seagrass. Here you can snorkel for hours and see fish, crabs, and maybe a scallop or two (they are illegal to harvest here though). Many species of birds can be found here including osprey. There is a short natural trail at the kayak launch on the lagoon side of the park where you can see a variety of dune plants, animal tracks (such as deer), and other wildlife such as coachwhip snakes and the elusive diamondback terrapin. You can paddle from the kayak launch 12 miles to the east point and “Ft. McRae”. Seagrasses, salt marshes, dunes, freshwater ponds, and assorted wildlife can be found here. Back Country Camping is allowed in this portion of the Seashore but you must register at the Ranger station.
As you leave Perdido Key you find Big Lagoon State Park on your left. Located on north shore of Big Lagoon you will find the ICW. This park provides camping, hiking, snorkeling, birding, and kayak rentals. The park has hiking trails and freshwater ponds that harbor a variety of wildlife including species of freshwater turtles. Just down Gulf Beach Highway you will find Southwind Marina, which is home to many charter boats. Also located on Big Lagoon these charters have quick access to offshore reefs in the Gulf of Mexico for those interested in diving and fishing, including trips to hunt the invasive lionfish.
Before you leave the Perdido Key area and head for Pensacola Beach the nature tourist should make a stop at NAS Pensacola. The 150 foot Pensacola Lighthouse is open to the public and the views of the ICW as well as the two barrier islands (Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Island) are wonderful. There is a nature trail aboard NAS called Trout Point which leads you from the main road to the ICW.
Next stop… Santa Rosa Island.