Florida Trail – Santa Rosa Island, Florida

To use sports vernacular, this was an away game. We were outside our eastern deciduous forest region, with the trees and plants that I have spent a lifetime studying. We would be hiking on a barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico.

Santa Rosa Island is a 40 mile long barrier island located in the western Florida panhandle region, bordered on the north by Choctawhatchee Bay at its eastern end, by Pensacola Bay on its western tip, and with Santa Rosa Sound of the Intracoastal Waterway connecting the two. It is perhaps better known by the gulf front and vacation communities that make up a small part of the island’s overall land mass: Okaloosa Island, Navarre Beach, and Pensacola Beach. In addition, there are a few military structures on the Eglin Air Force Base portion near Okaloosa Island, but otherwise the island is largely made up of undeveloped barrier island Coastal Dune ecosystem. This includes three areas of one of my favorite destinations, Gulf Islands National Seashore: Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, and Fort Pickens.

The Florida Trail is a 1000 mile long US National Scenic Trail the begins at Big Cypress National Preserve near Miami and ends at Fort Pickens in the Gulf Island National Seashore. It crosses from the panhandle mainland to Santa Rosa Island at the Navarre Bridge. It becomes a beach walk at the National Seashore, the only US National Scenic Trail to do so. Upon leaving the National Seashore it crosses Highway 399 and for 3.7 miles traverses a secondary dune ecosystem that is present on the Dune Preserve, a conservation area co-managed by the Santa Rosa Island Authority and the University of West Florida.

As a rule, conservationists advise against walking on sand dunes as it will damage them. This trail follows that guideline and meanders between and around the dunes that make up this preserve.

My first exposure to this area was in 2003 and I was amazed by the beauty of the dunes and ecosystem as we drove Highway 399 from Navarre, which is mid island, to visit historic Fort Pickens at the western tip. Then in September 2004, this part of Santa Rosa Island was the site of landfall for Hurricane Ivan, a strong category 3 storm, which dramatically altered the landscape. The majority of the dunes and some of highway 399 were washed into Santa Rosa Sound as noted in the photo below.

Photo credit to Pensacola News Journal

For the past 17 years I have been watching nature work her magic to restore the ecosystem to its former beauty and I was excited to hear about the Florida Trail extension into the Dune Preserve. The trailhead is located in the shadow of a Pensacola Beach high rise condo that borders the preserve and near a parking lot for a dog friendly beach. The trail appears to be lightly traveled so finding its exact direction was a bit of a challenge as the foot steps were erased by the wind and rain. The Florida Trail Association has marked the footpath with upright PVC pipes with painted markings, and once you got used to it, there was always one within view.

At the outset, closer to the road, the dunes were small and mainly involved sea oats and small herbaceous plants.

As you traveled north and approached Santa Rosa Sound, the dunes became bigger and larger trees and shrubs were noted. Some of these were remnants of the pre-Ivan dune network, but they appear to be enlarging and healthy.

The building process can be seen in the layering of sand noted on this large dune.

The trail then traveled east, winding between dunes. Occasionally we would come upon wet lands and water holes that were teaming with little frogs who were tremendously quick and camera shy. When necessary there were little boardwalks to keep hikers off the sensitive areas. This was not a swamp tromp.

Sand Live Oak

One of the foundation species of the dune ecosystem is the Sand Live Oak (Quercus geminata). It is a diminutive cousin of the Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), the archetypal “southern” tree with large swooping lower branches featured in the parks and roadsides of Pensacola, Savannah, and Charleston. This one however lives in harsher environments with near constant wind, salt, little water and poor soils. A specimen the size of a volkswagon could be 100 years old. As noted in some of the photos, including the one below, the tree has a tight structure, is low growing, and is frequently contoured by the constant wind, appearing to lean. This is best seen on the dune in the background of this photo.

The Sand Live Oak has small leathery leaves, similar to the Live Oak, but with edges that curve under, evolutionary features to lessen moisture loss.

And I will include this cutie because everyone likes baby pictures.

Longleaf Pine

The other large plant, which is a relative term in this context, is the Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris). Like the Sand Live Oak its growth is stunted, when compared to specimens on the mainland, due to the harsh conditions of the barrier island. Named for its 10-15 inch needles, it also has large cones that range from 6 to 12 inches. It occurs in clusters on the sound side of the island.

The exciting thing about hiking in ecosystems that you are not all that familiar with are the new species that you get to see and that was certainly the case on Santa Rosa Island. At first glance the landscape looks bi-chromatic, with just the white of the sand and the greens of the pines, oaks and small herbaceous plants. But here colors actually abound on a smaller scale and around every dune you might find a plant, animal or insect that you have never seen before. Unfortunately I have found that my field identification resources are too not useful for barrier island flora and fauna as these are rarer and not covered in the general field guides of “The Eastern United States”. Luckily there are some helpful websites. (Coastal Plain Honeycombhead, Pine Woods Milkweed, Fowler’s Toad, Chapman’s Goldenrod, October Flower, Seaside Gerardia, Gulf Fritillary)

One of the highlights of this hike was meeting up with a bald eagle who was perched in a snag of Longleaf Pine that was probably killed by Hurricane Ivan. He was comfortable with us at about 30 yards and let us go about our endeavors. When we turned around to head back to our van 45 minutes later, we found an osprey sitting on the same branch.

An interesting thing about the dune ecosystem is the textures that you come across, sometimes in clumps, sometimes as isolated plants.

Eventually we met up with an old friend that we have seen on previous hikes in Florida, Florida Rosemary. It looks just like the culinary Rosemary that we are all familiar with, but was not as aromatic as the cultivars. It was however used for culinary purposes historically.

New Plant of the Day

Marsh Pink (Sabatia stellaris) – truly one of the prettiest wildflowers that I have ever seen. It has a broad range, endemic to the Gulf coast and up the eastern seaboard, but only occurs in salt marsh habitats. It is endangered at its northern range of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. It is an annual plant meaning it grows from seed each year. Each of the seed pods seen in the photo would contain approximately 600 seeds.

I was excited to get the opportunity to meander amongst the dunes and I would encourage others to do the same. It is such a unique experience. On a broader note, with so many people vacationing on the Emerald Coast of Florida and Alabama, I would encourage folks to take advantage of their proximity to the Gulf Island National Seashore and do something a little different; see the wild, undeveloped beauty that it has to offer.

Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns with the exception of the aerial photograph of Hurricane Ivan damage.


Location – on route 399 between Gulf Islands National Seashore and Pensacola Beach

Parking – there are formal parking lots near both termini where the Florida Trail enters/exits the Dune Preserve

Facilities – Porto-let at the parking areas

Trail Conditions – due to light traffic it can take some time to find footsteps to follow but the guidance poles are easily visible.

Benches – none on the trail

Kids – should do fine. This would be a great trail to set up a nature scavenger hunt (butterfly, yellow flower, animal tracks, lizard, animal poop, water hole, etc). It will help keep them engaged.

Suggested Paired Hikes – the Fort Pickens campus hosts the northern terminus of the Florida Trail and the environment is different with larger trees, more Osprey, more water.






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