This was a return trip to the Florida Trail on the Dune Preserve. We had hiked the western section in September 2021 and we wanted to complete this part of the trail by hiking the eastern section.
The Florida Trail is a 1,500 mile scenic hiking trail that stretches from Big Cypress National Preserve just north of the Everglades, to the western tip of Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola. It crosses public and private lands and utilizes some road right-of-ways along its route.
The Florida Trail crosses onto Santa Rosa Island via the bridge at Navarre, and then utilizes the bike path that runs along the main road in the resort city. In total it spans approximately 30 miles on Santa Rosa Island but we were only going to hike the section that crosses the Dune Preserve.
One of the unique things about this hike is the outstanding scenery one experiences as they drive toward the Dune Preserve . Driving west on SR 399 out of Navarre, almost immediately you enter the Santa Rosa Island segment of Gulf Islands National Seashore, and the beauty of the unspoiled landscape is striking. Large rolling dunes flush with Sea Oats dancing in the coastal breezes.
This segment of the National Seashore is approximately 15 miles long and has several parking areas to allow access to the beaches. Through the National Seashore, the Florida Trail runs along the beach, between the dunes and the Gulf of Mexico, the only part of the Trail that is oceanfront.
Shortly after leaving the National Seashore, the Florida Trail crosses SR 399 to the bay side of the island, and enters the Dunes Preserve. This is the part of the trail that we came to hike. We see the PVC pipes with orange markings that mark the route of the trail through what some would consider a barren landscape – but for me it is a naturalist’s Utopia.
We parked in the next beach access lot and crossed SR 399 where an apparent service access “road” allowed us to cross the preserve toward the Santa Rosa Sound of the Intercoastal Waterway. This route was marked by white PVC pipes with blue markings.
The Dune Preserve is co-managed by the Santa Rosa Island Authority and University of West Florida. It was the site of landfall for Hurricane Ivan, and as noted in my first article on the Preserve, the area is undergoing a natural recovery from that trauma. It is in fact part of the research being performed there. (There is a link to the first article at the end of this post).
Early on we were entrenched in the Coastal Dune Ecosystem of small herbaceous plants and Sea Oats.
As you get further from the Gulf of Mexico, and closer to the Santa Rosa Sound, the dunes get larger and small shrubs are noted. It was in this area that we found skeletal remains of a sea turtle. The exposed portion measured over 2 foot in length and there were tiny footprints surrounding it, suggesting that small mammals were gnawing on the bones as a source of calcium.
Eventually the blue marked trail, which runs south/north, intersected with orange marked Florida Trail running east/west. Woody plants like Longleaf Pine and Sand Live Oak are more numerous, but have stunted growth due to the harsh environment of life on a barrier island. We initially opted to remain on the blue trail as it headed to Santa Rosa Sound, offering some outstanding views across the waterscape.
We turned right and headed east along the shoreline, thinking that the two trails might intersect again.
Here, nestled amongst the trees and lying cattywampus on the first row of bayside dunes, we found concrete and cinder block remnants of some large structure. Noted were pipes that allowed water to flow from one chamber to another. We theorized that it was some type of sewage treatment facility.
When I inquired about it, the Santa Rosa Island Authority communicated that it “was part of a privately owned, decommissioned sewer treatment structure, in existence before commercial water/sewer service was made available to residents. Those sections of the plant washed ashore, at the current location, likely after Hurricane Erin or Opal in the 1990s.” It is hard to fathom the forces that it would take to relocate such a structure miles from its original location.
We continued along the shore, with Santa Rosa Sound to our left and grasses, reeds and wetlands to our right.
Eventually we reached a relative “land’s end”, where a Needlerush estuary to our right prohibited us from venturing further in our attempt to meet up with the Florida Trail.
As we backtracked the pace was slower and allowed us to study things more closely. We were intrigued by numerous towers that organisms had built of sand.
We also saw this small crab effectively camouflaged amongst the natural flotsam along the shore.
About the same time we noted this Swamp Sparrow atop a heavily fruited Yaupon Holly.
To give you a measure of the abundance of wildlife we saw, in the short time that the photographer was capturing images of the sparrow, she by happenstance also caught both a Monarch and dragonfly passing through the field of view.
When we returned to the intersection of the two trails, we headed east on the Florida Trail, weaving around and over the large dunes. The dunes were taller and the elevation change allowed for more robust plant life. The large round plant in mid photo is an 8 foot by 5 foot Sandhill-rosemary.
Along the route we reached an area where the trail just seemed to end, with all seven of us trying to locate a PVC pipe or other marker. Eventually we found a trail cutting through a Needlerush basin, that while moist, did not hold standing water at the time of our visit. It was a little tough on those of us that chose to wear shorts, but manageable.
The floor of this part of the trail hosted numerous snails.
Soon we were rewarded with this panorama from the tops of a series of dunes.
And this view of a hammock of woody plant growth noted amongst the rushes. It is probably a small elevation change, perhaps even just a few inches, that allows for these plants to germinate and grow.
From here we headed southeast back toward SR 399, transitioned into the more barren dunescape, and eventually ambled onto the bike path that parallels the road and would take us back to our van.
One of the more consistent features seen along the trail were the low lying wetlands that are a source of fresh water for wildlife.
Even though this was a late November visit, Santa Rosa Island still had some wildflowers on display:
Coastalplain Goldenaster – typically flowers from late summer to fall but can flower all year round. A Gulf Fritillary butterfly is collecting nectar in the first photo.
Florida Rosemary – also called False Rosemary. It has a milder scent and flavor than our regular rosemary but still can be used for culinary purposes. It is dioecious, with both male and female plants, and therefore not all plants have the showy female flowers.
Tall Jointweed – the wispy nature of this plant, with its tall thin stems, and the prominent black anthers of the flowers are the identifying features. It is an annual that can reach 6 feet in a single season. It is native to much of the northern Gulf Coast but is considered rare and threatened in many locales.
Sandhill Milkweed – also known as Pinewoods Milkweed. It is an important nectar source for many pollinators and its beautifully patterned leaves are a food source for Monarch larvae.
One of the plants that I found interesting was the Florida Native Sumac, also known as Winged Sumac. Like many plants on the barrier island it has a rugged existence and looks worse for wear.
They have compound leaves, excellent fall color as seen here, and wings along the petiolule (central leaf stem). The fruit however is more berry-like than other Sumacs, and do not have the fuzzy covering. Sumac berries contain Vitamin C.
New Plant of the Day – Laurel Greenbrier – While Florida is home to 12 Greenbrier species, this one seems to key out to Laurel Greenbrier, based on the black berries, the submarginal vein that runs along the edge of the leaf, and the way the leaves tend to be held vertically, as seen in the second photo. Interestingly it takes the berries 2 growing seasons to mature. What is the evolutionary advantage of that?
The final special feature of this hike were the myriad of prints that we found in the sand along the trail. Some were obviously larger mammals; perhaps fox, bobcat, and raccoon.
But other prints were more foreign to us – proverbial “Riddles in the Sand“.
In summary, this was another outstanding hike at our home away from home – the Florida Panhandle. I love the challenge of seeing plants that are new to me and enjoy the dune ecosystem itself. It is a intimate dance with nature that I have experienced no where else. Despite completing the stretch of the Florida Trail that crosses the Dune Preserve, I am certain that we will be back. And like the philosopher Heraclitus said about rivers, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” – the same could be said for hikes. Although the trail is the same, the hike will be different. An added plus was that we got to do this hike with our entire family who are all game for an outing like this. Fourteen eyes and ears leads to more discoveries than four.
One last photo. This one, again documenting the migration of a Monarch as it breezes eastward above a Southern Magnolia.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – on Florida SR 399 between Gulf Islands National Seashore and Pensacola Beach.
Parking – there are formal parking lots near both sites where the Florida Trail enters/exits the Dune Preserve.
Facilities – Porto-let at the parking areas.
Trail Conditions – The entire stretch of the Florida Trail through the Dune Preserve is 3.2 miles but seems longer due to the loose sand. If you hike the entire trail and return to your vehicle via the bike trail that runs parallel to SR 399, it would be a little over 5 miles. Due to light use it can take some time to find footsteps to follow but the guidance poles are easily visible.
Benches – two noted on the trail
Kids – should do fine. This would be a great trail to set up a visual nature scavenger hunt (butterfly, yellow flower, animal tracks, lizard, animal poop, water hole, etc). It will help keep them engaged.
Dogs – Welcomed on a leash but the sand can be very hot on their paws.
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, and more water. In addition, Fort Pickens itself is an excellent experience.