The Naval Live Oaks Area is one piece of the puzzle that is the Gulf Islands National Seashore. It is overseen by the National Park Service, and its mission is to protect important historic and ecological sites stretching from Florida to Mississippi. While most of the preserves are on barrier islands, The Naval Live Oaks Area is on the Florida Panhandle, stretching from Santa Rosa Sound on the south, to Pensacola Bay on the north, and is bisected by US 98.
The federal government acquired Florida from Spain in 1821, and designated this area as a Naval Live Oak Reservation, to provide Live Oak lumber to help build and maintain the U.S. Naval Fleet, which consisted of wooden ships at the time. Mature Live Oaks are massive trees that have long, strong, arching branches. The wood is dense and the grain is unique, giving Live Oak lumber superior strength compared to all other available trees. Live Oaks timbers were used in the support structure of battleships, and the government wanted to make sure that they would continue to have ample supply. The close proximity to the Pensacola Naval Shipyard was important as well. They are called Live Oaks because they have leaves on them year round and therefore always look “alive”. They do in fact lose their leaves from the previous year, but only after the new leaves have apppeared.
We chose the Andrew Jackson Trail because it was new to us and is on a remnant of the first federal highway in Florida, which went from St. Augustine to Pensacola and was constructed in 1824. In addition, compared to the other trails on the National Seashore, this crossed an unusual ecosystem of Sandhill Pine Woodland. The trail is named for Andrew Jackson who was Florida’s first territorial governor.
When one steps on the trail you note the road like feel.
Surprisingly for Florida, the route is relatively hilly, rolling through the sandhill landscape, as noted in the title photo and below.
The flora to either side of the trail is dense, consisting of mostly scrub trees and shrubs like Saw Palmetto, Sand Live Oak, Turkey Oak and a few smaller Southern Magnolia. Initially the trail was relatively devoid of large trees, as it was the sight of landfall for Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which did terrible damage to the mature pines and Live Oaks. What we were seeing was the recovery process with young specimens of these species starting to repopulate the area.
Sand Live Oaks, a cousin of the Live Oak, are small dense trees that inhabit some of the harshest environments on the gulf coast. They have thick leathery leaves that are curved on the edges, features that allow for conservation of water. Here, perhaps a mile from the Gulf coast, they were thriving and looked remarkably unstressed.
This was a mid-morning hike and the temperature was in the lower seventies, but still it was surprisingly hot, as the lack of tree canopy allowed for full sun exposure on this near breezeless day, and areas of loose sand made true work of striding.
Later in the hike we headed north on the Beaver Pond Trail, lured by some Loblolly Pines and the promise of shade.
The glory of this hike was what we saw in the 3 feet between the trail and scrub. We did not see blankets of wildflowers, but instead saw what I would describe as “isolated specimens”, sprinkled along the way.
The first that we saw was Spiderwort, actually seen in our home Ohio Valley region as well. Characteristic for this plant, we saw a range of blossom color, from a pastel blue to deep purple, within a few dozen feet. Historically the plant was used to treat spider bites, hence its name. But what intrigued us most were the pollinators. Is this a cricket or a dinosaur?
Downy False Foxglove – is a hemi-parasite, getting some of its nutrition off the roots of White Oaks. Live Oaks and Sand Live Oaks are members of the White Oak family.
This plant with a minimalist flower is Greater Florida Spurge. This was a new plant to us. Research shows that its native range is only the western Florida Panhandle, the southern few counties of Alabama, and a single county in Georgia on the Florida-Georgia border.
Florida Rosemary is dioecious, having both male and female plants. The pastel purple flowers of the female were prominent along the trail.
Coastal Plain Dawn Flower – Each flower lasts only a part of a day, with new flowers opening at dawn the next day. They are pollinated by small bees, as seen in the second photo, as well as ants.
Gopherweed – it is the host plant for the larval stage of many butterfly species in Florida and common in the sandhill habitat.
Florida Sensitive Brier – this flower reminds me of skyrocket fireworks.
In this photo you can see where it gets the name “sensitive”. The leaflets close up when touched.
As we rounded a turn on the trail, this plant stood out like a traffic light against the green and tan of the understory. Butterfly Milkweed flowers all year long in mainland Florida. It occurs in much of the U.S. east of the Rockies but only flowers in the heat of the summer most places. While a nectar source for many pollinators, it is a vital larval host plant for Monarch and Queen butterflies.
An inconspicuous flower that we saw along the route was that of the Palmetto, a shrub that is relatively ubiquitous wherever we hike in the panhandle. The flowering structure is frequently hidden beneath the large leaves as noted in the first photo. The individual flowers were just starting to open and measured less than 1/8th inch.
The nature of the hike, with wildflowers right along the path, gave the photographer an opportunity to use her macro lens that allows for detailed closed ups. That led to these outstanding photos of the Prickly Pear Cactus flower and a visitor.
Additional close up views included this mushroom, whose cap was the landing zone for sorted trail debris.
Another mushroom that we saw was the Hairy Oyster Mushroom. These are common on rotting wood and here they were on the outer rim of a pine tree stump.
This Northern Hairstreak Butterfly was interesting. We initially thought that it was two butterflies mating, but in fact, we had fallen for its trick. Its tail section is designed so that predators will mistake it for the head, and if attacked, the wings will tear at the “eye spot” near the tail section, and it will get free.
One of the fun sighting that we see when we hike in Florida’s pine woodlands are wild blueberries. Florida is home to 8 species of wild blueberry and we saw at least two of them on this outing. One type was just flowering, looking graceful and worthy of being a garden ornamental.
The other was further along and already setting fruit.
Seeing them thrive so well in the wild is fascinating as I have known many Midwestern gardeners struggle to grow them in our alkaline soil.
And lastly, the final photo of the outing. Early on we had conversed with a hiker who visits this preserve everyday. He told us of 3 Osprey nests on the property. As we were about to exit the trail we caught a glimpse of one through breaks in the understory. The photographer had to do her Dr. Livingston impression, working her way through the understory to get a photo.
In summary, once again the Gulf Islands National Seashore did not disappoint. While this trail habitat is drastically different to its usual barrier island treks, we relished our walk through the Pinehills Woodland habitat. The venue has several different trails and a couple of wetlands so I am looking forward to a return visit, perhaps finding another trailhead on the eastern aspect of the preserve.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – Gulf Islands National Seashore Park Headquarters is at 1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze Fl, 32563. The parking area for this trailhead is a little west of that address, on the north side of US 98, and is accessed by taking the drive to the Boy Scout Camp and maintenance facility (see map above)
Parking – large gravel lot for approximately 30 cars
Facilities – restrooms at a nearby beach/picnic area that is on the shore of Pensacola Bay (see map above)
Trail Conditions – wide and made up of loose and compacted sand
Benches – none on trail
Picnic Tables – many at the nearby beach area
Kids – the loose sand could make for tough going for kids under 8
Dogs – Prohibited