Gulf Islands National Seashore extends 160 miles along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida and Mississippi. More than 80 percent of the national seashore (the largest of ten in the United States) is underwater. Dry ground is found on six pristine barrier islands boasting sugar-white beaches and coastal forests. The protected islands, marshes, and gulf waters are home to 300 species of birds (some of which migrate hundreds of miles to nest), about a dozen threatened or endangered animal species (including the Perdido Key beach mouse, found only on Perdido Key, Florida), and pods of bottlenose dolphins commonly seen from the beaches. There also are four historic military installations, including Fort Pickens, one of only four forts in the South never occupied by Confederate forces during the Civil War. Inside Tip: Start your trip at one of the Gulf Islands’ three visitors centers: Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, and Davis Bayou.
When to Go: The best times to visit are spring and fall due to the mild temperatures, low humidity, and clear skies. Bird-nesting season begins in spring, and sea turtles hatch in fall. Visitors center hours are daily from 8.30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. year-round, while day-use area hours vary by season.
Must Dos: Gulf currents can be strong, so choose a designated swim area at Johnson, Langdon, Opal, or Perdido Key beaches for swimming. If visiting with small children, play in the calm, shallow waters of Santa Rosa Sound in the Naval Live Oaks area east of Gulf Breeze. Go birding, camping, fishing, or kayaking, and tour Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas. Best Bet: At Naval Live Oaks, hike one of the nine trails or bike the 2.5-mile paved section of a 40-mile bike loop. Walk behind the visitors center to access more than 7.5 miles of trails, including the short Breckenridge Nature Trail (0.8 miles).
Fun Fact: There are seven species of sea turtles and four (loggerhead, green, Kemp's ridley, leatherback) are known to nest on Gulf Island beaches from May to October. Loggerhead nests are the most common, but in May 2015 Santa Rosa Island documented its first leatherback nest since 2000.
Photograph by Matt Moyer, National Geographic
Big Lagoon State Park
Big Lagoon State Park near Pensacola has the usual array of outdoor activities: hiking, birding, wildlife-watching, camping, crabbing, and sunbathing on small beaches. What many visitors don’t realize is that this also is a geocaching site. Embark on an electronic treasure hunt using a GPS locator or phone app to tour 655 upland acres of saltwater marshes and pine flatwoods. The geocaches hidden in Big Lagoon are part of a geocaching trail of 69 hidden objects in Florida state parks. Inside Tip: Before your visit, create an account at geocaching.com and enter Big Lagoon’s zip code, 32507. To document your geocache finds at all Florida state parks, download an official tracking sheet.
Photograph by Carlton Ward, Jr.
Blackwater River State Forest
Blackwater River State Forest north of Milton is one of Florida’s largest state forests, yet it's relatively unused. Protected within the park’s 210,000 acres are open stands of longleaf pine and wire grass, bottomland hardwoods, and Atlantic white cedar along the stream banks. Running through the forest is the Blackwater River, which starts in Alabama, winds through the park, and empties into Blackwater in Milton. Camp, hike, and wildlife-watch, fish in three freshwater lakes, or swim in several man-made ponds. Watch for threatened species, such as gopher tortoises, white-topped pitcher plants, and red-cockaded woodpeckers, whose breeding-pair numbers in the forest have grown sixfold since 1998 due to a habitat protection program. Inside Tip: The forest features nine recreation areas, most with full-service campsites (electricity, water, restrooms, and showers).
Yellow River Marsh Aquatic Preserve
Yellow River Marsh Aquatic Preserve in Santa Rosa County is a regional hot spot for recreational fishing. Since the preserve encompasses both estuarine and riverine areas, you can catch both freshwater and saltwater fish in its 10,000 submerged acres. Fishing, boating, kayaking, and canoeing are favorite activities. Nearby conservation lands also allow for hiking, bird-watching, and camping. Plan to visit in the morning to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and high winds. Inside Tip: Public access points for boating are located on all sides of Yellow River Marsh Aquatic Preserve. If you want to kayak or canoe, however, use the put-ins on the Yellow River and the primitive launch at the Yellow River Wildlife Management Area, which are best suited for smaller watercraft.