Day Trips from Pensacola: Springs, Parks, Beaches
By Kevin Mims
The hardest part about planning a day trip from Pensacola is narrowing down the choices. Surfing and snorkeling at the beach, splashing in the springs, tubing a lazy river, shopping, museums? Whether you feel like driving 10 miles or 100, a world of possibilities awaits.
Destin, 50 miles
From fishing, beaches, and snorkeling to shopping and entertainment, the ways to spend a day in Destin are endless. The bustling HarborWalk Village is a center of dining, shopping, and entertainment venues with views of the clear water the Emerald Coast is known for. Destin, known as “the world’s luckiest fishing village,” has more than 150 charter fishing boats, so finding a guide to take you to the deep offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico is easy. Anglers will also enjoy the Destin Fishing & History Museum, which houses a rod and reel once owned by Ernest Hemingway.
Gulf Islands National Seashore, 9 miles
Gulf Islands National Seashore spans more than 130,000 acres along the Gulf coast of Florida and Mississippi, and two important areas within the seashore are just a short drive from Pensacola proper: Naval Live Oaks Area and historic Fort Pickens. The majestic oaks of Naval Live Oaks Area in Gulf Breeze once provided timber for building the U.S. Navy’s warships. Now, the area offers 7.5 miles of scenic hiking and sweeping views of the water from an observation deck near the visitor center. History buffs will love Fort Pickens, which was built in the 1800s to protect Pensacola Bay and the mainland from foreign attacks.
Ponce de Leon Springs, 92 miles
There’s no better way to beat the summer heat than jumping into a cool Florida spring. Named for the explorer who famously sought a fountain of youth, Ponce de Leon Springs has long been a favorite place among Floridians for a day of swimming, picnicking, and fishing. Visitors should be prepared to see lots of wildlife along the Sandy Creek and Spring Run hiking trails. Birders, bring the binoculars: This park is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
Perdido Key, 15 miles
Situated on a narrow piece of land stretching to the Florida-Alabama state line, Perdido Key offers a variety of water activities and is home to important sand dunes and wildlife habitat for several endangered species, including four types of sea turtles, which come to shore to dig their nests during the summer months. Perdido Key State Park has nearly two miles of white sand beaches, where visitors can fish, swim, surf, and shell to their hearts’ content.
Blackwater River State Park, 37 miles
If you’re looking for a unique and tranquil outdoors destination, Blackwater River State Park is the place. The park offers an array of outdoor activities including kayaking, canoeing, tubing, hiking, fishing, and picnicking. The tannic river itself is not black as the name would suggest but clear and tea-colored and flanked by high riverbanks and white sandbars along its winding route. Tubing and paddling the river give visitors stunning views of Blackwater River State Forest.
Coldwater Creek, 45 miles
Coldwater Creek is another big paddling destination that flows through Blackwater River State Forest, which encompasses more than 200,000 acres in all. The paddling trail at Coldwater Creek is 19 miles long, but visitors can choose shorter trips if they wish. With its lazy current and cool, clear tannic water, Coldwater Creek is an ideal tubing spot in the summer. Tubing rentals are available through Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center, which is also a great spot for camping, ziplining, and group retreats.
DeFuniak Springs, 82 miles
The charming small town of DeFuniak Springs is known for its historic architecture, from the buildings at Florida Chautauqua Campus, a Victorian-era resort, to Hotel DeFuniak, a former Masonic Lodge, circa-1920. The town also hosts several festivals throughout the year, including Marvel of Flight, a two-day event during which pilots descend on DeFuniak Springs Airport and put their vintage airplanes on display. During Christmas Reflection, which starts after Thanksgiving and ends New Year’s Eve, millions of lights illuminate the historic buildings around spring-fed Lake DeFuniak, drawing visitors from near and far to see the shimmering spectacle.
Fort Walton Beach, 41 miles
White sand beaches, charter fishing, restaurants, craft breweries, shopping — Fort Walton Beach has all that and more. Its busy downtown area has something for everyone and stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico to boot. Fort Walton Beach is also big on cultural preservation and learning; visitors can step back in time and explore the area’s history at Heritage Park & Cultural Center, which includes Civil War exhibits and Indian Temple Mound, Camp Walton Schoolhouse, and Garnier Post Office museums. After that, head seven miles north to the Air Force Armament Museum, where visitors can learn all about military equipment and aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force.
Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park, 71 miles
Like much of this part of Florida, Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park southeast of Niceville has a military history. In World War II it was a bombing and gunnery practice range, but now it’s a place to boat, camp, bike, hike, and relax. Through the park, boaters have access to Rocky Bayou, Choctawhatchee Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. Anglers can catch a variety of fish there, including flounder, mullet, and trout. Kayak rentals are available at the park. Visitors can explore three paved miles of the park by bike. On foot, explore about three miles of some of the most scenic hiking around on the Rocky Bayou, Red Cedar, and Sand Pine trails.
Blackwater Heritage State Trail, 24 miles
For a laid-back adventure on two wheels, pack up the bikes and head to Milton, home of the Blackwater Heritage State Trail. Users can bike, walk, skate, or even ride horses along the 8.1-mile trail that takes users north through the countryside and over creeks until it runs into the Military Heritage Trail outside U.S. Naval Air Station Whiting Field, which is another 1.5 miles. Bike rentals are available at the Milton Trailhead.