Pensacola's Natural Lure
From the "Canoe Capital of Florida" to the world's largest artificial reef, the Pensacola Bay Area's outdoor offerings attract and amaze everyone from fun-loving kids to serious sports and nature enthusiasts. Pack your paddle, tackle and binoculars and head to the northern Gulf coast for a vacation on the wild side.
On the Bayou
The Nature Conservancy calls Pensacola a hotspot for biodiversity, and you'll see that at its best along the area's bays and bayous. Flats fishing fanatics have quiet coves to themselves, with seagrass beds in the shallows teeming with marine life. Kids will marvel at the tiniest of fish in these estuarine nurseries as you troll to a sweet spot for a tussle with a mature redfish. Go with a local guide and your bait, tackle and licenses are covered.
Explore the estuarine edge on foot for a bounty of birds and a touch of the bizarre (and fascinating) – fields of carnivorous and colorful pitcher plants. These endangered beauties thrive along the trails at Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park, Yellow River Marshes and Garcon Point Preserve. Keep looking up: since 1916, dedicated birders have tallied more than 400 species in this region. Big Lagoon State Park is the western gateway of the Great Florida Birding Trail, where you'll find common loons, black-bellied plovers, flickers and spring migrants like the yellow-billed cuckoo.
Up the Creek
Thompson Bayou on the University of West Florida campus is the centerpiece of a 1,600-acre nature preserve, where an easy walk on the half-mile Edward Ball Nature Trail lets the family watch wildlife together. From the boardwalk beneath the cypresses, spot turtles swimming and egrets fishing, and see if you can find Captain Thunder, the resident three-legged alligator.
Nearby Milton is the "Canoe Capital of Florida," thanks to the abundant rivers and creeks in the 209,000-acre Blackwater River State Forest. Visit Adventures Unlimited for guided trips and rentals, including tubing and rafting down Coldwater Creek, kayaking the challenging shoals of Juniper Creek, and canoeing and camping along the sandy beaches of the Blackwater River.
Down the Hatch
One of the Gulf of Mexico's deepest natural bays, Pensacola Bay is a sailor's destination. Since 1969, Lanier Sailing Academy has taught thousands how to sail vessels from 22-50 feet long. Experienced skippers can rent a Capri or Catalina, or charter a Beneteau to explore the coastline. At Key Sailing on Pensacola Beach, pick up basic sailing instruction with your Hobie Cat rental, or take a sea kayak out to the flats – and be sure to pack your fly rod for the speckled trout.
Inshore, bluefish and pompano put up a fight. Offshore, expect stellar deep-sea fishing for grouper, red snapper, cobia and mahi mahi. Charter captains can take you to their favorite hotspots, or you can take the family to the Pensacola Beach fishing pier, one of the longest on the Gulf of Mexico, to cast a line.
Prefer to see fish beneath the surface? Explore what CNN has dubbed the "Great Carrier Reef" – the U.S.S. Oriskany. Known as The Mighty O, this massive aircraft carrier was "reefed," or sunk, 24 miles ESE of Pensacola Pass to create the world's largest artificial reef. The flight deck is at 137 feet but there's plenty to see above 100 feet, including schools of amberjack and colorful blue angelfish. The Mighty O makes a great spot for both technical and recreational dives. Catch a charter with Scuba Shack (the area's oldest dive shop), MBT Divers (the area's largest dive shop) or Bay Breeze Aquatics Dive Center for this ultimate open-water dive.
Along the Coast
With 52 miles of emerald waves kissing sparkling white beaches, this coast captivates. At Pensacola Beach, the University of West Florida Dunes Preserve (where 1.2 miles of the Florida Trail wind up) boasts undulating dunes with panoramas of Santa Rosa Sound. On the far shore, the rangers at Naval Live Oaks Preserve, Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens lead Junior Ranger Day Camps for more exploration of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
For the backpacker, a walk to Fort Pickens is in order. It's seven miles from the park gate through the shifting sands of this slender peninsula to the historic site and Florida Trail terminus. Naval Live Oaks has nine hiking trails. The Santa Rosa Sound shoreline is popular for people with small children who want to avoid the rough surf at the beach. After a self-guided tour of the fort, pitch your tent at the campground.
For more information on planning your own nature getaway to the Pensacola Bay Area, contact the Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-874-1234 or go to www.visitpensacola.com.