By Janet K. Keeler
Nature has the power to restore our weary souls, but getting up close and personal to that healing potential can be difficult for people who use wheelchairs. At the very least, some planning is required.
Hiking trails are often unpaved, uneven and hilly, and in Florida many of them are sandy, which means thin wheels, whether they be on bicycles or wheelchairs, are easily stuck.
Gulf Islands National Seashore in the Florida Panhandle and some nearby locations offer several paved trails that are more easily negotiated by wheelchairs. In addition, there are places to rent beach wheelchairs whose balloon tires can make a beach day a perfect day. And there’s not much point of visiting this part of Florida without a stop on the glorious, sugar-sand beaches.
Gulf Islands National Seashore bridges Florida and Mississippi, stretching some 150 miles along the Gulf of Mexico coast. This is one of the few national parklands that calls two states home.
In Florida, the nearest major city to Gulf Islands is Pensacola. The city has lots of accommodations for those who want to enjoy the scenery but want to stay in a hotel rather than camp. In Mississippi, Gulf Islands is largely a string of barrier islands accessible by boat.
But in Florida, the seashore is reachable by road with intermittent parking lots that include handicapped parking slots.
So what’s to see at Gulf Islands National Seashore? Well, nothing and everything. This stretch of protected gulf is quiet and a visitor needs to slow down to get the full effect of what nature is bringing. And, get this, more than 80 percent of the designated parkland is underwater, stretching about a mile out into the azure water of the Gulf. The watery portions are a draw for divers, snorkelers, anglers and boaters. For the most part, though, we will stay on land to enjoy the park. The diverse ecological communities include beaches, dunes, freshwater and salt marches and wooded areas.
There are more than 280 species of birds within Gulf Islands’ boundaries so bring a pair of binoculars along. Bird checklists are available at park visitor centers and the folks at the Interpretation Division in nearby Gulf Breeze there would love a phone call (850-934-2600) to report unusual or new sightings. The bird checklist will help in determining that.
Just like winter human visitors, the parkland is a hot spot for migrating birds when the temperatures elsewhere turn frigid. Who doesn’t like balmy Florida in January? Winter tends to be the best time to spy American Oystercatchers, all sorts of terns (tricolored, least, gull-billed, sandwich) plus playful and seasonal sparrow varieties. Year-round bird watching includes herons, egrets and ospreys. Brown pelicans and painted buntings are commonly spotted in spring and fall as they migrate to and from South America. These are the seasons, too, in which the Gulf of Mexico is at its clearest.
One of the best birding spots is along the Davis Bayou trail, which is on the Mississippi side of the park. To find out how much of the trail is paved and the best places to access it, stop into the William M. Colmer Visitor Center in Ocean Springs to get a map and see the exhibits.
Other visitor centers back on the Florida side of Gulf Islands can get you acquainted with the accessible trails there. Perdido Key and Naval Live Oaks will be your best bets. Some of the paved trails are less than a mile but they give visitors a taste of the tree canopies that shade the area for much of the year.
Park headquarters is at Naval Live Oaks in Gulf Breeze on a barrier island across Pensacola Bay and about seven miles from Pensacola. Another bridge takes visitors to Pensacola Beach from here. It's not open to visitors, but from the parking lot you can access more than 7.5 miles of trails, including the paved Breckenridge Nature Trail which is just less than a mile. The area also offers covered pavilions, outdoor exhibits and water access.
The Florida National Scenic Trail is a 1,330-mile trailway that begins at Fort Pickens in Gulf Breeze and ends at Big Cypress National Preserve in the Florida Everglades. Some 28 miles of the trail cross the Gulf Island National Seashore. This is the only part of the trail that follows the coastline and it is mostly on a paved public bike path along Pensacola Beach.
Outside of the national seashore are several paved trails including the 2.9-mile, out-and-back Bayou Marcus Birding Trail near Pensacola and the half-mile Tarkiln Bayou Trail at Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park, north of Perdido Key on the mainland. The bayou trail is an elevated boardwalk that winds through prairie plus cypress and tiki forests. It ends at an observation area.
Back in Gulf Islands, there are two historic forts, Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens, within the borders of the park. Both were part of the coastal defense system along the gulf in the mid-1800s. Because of their historic nature, accessibility isn’t 100 percent but they both have visitor centers.
At Fort Pickens, on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, there are hands-on exhibits and the videos that feature the area’s natural and cultural attributes. The centers are accessible. There is a paved walkway down to the beach from the discovery center and another branch leads to the fishing pier, which can also be negotiated by wheelchairs. This is the spot to haul in red snapper. ‘Bout Time Charters in Pensacola Beach offers fishing excursions for anglers who need adaptive accommodations.
Not so keen on catching your dinner? There are a number of restaurants in the beach towns west of Fort Pickens that feature fish, including Peg Leg Pete’s (get the smoked yellowfin fish spread) and Flounder’s Chowder House (ask about what they have fresh from the gulf). Flounder’s also has a summer concert series and live music throughout the year. Their website has an accessibility statement about their efforts.
Florida’s beaches are some of the best in the world. Visitors in need of beach wheelchairs can check them out at Johnson Beach in the Perdido Key area and at Langdon Beach at Fort Pickens. Rangers and volunteers can provide information. It’s a good idea to call ahead and ask if the wheelchairs are available and what type they have. Most common are the De-Bug Beach Wheelchair and the Landeez, which is an all-terrain wheelchair. The Scooter Hut on Pensacola Beach rents beach wheelchairs and Access Mobility of Pensacola rents motorized beach wheelchairs with a delivery option. Ask them about how the motorized chairs perform on trails.
Gulf Islands National Seashore is one of Florida’s loveliest locations to enjoy nature. Paved trails and other adaptive services make it more accessible to travelers of varying mobility abilities.