By Janet K. Keeler
Hawkins Recreational Park in Northwest Florida’s Santa Rosa County has a new lease on life. And that rejuvenation has brought with it a welcoming place for people, especially children, of all abilities.
Hawkins is not far from the town of Milton (pop. 7,050) and Interstate 10, the busy highway that cuts across the southern United States from Jacksonville to Santa Monica, Calif. Milton sits on the Blackwater River, a 55-mile long tributary that rises in southern Alabama and flows through the Florida Panhandle, dumping into Blackwater Bay, south of Milton and east of Pensacola. From there, the bay mingles with the Gulf of Mexico. While the park’s address is on Bubba Lane, the entrance is on Munson Highway (Country Road 191).
All this geography is nice but for young disabled travelers, the real beauty is being able to fly high in the air on accessible swings and to hold birthday parties under wide shelters that have grills for cookouts. A wheelchair-accessible swing is an unusual feature at most parks but the version at Hawkins opens the door to new experiences.
Hawkins reopened in 2017 after falling into disrepair through storms and vandalism. The Agency for Persons with Disabilities led the charge with other partners for the $93,000 renovation campaign. Besides new equipment and paved walkways, the bathrooms have been renovated.
The land for the 23-acre park was donated by the Herman Calvin Hawkins family to the state in 1977, with the intention that it be accessible for people with disabilities.
Today, visitors to the park can travel the accessible boardwalk overlooking Round Pen Bayou on the Blackwater River. A fishing pier there lets anglers cast a line to catch trout and if they are supremely lucky, the hard-fighting red fish. River anglers bring in bream, catfish and bass.
The boardwalk is the place for bird lovers with binoculars to look to the sky and into the trees for glimpses of blue jays and cardinals. The brilliant red male cardinal is hard to miss as it flits from branch to branch. The Florida Panhandle coastline is an important wintering spot for birds as they migrate south. It’s not uncommon to see woodpeckers, wrens, warblers, herons and all manner of seabirds in the park.
A spring visit to the park will show off the park’s flowering plants and trees, including crape myrtle and magnolias. Still, that might not mean much to a special needs child able to go round-and-round on park equipment for the first time. That’s the serious draw of Hawkins.
For visitors who aren’t planning a picnic or party with refreshments, there are some nearby restaurants to try.
The Blackwater Bistro has indoor and outdoor seating for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch in a 100-year-old-plus house not far from the river. Its wide-ranging bistro menu touts some local specialties including bayou gumbo, crab cakes and grouper dishes. Shrimp and Gouda grits and meatloaf are also on the menu. The café is known for its Sunday brunch, featuring Cajun omelets and crab cake benedicts.
Another place to try is the Shrimp Basket, just off I-10 at the Old Davis Highway as you head toward Pensacola. This is a Southern gulf coast chain that originated in Alabama and is perfect if you are looking for an affordable seafood meal. Enjoy down-home comfort classics like steamed fish, popcorn shrimp and fried whitefish or catfish. Red beans and rice plus shrimp etouffee (remember, you aren’t all that far from Louisiana) and a variety of po’ boy sandwiches are served up quickly here. Wash it all down with a big glass of sweet tea, for sure.
A little sustenance and a drive back to Hawkins Recreational Park for another turn around the boardwalk or ride on the swings. There just may be a cardinal waiting for you.
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