As we crossed over the bridge at Navarre, across Santa Rosa sound, to Santa Rosa island, we had to squish against the side railing of the bridge for bicyclists who couldn’t manage to get off and walk their bike and share the path and fisherman reluctant to move their poles. Where’s the common courtesy?! We picked our poles up off the grate that was beneath our feet and I pretended I couldn’t see below and notice the ocean. Somehow over the years I’ve developed a small fear of heights, nothing big, only if I think hard about it do I get a little nutty. I was glad to get off the bridge and onto Santa Rosa island.
The island is loaded with condos, a few restaurants and tourists of course. We appeared slightly out of place as we did in any city we walked through. After a quick restroom break at a gas station we kept walking our sidewalk hike through Santa Rosa island, through the condos and past the joggers and walkers and people with dogs. It was about 3.5-4 miles before we found the beach full-on.
We’d made it to Gulf Islands National Seashore! Here we’d be walking on the beach if we so chose or along the road and at some point we’d leave the beach and dip into the dunes for awhile. We knew we were choosing to stop our day at that cross over and for the sake of time that day we didn’t walk on the beach and chose the road instead.
I would have expected this to be a more crowded area but I suppose in February the beach isn’t a popular destination even in Florida. I would hate to see this at spring break! For the next while we’d be on the beach until we hit the town of Pensacola Beach and then back into primitive beach areas again.
It was slightly overcast which was nice and kept the sun from beating down on us as we walked west. The dunes were beautiful, but were wrecked by hurricane Ivan seven years ago, so traces of the destruction were seen everywhere. Pieces of asphalt were thrown into the dunes from the old road and where old worn oak trees once stood, many were now dead from the salt water inundation. I was excited be walking along this stretch, finally we were at the beach!
Along the way Chris’ dad drove by to see how we were and then went further back to find Speaker so he could give him his bag for the night. We were well ahead of Speaker but had already made plans to meet up at some point during the following day so we could finish together. Speaker had been planning to get a ride with us for a bit until he could be dropped off a convenient place to hitchhike back to the Alabama connector and wait for the group several days behind us.
There aren’t many convenient places to hide behind a dune or tree to take a tinkle but luckily there are a few parking lot areas with restrooms along the way. Some were closed and I had to dash across the street to find one that was open. Along the way we’d run into a few people asking what we were doing and then we’d give them the low-down on the FT. Some offered us rides, of course we could’ve used them at other times but this time we were squared away with a ride.
Another gigantic chunk here. We headed off down the road in our first car ride since our stop in Blountstown. I was excited to be heading for a bed and a good dinner. That night we polished off large plates of Mexican food and retired to a luxurious bed. It’s funny, I kept thinking in my head that we were going to be getting up at 2a.m. to hike up 4,000K in three hours for a summit instead of hiking 18 miles along a beach for a noon-time arrival at Fort Pickens. I couldn’t get it out of my head, I kept thinking we were going to be having this spectacular finale and arrive at Katahdin in the morning! Hah!
We did get up at the crack of dawn, mostly to get a roll on the day and try to avoid some of the sun. We were at the drop off by 6am having gotten our McDonald’s for breakfast and having got some for Speaker as well.
It was a beautiful morning for a walk on the beach, but the wind was howling and I’d left my warm hat in the hotel and had to rig up a bandanna for my ears. We’d been dropped off and had taken these photos when shortly after we saw Speaker trekking down the beach. He’d stopped shorter than he’d thought and had gotten up earlier in order to meet us at the dune switchover. We gave him his breakfast which he quickly ate and we headed for the dune walk.
We weaved up and around dunes and though I thought it might be tough to walk, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I envisioned.
Along the way we found an area of pines on the bay side of the dunes and eventually the path wound through that. We saw two other people out there exploring and also found a Leave No Trace campsite run by Escambia county. I was surprised to see this and a little sad we didn’t know about it because it would’ve been really cool to sleep in the dunes.
Eventually we reemerged onto the sidewalk just east of Pensacola beach. We planned to stop at a gas station for a last soda stop and rest when we got into town. We passed a school located on the beach—how cool would it be to teach/go to school there? The playground had a view of the ocean! Eventually we came to the heart of the beach town and stopped at a gas station where we relaxed for a bit on the parking curb. Inside I got a last guilt free soda and cookie and after talking to one of the other patrons inside the store about the FT he came out and talked for us for a bit about the trail. Then another person came out and started talking to us about the FT and said he’d considered it until he heard about the roadwalks, which we confirmed and then we found out that he was also an Aggie! Chris and I both wore our Aggie rings so we were easy to identify in that way.
Back on the sidewalk jungle we kept our pace towards the west, aiming for Fort Pickens. Soon we left town once again and were back at GINS where we prepared for the beach walk after a last bathroom stop.
It was an awesome walk, too! I am so glad we were walking on the beach because it was beautiful! Portuguese man ‘o war were washed up everywhere. Oh, I should also note that throughout the whole beach walk we did see small remnants of the BP oil spill in the form of workers left to respond to any issues that might arise.
For the most part we chose to walk on the wetter sand, dodging waves as they came to shore.
And then we spotted our first sea turtle washup. This green didn’t appear to have any blunt trauma damage so perhaps it was oil spill related. No one was around but I had noted where we were in the dunes, near a particularly vegetated dune area, so we could tell someone once we got to Fort Pickens.
We jumped back onto the road so we wouldn’t miss the turns that were coming up once we arrived at Fort Pickens. When we finally started seeing buildings we thought we’d have to pay but it turns out we must’ve bypased the pay station back on the road when we’d initially walked on the beach.
Some of the bunkers that were around the area, built into the dunes. We crossed the road here and went to follow some trails through the park on the back side of the island. Another stop at a restroom before we carried on our way. Here we followed a closed access dirt road and then some small trails through scrub vegetation and along a few salt marshes. We crossed through a campground with full of large RVs and got a few weird looks as we walked through. Another couple of bunkers were passed and then all of a sudden it seemed we were at the end of the line.
There was a large parking lot and a sign and that was it. The end of the Florida Trail. No awesome sign delineating how far it was to Loop Road, no spectacular view, just a parking lot and Fort Pickens itself to the south of the lot. It would’ve been much more awesome to end at the tip of the beach or on Fort Pickens itself.
Chris’ dad and step-mom arrived shortly after and brought us our sandwiches from Subway where we sat in the breezeway near the giftshop eating our lunch. We stopped into the giftshop for a bit to check out what was there, got a piece of paper stamped with the Florida Trail and Fort Pickens on it for a souvenir. Then we decided to check out the fort itself.
We all piled in the car and headed for the hotel where we said goodbye to Speaker and hoped we’d see him again one day. He was planning on hiking for at least another month to piddle around at Trail Days in Damascus and then head to work before starting another adventure later on this year.
I feel like at the end of the AT we had some time to decompress and understand the hike, staying in Maine for a few days and taking it all in. Here it just seemed to end and there wasn’t really anyone to bounce off the whole affect of the trail, fellow hikers and such. It was just over.
That night we went and got a good seafood dinner on the beach and a few touristy trinkets. We took Ridley and Panther to the beach for photographs since we’d forgotten to it when we were there the first time.
I will probably do a final thoughts post on the FT in a few days with some of the suggestions I sent to the FTA and our overall thoughts on the trail. It was definitely a different experience than the AT!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading our long distance hiking adventures!