I’d checked once, twice, and even a third time, but they were booked solid. I’d been hoping to try out one of the glamping tents at Coldwater Gardens, since personal circumstances meant I had to travel alone and a landmark birthday was looming. Alas, I’d forgotten one important factor about travel in Northwest Florida in the springtime: Spring Break. So I stayed in a chain hotel down near the interstate, and called the retreat center in the morning to see if I could come visit.
It took trusty Google Maps to guide me to Coldwater Gardens, and I was surprised to see it wasn’t at all far from Adventures Unlimited, another outdoor recreation destination north of Milton. But the contrast couldn’t be more profound. You’ll find no ziplines or canoe rentals at Coldwater Gardens. What you will find is a sense of serenity.
Nick, who helps run the place, met me at the Terrace, a beautiful piece of architecture overlooking the hillside that slopes down towards the creek basin. He explained it was designed locally; I found it reminiscent of the LEED-certified dining hall and gift shop at Naples Botanical Garden. It’s used for retreats, weddings, and workshops, but if none of those are going on during your stay, you can hang out and enjoy the views from the comfortable seating there. He printed off a brand new map of the trails and pointed out which ones would be best for me to tackle in the time I had available, and encouraged me to walk through the organic gardens on my way to the trailhead at the bottom of the hill.
Passing the shitake mushrooms growing on oak logs, I came to some swings where families were hanging out, watching their kids play on the nearby playground. They were all having a great time – they’d camped by the creek the night before – and were taking their time about leaving. That seemed to be the thought echoed among everyone I met while I roamed around: they liked it so much they didn’t want to leave.
The gardens themselves only take up a few acres of nearly 350 acres along Coldwater Creek, and use techniques such as hydroponics and aquaponics to grow a lot in a little space, including fish. Nick told me that they sold their veggies at the Palafox Farmer’s Market in Pensacola and to restaurants in the area.
The trail system begins at the base of the hill. Intersections and important points are numbered to match a map. Each of the trails has a name, although as of yet there aren’t any signs telling you which is which. After walking the trails, I suggested a few improvements such as blazing and more signage. But they’ve done an impressive job of carving out a smooth trail through some tough terrain – titi and gum swamp – that separates the pine savannas from the hardwoods along Coldwater Creek. It’s dry right now, but some of these trails will get very wet in the wet season.
The trails meet up with the roads that visitors use to access the camping areas along Coldwater Creek. Three large sandbars frame the camping zone, where tent camping is allowed on the sand, and the creek is right there for splashing and swimming. A tent platform on the bluff provides a place for larger free-standing tents.
After completing a 2-mile loop through the Creek Trail, Cypress Trail, and Sundew Trail – the closest trails to the parking area near the Terrace – I drove down to the farthest point on the creek, passing the glamping tents along the way. They are situated in a semi-circle on a bluff above a pine savanna. The eco-friendly cabins are in the woods on the hillside above them. All of the facilities looked spiffy and inviting, which made me doubly sorry I couldn’t book a stay because they were so busy with families during Spring Break.
Reaching the creek, I could hear a family up the trail where children where splashing and playing in the water. The South Sandbar is the most appealing place I saw to pitch a tent. But I wasn’t here for the view, although the ancient cedars along the bluff caught my eye. I’d seen on the map that this was the location of the Sarracenia Trail, and for those in the know, that’s the scientific name for the pitcher plant family. At this time of year, they are in bloom.
Following another path to reach the trail, I noticed tiny blooms at my feet, and realized they were coming from a type of sundew – another carnivorous plant – I’d never spotted before. I took the left fork of the Sarracenia Trail first and found no pitcher plants, just a dead end at a pond formed by an old oxbow of the creek. Heading back in the opposite direction, I almost stepped on the profusion of white-topped pitcher plants in the trail. Unfortunately, the drought hasn’t made them very happy, so most were dried out or barely hanging on, with no blooms to be seen.
But to my great surprise, I rounded a bend and discovered a treasure trove of Sarracenia rosea in its own little bog. Known as the Gulf purple pitcherplant, it’s certainly not a common one, and distinctive with the pinkish tint to its blooms. They are a subspecies of Sarracenia purpurea, which was present with lots of reddish blooms to be seen among the greenery of the bog.
I’ll admit I spent several hours roaming around Coldwater Gardens, when I only had time for an hour to take a peek at it. That changed the rest of my plans for the trip, but that was quite alright. This is a magical spot. Owned by a local family, they’ve found an excellent way to balance agritourism, camping, and keeping the bounty of nature on their acreage wild yet accessible to visitors. I wish we had more private nature retreats like this in Florida, especially with their reasonable prices for cabins and camping. I look forward to coming back someday for a stay, with my husband, our bicycles, and our kayaks in tow.
If you go
Coldwater Gardens is a privately owned nature retreat northeast of Pensacola, Florida. They welcome day visitors if they are not busy with an event, so be sure to call ahead before showing up on their doorstep: 850-426-1300. Six miles of trails (some hiking only, some open to bikes) provide a variety of loop hike options through natural habitats. For now, there is no charge to visit. While children are welcome, pets are not.
Of course, if you book accommodations with them, you are welcome to roam the property as well. Weekends are busier than weekdays, and their pricing reflects a nice discount for weekday stays. Budget conscious travelers can bring their own tent and primitive camp along Coldwater Creek for $20 per night. Platform tent camping also gives you creek access with a fire ring and benches for $35-50. The Glamping tents run $75-85, and the eco-friendly climate controlled cabins start at $135. There are no accommodations for vans/campers/RVs. Prices are as of April 2017.