3.4 miles | UWF/SRIA Dunes Preserve | Pensacola Beach
Climbing to the top of a sand dune on a barrier island where you can see both ocean and bay: that’s a rare treat in Florida. At the UWF/SRIA Dunes Preserve on Santa Rosa Island, the Florida Trail traverses a series of coastal habitats cradled by the sweeping dunes, providing a one-of-a-kind 3.4-mile hike.
This is not your typical hike through an oceanfront landscape in Florida, like you’d find at one of our state parks. No, the Florida Trail through this bayside preserve is distinguished by one unusual factor: there is no footpath. Thank the perpetual breezes off the Gulf of Mexico for that. Instead, it’s your job to find your way from one orange-blazed post or pole to the next, continually looking for clues to the route to find the next one. Look up, and you may glimpse orange in the distance. Look down, and you might see the tracks of those who’ve gone before you– it all depends on how much the wind is blowing.
This part of Santa Rosa Island is a coastal desert that the Florida Trail weaves up and over. Drawing close to Santa Rosa Sound, the trail provides a look at a maritime hammock and needlerush marshes as well, but most of your time is spent clambering in and out of the deep windblown bowls in the shifting sands, some of which cradle extensive wetlands and ponds.
While there’s not-so-pleasant evidence that locals walk their dogs in the dunes – the Pensacola Dog Beach is across the road from this preserve – we’d prefer that you didn’t, for several reasons. First, the poop. Then, your dog’s health: the sand is quite hot underfoot once the sun has warmed it up, and it’s easy to dehydrate out here. All surface water is salt water. Finally, an endangered species live here: the Santa Rosa beach mouse. Look closely below tufts of grass for tiny burrows and tinier mouseprints.
Long distance backpackers will appreciate the Bayview primitive campsite – the only one in the Seashore section – that overlooks the bay. There isn’t much to it, save a designated camping area and a view, but it’s cheaper than springing for a hotel. You must bring water with you, as you’re surrounded by salt water.
Although this is a short hike, it’s surprisingly rugged because of the soft footing and climbs. Be sure to carry more than the usual amount of water with you, and wear sunscreen, as there is no shade and plenty of reflection into your face from the white sands. We’ve done this hike at different times of the day and find dawn and dusk to be most pleasant.
Although there is no nearby parking, the paved Pensacola Beach Trail bike path starts 0.2 mi west of the start of this section along CR 399. Either plan to get dropped off at the start of the trail or make a 5.8-mile loop of it by parking at one of the beach parking areas.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on any symbol for more details and on FT symbols to obtain custom directions to trailheads.
0.0 > Cross over CR 399 from the beach side into UWF Dunes Preserve. While there used to be many dunes in this first quarter mile, you can already see the bay across an area of flatness with only sporadic dunes. Hurricane Ivan reshaped this part of the preserve forever, as a storm surge washed across the highway from the Gulf of Mexico to Santa Rosa Sound, the waterway connecting Pensacola Bay and Choctawhatchee Bay.
0.3 > The sizes of the dunes begin to increase, making it a tougher task to find each post with an orange blaze through simple line of sight. Since there is no worn footpath, you can choose the best route around a large wetland area cradled in a bowl of dunes.
0.5 > Walk through shorter dunes and another flattened area with obvious chunks of small debris embedded in the sand. This is another part of the storm surge washover, where you’ll find pieces of the highway pavement, complete with painted lines, sticking out of the dunes. Look behind you as you climb up above the debris zone, as there’s a nice panorama of the beach from a prominatory. A view of Santa Rosa Sound opens up in a flattened area.
0.7 > Pass a wetland at a base of a dune; the cattails growing in it tell you that the water is brackish instead of fully saline. A maritime forest, looking the worse for wear after many hurricanes, tops the high dune. Round another wetland at the base of a line of dunes.
1.0 > Enjoy a view of the Gulf of Mexico from a high dune before entering a maritime forest. Hurricanes have trimmed back what was once a canopied walk, but the trees – which grow slowly in this environment – are coming back. Perhaps once serving as a bridge, a wooden platform provides a place to take a hydration break.
1.3 > Most of us have walked around the edges of needlerush marshes but have never plunged into one. Here’s where you do. It’s not an easy crossing, since the grass is sharp-tipped and the footing wet and slippery. Use a hiking stick to keep your balance.
Just past the marsh is a pine-topped dune with blue sign indicating the side trail to the Bayview campsite. As the sign says, leave no trace! Even if you aren’t camping, it’s worth the quarter-mile round trip to the shoreline for the view and to explore some ruins that may be part of the military history of this island.
1.4 > After leaving the camping area, the trail skirts a large wetland and starts into a series of sparkling white sand dunes. Natural bouquets of wildflowers blooming in yellow and purple break up an otherwise white landscape.
1.8 > Cross a marshy area with tall, soft grasses and no obvious way to get around the swale in which the marsh sits, as it seems to flow from an upland source towards the sound.
2.1 > Reach another needlerush marsh, which had a deteriorating bridge across the marsh when we crossed it. It was possible to balance on the stringers to stay out of the muck.
2.5 > Rounding a very pretty salt pond, which, as it evaporates, leaves concentric rings in the swale between the dunes, the trail then lead you across a broad stretch of marsh. While the grasses and plants are short and soft, it is very squishy underfoot. Soon after, you climb into high dunes again, where another swale gives a nice perspective on Santa Rosa Sound.
2.8 > By the time you reach the final marsh crossing, the Portofino condo towers loom in the distance, built very near the preserve. This bridge marks the boundary between UWF (University of West Florida) and SRIA (Santa Rosa Island Authority) management of this preserve.
3.0 > Climbing up a series of dunes, notice how the tallest dunes host Florida rosemary bushes, a species found both along the coast and in scrub forests with similar ancient sands. A deep pocket between dunes holds another salt pond, this one with significant depth. As the condos are drawing ever closer, the trail turns away from its compass west route to lead you towards the beach.
3.4 > Among this last stretch of dunes, a salt pond spreads in a shallow pool across a flattened area. Traffic on CR 399 and the dune line protecting the beach are in view. Facing the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Trail reaches the Pensacola Beach Trail. The orange blazes join the paved bike path towards Pensacola Beach, where the next beach parking area is 0.5 mile compass west.
<<< SOUTHBOUND NORTHBOUND >>>
You walk by no services along this short section of trail, although these services are several miles west in Pensacola Beach along the Pensacola Bike Path, which the Florida Trail follows into the heavily developed beach community.
RESUPPLY: Surfside Food & Store, 850-934-4576, 22 Via De Luna Dr, Pensacola Beach. The easternmost convenience store on the beach is across from the only strip mall along the Pensacola Bike Path. Since this is a beach, it has more food options than the usual convenience store.
CAMPING: Pensacola Beach RV Resort, 850-932-4670, 17 Via De Luna Dr. For campers and RVs, this bayfront campground features a pool and sunning beach, and is central to Pensacola Beach eateries. Sites start at $60 in winter.
LODGING: Paradise Inn, 850-932-2319, 21 Via De Luna Dr. Retro and dog-friendly, their cozy rooms are the best deal along the Florida Trail in Pensacola Beach, $69 and up.
DINING: A no-frills beach shack with picnic tables in the sand, Paradise Bar & Grill, 850-932-2003, is part of the Paradise Inn, which makes it an easy choice for fish or burgers. Live music most nights. Flounder’s Chowder House, 850-932-2003, 800 Quietwater Beach Rd, is a fun and funky waterfront restaurant which many hikers gravitate to. It could be the crazy photo ops with their assortment of oddities, from an oversized beach chair to confessional booths, the guaranteed-to-please frozen drinks, or the excellent food. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This section of the Florida Trail parallels CR 399, which is the sole highway along Santa Rosa Island between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach. Access CR 399 from US 98 in Navarre, south of Interstate 10 at Milton, or at Gulf Breeze, south of Pensacola along US 98.