Between Pensacola and Perdido Key, Big Lagoon is best known for its (really big) lagoon, high observation tower, and campground, but the trail system is a delight for hardy hikers. It’s easy to make short forays out along the lakes and to the observation tower on the criss-crossing nature trails, but a circuit around the entire park isn’t to be taken lightly, with full sun, soft sand, and hills your constant companions. Still, for lovers of scrub and scenic views, this is one spectacular trail system—and the birding’s superb.
Length: 4.9 miles
Type: Two loops
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Good for: birding, campground
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Bug factor: Moderate
Restroom: yes, at picnic areas
Trail conditions are desert-like throughout most of the trail system. Take plenty of water, and wear a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Expect difficult footing; a hiking stick may be of assistance. Don’t forget your binoculars and camera to enjoy the vast panoramas.
From downtown Pensacola, follow US 90 west to SR 173 (Blue Angel Parkway). Continue south to SR 292 (Sorrento Rd); turn right. Drive 2.7 miles to SR 293 (Bauer Rd); turn left to reach the park entrance. Follow the park road around to West Beach Parking Area.
Starting from the West Beach Parking Area, walk in the opposite direction of the picnic pavilions and beach to find the start of the Estuary Trail. After you cross the park road, it begins at a sign “Estuary Trail, 2 mile loop,” on a interpretive boardwalk over the relict dunes. In spring, mounds of scrub mint (Conradina canescens) are in bloom, covered in small lilac-color flowers.
At the intersection with a pavilion and a boardwalk over a waterway, turn left. As you walk out on this boardwalk bridge, there’s a spot you can stop and look out from an observation deck. Labeled Long Pond on the park map, it appears to be a fresh water slough, lined with tall pines that reflect in the water. On the far side, you reach the next trail junction. Pointing to the right is a sign for the “Long Pond Salt Marsh Trail.” Turn left to start the Sand Pine Loop, which is a 3-mile loop through the park’s backcountry. At the next unmarked junction, a quarter mile along your hike, turn right.
The trail starts out the width of a jeep road with lots of soft sand as you walk through the scrub. You see “FVA” signs – parts of the trail system are used by the Florida Volksmarch Association – and pass mounds of Florida rosemary with its green bottle-brush limbs. Yes, you’re in the scrub, which is what this trail – and this park – is all about. It’s a healthy coastal scrub with shade cast here and there by sand live oaks across beds of deer moss and reindeer lichen. Passing a bench, look for an osprey nest on the right in the crook of a very battered-looking slash pine. With two years since my visit, I’m sure the forest has healed more, but the scars of Hurricanes Ivan, Dennis, and Katrina were still very much in evidence throughout the park, pines spindly and shorn and much deadfall all around.
Crossing the park road on a crosswalk at 0.6 mile, the trail continues into more open, hilly scrub. Birdsong fills the air in early morning, and with the white background of the scrub, it’s easy to spot the more colorful ones like the cardinals flitting about, looking like Christmas decorations against soft sand pines and the snow-like sand. A marsh on the right is a great bird hangout, and one of the rare places you might see a common loon in Florida. Rounding the marsh, the trail narrows a bit, flanked by shrubs and more mints in bloom, with scattered pines across the dunes. The trail curves left away from the marsh and rises uphill. There are no blazes, but an obvious footpath through the trampling of soft sand on these dunes.
You reach a bench on the crest of a dune at 1.1 miles. Lizards leave sinuous trails between the grains, and an Eastern towhee calls out from under a bush. The dunes are a serious workout, especially with the soft-as … sand … footing. Yet abruptly, the landscape changes. The trail drops down into a wet pine flatwoods with a rough bridge across a mushy marshy slough, with a series of boards for bog bridges to get you through the soggy swales draining off the bayhead swamp. Titi thickets edge the trail, with fragrant blooms in spring. Passing a bench, the trail curves right and rises back up into the scrub and dunes, with mounds of scrub mint in bloom. The trail is on the ecotone of the two habitats; I can’t say I’ve ever seen another place I could reach out and touch titi on one side and scrub mint on the other side of the trail. Sand pine grows tall along this corridor, but too scraggly to add much shade.
Tall slash pines define the canopy of a dense forest off to the right, where you can hear the busy birds but it’s hard to see them through the tangle of saw palmetto, wax myrtle, and loblolly bay in the understory. At 1.7 miles, you reach a bench and can sit and listen to the twitters and tweets from the trees, working on your life list. Even near park entrance, the distant surf – not even in the park, but beyond the Big Lagoon – creates an undercurrent of white noise behind the birds. Coming up to the park road, there’s another sign for the Sand Pine Trail. Turn right to find the other side of the loop by walking down the road, across it, and into the parking area, which is another trailhead for this trail at 2 miles. It’s here it’s confirmed that the trail is blazed and signed in the opposite direction from which I hiked. At the next junction, take a right.
The trail continues in a line and, at the crest of the next dune, you can look well ahead and see a lagoon. The path is broad Cross a low, mushy spot in a swale and keep going straight ahead, where you’ll find a few more of these little freshwater marshes in the depressions between the dunes. A bench is perched on a high point at 2.4 miles, with a sweeping view across pine-lined Grand Lagoon Lake. You can see a shelter and boardwalk on the far side of the lake, and there is a spot you can slip down to the water’s edge, which is lined with needlerush. Be alert for alligators. The observation tower is visible in the far distance. At an undefined but obvious trail junction, keep going straight ahead, paralleling the lake, passing the next bench. The sand transitions from solid to soft underfoot, and two loons take to the sky from the near shore of the lake.
Cross a bridge over a marsh, where water spangles float on the surface of this waterway that drains into the lake, and pass another bench. The sounds of frogs increase, indicating the marsh is larger than the bit of it that you can see. A mullet leaps out of the lake for a moment, and splashes back down. A covered shelter provides a place to duck out of the rain. Finally, some solid ground is evident under each footfall, and more hikers are along this part of the trail – and here’s why – at 2.9 miles, a boardwalk heads off to the right to the campground.The next bench overlooks Long Pond, where you can see some spots that would make good sunning places for alligators. A chorus of frogs grows strongly again as you approach a marsh with many trees downed in it during the hurricanes. Doesn’t seem to bother the frogs any. With campers pouring past on their way to the beach, you reach the end of the Sand Pine Loop after 3.1 miles.
Cross back over Long Pond and you have two choices – turn right and go back to your car for a 3.3 mile hike, or continue to explore the southeastern part of the park, which is what we did. At the shelter, turn left at the T. Walk past the shelter and the canoe launch to continue on the Estuary Trail, along the south side of the pond. The trail stays within sight of the pond, which flashes in and out of the pine woods, but stays behind a knoll dense with scrub plants. Here, two different shades of scrub mint blooms are in evidence.
The next trail junction, at 3.6 miles, has signs for “East Beach and Tower” to right and “West Beach” behind you. Take the trail less traveled, straight ahead. The trail isn’t marked so much as it is defined and well-trod, as footprints in the sand lead you through the sandy swales and through two small washes filled with needlerush. At the next trail junction, which has a bench, turn left. You continue out along a peninsula into the estuary – hence the “Estuary Trail” – where raccoon prints are obvious in the sandy footpath. This spur trail ends at an roofed observation platform with a picnic table, and it’s here you get a different perspective on Grand Lagoon Lake, the estuary confirming its salinity.
Enjoy the panorama, then return the way you came to the trail junction with the bench. Turn left. You pass signs facing the opposite direction. There are odd markers along the trail – sections of PVC pipe filled with sand and gravel – marking the route meandering through the scrub within sight of the parking lot and picnic pavilons of East Beach. A large osprey nest is high up in a snag off to the right. On the little rises, you can see the dunes in the far distance that confirm this is the Big Lagoon you’re looking at, the observation tower now within view.
You emerge at an unmarked parking area after 4.3 miles. Turn left and walk up the boardwalk to the right, which leads you through the parking area and past the Great Florida Birding Trail “Gateway” kiosk towards the big observation tower. There are picnic tables and a kayak launch. If you’re hiking with your dog, note that no pets are permitted along this next segment of boardwalk looping out to the beach and back to this parking lot.
At the base of the observation tower is a warning “this area essential to piping plovers” at a small beach you can’t step down onto. There is a surf, waves on the shore, which is unexpected since this is a lagoon, albeit a massive one, and not directly open within sight of this spot to the Gulf. And yet, the waves persist. Four landings up, a sweeping view of the Big Lagoon, up and over the dunes in the distance and to the Gulf of Mexico itself. Turn around and you can see much of the territory you’ve hiked.
As the boardwalk continues along the beach, it provides access to picnic pavilions and the beach itself as it circles around a patch of estuary.Yaupon holly grows on the dunes. Access a restroom here off the boardwalk as it loops back around to the parking area. “Savanna Trail” is the name given to the return trip, where you’ll retrace your steps back through the maze in the scrub. Reaching the trail junction with the bench at 5.2 miles, continue straight ahead, heading towards Long Pond. At the next intersection, turn right at the “West Beach” sign. Back at the shelter and canoe launch, climb up to the boardwalk and turn left. Continue past the bridge over Long Pond back to the West Beach parking area, completing a hike of 5.8 miles.