3.2 miles. 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 hike.
If you’ve ever wanted to scramble up and down Florida dunes, here’s your chance! This part of Santa Rosa Island is a coastal desert that the Florida Trail weaves up and over. It’s unique enough that our National Scenic Trail meanders along a beach, but this short segment is truly the beauty spot of the entire Seashore section.
Here, the trail shifts to the bay side of CR 399 and leads you through enormous dunes. Drawing close to Santa Rosa Sound, the trail provides a look at a maritime hammock and needlerush marshes as well.
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 mouse prints.
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.
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.
Although there is no nearby parking, the paved Pensacola Beach Trail bike path starts at the beginning of section along CR 399. Either plan to get dropped off at the start of the trail or make a 5.4-mile loop of it by parking at one of the beach parking areas. There is a beach parking area a quarter mile north of the north end of this hike.
Starting from the beach west of the preserve, cross over CR 399 and start following the blaze posts that begin behind the big Pensacola Beach sign. Each has an orange blaze painted on a tall white post. Your mission is to find your way across this windswept landscape, post to post. The first quarter mile is quite flat.
However, once the size of the dunes increase, it gets trickier to find the next post through simple line of sight. Since there is no worn footpath, you can choose the best route around a large wetland area. As you climb atop dunes, take the time to look back towards the Gulf of Mexico for the views.
Nearly a mile in, the trail enters a sliver of maritime forest. It then dives right into a needlerush marsh. Use a hiking stick to keep your balance.
Past the marsh is the side trail to the Bayview campsite, the only place other than Fort Pickens Campground where backpackers are welcome to pitch a tent along the Seashore section.
The best tenting is under the pines, although you can loop out to the beach on the bay and find your way up to a couple of benches that overlook the water. After 2 miles, there are more marshes to cross. A high peak gives a nice perspective on Santa Rosa Sound.
By the time you reach the final marsh crossing, the Portofino condo towers loom in the distance, built very near the preserve. The bridge over this marsh marks the boundary between UWF (University of West Florida) and SRIA (Santa Rosa Island Authority) management of this preserve.
As you get closer to the condos, the trail turns away from its compass west route to lead you towards the beach, reaching the paved Pensacola Beach Trail after 3.2 miles.
NORTHBOUND: Florida Trail, Pensacola Beach Trail
SOUTHBOUND: Florida Trail, Santa Rosa Beach