Along windswept shorelines, a dense hardwood forest persists between Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound. Dating back to an executive order by President John Quincy Adams in 1828, the Naval Live Oaks Area remains under federal protection, now as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
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Location: Gulf Breeze
Address: 1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze
Fees: Visitor center area, free. $10 pedestrian / cyclist, $20 vehicle (good for one week)
Restroom: at the visitor center and picnic areas
Land manager: National Park Service
Open 8 AM to sunset. The visitor center at park headquarters is only open when staffed, 8:30-4:30 weekdays, closed Federal holidays.
From Pensacola, follow US 98 east over the Pensacola Bay Bridge to Gulf Breeze. Continue east on US 98 another 1.9 miles past the exit to Pensacola Beach to the main entrance for the headquarters building and visitor center.
Set aside in 1828 by President John Quincy Adams as the first federal tree farm in the United States, Naval Live Oaks was deemed strategic to the young United States Navy. Florida was only a United States Territory at the time, but as a deep water port, Pensacola Harbor quickly became a Navy base.
Henry Brackenridge was hired as a forester to tend to the old-growth live oak trees. Shipbuilding was an important enterprise in Pensacola. Live oaks provided a strong, heavy timber for ships and were especially prized for their thick curved limbs for ship hulls.
Wooden ships became a thing of the past by the Civil War. While most of the original Live Oak Reservations were given over to military and agricultural use, Naval Live Oaks remained protected, eventually becoming part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
We were fortunate to first hike here decades ago when there were still many grand live oaks to be found. Unfortunately, a combination of their advanced age and battering by a barrage of hurricanes means there are now very few to be seen along the hiking trails of the Naval Live Oaks Area. However, the preserve remains deeply wooded.
Three access points provide parking for the Naval Live Oaks Area. The main parking area is at the Park Headquarters on the south side of Gulf Breeze Parkway (US 98), accessible from Gulf Breeze via a paved bike path that parallels US 98.
Headquarters and Visitor Center. During the week, enjoy interpretive exhibits and access to restrooms inside the park headquarters building. At any time, park near this building for direct access to the Brackenridge Trail, the shortest of the park’s trails at 0.9 miles.
About a third of the Brackenridge Trail – a quarter mile boardwalk loop that tunnels into the woods – is accessible. At the far end of the loop you can hop off into the forest and take a footpath loop out to a scenic overlook on the bluffs above Santa Rosa Sound.
There is a water fountain behind the building but restrooms are locked up when the building is locked. An easy-to-reach observation deck behind the headquarters provides a sweeping view of Santa Rosa Sound, as well as interpretive information.
Anglers can walk down the Brackenridge Trail to reach a beach on the sound, or follow the sidewalk a little ways east for another access point. Kayakers use this access point to launch.
Santa Rosa Sound Day Use. At the east end of the same parking area, a picnic area along Santa Rosa Sound adjoins the only restrooms we found open on a weekend.
Some of the picnic tables are waterfront, and others are tucked in the pine forest. There is one large picnic pavilion in the complex.
It’s a little less than a quarter mile walk on a sidewalk between the picnic area restrooms and the start of the Brackenridge Trail behind the visitor center.
Pensacola Bay Day Use. The entrance to this part of the preserve is on the north side of US 98 about a half mile west of the Headquarters entrance. Follow the entrance road back to where it ends at a circle. This is a U.S. Fee Area so have your park pass or permit on display in your windshield.
The Jackson Trail climbs uphill to the west of the parking area and also continues to the east of the parking area. Look for signs. This is the only access point to explore this footpath that tunnels through the coastal hammock.
Intersected by named trails that are primarily used by off-road cyclists, it runs a linear 7.5 miles east-west through the preserve. Cyclists are welcome to use any of the trails at the Naval Live Oaks Area except for the Brackenridge Trail.
Picnic tables are set in a pine forest overlooking the shoreline of where Pensacola Bay and East Bay meet. You can see the Pensacola Bay Bridge between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze in the distance. A sandy strand stretches along the shoreline.
A large picnic pavilion adjoins a set of restrooms. The restrooms were locked when we visited on a Sunday. This may generally be the case on weekends, except when a youth group is camped nearby.
The day use area also provides access to the Naval Live Oaks Youth Group Camping Area, which can be reserved in advance for organized youth group use. In addition to access to the Jackson Trail, campers can take to the water with their kayaks. They have use of a large campfire ring, picnic shelter, and restrooms as well.
See our photos of Naval Live Oaks Preserve
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
With more than seven miles of beaches along Santa Rosa Island, the Fort Pickens Unit at Gulf Islands National Seashore is a compelling destination at Pensacola Beach
With nearly a mile of boardwalks above Pensacola Bay, Pensacola Bay Bluffs Park offers scrambles up and down the steep hillside on many sets of staircases.
3.2 miles. 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.