Few places in the world offer more than 20 miles of pristine coastline to cycle alongside to, but the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Northwest Florida does just that. From sidewalks to pavement to crossing portions of the Florida Trail, riding parallel to the emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico is an experience of a lifetime. Zip in between sandy white dunes as you entire another world of protected lands and the creatures that call them “home.”
What Makes It Great
The federal protection status of the National Seashore means that this stretch of land is virtually untouched. Sands give off that healthy “squeak,” the water is immaculate, and the wildlife is often plentiful. Endangered shorebirds nest alongside the road, encouraging the strict enforcement of low speed limits, something cyclists pedaling the pavement can enjoy together with their feathery friends.
Sea turtles nest on the island’s shores in ever increasing numbers, a testament to the health and management of the National Seashore’s resources, and sting ray mating season, which occurs in late spring, is always an impressive sight. Take a well-deserved break from the ride to watch school after school glide effortlessly by, and take a dip yourself if you dare! Just remember to do the “Stingray Shuffle” to alert these shy, gentle animals of your presence. They’d rather not barb you, but if threatened, they will.
Starting points for this ride are optional: Fort Pickens, at the western end of the island, offers parking and the most direct route via bike. Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach are popular entry points, but will skip out on the fort or add extra mileage, respectively. Check out a map and plan your ride accordingly, and consider bringing a buddy to avoid having to cycle back if forty-five miles of pedaling isn’t your goal. A stop at the historical Fort Pickens before or after your trip down the island is another recommended detour.
Who is Going to Love It
The National Seashore can be enjoyed by cyclists of any skill level thanks to its flat, speedy ride. Respectful caution towards wildlife is asked of all who travel the island’s roads, so keep an eye out for fledglings and misdirected turtles who may be crossing the pavement. If venturing out into the sands, turtle nests will be clearly marked and should not be disturbed; the dunes, too, and their sea oats are heavily protected and fines will incur if disturbed. On warm, summer days — which, in Northwest Florida, can begin as early as April and continue well into September—a dip in the water comes highly recommended.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Treat this stretch of land like you would any national park---taking only pictures and leaving only foot prints, or, in the case of cyclers, tread tracks. Fort Pickens and the National Seashore parking lot do both require entry fees, so some cyclers like to avoid some of the cost by starting at Pensacola or Navarre Beaches. A National Park pass will get you in to both the Seashore parking lot at Opal Beach and Fort Pickens. Pack sunscreen, water, a little cash, and enjoy.