The Florida Panhandle is renowned for its emerald green waters and immaculate white sands, but the best kept secrets of this sleepy section of the Gulf Coast are what lie just beyond and above the public beaches. Between the rolling dunes and towering pines lie world-class diving, hiking trails, sky-gazing, and a rich history that boasts wartime efforts and the first American settlement. The rich biodiversity of the Panhandle lends aid to the wild, untamed feel that the outdoors of Pensacola often have, all with the comfort of knowing the city itself is never too far for comfort. Here are eight of the best—and most unique—ways to get outdoors in the Greater Pensacola Area.
1. Snorkeling Reefs
The Greater Pensacola Area boasts three artificial reefs suited for snorkelers, and each is a haven for amateurs and professionals alike. The still waters of the Navarre Beach reef are often used for diving instruction, but don’t let that intimidate you: with a depth between 15 and 20 feet and fantastic visibility, this reef can be enjoyed by even novice snorkelers on a calm day. Perdido Key’s reef, the most recent addition of the three, is removed from the hustle and bustle of more populated areas, and is another excellent option for beginners. Rounding out the reefs at 400 yards from shore, the Pensacola Beach reef is the deepest, and flotation devices are recommended. Keep an eye out at each reef for large schools of fish, resident sea turtles, rays, and the occasional shark.
2. Diving the Oriskany and USS Massachusetts
For those more inclined to dive deeper below the depths, the waters surrounding Pensacola offer superb SCUBA opportunities, with the most notable being shipwrecks USS Massachusetts and USS Oriskany . The former has been a favorite dive site for over half a century with its close proximity to shore and shallow waters, but divers should still be wary: the Massachusetts' location within the Pensacola Pass often means strong currents and unpredictable conditions. This 20 ft. deep site should be approached with caution, and trips are best planned in accordance to the tides. Bring a dive buddy or head out with a group and check out resident nurse sharks, goliath grouper, enormous rays, and more. The Massachusetts also promises a stunning night dive, one of the most popular times to head out, while the Oriskany , a deeper and newer wreck purposefully sunk in 2006, offers deeper, yet calmer waters. Both recreational and technical divers flock from around the world to hit these two spots on the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail.
3. UWF Bike Trails
Have plans to stay a little drier without skimping on the adventure? The University of West Florida offers 20+ miles of thrilling bike trails on the campus’s westernmost 600 acres known as Campus Woods. Hang on tight while zipping through trees and over hills, and be sure to stop by the boardwalk once you’ve stashed your bike. A few miles of intersecting boardwalk (these aren’t bike-friendly) offer views of the Panhandle’s hidden swampy forests and indigenous species, oftentimes including the American alligator.
4. Blackwater River State Forest
Dare to go deeper into what makes up the majority of the Greater Pensacola Area... the woods. Blackwater River State Forest has near-endless opportunities for camping, cycling, hiking, geo-caching, fishing, flat water paddling, horseback riding, and just good ol’ getting away from it all. There are over 100 miles of trails available for recreation, including the popular Bear Lake Loop, situated in the 107-acre Bear Lake Recreation Area, and Juniper Creek. Krul, Bear, and Hurricane Lakes offer excellent water-based activities, but swimming in the latter two is generally not allowed thanks to our prehistoric friend, the alligator. What is allowed is packing up your tent, cooler, rod and reel, and furry friend to explore this vast section of pristine wilderness.
5. Big Lagoon State Park
Explore a different take on a Florida Panhandle state park at Big Lagoon . Wilderness and coastline come together here at the westernmost corner of the Greater Pensacola Area. Paddle through the lagoons’ saltwater marshes, hike through the park’s trails across its 665 acres, or simply post up at a pavilion with a camera and a cooler to pass the time watching cranes, blue herons, hawks, and, if you’re lucky, a playful pod of dolphins.
6. Forts Pickens, Barrancas, and McRee
After the War of 1812, Pensacola made a concerted effort to fortify its coastline with three separate forts: Fort Pickens , Fort Barrancas , and Fort McRee . The former held the famed Apache war chief Geronimo, while the latter is mere rubble of the structure that once was; Barrancas is in the best condition of all three, thanks in large part to its location on Pensacola’s Navy Base. Take a tour at your own pace of any of the forts, or consider a guided tour through Forts Barrancas and Pickens. If exploring McRee, bring flashlights, closed toed shoes, and proceed with caution.
7. Downtown Pensacola Historical Tours
With the recent discovery by the University of West Florida Archaeological Department, Pensacola now holds the title of First American Settlement, beating out the previous holder, St. Augustine, Florida. It’s a claim that shines best throughout the city’s downtown district on self-propelled or guided tours . For those wanting to get a little more up close and personal with Pensacola’s past, historical reenactments offer peeks into the lives of the city’s population long before smoky bars and crafty shops graced Palafox Street. And, for skeptics and believers alike, haunted lighthouse tours give participants a glimpse at what once was—and what may, or may not be, still lingering among the living.
8. Stargazing at Pensacola Beach
Wrap up a long day of hiking, snorkeling, canoeing, or touring with toes in the sand and telescopes to the sky. The Escambia Amateur Astronomer’s Association meets monthly on Friday and Saturday nights on Pensacola Beach to catch stunning views of the Milky Way and beyond. Volunteers set up telescopes pointed at varying astral objects to give anyone with an affinity for the wonders of the universe a night to remember. Check the association’s calendar and cross your fingers for clear skies.