RV Trip 6.13 – Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens, Big Lagoon SP, Blackwater River SP – Feb 16–25, 2020

It was raining quite hard when we left Navarre (Hideaway Camping Retreat was downright horrible for the money) so our groceries got quite wet getting to the RV. We decided to take the slower but more scenic route driving all along the Gulf Islands National Seashore from Navarre Beach through Santa Rosa and on to our National Park campground of Fort Pickens. This is also a repeat from RV Trip 2 as we liked the park for the history of the Fort and for the beach. We were lucky to get a four-day booking here as it was full most of the days. After checking in we did a walk along the beach and were shocked how many Portuguese Man o’ Wars we saw along the seaweed. We also found what they called Mermaid Purses which are Skate egg cases washed up on shore. We learned later that the two Sharon picked up were indeed dead, but they were also extremely smelly;-( We did a 6 km circuit along the beach to the west and then through the Fort to the Florida Trail back to the campground. The Florida National Scenic Trail actually starts here and goes all the way down to Key West!

The next day we headed out on a bike ride around the park (22.5 kms), Fort Pickens was one of the largest forts ever built.  We followed the Florida Trail from the campground to Battery Langdon. This Battery was completed in 1923 with two 12-inch guns. It was reinforced to 10-foot-thick masonry walls in 1943. After the Battery we tried to ride along the gulf beach but the sand was not firm enough to ride. Instead we followed the bike lane along the road back towards the entrance of the park and eventually turned around and came back to Langdon Beach for lunch. On our return we found we could ride along the bay beach side but no shells on this beach. When we got to Fort Pickens we found out that they were having a ranger talk on Medicine during the Civil War so we decided to visit the outer batteries and do the self guided fort tour until the ranger talk. Fort Pickens was used during the civil war by the Union forces with the confederates taking all the forts on the mainland. Battery Pensacola is a fort within Fort Pickens. It was built in 1899 as the war technology changed and they had two 12-inch disappearing rifles. We could see where they brought the 1,070-pound shells up to be loaded into the rifles. The ranger talk was quite interesting. The “Doctors” of the civil war had two years of training and the second year was identical to the first year to make sure they knew the limited amount of what medicine knew at that time. Medicine was crude in those days and without proper hygiene, skills and knowledge, lots of soldiers had arms/legs/fingers amputated!

Today while walking to the museum on the Florida National Scenic Trail we met a guy who had just finished walking the 1300 miles from Key West to Fort Pickens!  He started in November and he said his feet were sore! We visited the museum and watched an interesting video tour of the fort followed by walking the beach around the end of Santa Rosa island. Lots of birds like the point of the island for their nesting grounds as not too many people walk in that area. It was strange repeating the full beach section (8 kms) as this time we didn’t see a single Man o’ War versus the dozens the other day. Instead we saw lots of the mermaid purses. Our last full day in the park was a rainy one so Sharon watched the Young and the Restless special on Victor Newman and we worked on the blog.  I finish off this section with the latest selection of beers, my favourite was the Mardi Gras Bock😉

On the day we left Fort Pickens the forecast was for rain off and on.  When we arrived at the Naval Live Oaks Preserve near Gulf Breeze it was pouring rain when we went into the exhibit area but the rain let off for us to do the nature trails. The exhibit was really well done and explained why the Live Oaks were so critical to the navy for ship building in the early 1800’s. Here are some key facts we learned about the Live Oak trees:

  • The preserve was set aside by President John Quincy Adams in 1828 as the nations first tree farm so the U.S. Navy could use the Live Oak timber for ship building.
  • They are called “live” oaks as they appear evergreen all year long as they rarely drop all their leaves at once.
  • The timber is incredibly strong and durable for ship building but they are also very important now to protect the coastline as a windbreak from hurricanes (they can reduce the wind speed by as much as 15 mph from a hurricane).
  • Live oak is so dense that cannon balls would bounce off wooden ships made from Live Oaks. They had a display where you could lift different types of wood with Live Oak at 75 lbs per cubic foot, White Oak at 56 lbs per cubic foot, and Yellow Pine at 44 lbs per cubic foot.
  • Live Oak timber extended a ships life from 10 years to 50 years due to its durability.
  • The U.S.S. Constitution is the oldest commissioned ship built from Live Oaks in the US Navy and has only undergone a few major renovations since it first set sail in 1797!
  • A Schooner would require about 36 Live Oak trees versus a Ship of the Line which would require 680 Live Oak trees.

After the exhibit area we did a 2 km walk around the grounds and got lucky enough to get back to the RV for lunch just before the next major downpour started.

As we drove across the bridge into downtown Pensacola we had planned to stop on the Naval Base to see Fort Barrancas and Fort Advanced Redoubt but it was pouring buckets so we decided to go straight to Big Lagoon SP and check in for our 4 night stay. Later we found out that the Naval Base is still closed to the public due to the shootings late last year so we wouldn’t have been able to see the Forts anyway. Big Lagoon SP is also a repeat park from RV Trip 2 but again it was one we enjoyed so worth another visit. The next day the rain had cleared so we did a 12 km hike around the park on the Estuary and Sand Pine Trails. On the hike we saw a lizard, a bird murmuration, a red bellied slider turtle, and a couple of Ospreys. The sand on some sections of the trails was quite deep so we were glad we decided to hike instead of bike.

On Saturday there were a few programs offered by the State Park, so we took advantage of those.  The first was a talk on the culture and history of the Pensacola area done by a volunteer.  Here are some interesting facts:

  • Many of the history books state that St. Augustine Florida was the first place in the US to be settled by Europeans but in fact the Spanish established a settlement in Pensacola 12 years before in 1559. The issue was that the Pensacola settlement was wiped out by a hurricane and then re-established again later.
  • In 1719 France defeated Spain and took Pensacola but then the Spanish took it back in 1722.
  • Great Britain took control of Florida from the Spanish in 1763 in exchange for Cuba.
  • During the American Revolution in 1781 the battle of Pensacola took place and the Spanish took Pensacola back from the British.
  • Later through negotiations the British agreed to take all lands East of the Mississippi while the Spanish took the lands West of the Mississippi.
  • Before Florida seceded from the Union on January 10th 1861, the Confederates attacked Fort Barrancas on January 8th and the Union forces occupying the Fort shot on them so in fact the real first shots of the Civil War were not in Fort Sumter Charleston but in Pensacola. The Union forces couldn’t hold Fort Barrancas, so they retreated to Fort Pickens and the Confederates took the other 3 forts around Pensacola.

It was amazing how this volunteer could talk for almost an hour going through the entire history and culture of Pensacola without referring to any notes the whole time😉

At sunset several amateur astronomers had their telescopes set up for an evening of star gazing.  On our walk over we were lucky to see an alligator in Long Pond as well as a turtle and amazing reflections.  While waiting for it to get a bit darker we talked to a young lady about her automated telescope that could connect to her smart phone.  She said, “It makes a bit of noise, like a dial-up mode”.  We looked at her and said, how would you know what a dialup modem sounded like, you’re not old enough.  She said she grew up on a farm area, so they had dialup until about 2005!  It was fun talking to her.  She could attach her phone to her telescope to take pictures.  She tried to connect our phone, but it wouldn’t work so she shared her phone picture with us.  We visited several of the different telescopes and saw Venus, the Orion Nebula, M35 star cluster, and M25 star cluster with red and blue tinged stars. After 2 hours we were starting to get quite cold, so we headed back to the campground, glad to have our headlight and flashlight as it was really dark. When we reached Long Pond, we were seeing smoke on the water.  The “smoke” was dancing on top of the water due to the temperature differential, very magical but impossible to photograph.

For our last full day at Big Lagoon we decided to do a long ride from the SP across the bridge (Sharon would say the “scary” bridge) to Perdido Key which is another section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore (our NP pass gets us in). We were hoping to ride along the beach but the ranger said that was not allowed and the sand was too “sinky” like at Fort Pickens so we wouldn’t have been able to ride anyway. We took the road to the end and then walked along the beach where I found Sharon a perfect sand dollar. On the way back we stopped to read about why it’s called Rosamond Johnson Beach (see RV Trip 2 if you want to see the details) and we went to the boat ramp area to see the Intracoastal Waterway. Before crossing the bridge on the way back we stopped at The Oyster Bar Restaurant and Marina for lunch as they had a 25% off customer appreciation event. We could tell they had the deal on as soon as we entered as the restaurant was packed with grey haired people, I fit right in😉 We had a Blackened Oyster appetizer followed by me having the Blackened Mahi Mahi Fish Tacos and Sharon had the Seafood Platter as it had everything she loves in it. To cross the bridge after lunch I followed Sharon so she felt a bit safer. The scary part is that the cars are doing 55 mph and the bike lane is narrow and the drop from the bridge is really large. The total ride from the campground around the key return was 28.4 kms.

The next day we were back tracking a bit to go to our last Florida State Park in the Panhandle, Blackwater River. We had read about a seafood shop called Joe Patti in Pensacola so routed ourselves there first.  The place was packed when we arrived but thinned out a bit after we checked everything out.  They had every imaginable seafood item available!  We got some of the local shrimp called Royal Reds, they are so colourful they looked cooked.  They will steam your shrimp with lemon and spices (no extra charge) if you want, so we had ours done and that became part of our lunch.  We also bought some Mahi Mahi, smoked salmon (only 12.99 per lb!), smoked tuna spread, lots of goodies from their shop, some craft beers and tasty gumbo that we took back to the RV to have for lunch.  We’d definitely route ourselves in this direction if we’re back in this area. We also stopped to walk around the harbour area where we saw a 116’ yacht. It just started to rain as we got back to the RV.

On the way to the park we had a strange experience, we were stopped at a red light when an ambulance did a U-turn in front of us, we watched it go north.  Next a police car comes screaming by, lights flashing going south.  We thought, funny the ambulance turned to go north, the police are going south.  Then another police car and another and another and another and another, maybe 6 in total!!! What the heck, something big is happening and the ambulance has gone the wrong way.  Or did the ambulance go the right way? Was the ambulance going somewhere different?  Suddenly all the police cars are now driving north in the south bound lanes, cross the intersection in front of us to now go north.  Maybe you can visualize this, but it was crazy!  Later that night we heard on the news that there was a home invasion and the homeowner shot and killed the invader.  Did the police get the wrong address? Were they all following each other, and the first guy went the wrong way?  We’ll never know…The rest of our drive was uneventful except for the rain.

The next day we did some of the hiking trails around the park.  There has been a lot of rain and flooding in this area so some of the trails were a bit wet.  In the morning we did a 3 km walk on the nature trail along the Blackwater River and over to see the picnic pavilions. The river is a deep tannin colour and has a very strong current (especially with all the rain we’ve been getting) and since the bottom is sandy sections will carve off and form Oxbow Lakes. After lunch at the RV we hiked the Blackwater Trail and the Chain of Lakes Trail for another 8.5 kms. It turned out to be longer than planned because the Chain of Lakes Trail was flooded for a section, so we went in and back out and then did the same on the other end of the trail doubling our distance. This SP was quite nice, and the sites had recently been renovated but with only 30 campsites it was also very difficult to get a booking. We could only get 2 nights in this park, but it would have been good to get 4 so we had more time for other trails.  In the warmer weather it’s popular for canoes and river tubing.

This ends our time in Florida for this RV trip.  We stayed in 9 State Parks (6 new and 3 repeat), 2 private parks, and 1 National Park. Sharon’s favourite was Topsail SP and Joel’s favourite was Fort Clinch SP.

6 comments

  • Fascinating, as always, to see and read about where you have been. Thank you for sharing this great adventure with all of us! Continued safe travels.

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  • I wasn’t hungry when I started reading this blog but my mouth sure watered! I loved the name of that yacht. I’m sure the owners were Danish – Nyhaven is almost anglicized “Nyhavn” – the old sailors’ harbour area in Copenhagen! Where our Dad got his tattoo.😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • You may be right on the yacht name Ella. They weren’t flying any flags and we didn’t see the owners, only one crew member. We wondered if it might be a rental yacht like on a current TV show. Can’t imagine what the price tag would have been;-)

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