FLORIDA BEACH GUIDE
Hikers find a beach paradise at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Tropical Storm Ida hit Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fla., in November, dumping sand over the seven-mile road that stretches from the park entrance to Fort Pickens. (MELISSA NELSON, ASSOCIATED PRESS / November 24, 2009)
It seems life couldn't get much better — but it does.
I've encountered only one other bicyclist so far on my 14-mile, round-trip trek along this breathtaking stretch of Florida Panhandle beach.
I've escaped into a private paradise in this normally busy national park where the high-rise condominiums of Pensacola Beach loom in the distance and the outline of Pensacola Naval Air Station appears across the bay.
From March to September, this barrier island teems with tourists reveling in the warm Gulf waters and famous white quartz beaches.
But the tourists clear out as fall sets in, days get shorter, kids head back to school and temperatures drop from the 80s and 90s into the 60s and 70s.
Tropical Storm Ida hit here earlier in November, dumping sand over the seven-mile road that stretches from the park entrance to Fort Pickens, a crumbling brick structure constructed in 1829 and used in the Civil War. The road has been closed to cars since the storm, making the fort accessible only to those willing to make the journey on foot or to bike the sand-covered road.
The rebuilt road, with its beach-front parking lots and campgrounds, just reopened in July after it was largely washed away in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan and by Hurricane Dennis a year later. A longer stretch of park road to the east, from Pensacola Beach to Navarre Beach, also reopened in July and was also closed after Ida.
The low-lying park roads are vulnerable to closure after even a heavy rain — guaranteeing adventurers at least a few plumb days every year to enjoy the journey without passing auto traffic.
But the trip to Fort Pickens isn't easy without a car — it requires pushing a bike through soft sand in areas where road crews are busily working to clear roads. A 14-mile beach hike makes for sore calfs and thighs.
The physical effort is well-rewarded, though, as I walk barefoot through waves and pick through shells deposited by recent rough waters. I spot a school of stingray gliding about five feet offshore and see dolphins swimming in the distance. Small planes and helicopters from Pensacola Naval Air Station sometimes pass overhead.
I head out from the park entrance at 7 a.m. on my bike, a 3-year-old, $100 Schwinn — expensive bikes are not suggested for slugging through sand and water. By 9 a.m., I ride through the entrance of Fort Pickens, where I park the bike and begin exploring the nearly 200-year-old fort.
I'd driven the park road to the fort on a Saturday back in late July, when the fort was crawling with visitors exploring its curved brick passageways, barred windows, Civil War-era armaments and gift shop. On this trip, it's just me and the few park service employees mowing the grass outside the fort. They pay no attention as I make way to the top of the fort and begin photographing the old cannons.
The gift shop is closed and I am the only tourist in the fort.
I try to imagine the Union forces encamped here during the Civil War, watching for Confederate ships from across Pensacola Bay. I wonder what the Apache warrior Geronimo thought when he and members of his tribe were imprisoned here in the 1880s. How did they spend their days? Did they interact with guards, did they see the ocean from their cells? I wonder about the men who built the fort back 180 years ago and how they managed these curved ceilings.
Finally, I return to the top of the fort over looking the Gulf where I set alone and enjoy the solitude.
It is a perfect morning.
I head home at 11 a.m., biking the same route.
I pass a road crew that I had passed hours earlier on my way to the fort. I can see the progress of their sand removal — the road will reopen to car traffic soon enough. But for now at least, Mother Nature has claimed a brief victory over man and I enjoy my private beach paradise.
GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE: 1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze, Fla.; http://www.nps.gov/GUIS/index.htm or 850-934-2600. Open daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m. The entrance is at the western end of Pensacola Beach on Fort Pickens Road. Entrance fees are $3 if you're on foot or on a bike, $8 per car.