Remarkable beaches you might expect on a Pensacola holiday, it’s Northwest Florida after all. What might come as more of a surprise are the outdoor adventures that go well beyond the beaches and make the best type of holiday memories.
Tucked up in Northwest Florida, Pensacola is kind of famous for its seemingly endless acres of white sand. It’s also the first European settlement in America, so it comes with more than 460 years of history as well. If you keep your eyes on the skies you’ll often spot legendary Blue Angels: the US Navy elite flight demonstration squadron, which makes its home here. And just for fun, Pensacola is also known as Festival City of the South, thanks to having dozens of celebrations and events each year, including the oldest Mardi Gras in the country.
But when you want to take a breath, wind down and simply spend some time doing outdoorsy stuff, Pensacola delivers on that type of family adventure from beach trails and ranger-led activities to snorkelling and stargazing. Getting out and about in nature couldn’t be easier, the friendly locals make sure of that. And something for everyone is a bit of a theme, so a Pensacola holiday is just right for kids of all ages, stages and abilities.
1. Explore the remarkable Gulf Islands National Seashore
Here’s a thing you might not know: Pensacola and Perdido Key are home to the longest, federally protected seashore in the United States. Amazed? Well that interesting fact is nothing compared to the remarkable reality of Gulf Islands National Seashore which manages to be beautiful, protected and great fun too. Of course, you’ll want plenty of sand and sea time here, but in between there are quite a few iconic experiences you shouldn’t miss.
- Fort Pickens on Pensacola Beach gives kids the easiest of history lessons. All they have to do is walk around and they’re learning about everything from the American Civil War to the Fort’s spell as a prison to legendary Apache warrior, Geronimo, and its more recent role in WWII.
- Head to Perdido Key and spend the day at Johnson Beach. It’s a perfect spot for water sports, blessed with dazzling sands, and a bit of a hiking superstar. Try the Discovery Nature Trail. At a half-mile long it’s easily doable with kids, plus its raised boardwalk takes in dunes, pine forest and salt marshes, then ends with a big reveal of majestic Grand Lagoon.
- If you want to see the spectacular US Navy Blue Angels practicing, the Gulf Islands National Seashore is the place from March to November. Pick your spot at Fort Pickens on most Tuesdays or Wednesdays, then just dig your toes in the sand and train your eyes on the skies.
- See Gulf Islands National Seashore from the sea aboard the Pensacola Bay City Ferry. Kids love the ride, and hop-on-hop-off tickets let you see what you want, at your own pace. Plus, the ferries are called ‘Turtle Runner’ and ‘Pelican Perch’: too cute to resist.
2. Discover true nature on Pensacola holiday beach tours
Pensacola is big on sharing so family friendly guided tours are very much a thing here. In fact the National Park Service at Gulf Islands National Seashore offers weekly and seasonal ranger-led tours which take you everywhere from Pensacola’s historic brick and iron forts to fascinating salt marshes.
You can even spend the night stargazing or go snorkelling and kayaking in sea grass beds. And if you want to meet some of the area’s flightier types, then just join one of the fun bird walks around the local barrier islands.
3. Learn about local wildlife on family-friendly nature trails
When you ask kids what wild creatures they want to see on holiday, chances are dolphins will top the list. Happily, Pensacola delivers on Bottlenose dolphins, as well as loggerhead turtles, cownose rays and hermit crabs, and those are just a few of the amazing sights you can promise children a glimpse of here.
To find out more about the sea, plant, bird and insect life round these parts, follow the Pensacola Beach Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail which features about 30 signposts around the barrier island beach. Each one covers an ecological topic and they’re all educational, in a fun way. So families can expect to learn about anything from why Pensacola Beach’s sand is so white to the secrets of the perilous journeys that sea turtles face.
Not far from Perdido Key, Big Lagoon State Park is the place for birding trails and estuary trails. The park’s a natural playground for fishing, swimming kayaking and canoeing too. And if you haven’t tried Pensacola crabbing yet, you should, and Big Lagoon is also one of the top spots for that adventure.
4. Tick rare carnivorous plants off your must-see list
Pensacola is not short on rare nature either, so when you want extraordinary, just take a walk.
Carnivorous Pitcher Plants aren’t at all common, yet you’ll find four of them in Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park on Perdido Bay. Viewed from an elevated boardwalk, it’s an understatement to say they’re an amazing sight, and one kids won’t forget in a hurry.
While you’re in the park, make time to follow the 6.5-mile Perdido Bay trail or take the shorter Tarkiln Bayou Trail, which is also wheelchair accessible.
5. Keen-eyed kids can be otter spotters for the day
Hit the Jones Swamp Wetland Preserve and Nature Trail in West Pensacola and get kids to keep their eyes peeled. All they need is a little bit of patience and a lot of hush for a good chance of seeing river otters doing their thing in creeks below the elevated boardwalk. Although, even if you don’t catch a glimpse of its best loved residents, it’s always worth taking a hike through this lovely 1,300 acre preserve.
6. Snorkel right off the beach, year round
You probably won’t be surprised to find that a lot of Pensacola marvels are found underwater. That’s just fine, as snorkelling is as easy as breathing in this part of Florida, and you can do it right off the beach.
Water temperatures range from about 29° in summer to about 18° come winter, so there’s never a bad time to snorkel here. In fact, during winter the visibility is even better, and what you lose in a few degrees of warmth, you more than make up for in unforgettable encounters.
Plus, Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key both have artificial reefs about 500ft from the shore. Manmade they may be, but they attract an astonishing variety of marine life, fish and even sea turtles, and they’re also easy to reach: perfect for snorkel-keen kids.
7. Almost anyone can dive on a Pensacola holiday
Outstanding diving round Pensacola and Perdido Key shouldn’t really come as much of surprise considering they’re on the Gulf of Mexico with its warm, transparent waters and excellent visibility.
What you may not expect are hundreds of dive sites, including wrecks and artificial reefs. Then there’s the range of depths, which mean just about anyone can dive here, from beginners – the local dives schools are superb – to expert, technical divers. And again, it’s a year round activity, although you might want a wetsuit in winter.
8. Find your way to water sports
There are so many water sports you can try on a Pensacola holiday, it would be easier to tell you what’s not available. Instead we’ve picked out the ones that are perfect for kids, easy to do and almost always need no experience. However, if a little experience is called for, you’ll also find great tuition, fantastic surf schools and friendly locals happy to offer a helping hand.
- Add paddling to your Pensacola holiday and hire kayaks to explore Big Lagoon State Park or pick up paddleboards for the afternoon and SUP on the sunny Gulf. Alternatively, try the prettiest paddling adventure of all: kayaking round the islands of Perdido Key. And for night owls, there’s even after-dark exploring round Santa Rosa Sound in transparent kayaks lit with LED lights.
- Seasoned surfers love Pensacola for its waves, long hours of sunshine and warm waters; all factors that make it the ideal place to start surfing too. Plus, families will be pleased to know that all local schools offer kids’ lessons, good value rates and group or one-on-one tuition. So you can expect your little dudes-in-training to be popping up and hanging ten in no time here.
9. Sail away for the day with your kids, it’s magical
Sailing is another Pensacola holiday activity families can enjoy without any previous experience, because it comes in all forms round these parts.
So if you want to take to the high seas without manning the ship yourself, think about a cruise. Over 10,000 dolphins make their home in the Gulf here and the best way to spot them is on a cruise. There are plenty to choose from, and some even coincide with Blue Angels’ practice sessions. Private or group charters are an unforgettable way to explore the area. Although, if you’re tempted to go it alone but don’t know the ropes, why not learn to sail on a Pensacola holiday, then you can take home skills instead of fridge magnets.
10. Hire bikes for a freewheeling Pensacola holiday
Are you an easy afternoon ride round historic neighbourhoods or more of a white knuckles on the handlebars type of family? However you like to get out on bikes, Pensacola has cycling covered, we promise. You’ll find beautiful, car-light beach trails with Gulf views on the side; well marked forest trails for MTB thrills; safe and pretty cycling paths all over Perdido Key; fascinating Downtown bike routes and even cycle tours if you want some fun local input in your ride. Plus, you can hire wheels all over the place in Pensacola, so there really is nothing to stop your pedal power.