Part of the roughly 135,000-acre Gulf Islands National Seashore spread along the Florida and Mississippi Gulf coast, the Naval Live Oaks Area appeals to both history and nature buffs, not to mention anybody who appreciates the beauty of the Pensacola Beach area’s undeveloped shores. Set on a peninsula edging Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound, this unit of the National Seashore includes the park headquarters (with its visitor center), developed picnic areas, a youth group campground, and some 7.5 miles of hiking trails.
The history here’s pretty darn fascinating. The land here was originally set aside as a Naval Live Oak Reservation by President John Quincy Adams and his secretary of the navy in 1828. Why? Well, the iconic southern live oaks that grow so prolifically along the U.S. Gulf Coast boast incredibly strong wood, and thus were a valuable commodity in the days of wooden warships, being mainly used for the fundamental support of hulls and decking. The durability of the U.S.S. Constitution’s inner hull, made from live-oak lumber, during a naval contest against the H.M.S. Guerriere in the War of 1812—a battle that earned the victorious Constitution the famous nickname of “Old Ironsides”—was a high-profile demonstration of the tree’s military worth.
The Naval Live Oaks reservation was the first of a network of live-oak groves preserved by the federal government for the purpose of shipbuilding in the early to mid-1800s. By the time the Civil War rolled around, shipbuilders were increasingly turning to metal to construct vessels, and as the era of the wooden warship faded these live-oak reservations were either converted to private land or made into parks. This section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore is a fascinating tribute to a piece of U.S. military history and to a magnificent native tree, which—with its massive trunks, it’s twisting, often ground-hugging boughs, and its draperies of Spanish moss—is a true icon of the American Southeast.
You can learn more about the Naval Live Oaks Area’s history and the use of live oak in the construction of warships at the park headquarters and Naval Live Oaks Visitor Center. There you can also access the short and fully accessible Breckenridge Nature Trail, an interpretive path that loops into the unit’s extensive network of hiking trails. Exploring these trails, you’ll pass through handsome oak groves as well as sandy pinewoods and scrub.
The Naval Live Oaks Area also includes a covered picnic pavilion on the sound-side (available on a first-come, first-served basis) as well as other picnic tables. On the bayside, a youth group campground provides year-round camping for organized outings.
Whether you’re learning the significance of strong-grained live-oak lumber in the U.S. Navy’s early days, immersing yourself in the sights and sounds of peninsular pinelands, or enjoying a leisurely lunch overlooking Santa Rosa Sound, the Naval Live Oaks Area of the Gulf Islands National Seashore makes an awesome destination on a Pensacola Beach-area vacation.
– A good way to sample the scenery and ecosystems of the Naval Live Oaks Area is by taking a rough six-mile loop hike incorporating all or parts of the Breckenridge, Fishing, Boy Scout, Andrew Jackson, North-South, Old Quarry, Beaver Pond, Brown’s Pond, and Borrow Pit trails.