Winding through woods and wetlands

You probably know that you can enjoy long walks on the beach in South Alabama.

But did you know you also could enjoy long walks through woods and wetlands in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach?

There are nature trails teeming with birds, deer and other animals, barely a mile from the beaches. They take you through Gulf State Park, along Fort Morgan Road and through Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail, which offers seven routes and six different ecosystems, each with its own memorable attractions.

The Backcountry Trail is a network of 14 miles of paved trails, with plenty of benches and swings for those who want to sit back and enjoy nature. The paths are 10-12 feet wide and mostly flat. Even most of the inclines are gentle, so it’s not uncommon to see three generations of a family sharing a trail, each member going at his or her own pace.

Decisions, decisions
The only hard part about the Backcountry Trail is deciding which route to take and how to enjoy it: walking, bicycling, jogging, on a Segway or via a two-hour eco-tour in a sheltered golf cart with 2014-2015 Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Annual Vacation Guides © 2014 Courtland William RichardsAll Rights Reserveda guide explaining the flora and fauna. And there are dozens of geocaches to be discovered if you’re in an exploring mood.

On this particular day, I have 75 minutes between business appointments, so I decide to walk along Catman Trail, named for a mythical half-man, half-panther.
It’s 2 o‘clock on a school day, too early for kids to climb the rock wall next to the Butterfly Garden or explore the bluff or look for white-tailed deer in the woods or marvel at “Lefty,” the resident alligator who sometimes suns herself on the banks of a pond.

Hugh Branyon Backcountry TrailMost of the folks on Catman Trail today are adults walking or bicycling.
It’s funny how we change when we’re enjoying nature. In a city or a mall, we might pass each other without a word, but in the woods we exchange friendly greetings with strangers and share tips on what to see. The only exception is a woman who is speed walking along the path while talking loudly into an iPhone, her eyes straight ahead, oblivious to the Southern magnolias, slash pines, frogs and birds all around her.

“Lady,” I want to say, “you’re missing the whole point of a walk in the woods.”

But I’m several hundred yards along on my walk, the sound of travelers on Highway 161 already lost in the gentle breeze. I am now Mellow Mark, living and letting live.
I spot an armadillo on the side of the path. He’s busy snuffling through leaves.
People stop to take photos, but the armadillo keeps foraging, ignoring the paparazzi.
“He’s the same armadillo that was here last year,” a woman says.
Her husband asks, “How can you be sure?”
“He was in the same spot last year,” she declares.
While the husband and wife check out the armadillos, it’s time for me to move on.

Cotton Bayou Trail
The sun is bright but shaded by the trees, ideal for stretching my legs as I proceed along Catman Trail and turn onto Cotton Bayou Trail, the latest addition to the Backcountry Trail.

It’s smart land use: Much of the trail was spliced together from rights of way and existing hunting paths largely abandoned years ago.

Now it’s accessible to anyone who wants to savor nature and the outdoors. The Trailway connects with the Gulf State Park, which has its own trails, fishing and cabins, and it’s very close to the paved 5-mile nature walk along Fort Morgan Road.
While Catman Trail is busy with people, Cotton Bayou Trail is secluded.

I meet only two people and one leashed dog in a 20-minute stretch, giving me plenty of time to Alabama Coastal Birding Trailstudy the cattails and moss-hung trees and peer into the woods in search of foxes and coyotes. The trees draw such a large mix of birds that this is a popular stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail.

There’s more than nature here, too. There’s a humbling history lesson when we realize that American settlers traveled in this same area in the 1700s, and Native Americans came through these woods long before the Europeans.

Now I must head back, which is never a problem on the Backcountry Trail. It has numerous helpful signs, so many that not even a city slicker can get lost. There are more armadillos along the way, plus carnivorous pitcher plants and the rat-a-tat-tat noise of an industrious woodpecker somewhere nearby.

Everyone is friendly and smiling, whether they’re just starting their adventure or heading back to the parking lot. By 3:05 p.m. I’m in my car, refreshed and ready again for the world of work (although I secretly hope that my next appointment is cancelled and I can explore the nature trails some more.)

A few weeks later, I get my opportunity. With a free afternoon ahead of me, I book a spot on the guided eco-tour. For the next few hours, I ride in the covered electric golf cart while the tour guide takes us on an exploration of the Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail. We ventured down the Gulf Oak Ridge Trail, admiring the view from the island’s highest bluff–34 feet above sea level. As we reached the Overlook, we were all astounded by the sight of the lovely valley below. As our tour continued, we spotted alligators sunning themselves along the Middle Lake Trail, and birds aplenty on Bear Creek Trail. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of turtles basking in the afternoon sun along Middle Lake Overlook Trail, and we ended at the Butterfly Garden. Surrounded by butterflies, our small group enjoyed a picnic lunch in that serene atmosphere.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer so many nature trails and tours, it’s impossible to choose a favorite. Each provides an opportunity to view and appreciate the beautiful scenery and wildlife of the area, whether walking, jogging, biking, or taking an eco-tour! No matter what you choose, the nature trails of the Alabama Gulf Coast are easy to appreciate.

For a video preview of each path and ecosystem in the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, see

Guided Segway Tour of nature trails: 1-251-509-TOUR

Golf cart tour of flora and fauna on the Backcountry Trail

Learn more about the nature trails in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and start planning your visit today!

Mark O’Brien (1 Posts)Mark O’Brien lives in nearby Pensacola, Fla. and frequently spends weekends in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. His favorite seasons are spring and fall, when the weather is especially inviting for exploring woods and

March 2015.


Pensacola Bay Area Camping

Pensacola Bay Area Camping

Primitive, standard, or posh, on a lake or on the gulf, Pensacola has it

by Mark O’Brien

What’s your pleasure, campers? Fishing, primitive, traditional, or posh? Pensacola has all four options, and they all offer nature, recreation and relaxation on your terms. The settings: two barrier islands and one inland lake.

Fish the fresh waters of a quiet lake with the breeze wafting through tall pine trees around you. Camp on a Gulf of Mexico beach as pristine as it was when a Spanish explorer found it in 1693. Pitch your tent, or park your RV in the shadow of an historic fort, the gulf on one side, and a placid bay on the other within easy reach of modern conveniences. Or, experience the beauty and culture from the comfort of an upscale RV park in the heart of Pensacola Beach in view of sparkling water, and a short walk from dozens of restaurants, clubs and shops.

Freshwater fishing

Beginning the tour 40 miles north of Pensacola, Lake Stone Campground offers the combination of camping and fishing. The 77 campsites handle everything from tents to big RV rigs. Fishing is the main attraction for many visitors, drawn by a 130-acre manmade lake that is home to largemouth bass, bream, catfish, crappie and more. Boaters are welcome, but to keep the peace, no noisy gasoline motors; only electric trolling motors are allowed. Of course, any savvy angler knows a boat isn’t necessary for a good day of fishing. Even so, “fishing fingers” extend into the lake to put anglers in the middle of the action.

Primitive camping

At Perdido Key on Johnson Beach, you can camp old-school on a pristine beach overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. You can even have a campfire, but you have to earn primitive camping by hiking a half mile. There aren’t any restrooms, showers or convenience stores nearby, so pack accordingly. And, as always, pack it in and pack it out.

Once your eyes catch sight of the moon and stars through the unpolluted, extra dark sky, you’ll be confident your efforts have been more than reimbursed. You’ll actually have two water views, the gulf on one side and a more placid lagoon on the other. If you’ve brought the gear, wake up and go paddle boarding, kayaking, surfing, or just enjoy nature at its most basic.

Perdido Key is one of America’s top beaches, according to “Dr. Beach,” geologist Stephen Leatherman, who praised its clean water and open vistas. The primitive camping area, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, is patrolled by rangers, but otherwise you will see only a few other campers—a great example of how camping gives us rare views and memorable adventures.

Traditional camping

Santa Rosa Island has a wide variety of selections for campers and RVers. Fort Pickens (Gulf Islands National Seashore), at the island’s west end, is packed with history, nature, biking and walking trails. You also may enjoy a front row seat for awe-inspiring air shows and practices by the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s fight demonstration team.

The 200 campsites, for tents, fifth-wheelers and RVs, are on the Santa Rosa Sound (north) side of the island, close to a fishing pier, restrooms, showers and other amenities. The gulf is just a two- minute walk south across the narrow island. Either way, enjoy eye-catching scenery and a nature setting that’s a great playground for kids and adults alike. Explore the shoreline at your own pace; watch fish dart through the clear water, look for special sea shells, or simply enjoy whatever delight you happen to come across.

Birds flock to the mix of trees and waterways. Look high in that tree and you will see an osprey. Out there, over the water, you can see loons, herons and other birds searching for their next meal.

There’s plenty for campers to do indoors as well. A museum tells the story of Fort Pickens, built before the Civil War and later converted into a prison.

Another traditional camping gem is Big Lagoon State Park. This site is a blend of convenience and nature. Complete with facilities such as restrooms, showers, fire rings and picnic tables, it’s known especially for being quiet. With a wide array of trails at Big Lagoon, hiking, biking and bird watching abound. Of course, there’s also easy access to the beach for calm, scenic kayaking, or for just dipping your toes in the water.

Upscale RV resorts

You’ll find the impeccably manicured Perdido Cove RV Resort and Marina just across the bridge from Big Lagoon State Park. Located off of Tranquility Lane, 14 of the 56 RV sites are beachfront. As far as hookups go, this resort has the gamut: 30/50 amp electricity, water, sewer, cable, Wi-Fi, propane, swimming pool, general store, playground and much more. With a laidback feel for guests, this resort is high-class with a friendly staff.

The Pensacola Beach RV Resort is not your father’s campground. Its 72 sites are near the heart of Pensacola Beach’s entertainment area. Amenities include power, water, sewer and cable hookups, plus Wi-Fi. The resort sits on the north side of Santa Rosa Island. Its property extends to the sound beach—an ideal wading depth for small, supervised children.

The RV Resort is a great spot to park your home-away-from-home for Blue Angel air shows, free Tuesday evening concerts and the annual Taste of the Beach culinary festival, which features a celebrity chef. Rental shops provide jet skis, paddle boards and boats. The easily accessible eco-trail takes you close to nature and helps you work up an appetite for the island’s celebrated restaurants. Best of all, Pensacola’s climate makes camping a treat almost any time of year.




Pensacola good then, better now

March is always one of my favorite months. I was born in March. Spring comes in March, daylight lengthens and the sun glows longer and brighter.

And I moved to Pensacola in a March — March 1978, to be precise.

Say, Uncle Mark, what was Pensacola like in those long-ago days?

I’m glad you asked.

Passengers had to walk outdoors to board or disembark aircraft at Pensacola Municipal Airport, its old name long before it became Pensacola Intergalactic Airport. On the plus side, you could double-park outside the terminal and no one would think anything of it.

Our rental car was a yellow Ford Pinto with a CB radio (handy for calling for help since Pintos tended to catch fire in collisions.)

The area around then-Pensacola Junior College flooded at the first hint of rain, and the University of West Florida accepted only juniors and seniors. UWF was so lame in those days that its bookstore sold The National Enquirer, hardly a hefty academic tome.

The Driftwood was the classiest restaurant in town, ideal for celebrating special events like anniversaries. Or the departure of guests who stayed too long.

Palafox Street was fading fast. It was home to old-time establishments like The Child Restaurant, Albert Klein Jewelers, and Trader Jon’s, a bar full of Navy memorabilia, tipsy lawyers and judges, and strippers.

No one could imagine how fabulous downtown Pensacola would become; consumers were all bound for University Mall, then the hottest shopping spot in town, ahead of Cordova and Westwood malls.

The King’s Inn on Gregory Street and the Sheraton Inn, both long-gone, were the places where middle-aged people hung out. McGuire’s was a new place in town, located on Fairfield Drive, trying to make a name for itself with good food and a celebration for something called St. Patrick’s Day.

Lawyers couldn’t advertise then, not the way they can now. Can you imagine today’s media without the drumbeat of LevinKerriganShunnarah advertising?

Cigarette smoke filled the air in every restaurant, workplace and public area. Almost all bosses were white guys and all employers expected outsiders to take a pay cut to move here because “Pensacola is cheaper.” (Some things never change.) They still call it the Bermuda Triangle, but the intersections of Ninth, Tippin and Langley avenues was a major Malfunction Junction in 1978, with no traffic lights. It was every driver for herself.

Gulf Breeze was just a sleepy place you drove through on the way to Pensacola Beach, not the thriving community it is now.

Pensacola Beach had lots of little cottages that would blow away in Hurricane Frederic later in 1978, opening the way for the first round of bigbucks development.

One of the beach’s hot spots was the lounge at the Holiday Inn, which also was home to Sunday Mass for Catholics.

Neither Pensacola Beach nor Perdido Key had yet discovered the value of “shoulder season” — spring and fall — and snowbirds in winter. Their economies rode on summer alone.

Times then were good, but overall they’re much better now, so Uncle Mark plans to stay here another 37 years.

The Battle of Mobile Bay

Battle was led by two men who went to sea as boys

By Mark O’Brien
The Battle of Mobile Bay was a showdown between two men who would become Navy legends.

The Confederate ships were led by Franklin Buchanan, who joined the U.S. Navy when he was only 15 and distinguished himself so well that he became the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. But when the Civil War broke out, Buchanan, a Northerner by birth, joined the Confederacy and became its first admiral.

The leader of the U.S. naval forces, Southern-born David Farragut, got his sea legs even sooner than Buchanan. He was a mere 9 years old when he joined the U.S. Navy. When Buchanan and Farragut squared off at Mobile Bay, they had a total of 100 years of Naval experience.

The result: An iconic sea battle that boosted Northern morale and helped Abraham Lincoln win re-election three months later, according to historian Craig Symond.

“Indeed, Farragut’s charge into Mobile Bay in August of 1864 may have been the most dramatic moment of the naval war,” wrote Symond, an authority on the two Civil War navies.


The Battle

The U.S. Navy had 18 ships; the Confederates had four ships and three heavily armed forts—Morgan, Gaines and Powell—important stops along the Alabama Gulf Coast history tour. The forts, however, had a fatal design flaw: They were vulnerable to attack from land, and the Union had some 1,500 soldiers and cavalrymen ready to exploit this advantage.

Union forces fired the first shot of the battle on the morning of August 5, 1864, as they entered the bay. But the Rebels scored an early coup when the USS Tecumseh struck a submerged mine and quickly sank.

Other Union ships behind him hesitated at this point, but Farragut, aboard the USS Hartford, hollered at them something along the lines of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Historians doubt that Farragut said those exact words, and Symond has an interesting view on his decision to charge ahead: “Farragut had little choice at this point but to go ahead. He could not stop under the guns of Fort Morgan and he could not back down with a column of ships behind him, so he went ahead.

“The rest of the Federal ships followed him, careful to stay in his wake. As they passed through the minefield, some sailors later claimed they had heard the primers snapping on the torpedoes. Luckily, no more of them exploded, very likely because of faulty primers.”

Three Confederate ships were soon sidelined. U.S. sailors captured one, Confederate sailors scuttled the second when it was badly damaged and the third fled.

This left the CSS Tecumseh, among the first of the ironclad ships after centuries of wooden ships. But it was badly outnumbered and rendered almost useless as Union ships blasted away at it and rammed it.

A severely injured Buchanan surrendered, some three hours after the battle began.

“Admiral Buchanan sent me his sword, being himself badly wounded with a compound fracture of the leg,” Farragut reported in a dispatch to Washington, D.C.

He arranged for medical treatment for Buchanan and the other wounded sailors. Meanwhile, Union soldiers on land combined with the ships to eventually take all three Confederate forts. The South had lost its last major waterway on the Gulf Coast, cutting off its supply line to Mobile.

For his efforts, Congress gave Farragut a $50,000 bonus—equivalent to several million dollars today, as Symond noted. Farragut also became the first admiral in the U.S. Navy.




The U.S. Navy has repeatedly honored both men, naming three ships and a building after Buchanan and five ships after Farragut, keeping alive the memories of two warriors of the sea.

Alabama Gulf Coast History Tour

Alabama Gulf Coast History Tour

Visit Civil War battlefields, military forts, Gothic towns and intriguing back roads on a heritage tour of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

By Mark O’Brien
The last major battle of the Civil War, unwittingly fought after the South conceded defeat, took place on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines guarded the mouth of Mobile Bay over the course of four wars. From these deep roots, Alabama’s 32 miles of coastline lead visitors through a fascinating history tour.

Civil War Sesquicentennial

Let’s start with Blakeley State Park, which on April 9, 2015 will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Blakeley—the Sesquicentennial of what many historians believe to be the last major battle of the Civil War. When the battle began at 5:30 p.m. that day in 1865, neither side knew that Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered just hours earlier to the Union forces in Virginia.

The Confederates had the fort, but fewer than 4,000 men; the Union had 16,000. This was before “smart bombs” and drones. The Union troops worked their way forward, helped by artillery firing from behind sand dunes, and overran the fort. At least 6,000 Union troops were African-Americans, many of them former slaves.

Mobile was guarded by Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan, which already had fallen to the North in the Battle of Mobile Bay. Gaines is on Dauphin Island; its displays include the original cannons and tunnels and offers tours led by guides in period uniforms. Fort Morgan, just up the road from downtown Gulf Shores, has exhibits documenting its roles in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II. Learn more about these historic sites on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

Blakeley State Park

Fort Blakeley, an Alabama State Park, offers a two-fer: two destinations in one. In addition to its many significant war mementos, it’s a spectacular nature setting on the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. Experience it via 10 miles of trails, a boardwalk along the water and a tour boat that often includes sightings of eagles, black bears and alligators.

“As it is now, it is as much a nature trip as a history trip, and it stands as close to historic reality as any battleground I’ve ever seen,” said historian Wilson Jay.

Blakeley is part of Alabama’s Coastal Connection Scenic Byway, which offers itineraries to connect you with nature, the land and sea, and the past. All routes offer a heaping helping of local color. They take visitors off the main roads and through Gothic towns such as Bon Secour, where a national wildlife refuge surrounds an idyllic town captured in time.

Military Machines

Visitors who prefer military muscle have two great stops ahead, and both mix education with entertainment. In Mobile, tour the USS Alabama at Battleship Memorial Park. The war ship won 12 medals of valor for its service in World War II and helped reduce the Japanese air force to kamikaze attacks. The battleship was built to last; it withstood a typhoon’s gusts of 95 mph before it was retired. Other displays include a submarine, the USS Drum and more than 20 aircraft from World War II through the Gulf War.

In neighboring Pensacola, the National Naval Aviation Museum has an IMAX Theatre, flight simulators and more than 150 restored aircraft. Some tours are led by people who once piloted these aircraft. How’s that for authenticity? The museum is next to Sherman Field, where the Navy’s Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team can often be seen practicing maneuvers, some as high as 15,000 feet, some as low as 50 feet. Technologically speaking, it’s a long way from the days of Civil War weaponry, but it’s just a short hop from Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Legend Has It…

  • In the Civil War’s Battle of Mobile Bay, Admiral David Farragut reportedly exhorted his crew, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” But historians think this is a legend added after the battle. Crewmen did, however, tie the admiral to a mast and rigging to keep him from being swept overboard as he called out commands during the battle.


  • Like many Confederate officers, Richard Lucian Page started his military career in the U.S. Navy but switched to the Rebel side when war broke out. Page, a cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was the general in charge of Fort Morgan when Union troops attacked. He surrendered the fort because his troops had little dry gunpowder, but he was so upset that he broke his sword over his knee rather than surrender it to the Federal forces.


  • Tempers were high at Fort Blakeley, where many of the Union troops were former slaves. When the fort fell, some Confederates insisted on surrendering to white Unionists. “One soldier found his former master among the prisoners, and they appeared happy to meet and drank from the same canteen, but other black soldiers attacked prisoners until restrained by white officers,” reported Gen. C.C. Andrews of the Black Division, as it was known.

Fish story

On Florida’s Santa Rosa Sound, what will swim underneath your boat?

by Mark O’Brien

It’s noon, Saturday, football season. I should be in a sports bar, yelling at players, coaches, referees. It’s what I’ve been doing for years. Instead, I’m in the front seat of a two-person kayak on Santa Rosa Sound, a few hundred feet from Pensacola Beach and the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

I see mullet to the right, red fish to the left. The late October temperatures are in the low 70s, the wind so soft that a butterfly twitters easily overhead. As I revel in the serenity and up-close glimpses of nature, I realize there’s not another human in sight.

Except Christian Wagley, who is behind me in the kayak, talking as he paddles. He’s an excellent narrator. He has a Masters degree in biology and coastal zone management and he’s been exploring the waters of Northwest Florida, personally and professionally, for nearly 20 years. “There’s no better way to enjoy the water than in a kayak,” says Wagley, a fan of the low-impact vessel. “It never needs repairs because there’s nothing to break.”

Intracoastal Waterway

We could have tried the Gulf of Mexico side of Pensacola Beach, but Wagley thought this route would be more enjoyable for a first-timer—and certainly healthier than eating greasy food and yelling at multiple television screens. On the Intracoastal Waterway, the trees on shore are closer and the vegetation more varied, and the smoother water leaves more time for gazing below the surface.Wagley is seeking spots on the bottom where bare sand meets sea grass. There’s more diversity of sea life in the overlap, he says, likening the two zones to the increased animal activity in the area where a forest meets a meadow. Striped pinfish dart through sea grass below.

“Fish love sea grass. If you see a lot of sea grass, the bottom is healthy,” he says. Sea beds secure the sediment, reduce erosion and provide food for marine life. Sea grass that washes up on shore also is an asset. It’s a cafeteria for shore creatures. Like many communities, Pensacola’s waterways lost untold acres of sea grass due to industrial and agricultural pollution and development that disturbed land and animals. Preservation efforts have slowly brought the grasses back, but it takes many years for sea grass to regenerate.”You can bend the laws of nature, but you can’t break them,” Wagley says.

Numerous jellyfish slide along under the water. Wagley says there’s been a worldwide rise in jellyfish, some of the oldest creatures in the sea. The Gulf Coast sees up to 10 different species of jellyfish, including the menacing Portuguese man o’ war. The little guys swimming under our kayak are more graceful than scary.

On Shore

We stop on shore to stretch our legs. Sure enough, bird tracks cross through the “rack lines” of sea weed, and nearby holes in the sand indicate ghost crabs, nocturnal creatures. Another nice sign: no litter. We see a few motorboats off in the distance and we encounter two other kayakers. But otherwise we see only nature. A large school of fish sends water rippling. A heron walks in shallow water and dips his beak after food. A mullet jumps in the air, flashing his silvery self at us before disappearing under water. Three pelicans bob quietly 200 yards away. And I realize that I can always record the football games, but I need to experience this nature first-hand, live, in-person.

Visit the Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail to learn more about the amazing natural habitats you can encounter on Pensacola Beach, above and below the water. You can also find the perfect place to launch a kayak.


Baby sea turtles on Pensacola Beach get help to boost chances of survival

by Mark O’Brien

I’ve seen full-grown sea turtles in the open water. They’re massive,
200–300 pounds. Their heads are man-sized, making you think from
a distance that a person is swimming far from shore. Sea turtles have
been around for thousands of years, but I had no idea how badly the
odds are stacked against them. Until I met Limarie Rodriguez-
Stevenson, who has been volunteering for 12 years to guard turtle nests
on Pensacola Beach and to make sure the hatchlings get into the Gulf of
Mexico. Even then, a baby turtle faces odds of up to 1,000–1 against
reaching adulthood.

By day, Rodriguez-Stevenson is a veterinarian, caring for dogs, cats
and other domestic creatures. She began turtle-tending because she
wanted to be involved with a more exotic species as well. Her fervor
is contagious; when she got married four years ago, her husband
became a volunteer, too.

Nest Sitters

On Pensacola Beach, the nesting season runs from May to October. Florida has five species of sea turtle, and three come here: The loggerhead—the most common sea turtle on Santa Rosa Island—got its name for its large head and is occasionally joined by the green turtle and the Kemp’s ridley—the smallest and rarest of sea turtles. During nesting season, the female turtle digs a hole maybe two feet deep, where she deposits dozens of eggs the size of Ping-Pong balls. Then she departs.

Volunteers cruise the beach at sunrise to find new nests. Then they “nest sit” to make sure the eggs aren’t disturbed. “They hide where they put the eggs,” says Rodriguez-Stevenson. “But they tend to nest a little too close to the water,” she says. “We have to move a lot of nests.” After 60 days the eggs hatch, usually at night. As the 60th day approaches, volunteers literally put an ear to the ground to detect sounds from the nest. “I cheat,” Rodriguez-Stevenson says, smiling. “I use my stethoscope. You can hear sand falling in the nest as the hatchlings scramble to the surface.”

The tumult of dozens of eggs hatching almost simultaneously causes the nest to collapse, sending the newborns scattering to the surface. Then their next test takes place. On a good night, they will head for the gulf. On shore, they’re vulnerable to predators. “Ghost crabs are the worst. They’ll literally grab the hatchlings and drag them into a crab hole,” she says.

Light Pollution

Baby turtles face a life-or-death decision as soon as they bustle out of the nest. They must get into the gulf to survive. But while they have great eyesight underwater, turtles have poor vision on land.They’re drawn to the light. Ideally this means the moon over the gulf, but other times the turtles head for lights from homes, businesses and roads around Pensacola Beach, which dramatically increases their chances of dying.

The volunteers and bio-technicians often put the babies into coolers and move them to the gulf. The hatchlings are lumpy and squirmy and about as warm as the sand where they were born. “They usually swim out until they find a patch of seaweed,” Rodriguez-Stevenson says.

Life at sea is perilous—predators, fishermen and storms. Males don’t return, but after decades at sea females somehow find their way back to their land of birth to hatch a new generation. “They’re very interesting animals,” says Rodriguez-Stevenson. Interesting enough for her to get up before sunrise twice a week to patrol beaches and to spend nights caring for tiny creatures with little chance of survival? “We have to be good stewards,” she says. “We’re taking over their beaches.” Next time I spot an adult sea turtle, I’ll appreciate it a lot more. And I’ll also appreciate the role of scientists, volunteers and luck in helping that turtle survive.

Visit the Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail to learn more about the efforts to protect sea turtles on Pensacola Beach. You’ll also find year-round conservation efforts to protect this amazing ecosystem.

Perdido Key makes ‘real world’ a distant memory

You know how certain scents bring back a flood of memories?

The enchanting aroma of Perdido Key always takes you back.

Lower the car window and inhale the tangy sea air, as you drive up the bridge that takes you from the mainland to Perdido Key: a 16-mile-long barrier island linked to Florida at one end, and Alabama at the other.

Feel your troubles fly out the window as the sea breeze floods in.

Lather on the sunscreen, and get ready to enjoy all sorts of outdoor activity; hiking, fishing, camping, sunbathing, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico or the calm waters of the Intracoastal Canal, canoeing, kayaking—whatever floats your boat.

There’s a reason named Perdido Key one of “America’s Favorite Up-And-Coming Summer Escapes.”

Option B: Sit in the sand, and watch the blue-green gulf waters roll onto a shoreline so pretty that Geologist Stephen Leatherman, also known as “Dr. Beach,” praised it as one of the best beaches in the nation, citing its cleanliness and appearance. The sugary-soft white sand has traveled quite the journey; it comes from quartz crystals that wash down from the Appalachian Mountains.

A quest for family fun

I’m here on a scouting mission, looking for places my granddaughters will enjoy on a week-long visit.

I find no shortage of activity, not only for them but also for their older cousins and the whole brood. I can see my son-in-law calling “Fore!” on the area’s great golf courses and my daughter seemingly standing on water atop a paddle board; everyone will enjoy walking through quiet nature trails rich with birds and wildlife.

There are enough boats for a navy here: charter boats for deep-water fishing, canoes and kayaks for exploring the bays and marshy inlets, and jet skis for crashing over the waves. One sure bet: Cruising for a close-up look at the dozens of dolphins that make their home here, darting through the water and teasing boaters with their antics.

Parks are on the mark

Kayaking at Big Lagoon State ParkPerdido Key has the slow pace and feel of the “old Florida” that has faded from much of the Sunshine State. There are lots of local mom-and-pop restaurants and shops and no long walls of condominiums blocking a water view that has changed little over centuries.

More than half the key is public park set aside for people to enjoy—that means mile upon mile of open beach.

Pull up a dune and make yourself comfortable; birds, endangered sea turtles and all sorts of other critters will be nearby, teaching their own nature class.

Gulf Islands National Seashore and Big Lagoon State Park are two excellent destinations for my family. Both parks have plenty of nature trails, camping areas and other attractions. At Big Lagoon, the shallow bay water is ideal for little kids who want to explore the shoreline and enjoy themselves. A 40-foot observation tower offers fantastic vistas of wildlife and water, and it’s easy for even a couch-potato grandpa like me to climb.

Enjoyable and educational

Boardwalk at Johnson BeachI watch fishermen trying their luck in the rolling surf at Johnson Beach, while a parasailer floats overhead.

Then, I head for a hike that ambles through a marsh. Nature trails at both parks are marked with signs that explain the wildlife around you. The trails are alive with wildlife but easy to navigate, with one being maintained by local Girl Scouts. On the bay, a white sailboat cruises along, coasting over the small wake left by respectful motorboats.

The parks offer classes to the curious. Seashore rangers teach about seining, sea turtle nesting and other beach activities. At Big Lagoon, local astronomers periodically set up telescopes and patiently explain the night skies to children and adults.

At the national seashore, Johnson Beach offers history lessons, too. It’s named for Rosamond Johnson, a black Pensacolian who was killed in the Korean War after he rescued two wounded comrades and tried to save a third. He was only 17 years old, defending our country when the beaches were segregated. Whites went to Pensacola Beach; blacks went to Perdido Key.

I’m amazed that even at noon on a Sunday, only one other person is enjoying the quiet interlude with nature—Bonnie Yaste, a frequent seashore visitor who has lived on Perdido Key for 21 years. The silence is striking; “civilization” is a few miles away, yet here there are only the sounds of a light breeze and some bugs chirping near pine trees.

Florida is bird-watching nirvana; it’s home to 470 types of birds, the third largest total among the 50 states. Osprey nests are high overhead, but no ospreys are in sight.

“Just wait,” Yaste said. “Come back between 4:30 and 7 tonight. That’s when they’ll really be squawking. That’s often the way it is, there’s always something to watch.”

Perdido Key has all the ingredients for outdoor fun—from adventurous boating or hiking to sunbathing along uncrowded beaches. I can see this is the perfect location for creating memories with my family for many years to come. View the free vacation planner to plan the perfect Pensacola getaway and make your own memories in Perdido Key.

Enjoy close encounters with Gulf Coast creatures

by Mark O’Brien
Ospreys, bald eagles and herons fly over the shimmering water, home to colorful fish and marine life as well as intriguing sites for divers and snorkelers to explore. Kayakers mingle with other vessels as they enjoy the water, either the Gulf of Mexico or calmer inland bays, rivers, creeks and marshes. And at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge—one of Alabama’s 10 natural wonders—thousands of animals nestle in woods, beaches and inlets. Bon Secour lives up to its French name, “safe harbor.” The refuge’s 7,000 acres protect threatened and endangered species in dunes, swales, wetlands and scrub habitats. But humans can easily see large parts of it, thanks to trails, boats and tours.

Whatever your pleasure in outdoor activities, you will find it in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, where 32 miles of coastline creates amazing natural habitats.

Dolphin delights

Dolphins enjoy Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for the same reasons humans do: Plenty of warm clean water and tasty seafood.

Bottlenose dolphins are so plentiful that the playful creatures are often the main attraction on a dolphin cruise. Take your choice of vessels—schooners, sailboats, glass-bottomed vessels—and see plenty of other wildlife on your memorable voyage.

Bottlenose dolphins, which get their name from their bottle-shaped beaks, come in many shades of gray. Some captains know the dolphins so well that they can recognize them by their fins.

Trail Mix

Millions of migratory birds pass through every spring and fall, joining the local egrets, skimmers and loons that reside in woods, swamps, and rivers that are never far from the main roads.

The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail will keep birders occupied for days. It covers 200 miles along six routes, stopping at parks, beaches and nature preserves that make the area a birder’s mecca.

Birds aren’t the only animals you will find in some parks, especially the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. Its 13-plus miles of paved trails are great for biking, jogging or walking—with benches thoughtfully located here and there.

Butterflies, alligators, deer and other animals share the diverse habitat—swamps, old pine forests, a pitcher plant bog and a coastal ecosystem that has been evolving for centuries. Children will like Boulder Park for rock-climbing.

Dive In

If you want to get underwater yourself, you have numerous options. Snorkeling and divingchoices include close-to-shore and deep-sea expeditions, with opportunities to take photos, spear fish or just enjoy time in the deep.

The LuLu, a 271-foot freighter, was sunk in the gulf in 2013 and already has attracted a wide array of marine life. Other reefs are right offshore. The Whiskey Wreck, for instance, is only 150 yards offshore from Gulf Shores. Nearby areas let snorkelers and divers examine kelp forests and brilliant coral that attract many fish and plant life. For more advanced divers, there’s the USS Oriskany, the world’s largest artificial reef, more than 200 feet under water and 24 miles south of neighboring Pensacola.

Another fun way to eyeball nature up-close is via kayak, a safe, quiet method to travel creeks and rivers. Want to go fishing? Rent a fishing kayak, which leaves both hands free for reeling in your catch. Launch points are easily accessible, letting you decide where to begin and end your visit to this aquatic wonderland.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach support the Dolphin SMART program and Coastal Nature Guide, which provide visitors with guidelines for enjoying the natural beauty of the area without disrupting the wildlife or the habitat.

Connect with nature; download the Backcountry App to navigate the trails in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores!

Cowboy Up: Kissimmee is in the heartland of cowboys and cowgirls

 by Mark O’Brien 

Sorry, Texas, but Florida was first when it comes to cowboys in the United States.

In 1521, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León brought horses and seven Andalusian cattle to Florida. The descendants of those animals shaped the Sunshine State’s destiny and led to our love affair with rodeos, where cowboys and cowgirls need strength, speed and bravery to compete. Look no further than Kissimmee’s Silver Spurs Arena in Osceola Heritage Park, a popular venue for rodeos.

Heritage has a lot to do with rodeos, which have an estimated 30 million fans in the United States and Canada.

“Most riders are second, third, fourth-generation cowboys,” says Jim Bainbridge, spokesman for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association. “They grew up with it and they love it.”

While a child in the suburbs might grow up with a basketball hoop in his yard, farm children grow up with animals in their yards, so rodeos are part of their lives.



There’s the competition and challenge, the music and lights, the electricity of the events and the camaraderie of the crowd. The contests-riding bulls, breaking broncs-are rooted in ranching, acts that working cowboys and cowgirls do every day.

It’s that blend of community spirit, history and athleticism that you will enjoy at the rodeo as you marvel at the cowgirls and cowboys who risk their bodies against powerful animals.

Early days


Being a cowboy has never been easy, but it was especially tough in early Florida.

Without fences, cattle wandered into swamps. You shared the land with alligators, bugs, heat, humidity and hurricanes. But the cow hunters were industrious. Venturing into woods and swamps, they rounded up cattle and snapped 12-foot leather whips that made a pistol-like “crack,” leading to the nickname “cracker cowboys.”

Some owned ranches while others operated from rough-and-tumble “cow camps,” like one in Kissimmee Valley. As journalist Terry Tomalin noted, “locals called it ‘Cow Town,’ which was a good fit since most of its residents had hooves.”

Some cowboys became very wealthy. Jacob Summerlin began working with cattle in 1827, when he was only seven years old. He earned his fortune by raising cattle in Kissimmee and elsewhere and was one of Florida’s richest men by the time he was 40. But he gave away much of his money and stayed low-key, calling himself just a “sun-baked old Florida cracker.”

Rodeo fun


Summerlin’s modesty is carried on by most rodeo performers, who shun the overdone self-celebrations of some athletes. They know it’s not just talent or brute strength that wins. In steer wrestling, for example, leverage is needed to stop the steer and tip it over to get all four legs pointing in the same direction.

Bainbridge says bull-riding is the single most popular event because it’s exciting and dangerous, but rodeo fans come for “the whole package”-seven events in each show: saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, team roping and barrel racing. All require skill and strength, whether being flung about by a bucking horse or navigating a trained horse through a barrel course at top speed.



And cowboys and cowgirls aren’t the only ones in the arena.

There are specialty acts as well as “barrel men” and risk-taking clowns. (Maybe Willie Nelson can do a sequel, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Rodeo Clowns.”)

Cracker horses


Kissimmee’s great setting for modern rodeos started in the 1940s, when a group called the Silver Spurs began holding events to honor the ranching way of life.

And when the cracker horse was close to extinction 25 years ago, Florida ranchers embarked on a campaign to save this hardy symbol of yesteryear. In 1989, only 31 cracker horses could be identified; thousands had been lost to cross-breeding and disease.

But the Florida Cracker Horse Association now registers and documents the horses, which tend to be smaller than most horses but able to withstand heat and bugs that fell other animals. They’re also inexpensive and easily trained. Today, more than 1,000 cracker horses have been identified and registered, giving people a chance to enjoy the descendants of animals that once carried Spanish missionaries and others around Florida.

A sense of history has much to do with the desire to save the cracker horses.

The group’s members recalled their parents and grandparents using cracker horses in their ranches. Cattle has always been a big industry in Florida; even with the influx of development, Florida remains one of the biggest cattle-producing states east of the Mississippi River.

They also appreciate the way many cracker horses walk. Their smooth, shuffling style lets them cover ground seemingly without effort.

“They’re real good travelers,” said Jim Levy, executive director of the FHCA.

Nearly 500 years after Ponce de León came here, cracker horses are still traveling trails and working Florida ranches.