This series of posts will be about my favorite part of the state, the Panhandle
. Specifically, US 98
, which I consider our version of the Pacific Coast Highway
. The most scenic part, I think, is from Pensacola
. It covers about 200 miles, but I’ll be breaking it up into multiple posts, since there’s so much to see. It’s also a very tasty part of the state, since you can get all sorts of wonderful seafood along the route.
I’ll be covering Pensacola to Panama City this time. We’ll start in Pensacola, the oldest city in Florida. Sort of. It was founded by the Spanish in August 1559, 7 years before St. Augustine. However, only a few weeks later, a hurricane struck the colony. Most of it was destroyed. The few survivors tried to make a go of it, but eventually abandoned it by 1561. The area was uninhabited by any Europeans for over 100 years. Which makes St. Augustine the oldest continuously-inhabited-by-Europeans city in the continental US.
There’s so much to see in and around Pensacola, I’d recommend staying there at least 4 days. Or visiting on multiple weekends. You can find all sorts of information about the history of the area at Pensapedia.
If you’re coming into the state from I-10, stop at the welcome center. You’ll be able to get all sorts of information and discounts for hotels and attractions.
The main north-south artery is US 29, which enters Escambia County (Florida) through Alabama. You’ll go through Flomaton, where I recommend you stop for gas. Prices are higher in Florida, probably due to more taxes. There was an NRHP here, an old hotel, but it’s been demolished. Still, consider driving down the street where it used to be, Palafox Street, which goes through the historic downtown area. You can also continue south on Palafox, which becomes Old Flomaton Road, then Jefferson Avenue. This will lead you right into the Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company Residential Historic District, part of Century. You can also get there by going down US 29. It’s a small historic district, very drivable. A nice spot to get out and stroll is Church Street and Jefferson Avenue.
Once you’ve had your fill, get back on US 29 and head south. It’s a long, curvy, hilly and leisurely drive the rest of the way. It’s about 30 miles before you’ll reach the outskirts of Pensacola.
Just before you get there, you can visit the Cottage Hill State Forest. Or not. I can’t find much info about it, and even Street View doesn’t show a point of access. It’s only about 30 acres, so I don’t think it’d be a great loss if you pass it by and continue to Pensacola. (see Google map)
I’ve included a couple of art galleries on the north side of town, but I’ve not been in them. I’m not much of an art/museum kind of guy. But for those who are interested in that, follow the links to get more information about hours and admission and such.
At the beginning of the route, I’ll acquaint you with the first building from Florida Architecture: 100 Years. 100 Places.. It’s a group of buildings selected by the Florida branch of the American Institute of Architects, celebrating the chapter’s 100th anniversary. A lot of them are very modern, so normally wouldn’t hold much interest for me. I thought I’d include them, though, for the wider audience.
So, the first building is the Navy Federal Credit Union. It was built in 2004. See what I mean? There’s a couple of much older buildings downtown, which I’ll go into further once we get there.
I didn’t go down it myself, but the section of US 90 along the Escambia Bay is called Scenic Highway. But it doesn’t seem like you can see the bay at all, since there are trees between it and the road most of the way. One sight I missed because I didn’t go this way was Old Chimney Park. It has the remnants of an old lumber mill, which is actually only the chimney. It’s one of the most recent additions to the NRHP, included the end of May this year. (see Google map)
Let’s consider the sights outside Pensacola proper next. First, the three state parks to the west.
First is Tarkiln Bayou. I like this one the most. It seems to be the least used, which may be part of it. There was no one else there when I visited. I recommend the main trail to the bayou. It entails tramping through some woods, then along a boardwalk to the bayou itself. Take some time to drink it all in, especially the pitcher plants. This is one of the few areas where they grow. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by pitcher plants and Venus Flytraps and sundews. Plants that eat bugs, bizarre. When you reach the platform overlooking the bayou, spend a few minutes before you return. It’s so peaceful; I could’ve stayed there for an hour or more. But places to go, things to do.
Like Perdido Key State Park. Gorgeous white sandy beaches. Even I, who am not that beachy, was wowed. It’s also close to the Alabama border, so if you want to cross over just for fun, do. You’ll see a ton of development (high-rises and such), but the park is a welcome respite from all that.
On the way back, you could continue west on Johnson Beach Road into the Gulf Island National Seashore. If you park as far east as you can, then walk east until you reach the end of the key, you’ll be near the Perdido Key Historic District. Which includes the remains of Fort McRee. This will take most of a day (it’s about 12 miles roundtrip of just walking). If you’re like me, you’ll be happy to just view it from a distance. The best spot for that is at Fort Pickens. I’ll be talking about that in the next post.
Last state park we’ll cover is Big Lagoon State Park. It’s the biggest of them all. Looks like a great place to spend a day. Beaches, picnic area, and hiking paths. Climb the four story observation tower to get a spectacular view of the area. (see Google map)
Next stop, you’ll be able to kill several birds. Since they’re all on the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Oh, if you want to call anyone, do it before going on base. You have to turn off your cell phones while you’re on the property. And you know, don’t go into any restricted areas.
First off, the Pensacola Lighthouse. It is climbable, though I haven’t done so. Maybe next time I’m there. I imagine the view is amazing.
Next is the Naval Aviation Museum. I’ve got little interest in things military, so I didn’t go in to see myself. It’s big, though, so I’m sure there’s a lot to see.
After that is Fort Barrancas. It and Fort Pickens are the two surviving fort structures in the area (Fort McRee is mostly underwater). Be sure to visit the Advanced Redoubt too, which you can walk to along a half-mile trail, or just drive if you want to save time. They’re both part of an NHL district, so don’t hurry. You’ll be happy.
A little further on is the Barrancas National Cemetery. It’s large, much bigger than the one in St. Augustine, and dates back to the Civil War.
The old part of the Naval Station is a historic district, but it’s not open to the general public. Maybe someday I can wangle my way in, since it’s one of the few land-based NRHPs I’ve not visited in the state. It’s also an NHL, which makes it even more enticing. (see Google map)
Now that we’ve covered the periphery of Pensacola, it’s time to head downtown. On the way, you can see fun sites like the Crystal Ice Company Building. It’s in a rougher part of town, so be careful. I got there early in the morning, with no one on the streets, which might be the best time to visit.
To see a more upscale area, drive around the North Hill Preservation District. It’s even got its own website, with a map of the historic district boundaries. Next time I visit, I think I’ll do a more thorough exploration.
Another standout is the old Pensacola Hospital, which has been converted into office space. It’s a huge stone building, constructed by the Catholic Church. If it’s one thing the Church knows, it’s how to build to last. (see Google map)
Next post, downtown Pensacola and such. See you on the road!
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