Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Gulf Islands: Naval Live Oaks

What started as a blog to keep family and friends abreast of our adventures whilst living in France has evolved into something completely different: a travel journal, a photo album of three boys growing up, a diary of a mother who can’t bear to lose the adventurous sense of self that sustained her in her 20s… And, somewhere along the way I have written and published 999 posts, the French entries now buried in a sea of southeast US with a smattering of Baltic Christmas articles arriving every December.

For the topic of my 1,000th post it seems only fitting to write about the live oak – also long-lived, southern, and dense! The massive shade tree is the stuff of romance novels, historical fiction, ghost stories, mysteries and many a southern author’s work, as it conjures up images of Spanish moss-draped branches and tree-lined alleys leading to grand estates and plantation homes. A little known fact about this magnificent tree is that the rot-resistant wood and arching branches were ideal for building ships. However, over 2,000 live oaks might be used to build one hull, and so to provide wood for naval shipbuilding, President John Quincy Adams designated the first federal tree farm in 1828.

President Adams called the U.S. Navy “Wooden Walls,” and considered the Navy the 1st line of defense against foreign invasion. The high concentration of military installations in the Florida panhandle testifies to the history of military presence in the area, and it comes as no surprise that the first tree farm was established in the heart of live oak territory, near Pensacola, FL. Although short-lived as a supplier of wood, the Naval Live Oaks Area is today a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and preserves 1,400 acres for visitors to enjoy.

The entrance to the parking area adjacent to Park Headquarters, visitor center and facilities is easily passed, located on a stretch of Highway 98 on a peninsula that lies between two bays; to the south is a barrier island and Pensacola Beach, to the north Pensacola Bay and Pensacola itself. Hidden behind a screen of pines and live oaks, the visitor center is a wealth of information and a great primer for your visit to the Gulf Islands Seashore. However, shortcomings such as separate restroom facilities (visitors and the volunteers manning the center must walk 1/3 mile through the parking area to reach the bathroom) and poor signage guarantee that most tourists will pass on by on their way to one of the other Gulf Islands districts.

The interpretive signs on the boardwalk trail have information in braille

From the Visitor Center it is an easy stroll on the Brackenridge Nature Trail, with markers identifying plants and describing the steps of shipbuilding from locating and felling the trunks and branches, to construction of the ship itself. A portion of the trail is wheelchair accessible, and the figure 8 path has an observation deck at the far end overlooking Santa Rosa Sound.

A second parking area and a network of trails connects to Butcherpen Cove on the north side of the pensinsula (popular for swimming), as well as to Brown’s Pond and an old borrow pit which provided sand for the construction of US Hwy 98. Picnic areas, a pavilion, beach areas, and youth group camping area are the only other amenities, however the trail system does explore the native plant communities, proving Naval Live Oaks to be a worthwhile stop on your exploration of the Pensacola area.

Finally, a few fun facts for the history buff:
The USS Constitution (the US Navy’s oldest commissioned war vessel) is nicknamed “Old Ironsides” because cannon balls bounced off its oak hull in a battle during the War of 1812. Although the ship was originally constructed with live oak from GA, timber from the Pensacola area was utilized for the 1929 restoration.
* President Adam’s successor (President Andrew Jackson) closed the tree farm in a political squabble after taking office. However, the emergence of ironclad ships in the Civil War marked the end of wooden ocean-going vessels regardless of political manuevering. 
* Naval Live Oaks was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on September 28, 1998.


  1. Congratulations on the 1000th! The adventures are a great education for your children.

    1. Thanks Mike! I find our adventures to be a great education for myself as well :)


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