Big Lagoon State Park is one of the best available base camps for small boat sailors along the NW Florida coast. Located on the far edge of the state, 10 miles west of Pensacola, this uncrowded and well-run park gives sailors access to some of the prettiest unspoiled wilderness remaining on the Gulf Coast.
- Name: Big Lagoon State Recreation Area
- In brief: This park is known for birds and other wildlife, for clean clear water, and for easy access to nearby unspoiled Gulf beaches.
- Where: In NW Florida, close to the Alabama line, on the mainland side of Big Lagoon. Map and Chart.
12301 Gulf Beach Hwy. Pensacola, FL 32507 (850) 492-1595
- Weather at the base camp.
- Fees: Entry fee: $4.00/vehicle. Launch fee: $4.00. Camping fee: $16.00/night–includes water, electricity, picnic table, and grill. Some sites are shady, but campground is not close to the water.
- Ramp: Single, but wide. 4 feet deep at end of concrete, well-maintained, with 100 foot wing docks on each side.
- Camping: Yes. 75 tent and RV sites. No primitive camping.
- Amenities in campground or within 5 miles: Hot showers, ice, firewood, a pay phone, nearby library with WIFI, convenience stores, service stations, grocery store, restaurants, motels, rental condominiums, another state park, and the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Big Lagoon itself is a broad sound through which the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway runs. The north shore is fairly well-developed, except for the park, but the barrier island that forms the south shore of the lagoon is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. A boater can beach his craft on the lagoon side of Perdido Key and walk across the narrow island to a completely unspoiled Gulf of Mexico beach.
Looking at the chart the park is at the northwestern edge of Big Lagoon, and the marked ramp is available to park visitors for a launch fee of $4.00. There’s also an entrance fee of $4.00 per vehicle per day. Camping in the well-laid-out campground is a reasonable $16.00 + Tax per night. Includes Electricity, water, picnic table and ground grill on the site, with a dump station located nearby.
The ramp itself is pretty well maintained, with hundred foot wing docks to either side. When I was there recently, the water was 4 feet deep at the end of the ramp, with similar depths along the outer sides of the docks. Here along the NW Florida coast, we have very modest tides, and depths are often more influenced by wind than by tide. I visited the ramp at about half tide, when we’d had north winds for a few days, so I believe the depth at the ramp would be adequate for most trailerable sailboats in most conditions.
The ramp is located at the end of the lagoon, where the banks contract into a fairly narrow waterway that leads west to the Alabama coastal waters, and the depths as a consequence fall off fairly rapidly. The beach that stretches east for several hundred yards is also steep-to, making it ideal for beaching even fairly substantial boats. The area around the ramp is a no-wake zone, adding to its appeal for small boat sailors.
There’s parking for 19 vehicle/trailer rigs at the ramp. On a Monday in mid-October, only four slots were occupied. There are nice restrooms at the ramp, and 4 picnic pavilions facing the water.
The campground is uncrowded, compared to many state parks, especially before Memorial Day and after Labor Day– and off-season is the best time to visit this coast, especially in the fall, when the air is cooling but the waters are still warm enough for swimming. Visitors do need to be aware that these waters can be affected by hurricanes in late summer and fall, so don’t visit the coast if there’s a big storm in the Gulf.
75 campsites are featured in the main campground, with additional room available in the group camping area. There are a couple of well-kept bathhouses, and the campground hosts sell ice and firewood. There’s a playground at the campground, and another at the west beach.
The park itself has many attractions, including some of the most pleasant picnic grounds you’re likely to find.
It’s also a gateway to the Great Florida Birding Trail, and at the east beach, there’s a magnificent observation tower, from which the visitor can get a panoramic view of the coast, from the undeveloped barrier island across the lagoon, to the mudflats that border the shoreline along this portion of the park.
The park provides a kayak and canoe launching site off the same parking lot as the tower. Folks can paddle an interesting almost-landlocked series of waterways through the marshes, or by passing under a footbridge, exit into Big Lagoon itself.
The park has an isolated feel, but is convenient to many civilized amenities. Just across the road from the park entrance, for example, is the Southwest Branch of the Pensacola library system, which offers computers and WIFI access. A WalMart is only a few miles away, and the eateries and other attractions of Perdido Key are also just a short drive to the west. One large attraction is the annual Blue Angel show, in which the Navy’s top flyers put on an amazing display of precision aerobatics right over the waters of Big Lagoon. It’s well worth seeing, but bring earplugs. The final show of 2008 will be on November 14 and 15.
Some of the best attractions are outside the park itself. The Gulf Islands National Seashore, just across the lagoon, forms a playground that could occupy a small boat sailor for weeks. For example, in September I took Slider around the tip of Perdido Key where it ends at Pensacola Pass, and found a refuge from civilization, marked off by a buoy line that prohibits combustion engines. I saw more wildlife, including birds, fish, and porpoises than I’d ever seen in one place before, and the only other boat I saw back there was a johnboat running on a trolling motor.
The pass out of Pensacola Bay is one of the safest passes along this coast, wide and deep, and provides a way for capable boats with experienced sailors to sail outside into the Gulf in settled weather. Just offshore is the USS Massachusetts, a battleship commissioned in 1896 and sunk off the pass to provide gunnery practice for the naval station. It sits in 30 feet of water and is known now for excellent diving and fishing.
A seaworthy small boat could sail out Pensacola Pass, and then sail along the coast to a pass that cuts Perdido Key a few miles west of Big Lagoon, so that a one-day circumnavigation of the island would be possible. The latter pass should only be used in good weather by shallow-draft boats, as it can be treacherous in the wrong conditions.
To the west of the park, well-protected waterways lead to the lightly-developed shores of Perdido Bay, which might occupy explorers for days.
All in all, Big Lagoon State Park has just about anything a small boat cruiser might need to make his or her trip special. There are hot showers and ice for those who want to camp ashore, and miles and miles of empty beaches for those who want to get away from the crowds.
I’ll be going back soon.