If you’ve lived in the Mid-Bay area for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the “crown jewels” of the community: popular spots like Turkey Creek Nature Trail, the Mattie Kelly Arts Center at Northwest Florida State College, the Niceville Children’s Park, and Lincoln Park in Valparaiso and Lions Park in Niceville.
While all of these locations offer a vast array of recreational opportunities for local residents and visitors, there are some hidden gems you may not have heard about yet. Here’s a list of places to visit before you leave the Mid-Bay Area.
Yes, we already mentioned the Turkey Creek Nature Trail as one of the most popular sites in the Mid-Bay Area. But did you know that the park surrounding the nature trail is home to three hidden gems you might not have discovered yet? Nestled inside the park off the main trail is the Path of Memories, a tranquil spot where parents who have lost a child can place a plaque in memory of their loved one. This special place is open to everyone.
“Even if you don’t a have a child that you lost, it’s still a very peaceful place,” said Tricia Brunson, the president and CEO of the Niceville Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody’s lost someone – it doesn’t have to be a child. It’s a place you can go where you can just breathe and think in peace.”
Turkey Creek Park is also home to a statue honoring the more than 400 young men who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Niceville area during the 1930s. Created by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, the CCC was designed to provide work for unemployed men who performed various public works, including firefighting, tree planting, road building, and other construction projects. The six-foot tall, bronze statue was procured through the efforts of Niceville historian Elisa Mitchiner, whose website, boggyflorida.com, contains extensive historical information on the Niceville area.
“Niceville was the home of the first CCC camp in Florida, and one of the first in the United States,” Mitchiner said.
Although it is not as noticeable as the imposing CCC statue, another tribute to valiant young men can be found not far from the bronze work of art. On June 25, 1996, 19 airmen (including 12 from Eglin Air Force Base’s 33rd Fighter Wing) were killed in the terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudia Arabia. Not long after the event, the chamber of commerce planted 19 trees and placed markers at Turkey Creek Park in their memory. The trees have grown tall over the years, providing shade near the site’s parking lot.
Turkey Creek Park is located at 340 John Sims Parkway West in Niceville. The park is open Tuesday through Sunday and is closed for maintenance on Mondays. Hours vary depending on the season. Call 850-685-9405 for more information.
While most people have visited the beautiful theater at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center at Northwest Florida State College, you may have overlooked two galleries whose permanent collections include works by artists as well known as the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali. According to the MKAC website, the college’s McIlroy and Holzhauer galleries are home to a 4,500-piece collection of historical art and artifacts ranging from antiquity to contemporary.
In addition to their permanent collections, the galleries host traveling exhibits and student and faculty art shows. The Holzhauer Gallery is named in honor of Emil Holzhauer, a major 20th-century artist who spent his final years in Northwest Florida. The gallery has a wide array of Holzhauer’s works in its permanent collection.
The Mattie Kelly Art Center Galleries are located at Northwest Florida State College, 100 College Boulevard West in Niceville. During the summer months, hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday. For more information, call 850-729-6044.
In addition to Lincoln Park, home of the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration and a popular destination for families year-round, Valparaiso has many smaller parks that fit the category of “hidden gems.” One is Florida Park, which is nestled near Florida Avenue and South Bayshore Drive. This peaceful, waterfront spot offers a playground, a walking trail, a picnic area, and a 24-hour boat ramp. Other city parks with similar amenities include Echo Park, located at Lincoln Avenue and Echo Drive; Glen Argyle Park, located between Glenview Avenue and North Bayshore Drive; the Marion Ruckel Recreation Facility, located at the corner of Lincoln and Nordberg avenues; Perrine Park, located in the historic district on Westview Avenue; and Shipyard Point Park on North Bayshore Avenue.
For information on Valparaiso’s parks, visit valp.org.
Near the shores of Boggy Bayou, several historic buildings from Niceville’s early days as a sleepy fishing village and sawmill site remain standing. Historian Elisa Mitchiner has spent years researching and documenting the area, and last year she succeeded in earning official recognition for three historic sites.
“I’m very proud of the three historical markers we were able to erect on Bayshore Drive,” Mitchiner said. “Many people don’t know about the history of Niceville, and these markers help to draw attention to these areas.”
The markers point out the location of the original Boggy Mill Site (now home to Lions Park), the Niceville Fire, and the old Maritime City area. The city of Niceville is also developing a Niceville Landing park in the vicinity of the historic district.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle was tasked with leading a bombing raid over Tokyo. His group of six bomber crews trained for the top-secret mission at what was then known as Eglin Field, and their legacy lives on throughout the area with roadways, research institutes, and other facilities bearing Doolittle’s name. Valparaiso has a small memorial to the Raiders near the intersection of John Sims Parkway and State Road 85 South. Local Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies are held there, but the location is open for visitors year-round.
The definitive tribute to Doolittle’s Raiders can be found at the Raider Arena at Northwest Florida State College, where a curated collection of artifacts and information is permanently displayed. Visitors can learn about how and where the Raiders trained and details about the mission and its aftermath.
During the summer months, the display is open for visitors from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday. For more information, call 850-729-5379.