Historic Pensacola and Gulf Islands National Seashore Camping Adventure
As soon as you make the entrance to the Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens Campground, it is easy to imagine what it must have looked like to the Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna in 1559. Bordered on the south by the Gulf of Mexico and to the north by Pensacola Bay, the gentle Gulf waters still caress the sugar white beaches and wind swept dunes. Only sand scrub oaks and sea grass protect this little quarter mile wide barrier island - just as they did 450 years ago.
Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens Area
Spend some time visiting all of the sites between Gulf Islands National Seashore and Pensacola and you'll start connecting some pretty interesting historical dots that cross the centuries. Also worth noting, of our country’s ten national seashores, the Gulf Islands National Seashore is the largest at 137,000 acres, of which 80 percent are submerged lands.
Fort Pickens Campground
Group, RV, and tent sites are tucked conveniently in the dunes between the Gulf coast and Pensacola Bay on paved loops. Given the option, we'd choose any of the outer loop sites in the Fort Pickens Campground as much of the interior has been unnaturally freed from the shade and privacy that the surrounding coastal hammocks would ordinarily provide - but you can't beat the location. Just across Fort Pickens Road, low slung boardwalks wind through the dunes giving you easy access to white quartz sand and Gulf waters. Nature trails extend from the campgrounds through the dunes on the north side of the campground and weave to the bayside shores. If you have your bicycles, Fort Pickens Road has a dedicated bike lane its entire length within the preserve.
Things to Know at Fort Pickens Campground
- Gulf Islands National Seashore charges an entrance fee and the fee is not included in the cost of your reservation.
- Gates close at sunset. Non-registered campers must arrive prior to sunset to check-in, but registered campers need to call (850) 934-2622 by 3:30 p.m. for gate code.
- Pets are not allowed on beaches.
- Hammocks and clotheslines may not be strung from trees.
- Reservations can be made at the Recreation.gov website from March through October. From November through February, sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Fort Pickens Campground is located about 1.5 miles from Fort Pickens.
Fort Pickens, Gulf Islands National Seashore
Completed in 1834– and remaining in military use until 1947– Fort Pickens is essentially a fort within a fort surrounding the WWII-era Battery Pensacola. Ironically, it was built to protect the Florida mainland from foreign attack, but the only real action that it ever saw was during the United States Civil War.
Built from 21 million bricks manufactured in nearby Pensacola, Fort Pickens is a marvel of masonry construction. Grievously, it was built by slaves to protect rights and freedoms that they themselves did not possess. A self-guided tour allows for mostly unrestricted exploration of this Third System fortress. Several large cannons are still mounted on its walls, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Across the inlet to Pensacola Bay lies Confederate Forts McRee and Barrancas with which Pickens battled during the Civil War in 1861. In 1898, the fort was upgraded with new concrete construction and giant disappearing cannons known as Battery Pensacola, of which remnants still remain.
Between Fort Pickens and the campgrounds, you can also walk around WWI and WWII-era gun batteries, each one bigger than the last. The remains of the casemates are camouflaged by sand dunes. The disappearing guns were designed to pop up from behind reinforced concrete walls, shoot 50lb shells, and hide again. The guns at Battery Langdon could hurl a 12" half-ton shell and hit a target 17 miles out to sea. The whole of the west end is a kind of living museum of coastal defense innovation.
Fort Pickens Discovery Center
The Fort Pickens Discovery Center, located within the park, is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30pm. Explore the many interactive exhibits at this visitor center museum, watch the 15-minute film about the history of Fort Pickens, and ask for the Junior Ranger workbook. With extra time, take a guided ranger tour of the fort and grounds.
Fort Pickens Discovery Center Things to Know:
- Hours: 9am-4:30pm daily
- Guided ranger tours, film, bookstore, Junior Ranger program
Nearby Attractions to Fort Pickens Campground:
National Naval Aviation Museum
While a little out of the way (but oh-so worth the effort), the National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station (home to the famed United States Navy precision flight team, the Blue Angels) is worth a visit. From your first moments within the extensive collection, you'll experience–up close and personal–everything from modern naval aircraft, to the planes of the Wright Brothers' era at every turn, hangar, and ceiling.
You could make the case to guide yourself through the hangars as there are plenty of informative kiosks and interactive displays, but if you have the chance, we'd highly recommend hopping into one of the free guided tours. Our tour guide was a retired Korea/Vietnam-era naval aviator that not only gave us a technical history of the aircraft and their particular strengths and flaws, but also interweaved many personal and detailed stories of the men and women who flew the aircraft.
Hours: Open daily from 9am to 5pm (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Day)
Admission: Free (additional fees each for IMAX movies, Blue Angels 4D Experience, and Flight Simulators)
NOTE: Visitors (16 years and older) must present valid identification for entry. Access to the museum is only from the West Gate off Blue Angel Parkway (1878 South Blue Angel Pkwy) of Naval Air Station Pensacola
Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum
If you are a lighthouse nut – and who isn't – the 177 steps to the top of this working lighthouse will take you up to some of the best views of Pensacola Bay. Plus, you'll have a better geographical understanding of the importance of Pensacola Harbor and the Naval Air Station (NAS) on which grounds it is located.
The 151 ft tall Pensacola Lighthouse was built in 1859 and replaced the original 1824 structure. Its construction ushered in the military build-up in the area that lasted until the mid-1940's. Nearby Fort Pickens began construction in 1829 and by the early 1830's this part of Florida was a major military community. Pensacola NAS was built in 1913 and is to this day home to a major United States Navy Flight Training Center.
NOTE: Like the National Naval Aviation Museum, the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum is located at the Naval Air Station Pensacola so be ready to provide valid identification and access is only from the West Gate off Blue Angel Parkway
Hours: 9:00am–5:00pm daily; check website for holiday closures
Admission: Adult (13+) $7.00; Military/Seniors/Youth (3-12) $4.00
Pensacola Lighthouse Things to Know:
- Must be 44” or 7 years of age to climb the lighthouse.
- Children may not be carried up the lighthouse - even in a secured carrier.
- Shoes must have a secure back (no flip-flops) and no spiked heels.
- No smoking, food, drink, pets, or wet clothing are permitted in either the lighthouse or museum.
- No backpacks, camera bags, and other oversized bags are allowed in lighthouse or museum.