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.

Fort Pickens Campground
30.3335333, -87.1374676
National Seashore

Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens Area

Signage for Fort Pickens Area in Gulf Islands National Seashore, Pensacola Beach, Florida while camping

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.

Entrance Fee:  $10/pedestrian, cyclist; $20/private vehicle; free with America Beautiful Pass or 4th Grade Every Kid in a Park Pass 

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.

Shaded campsite at Fort Pickens Campground, Pensacola Beach, Florida

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 . UPDATE: First-come, first-served sites no longer offered at Fort Pickens.
  • 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.

Cannon on top of Fort Pickens pointed toward Pensacola Bay, Florida

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

Mother and two daughers at exhibits in the Fort Pickens Discovery Center museum and visitor center in Pensacola Beach, Florida

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.

Helicopter and radar plane in the hangar display at National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida
Hangar full of Navy aircraft on display at National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida

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.

Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum front entrance

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.

Dorr House at Historic Pensacola Village Florida
Side entrance to 1832 Old Christ Church at Historic Pensacola Village Florida
Florida Historic Pensacola Village teal-blue house

Historic Pensacola Village

If you had a motor launch or the wherewithal to paddle northeast from the banks of Fort Pickens Campground across Pensacola Bay, you'd find yourself in the midst of the charm and multi-cultured history of this west Florida panhandle city. Settled first by Spain in 1559, Historic Pensacola sits near the dividing line between French Louisiana and Spanish Florida which has caused it to change hands a few times over the centuries. Pensacola, “The City of Five Flags,” was Spanish, then French, then Spanish, then British, then Spanish again, before becoming American, then Confederate, and then finally the city that is now American.

Learn about the history of Pensacola through fifteen historic houses, museums, and buildings.  Begin by checking in at the Tivoli house where the attendants will get you oriented to begin a self-guided walking tour of the old city center. But do return at the appropriate time and join a 1.5 hour guided tour.

Historic Pensacola Village Self-Guided Tour

Brick display exhibit in Museum of Industry in Historic Pensacola Village Florida

The self-guided portion of the walk, takes you through five historic locations covering the city's commercial, industrial, and cultural history including replicas of an old train station, waterfront, and brick making operations. Julee Cottage, built in early 1805 is one of the only surviving structures of its kind (Creole platform construction) in the historic downtown area.

Historic Pensacola Village Guided Tour

The guided tour of Historic Pensacola Village, free with the admission price, includes in-depth tours of four additional locations that will greatly add to your understanding of not only the architectural significance of Pensacola, but the people, relationships, and events that drove the early history of the region.  The 1805 French-Creole Lavalle House, the 1871 Dorr House, the 1832 Old Christ Church, and the 1890 Lear/Rocheblave House are all included with the guided tour.  Our tour guide shared detailed knowledge about each of the locations that helped bring the early history of the city and its people alive.

Fron entrance to Greek Revival stylle Clara Barkley Dorr House in Historic Pensacola Village Florida

Historic Pensacola Village Things to Know:

  • Admission: Adult (15+) $8.00; Military/Senior $7.00; Youth (3-14) $4.00
  • Hours: Historic Pensacola Village open 10am-4pm Tuesday through Saturday for self guided exploration
  • Hours: Pensacola Children's Museum and Wentworth Museum open noon-4pm Sunday.

Pensacola Beach

If you tire of the remote location at Fort Pickens Campground and are hankering for some local seafood or a taste of nightlife, then trek back east of the preserve and in twelve minutes you'll be in the heart of Pensacola Beach. Restaurants, bars, high-rise hotels, condos, and a fishing pier make up the heart of the community.  If you need to resupply during your stay, there is a small local c-store on the island, but you'll have to head back over the toll bridge to the mainland to access a larger market.

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Three girls wading in ocean on Pensacola Beach, Florida
Frontage Historic Old Christ Church in Historic Pensacola Village, Florida
Interior view of dining room in the Dorr House in Historic Pensacola Village, Florida
Setset view on Pensacola Beach, Florida
Brown adirondack chair on Pensacola Beach, Florida
Exterior of Fort Pickens with damaged northway of the fort, Pensacola Beach, Florida
View of damage to northway of Fort Pickens, Pensacola Beach, Florida
Brick archway construction at Fort Pickens, Pensacola Beach, Florida
Four girls climbing stairs at Fort Pickens, Pensacola Beach, Florida
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*Tent campsites only; accurate at time of publication
1463 Fort Pickens Rd
Pensacola Beach
Gates close at sunset.; registered campers arriving after this time, please call (850) 934-2622 by 3:30 p.m. for gate code; non-registered campers must arrive prior to sunset.
1400 Fort Pickens Road
Pensacola Beach
Hours: Historic Fort 8am to Sunset; Discovery Center 9am to 4:30pm
Admission: $10/person, $20/vehicle; free with America the Beautiful Pass or 4th Grade Pass
Explore historic military Fort Pickens and Battery Pensacola
Phone: 850-934-2600
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120 Church Street
Admission: Adult (15+) $8.00; Military/Senior $7.00; Youth (3-14): $4.00
Hours: 10am-4pmTuesday-Saturday Historic Village museums (Sunday: noon-4pm Wentworth & Children's Museum only)
Guided Tours: 11:00 and 1:00 Tuesday through Saturday: Meet in the Tivoli High House.
Phone: 850-595-5985
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1878 South Blue Angel Pkwy -West Gate
Admission/Parking; Free (additional fees for IMAX, flight simulators, Blue Angels 4D)
Hours: 9am to 5pm daily (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Day)
Photo ID Required: visitors (16 years and older) must have valid photo identification and all bags are subject to search
Phone: 800-327-5002.
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2081 Radford Blvd -West Gate only
Admission: Adults (15+) $7.00; Senior/Military/Youth (3-14) $4.00
Hours: 9am-5pm daily (last climb starts at 4:40pm); closed Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day
Climbers must be 44” or 7 years to climb lighthouse; secure shoes (no flip-flops); no backpacks, camera bags, or oversized bags
Phone: 850-393-1561
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