Ringing the U.S. Gulf Coast is a chain of barrier islands that stretches from Florida to Texas. These islands are nature’s protection for the mainland, taking the brunt of the crashing Gulf surf and the battering of violent hurricanes.
These islands also afford visitors an incredibly beautiful vacation getaway where the crashing turquoise waves are soothing, the sun-drenched beaches offer relaxation, and outdoor recreational activities abound.
Luckily for us, these islands have been protected for all to enjoy. They are the Gulf Islands National Seashore (GINS). Established by Congress in 1971 and managed by the National Park Service (NPS), the Gulf Islands National Seashore has two units: one in Mississippi, the other in Florida.
The Florida unit encompasses an area from Okaloosa to Pensacola and is made up of six “areas”: Naval Live Oaks, Fort Barrancas, Fort Pickens, Okaloosa, Perdido Key, and Santa Rosa. Each of these areas offers visitors incredible adventure and experiences. Here are nine reasons you will love visiting Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore.
1. Best Beaches Anywhere
It’s not called the Emerald Coast for nothing. Miles and miles of the whitest beaches anywhere in the country are outlined with the emerald, green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Of those beaches, some of the finest for swimming and sunbathing are located in Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The beaches of GINS tend to be a little less crowded than the main public beaches but can still be packed, so be patient and considerate to others. Lifeguards are located at specific beaches within the park during the summer season (mid-May to August) including Opal Beach in the Santa Rosa Area, Langdon Beach at Fort Pickens, and Johnson Beach at Perdido Key. When they are not present, swim at your own risk.
Be sure to visit the GINS website for rules to follow when swimming in the Gulf and learn what the colored flags mean and the rules you need to follow for each one.
2. Taking A Bike Ride
The Perdido Key and Santa Rosa areas of the seashore offer nice and easy 5 and 7-mile-long road bike trips, but the best ride is in the Fort Pickens area.
The ride begins as an easy bike road from the entrance gate to the ranger station, a one-way ride of about 3.8 miles. It’s a beautiful ride with incredible scenes of the Gulf and Pensacola Bay and their sand dunes. Keep in mind, though, that there is no tree canopy to shield you from the sun. Wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water.
If you would like something off-road, then pick up the Florida Trail from near the ranger station and ride the sandy 2-mile (one-way) path along which you will be treated with even more stunning views as you ride through scrub pines and around sand dunes, cross over bayous and wetlands, visit long since abandoned World War II batteries, and finally end the ride at historic Fort Pickens.
The trail is fairly well packed so expect a moderate pedal to the end.
3. Hiking The Seashore
Miles of beautiful hiking trails lead you to a wide variety of experiences at Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore.
In Perdido Key, you can experience a transitional maritime environment along an easy half-mile of ADA accessible boardwalks that visit a salt marsh, wooded wetland, and snowy white sand dunes.
You will encounter the famous Florida Trail twice, once at Fort Pickens, where an easy 7-mile section of the trail follows a sandy footpath through scrub pine and wetlands to the historic fort. You’ll run into it again at Santa Rosa, where you are treated to a secluded 7-mile beach walk.
4. History Comes Alive
History abounds at the seashore, which includes historic Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas.
Construction on the massive Fort Pickens began in 1829. The stone and brick structure was the largest of four such fortresses in the area that were constructed to defend the Pensacola area from invaders. The fort saw action during one of the heaviest bombardments of the Civil War at the Battle of Santa Rosa Island.
Across the bay from Fort Pickens is its sister, Fort Barrancas. Barrancas was unique in that it was positioned on a hill, giving it the ability to battle incoming invaders from all four sides. The fort was constructed with over 6 million bricks.
Be sure to take advantage of one of the seashore’s free ranger-led tours. These tours are highly informative and bring the history of the forts and the islands to life. Visit their online calendar, ranger stations, or visitor centers for dates and times. Don’t be confused; the online calendar lists events for both Florida and Mississippi.
5. The Shore Is For The Birds
Saying that Gulf Islands National Seashore is a bird watcher’s paradise is an understatement. Over 300-species of birds can be found here. Along the beaches and bays, you can sit for hours and marvel at black skimmers and brown pelicans sailing only inches above the waves searching for their next meal before soaring upwards and diving into the water for their catch.
Also along the beach, the busy snowy and piping plover scurry about the water’s edge. In the woodlands and marshes, killdeer shriek what sounds like “kill deer” from the brush. High above, American bald eagles and osprey soar.
6. There’s More Adventure Under The Waves
With such beautiful clear water, it is natural that scuba divers flock to the seashore to experience Gulf life at the jetties and seawall at Fort Pickens and dive to the artificial reefs formed by the wrecks of the tugboat Sport and the massive battleship USS Massachusetts.
You can still experience this underwater wonderland on a smaller scale by snorkeling the beaches of the seashore to view a tremendous variety of fish.
Be sure to visit the National Park Service diving rules and regulations page before entering the water. And remember, many of the beaches do not have lifeguards, so swim at your own risk and pay attention to those warning flags about weather and dangerous rip currents.
7. Snag The Big One
One of the most popular activities at Gulf Islands in Florida is fishing. The tidal flow in the bays and bayous creates a nutrient-rich environment that fish thrive in.
Cast your line or net to do a little pier fishing or crabbing at Fort Pickens or shore fishing in the crashing Gulf Surf.
A saltwater fishing license is required. Visit the seashore’s fishing rules and regulations page for more information, restrictions, and closures.
8. Thrill To The “Blues”
Naval Air Station Pensacola is known as the birthplace of naval aviation, having been the training grounds for US Navy pilots since it first opened its doors in 1914. The base is also the home of the famous Blue Angels flying squad.
Nothing can adequately describe the incredible flying skill of these aviators as they fly wingtip to wingtip performing rolls, loops, and high-speed maneuvers.
The squad regularly practices for their upcoming show season right here in Pensacola and Gulf Islands offers you a vantage point to watch the practice between March and November and the Blue Angels’ annual homecoming air show.
Park rangers advise you to check the schedule for the practices, airshows, and homecoming show and to arrive very early – it will get crowded. Also, bring along snacks, water, sunscreen, ear protection (the engine roar can get loud), and your camera.
9. Year-Round Camping
With the exception of the occasional hurricane, the weather along the Gulf Coast is phenomenal with plenty of sunshiny days. Summers can get hot and humid, but the breeze off the Gulf makes it pleasant. Winters are mild with only occasional frigid cold snaps.
All of that to say that camping at Gulf Islands National Seashore is a year-round treat. You have a couple of camping options. First, if you have a boat, you can do Boat-In Camping, where you can sail your boat up and camp on the beaches near Fort Pickens. There is no fee or permit required for boat-in camping, but there are strict guidelines you must follow to protect the fragile islands.
And then there are RV and tent camping at one of the more popular campgrounds in the area at Fort Pickens. The campground has 185 campsites spread out over five camp loops with 169 of the sites having electricity and water, while 16 are tent-only sites.
Make your reservations early for the campground and try to land yourself a spot in loop A where there is plenty of shade provided by sprawling live oaks and because they have direct access to the Gulf beaches. There is also a short interpretive nature trail in the loop.
All the loops have beach access points, fire grills, and picnic tables. The campground is open and staffed 24/7. Reservations are required and can be made by visiting the Recreation.gov website.
- Admission is charged for entrance into the Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, Okaloosa, Perdido Key, and Santa Rosa areas. The latest entrance fee schedule is available online. While there, you can purchase your admission in advance. National Park Service passes are also accepted.
- Areas of the seashore can be closed at a moment’s notice due to a variety of reasons. Before heading out, check the website for the latest closure information.
- Pets are not allowed on the beaches or inside visitor centers. In other areas, your pet must be leashed.