Fort Pickens & Gulf Islands National Seashore Park
Pensacola Beach, Florida
What is there to do at Fort Pickens Gulf Islands Park & Campground?
- Fishing, beach combing, swimming, and sunbathing on sparsely populated white sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
- Tour the historic Fort Pickens and Island Gun Batteries and learn about the military history of the Fort and of Santa Rosa Island.
- Hike the several hiking and nature trails in the park.
- Bird-Watching. Over 280 species of birds have been identified on the gulf barrier islands.
- Bike the roads in the park and bike the road between the park and Pensacola Beach.
- Camping in a tent or RV in one of the full-service campsites or in a group the more rustic backcountry sites.
- If staying in the campground, enjoy numerous attractions in the nearby resort community of Pensacola Beach and the larger city of Pensacola across the bay from the park. At the end of this article are several links to interesting things to see and do in the area.
To get to Fort Pickens from Pensacola, you have to take the bridge across the bay to Gulf Breeze and then take another bridge to Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island. Located on the remote western end of the island, Fort Pickens Recreation Area & Campground is the largest unit of the Gulf Island National Seashore. It is a great spot for people who enjoy sun and surf, relaxing by the ocean or walking the beach in an uncrowded, natural setting. History buffs, particularly those interested in US military history from the War of 1812 to World War II, will also enjoy the experience of touring the old Fort Pickens and several gun batteries that exist throughout the park. Fort Pickens also has an interesting museum, featuring interactive exhibits on the natural and historic features of the Gulf Islands National Lakeshore.
The park occupies the entire western end of the island and includes several beach access points. Other than the campground and park offices, there is no habitation for about 6 miles until you reach the outskirts of the resort town of Pensacola Beach. There you can find more populated beaches, lots of amusements, places to dine, and exotic beverages.
Fort Pickens Campground Review
The Fort Pickens campground is set about a half mile east of the old fort, nestled between the remains of several of the coastal artillery gun batteries that were constructed during World War II. The campground offers 180 sites with water and electrical hookups. The bath units also have showers. Many of the sites are paved, some have 50 amp service, and some are large enough for very large units. Some of the sites are suitable only for small motorhomes, RV popups, or tents. There is also a group campground. There is a sprinkling of trees within the campground and the entire campground complex is surrounded by bayous and natural gulf island trees, shrubs, flowers, dunes and vegetation. Some of the areas within the park and near the campground are protected wildlife sancturaries and bird watching is a popular activity. There were at least two occupied Osprey nests you could see from the campground.
The remoteness of the park means that kids have plenty of room to room around without danger of traffic or intersecting with “undesireable” folks. They can burn off some energy on the various hiking trails or exploring the gun batteries or Fort Pickens. The remoteness also means the park is “quiet” insulated from highway noise or urban intrusion. The campsite roads are paved, as are roads within the park, so that favors bike riding, roller blading, or skateboarding. But there are no amenities like those found at RV or Jellystone Parks like swimming pool, game room, volleyball/basketball, etc. For campers without kids or families that want a less “energetic” campground atmosphere, the lack of these extra amenities is a plus – a quieter park.
You can reserve camp sites via Reservations.gov website and doing so in advance is recommended, especially for weekend periods.
There are hiking trails from the campground to the Fort Pickens restoration and museum, from the campground to the sand beaches facing the gulf, to the beaches on Pensacola Bay, between the two major camping areas, to some of the World War II Gun Battery encampments, and to picnic pavilions in the park. And there are several miles of sand beach to hike!
What you may not like about camping at Fort Pickens
The only downside of camping for several days at Fort Pickens is ironically part of its charm – its remote and natural setting. You are many miles from other attractions in the Pensacola area. Our excursions to visit some of these attractions often involved over 50 miles round trip. And to get to these “other attractions” you need to go through a busy resort and condo corridor to get to explore the area. If your visit happens to include a holiday, plan to stay around camp unless you are tolerant of heavy traffic. One time it took us an hour to cross the bridge back to Santa Rosa Island from dining out in Pensacola.
Visiting Pensacola Florida
Things to See and Do
Pensacola Restaurants & Pubs
Pensacola Golf Courses
Smokin’ on the Square
Naval Aviation Museum
Historical Pensacola Forts
Fort Pickens Campground
Gulf Coast Scenic Drive, Part 1
Gulf Coast Scenic Drive, Part 2
Weather exposure may be a concern of some. Since Fort Pickens is on a narrow gulf barrier islands (Santa Rosa Island) it is exposed to the weather coming off the ocean. The road to the park from the resort town of Pensacola Beach is subject to flooding and there is little shelter from significant storms hitting the island. The Park Service flyer alerts you that “. . . at times there may be some risk of becoming temporarily stranded in the park, especially when a storm event or an unusual weather pattern takes us by surprise. Santa Rosa Island is a special place where we get to witness the dramatic interaction of weather, sea, and land, although doing so may at times be inconvenient, especially when plans are disrupted.”
Another feature you may not like about camping at Fort Pickens is if you are golfer and want to play Pensacola Bay golf courses. The nearest golf course is Tiger Bay Golf Club on the key at Gulf Breeze. It is 16 miles one way. All of the other Pensacola courses are over 20 miles one way and some of the best ones like Perdido Bay and Lost Key are more than 30 miles away.
Other Recommended Pensacola Campgrounds
There is a second full-service campground within the Gulf Islands National Seashore – Davis Bayou at Ocean Springs, Mississippi. It also has water and electricity and showers and some hiking trails. But unlike Fort Pickens it offers no advance reservations; all campsites are first come, first serve. For this reason the Ocean Springs campground does not show up on the Reservations.gov website; not a lot of information is available online. But Jo and I stayed at this park several years ago so we know it is comparable to Fort Pickens in terms of campground facilities (but it has no sand beaches on the Gulf, rather it is on a bayou, complete with a resident alligator!).
When we left Fort Pickens after a nine day stay, we headed over to camp at Big Lagoon State Park near the Perdido Key. We loved this park. It is over 600 acres and free from city noise and traffic and has several nice hiking trails, including some that are boardwalks. The parking pads are generally level, some paid while other graveled. The sites are nicely spaced and most have trees and shrubbery separating them from one another. The beaches aren’t as spectacular as what you find on Santa Rosa island and they face a lagoon not the ocean. But they aren’t crowded and look shallow enough for wading. But for us we liked the proximity of the park to other services like restaurants, shopping, library (Internet connection), and golf courses. Lots of services within five or ten minutes away, but in the park itself you’d never know these thing were so close. It is quiet. For families with kids there are more playground facilities here than at Fort Pickens and more picnic pavilions. We found a very nice seafood and steak restaurant less than five minutes from the park.We had a great seafood dinner, shrimp and scallops, at Triggers a spacious family-owned restaurant. Great service from an experienced wait staff. Good selection of your favorite beverages, comfortable seating, generous spacing between the tables. Nothing fancy in the interior; what you pay for is the quality of the food and the service. While, as I mentioned earlier there are lots of dining choices and other services close to the park, the “night life” or “entertainment” in this area isn’t even close to the liveliness that you find at Pensacola Beach. So if you want that postcard ocean beach and resort experience Santa Rosa island (and Fort Pickens if you are camper) give you that very nicely.
Visit Fort Pickens Fort & Museum
Fort Pickens Campground – Pensacola
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Davis Bayou Camping Ocean Springs
Pensacola Dining and Attractions
Big Lagoon State Park
Triggers Seafood Restaurant
Other Pensacola RV Parks and Campgrounds