Need a weekend at the beach? Spend a weekend in Fort Pickens National Seashore on the Florida Panhandle, just 59 miles from Pensacola.
This stretch of seashore is an amazing place and has many things to enjoy. The history is fascinating. The wildlife is amazing. The Fort is worth exploring and the birding is superb. Oh, and let’s not forget about the miles and miles of white sand beaches.
How To Spend Two Full Days In Beautiful Fort Pickens Area
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General Information About Fort Pickens Area Of Gulf Islands National Seashore
- Fort Pickens is a fee-required area of the National Parks system. However, if you have an American The Beautiful Pass, then you don’t need to pay further fees.
- Dogs are allowed on the trails and in the campground but not on the beach or in the historic buildings. However, there is a dog-friendly beach not too far from the entrance of the park.
- If you are planning to stay in the campground, your RV needs to be under 12 feet in height and less than 32 feet in length.
- The park is open from sunset to sunrise.
- Due to the park being a narrow barrier island, it can close with little warning due to storms that could cause potential flooding.
Take In The Views Of The Pensacola Harbor
We last visited Fort Pickens in January. Although one day of our visit was in the 70s (21 degrees Celsius), the temperature was in the low 50s (10 degrees Celsius) for most of our trip. With ocean breezes, that was a bit chilly, so we grabbed a spot near the seawall each day and enjoyed the views of the Pensacola harbor. Several large ships passed and a few dolphins jumped out of the water. We got to view them all from our warm and cozy truck camper. Just one more reason why I think truck campers are superior.
Walk Along The Seawall
The seawall was completed in 1910 and was created due to a hurricane causing damage to the post buildings as well as the gun batteries.
It now makes a great spot to watch the sunset over the Pensacola harbor and offers a somewhat bird’s eye view of the area it protects.
Hike A Portion Of The Florida Trail
You will find the Northern Terminus of the epic Florida Trail just past the end of the seawall near the fort. This trail is over 1,000 miles long! The Southern Terminus is found in Big Cyprus National Preserve.
Jack and I hiked a mile or two of it to say we have hiked some of it.
Explore Battery Worth
Completed in 1899, Battery Worth was one of many concrete gun batteries created to protect Pensacola bay from hostile ships.
Now it provides views of the miles of beaches found along Santa Rosa Island.
Walk The Boardwalks To The Beach
White sand dunes along most of the 7 miles of sandy beaches make up the Gulf of Mexico side of Santa Rosa Island.
To protect the dunes, beach access is via boardwalks. Not only do they provide protection, but they are also very picturesque. We saw a couple doing their engagement photos on the boardwalk and a high school senior getting her graduation pictures done along a boardwalk.
Walk The Miles Of White Sand Beaches
Both days during our last visit to Fort Pickens, we walked a loop from our campground and back again along the beaches. The beaches along the gulf side are filled with white sand that squeaks when you walk on it. The Pensacola bay-side beaches have coarser sand that is light tan in color and, unfortunately, have more garbage that has floated up to shore. A big thank you to the clean-up volunteers that we saw picking up that garbage.
Enjoy The Shells & Sea Life
If you love shells, then you will love the barrier island where Fort Pickens is located. However, you cannot collect the shells since it is a National Park. You have to leave them for others to enjoy, which means there is an abundance of shells to photograph.
I am not sure why there were so many jellyfish swept onto the beach during our last visit to the area, but they were interesting to look at.
We also enjoyed watching several crabs, starfish, and various birds.
Take In An Epic Sunset Over Pensacola Bay
Grab a spot along the seawall or the beach along Pensacola Bay near the fishing pier and soak up every last minute of the sunset. We have done this multiple times during our three visits to the area (and we will again).
And If You Stay More Than One Evening, Enjoy It Again!
Seriously! Let nothing stand in your way of enjoying a Fort Pickens sunset every single night you are in the area.
This blue heron stayed on top of our truck camper for over an hour, watching the sunset with us!
Other birds that you can see in the area are gulls, terns, pelicans, and the black skimmer.
We tried several times over the years to get a reservation for one of the close to 100 camp spots within Fort Pickens. Finally, in January 2021, with a decrease in snowbirds due to the pandemic, we got a spot! And we got the same spot for three nights in a row! We thought for sure that since we were booking only a month before the availability would be slim and we would be required to move campsites each night to make it work.
If you have the opportunity to camp in the park, grab it! The sites themselves are nothing special, but their proximity to the beach is amazing. Walk five minutes one way to enjoy the beach along the bay side. Walk five minutes the other way to enjoy beach on the gulf side. And all at a price that is super affordable.
Amenities include electricity at your site, flush toilets, and laundry. The bathroom facilities were clean and the showers were hot. There was a fair amount of campground noise, but people quieted down plenty early enough to get a full night’s sleep.
If you are a tent camper, there is one area of the campground reserved for tents only.
There is a 14-night stay maximum, which is pretty usual for both national and state campgrounds. What isn’t common is the maximum height restriction of 12 feet. If you have a fifth wheel, you will probably not be able to camp here.
Enjoy The Sunrise
The sun rises over the gulf side of the island and is just as spectacular as the sunset over the bay side. You could pick one or the other, but I think you should do both!
Hike The Blackbird Marsh Trail
This super short trail has several plant markers along the way that explain what the plant is, why it is found in this environment, and what it has been used for in the past as well as the present.
Bird watchers love this trail as it is a good spot to find Osprey nests.
Tour The Historic Fort Pickens
These pictures of the Fort are from a previous trip we took in our minivan camper. You can learn so much history about the Fort just by reading the signs around the area. However, if you want to learn more, you can attend one of the National Park Service programs.
The brick Fort was created in 1834 and named after the Revolutionary War commander Andrew Pickens. Its location on the western end of Santa Rosa Island, a low-lying barrier island, was chosen for the natural protection of the bay and the mainland of Florida. The fort held as many as 200 cannons on top of its five walls.
It was used during the civil war and became a prison after the war was over. The most famous person to be imprisoned inside its brick walls was Apache chief Geronimo.
During World War One, new defensive batteries were constructed but never used.
More Things To Do In The Fort Pickens Area Of The Gulf Islands National Seashore
- Head into the Pensacola beach area to enjoy the local restaurants, etc.
- Climb to the top of Battery Langdon for an impressive view of Santa Rosa Island and its miles and miles of beaches.
- Climb to the top of Battery Payne and look over the harbor channel between Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key.
- If you are lucky enough to be there when the Blue Angels are practicing, you can enjoy their aerial acrobatics over Pensacola Bay.
- Bike along the miles and miles of trails located on an old railroad bed through the marshes.
- Visit the Discovery Center to learn more about the area and its history.
- Go Fishing off The Fort Pickens Pier
- Go swimming at Langdon Beach (a lifeguard is on duty from Memorial Day to Labor Day).
Are you looking for an alternative to busy and expensive campgrounds and one-night Walmart stops on the way to your destination? Check out our post about our first time using Boondockers Welcome.