10 Fun Things to Do at Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens

Are you planning a beach holiday or vacation to Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens?

Located along the emerald waters of the Florida panhandle, we are sharing all the best things to do at Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens, which has miles of sugar-white sand beaches perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and relaxing. Along with outdoor recreation, Santa Rosa Island and the Fort Pickens area are home to a famous fort full of war history sites to tour.

Continue reading for ideas to plan a laid-back and nature-infused Pensacola, Florida beach trip to Gulf Islands National Seashore!

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View of Pensacola Bay from Fort Pickens fort fishing pier

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Fort Pickens Area

Before we get into the article, we wanted to clarify something confusing to me when I was first researching our trip here.

Fort Pickens is used kind of loosely around here. There is an actual Fort called Fort Pickens. In addition, there is a campground called Fort Pickens, and the portion of Gulf Islands National Seashore along Santa Rosa Island is often referred to as the Fort Pickens area too! Knowing this will help you plan your trip as you read Fort Pickens everywhere.

We didn’t realize this until we got here! But to be fair, we are super laid back when it comes to planning road trips.

Now, on to things to do at Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens!

Things to Do at Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens

Gulf Islands National Seashore in the panhandle of Florida near Pensacola is a true delight for all nature and beach lovers. For those looking to enjoy some beautiful waterfront views, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola should be at the top of your list. The park features award-winning beaches, marshes teeming with wildlife, and picturesque sunrises and sunsets.

This National Park Service site stretches from Cat Island, Mississippi, to Santa Rosa Island in Florida, protecting over 160 miles of coastline in total. It is massive.

The area boasts miles of beaches, dunes, maritime forest, and saltwater marshes with excellent hiking trails and beaches to sunbathe. There are also excellent fishing opportunities near shore for anglers. In addition, birdwatchers will find an abundance of coastal birds like Osprey, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers.

The main attraction at Gulf Islands is Fort Pickens, the historical fort, with acres worth of history dating back to when the fort was constructed in 1829 and 1834. It was active during the Civil War and as late as World War II. Today, it is solely a historic site.

Depending on when you’re visiting, you might even be able to catch a jaw-dropping Blue Angels practice show while visiting the area!

We had heard about Gulf Islands National Seashore for years and couldn’t wait to visit and share our experience with you of the Fort Pickens area!

Let’s get into the details!

10 Awesome Things to Do at Fort Pickens

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Gulf Islands inter-coastal trail

1. Visit Fort Pickens – The Fort

Called The Guardian of the Gulf, Fort Pickens is perhaps the most popular attraction at the park. Fort Pickens is a brick fort located on a bluff overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on Santa Rosa Island.

Visitors who want to experience history firsthand can visit this historic fort built to protect Pensacola Bay. The fort still has cannons on display.

Fort Pickens was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of Interior in 1972.

Visitors can do a self-guided tour and walk around the grounds – it is really interesting to see everything and read more about the history of the fort.

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Inside of Fort Pickens

2. Swim & Sunbathe at Langdon Beach

Santa Rosa Island is home to sugar-fine, white sand beaches perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and walking the beach. The emerald blue waters will take your breath away.

There are a few places to access the beaches, but the main beach facing the Gulf is Langdon Beach.

When we visited, it was pretty windy and a little stormy. But on a sunny day – this beach is glittering with white sand and emerald green water!

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Langdon Beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens

3. Hike Along Santa Rosa Island

With miles of trails, visitors can hike to see pristine panoramic views of the island along with a wide variety of plants and wildlife.

Some of the trails to check out that we enjoyed are:

  • Florida National Scenic Trail
  • Fort Pickens Trail
  • Blackbird Marsh Trail
  • Fort Pickens Dune Nature Trail

To get the trail maps on your cell phone, check out the AllTrails app. We love this free app to find hikes when traveling!

4. Wildlife & Bird-Watch at Gulf Islands

Visitors can see a variety of plant and animal wildlife at Fort Pickens with hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, dolphins, Ospreys, Great Blue Herons, and more.

We loved seeing the nesting Osprey in the spring. It was magical.

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Baby Osprey in the nest along the Blackbird Marsh Trail

5. Fish Along the Coast

If you’re looking for a fun and relaxing outdoor activity to do while on vacation in Pensacola, Florida, fishing at Gulf Islands National Seashore is a great option. The seashore offers plenty of beautiful views and excellent fishing opportunities. Whether you’re a seasoned angler or just getting started, there’s something for everyone at Gulf Islands National Seashore. With miles of shoreline, bring your fishing gear!

We saw lots of folks fishing right from the coastline. There is a fishing pier near the fort on the bay side.

6. Enjoy a Sunrise

For an early morning adventure, head down to the Gulf side of the island to watch the sunrise. The sparkling water and golden skies are a breathtaking sight that you won’t want to miss. Plus, there’s nothing like spending some time in nature to start your day off on the right foot!

7. Sunset

Catch a sunset on the Pensacola Bay side of the island. With miles of undeveloped coastline and pristine beaches, it’s the perfect place to take in nature’s beauty. So grab a blanket and some snacks, and enjoy one of the best sunsets in the country.

Trip tip: We watched the sunset every night from the beach near our campsite coming from Camp Area D. It was so incredible at sunset. The beach was within walking distance of our campsite.

8. Camp at Fort Pickens

There is camping here! There are over 200 campsites to camp at. Some offer water and electricity, and some are great for RVs and motorhomes. Some campsites are great for tent- only.

We stayed in Camp Area D and had a blast! We could walk right to the beach!

Check out our article on camping at Fort Pickens Campground for more details.

Be sure to make reservations way in advance (like 6+ months).

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Camping at Fort Pickens Campground Area D – trail leads to the bay!

9. Watch the Blue Angels

We had no idea we would see the Blue Angels during our trip to Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens. We were amazed to overhear a Park Service employee as we were checking in to our campsite.

The Blue Angels have a practice schedule since they are based out of Pensacola, and depending on when you visit the area, and you might be able to catch a show! Be sure to check out the Blue Angels practice and events schedule if you are interested in seeing them while you visit.

The Blue Angels were awesome to see – it was such a cool surprise for our visit!

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Blue Angels flying right over us at Fort Pickens!

10. Kayak Around the Islands

If you’re looking for a fun and active way to spend your vacation, kayaking at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola, Florida, is the perfect option. You’ll get to explore miles of pristine coastline and beautiful waterways while getting some exercise. So, if you’re looking for a new and exciting adventure, be sure to check out kayaking at Gulf Islands National Seashore!

There are lots of places to rent kayaks in Pensacola if you don’t have your own craft.

Where is Gulf Islands National Seashore Located?

Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens is located along Pensacola Bay off Gulf Breeze Parkway in Florida.

Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens Map

Other Questions You May Have While Planning Your Trip

Does Fort Pickens have a beach?

Yes, Langdon Beach is the main beach area facing the Gulf of Mexico.

There are other areas to access the water along the island too.

Can you swim at Gulf Islands National Seashore?

Yes, you can swim at Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens. See above about beaches.

Be mindful of weather conditions and rip tides. The beaches have flags designating water conditions for safety.

Can you walk around Fort Pickens?

Yes, walking around the fort is so much fun! You can go in and out of a lot of spaces.

It is interesting to explore and read the historical signs around the facility.

Is Fort Pickens Pensacola Open?

Due to the nature of Gulf Coast storms and how low-lying the barrier island is, always check with the Fort Pickens Area National Park Service before planning a trip to ensure the island and road are open.

We visited in May 2021, and the road flooded. The island was closed temporarily for a few hours.

Is Gulf Islands National Seashore free?

No, Gulf Islands National Seashore is not free.

Is there an entrance fee for Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens?

Yes, there is an entrance fee to enter and tour the park.

Buy the Annual National Parks America the Beautiful Pass online from REI before your trip! Save yourself time in line!

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Are dogs allowed on the beach?

No, however, there is a dog-dedicated beach not too far from the park entrance, closer to Pensacola. You’ll see the signs for the dog park (Gulf side).

Dogs are allowed on the trails.

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Trail near Fort Pickens Campground Camp Area D

When is the best time of year to visit?

The best time to visit is in the spring. The weather temperatures are pleasant, and the park is not crowded. The summer humidity hasn’t quite kicked in!

We visited in mid-May during the middle of the week, and there were no crowds. It was beautiful.

For U.S. snowbirds, it is a great vacation spot for folks escaping the colder northern parts of the U.S. in the winter.

Pssst… Are you road tripping through Florida? If you’re headed to the Keys next, check out Christ of the Abyss Scuba Diving Site.

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Blackbird Marsh Trail hike along the island

Other things to consider while visiting the Sunshine State

Being along the Gulf of Mexico, consider the weather. Be agile and flexible when planning a trip. The weather could be sunny and beautiful, or windy and stormy.

Hurricane season is June-November.

Consider purchasing traveler insurance for trips out of state.

We like using Travel Insurance Master because you can select specific coverage to meet your travel needs.

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Reasons to Visit Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens

People come from all over the world lured by the sugar sand beaches of the Gulf coast barrier islands.

Santa Rosa Island is quite the Florida gem! While it may be off the beaten path, Gulf Islands National Seashore offers stunning natural beauty and opportunities for outdoor adventure that are well worth the visit. From sunrises over the water to dolphin sightings, there’s plenty to see and do in this coastal paradise. So if you’re looking for a little nature and a lot of relaxation, Pensacola is definitely worth consideration.

Tourists and visitors will enjoy watching wildlife, sunbathing, swimming, hiking, camping, and touring Fort Pickens while visiting.

All in all, Gulf Islands National Seashore is a must-visit for everyone visiting the Florida panhandle and Pensacola area.

If you enjoy visiting National Parks and National Park Service locations, you’ll love Gulf Islands.

Thanks for reading!

Ashlee & Pablo


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Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation writer and founder of The Happiness Function based in Oklahoma. Her goal is to help inspire people to build a life they love by sharing how simple and fun it is to travel locally, connect with nature, and explore off-the-beaten-path. You don't have to spend a lot of money or use a ton of vacation time to explore close to home. Ashlee holds a BS degree in Biology and MS in Environmental Policy & Sustainability and has a passion for the outdoors. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo! They camp in their Aliner often and love road trips and hiking.

18 Comments

  1. Burt Randall on October 29, 2021 at 6:17 pm

    This was another fun article to read, especially about the fort and fishing. HAVE FUN guys !!



    • Ashlee Fechino on October 31, 2021 at 1:13 pm

      Hi Uncle Burt! Thanks for reading and stopping by! So nice to hear from you!



  2. Amy on November 3, 2021 at 5:49 pm

    The blackbird marsh trail looks lovely!



    • Ashlee Fechino on November 4, 2021 at 11:11 am

      Hi Amy! It was really cool. We had a blast hiking along the island.



  3. Karen on November 3, 2021 at 7:22 pm

    I have always wanted to kayak along the Gulf Islands and camp. Did you see kayakers? The pictures make me want to plan that trip sooner than later.



    • Ashlee Fechino on November 4, 2021 at 11:13 am

      Hi Karen – kayaking sounds so fun! We did not see kayakers on this trip. It was actually really windy and there were red flag warnings.



  4. Linda (LD Holland) on November 3, 2021 at 10:52 pm

    We are definitely craving a beach vacation. So good to read about Gulf Islands Seashore Fort Pickens in Florida. It would be a great change from the standard Florida spots. Long stretches of sugar fine white sand would be perfect. And options for hiking would ensure lots of outdoor time.



    • Ashlee Fechino on November 4, 2021 at 11:14 am

      Hi Linda! When we visited – it was pretty quiet. It was not crowded. That’s our style! Hope you can enjoy Florida this winter. We will definitely go back.



  5. Clarice on November 4, 2021 at 10:23 am

    Fort Pickens (the actual fort) looks like it’d be super cool to explore. It reminds me of Fort Stevens up here in the PNW, which is also open to the public to explore. I love the history behind these places!



    • Ashlee Fechino on November 4, 2021 at 11:14 am

      Hi Clarice! Thanks for sharing! I will look up Fort Stevens in the PNW. We have been wanting to spend more time in that part of the U.S.



  6. Linzey on November 5, 2021 at 7:08 pm

    Hey, this is really cool! I hadn’t heard about this at all before. It seems like such a neat combination of beach, nature, history and wildlife. Thank you so much for putting this together and sharing! – Linzey @thefamilyfuntour



    • Ashlee Fechino on November 5, 2021 at 8:37 pm

      Thanks for reading, Linzey! We are so happy you enjoyed this article. It was a fun place to explore. We can’t wait to go back to Florida. Have a nice winter!



  7. Bea on January 26, 2022 at 11:28 pm

    It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Florida. And I’m always looking for new places to visit there. Thanks for the inspiration – a new one for my bucket list.



    • Ashlee Fechino on January 27, 2022 at 2:56 pm

      Hi Bea – thanks for reading. Gulf Islands National Seashore is such a great beach destination in the south!



  8. Susanna on January 27, 2022 at 2:18 pm

    Wow, the gulf islands national seashore looks like a beautiful spot. I am all about hiking, camping, and birding, so this definitely needs to go on my list of places to visit in the U.S. Those Osprey nests are so cool!



    • Ashlee Fechino on January 27, 2022 at 2:57 pm

      Susanna – you would love exploring this part of Florida. It is teaming with wildlife! We can’t wait to go back.



  9. Denise on January 28, 2022 at 6:20 pm

    I love all of the wildlife! Gulf Islands National Seashore looks like a great place to visit!



    • Ashlee Fechino on January 29, 2022 at 11:52 am

      Hi Denise! It is a fantastic place to see wildlife. Thanks for commenting.