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 is 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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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 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 forests, and saltwater marshes with excellent hiking trails and beaches to sunbathe. There are also great fishing opportunities near shore for anglers. In addition, birdwatchers will find an abundance of coastal birds like Osprey, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers.
Aside from the incredible coastline and beaches, 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
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.
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 (with parking) facing the Gulf is Langdon Beach.
When we visited the first time, it was pretty windy and a little stormy. But on a sunny day – this beach is glittering with white sand and emerald-green water.
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 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. We also saw dolphins from the beach! It was magical.
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 breathtaking sights 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.
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 E. The beach was within walking distance of our campsite.
8. Camp at Fort Pickens
There is camping here! There are over 200 campsites. The campground is RV, motorhome, van, and tent-friendly.
We stayed in Camp Area E 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).
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, 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!
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 (with parking) facing the Gulf of Mexico.
There are other areas to access the water along the island too. You can walk to the Gulf from the campgrounds and the fort.
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. We visited again in May 2022, and the water was calm and crystal clear. It was paradise!
Is Gulf Islands National Seashore free?
No, Gulf Islands National Seashore is not free to enter.
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 before your trip!
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 on the Gulf side.
Dogs are allowed on the trails.
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 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.
More Things to Do in the Area
Perdido Key is located about an hour away. You can visit Gulf Islands National Seashore Perdido Key, Big Lagoon State Park, and Perdido Key State Park.
Check out these articles to plan some fun outdoor adventures:
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.
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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Are you exploring the Gulf of Mexico? Check out our other Gulf of Mexico articles:
- Fort Pickens Campground Review – Island Camping
- 7 Beautiful Alabama Beaches You Cannot Miss
- Dauphin Island Campground: Camp on the Gulf
- How to Take the Mobile Bay Ferry to Fort Morgan
- 20 Best Things to Do on Dauphin Island
- The Perfect 2-Day Dauphin Island Visitor Guide
- 15 Amazing Reasons You’ll Want to Camp at Gulf Shores State Park
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We’d love to hear from you!
We’d love to answer any questions you have about road tripping along the Gulf of Mexico, camping in our Aliner, or visiting Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida!
I love all of the wildlife! Gulf Islands National Seashore looks like a great place to visit!
Hi Denise! It is a fantastic place to see wildlife. Thanks for commenting.
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!
Susanna – you would love exploring this part of Florida. It is teaming with wildlife! We can’t wait to go back.
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.
Hi Bea – thanks for reading. Gulf Islands National Seashore is such a great beach destination in the south!
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
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The blackbird marsh trail looks lovely!
Hi Amy! It was really cool. We had a blast hiking along the island.
This was another fun article to read, especially about the fort and fishing. HAVE FUN guys !!
Hi Uncle Burt! Thanks for reading and stopping by! So nice to hear from you!