Fort Pickens, Florida
Florida’s Panhandle is a highly traveled part of the state. Rightly so, due to the popular Emerald Coast area from Panama City to Destin to Pensacola. Just south of Pensacola across the bridge at Gulf Breeze on Highway 399, one section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore offers visitors a unique look at barrier island life and the remnants of a historic fort – Fort Pickens. The attractions of this stretch of land along Santa Rosa Island make this area a very desirable and unique vacation spot away from the typical sand, sun, and surf destination.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore does have sand, sun, and surf. In fact, there are miles of Gulf Coast white sandy beach frontage. There are ample parking areas with easy access to the sand, sun and surf. With a short walk down the beach you might find yourself alone. The crowds are in Destin and Panama City. If it is isolation you are looking for, visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore. From these beaches, distant views of high-rise condominiums lining Pensacola Beach’s shoreline are reminders of the typical beach vacation.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Visiting the beach is always part of a trip to Florida, but there is more to this area than just white sandy beaches. The national seashore is special in itself. Protected sand dunes are a part of the landscape along the roadway. The constantly changing dunes have restrictions. No walking is permitted on the dunes. There are walkways over the dunes and boardwalks across the dunes for access to the beach.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore contains several tracts along the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coastline. There are eleven sections over about 150 miles. The national seashore stretches from West Ship Island just south of Gulfport, Mississippi, to the eastern tip of Santa Rosa Island near Fort Walton Beach. There are four historic forts on the barrier islands – Fort Massachusetts on West Ship Island, Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, Fort Morgan in Alabama near Gulf Shores across Mobile Bay from Fort Gaines, and Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island. The forts were built in the nineteenth century and were constructed for the protection of our major waterways from enemy attack after the War of 1812.
Along the Gulf Islands National Seashore on Santa Rosa Island, the remains of Fort Pickens occupy the extreme western part of the island. Construction on Fort Pickens was begun in 1829 and was completed in 1834. Fort Pickens is the largest of the four forts and was built to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard. Incidentally, across Pensacola Bay from Fort Pickens are Fort Barrancas and the Pensacola Naval Air Station. While visiting the historic Fort Pickens, frequent reminders of the nearness of thundering modern fighting planes across the bay offer a unique contrast to the stillness of old Fort Pickens.
Several remaining batteries from Fort Pickens are scattered across the landscape of the tip of the barrier island. Large bore cannons are entrenched along the beachfront facing the Gulf of Mexico at a variety of locations. Frequent parking areas along the coursing roadways throughout the fort enable visitors access to most of the batteries. Several batteries are closed to the public for safety reasons, but there are ample examples for touring.
The main part of the fort offers a walking tour of the different structures within the fort. Along the surrounding walls of the fort are several mounted cannons. Under the heavy walls within the fort are barracks and sleeping quarters. There are tunnels leading to mine chambers that can each hold one thousand pounds of gunpowder. Building a heavy walled fort on the sands of Santa Rosa Island had its design problems. To support the weight of the fort on the soft sand, engineers resorted to an old design of arches, which are designed to distribute weight. In parts of Fort Pickens overhead arches, along with reverse arches in the foundation, were used to spread the fort’s weight to minimize settling. A reverse arch is a downward arch and, when it was used in conjunction with the overhead arch, was able to support considerable weight. There are several examples of this combination at Fort Pickens.
Arched doorways Ft Pickens M1566.jpg
Double arches at Ft Pickens M1571.jpg
Double arches at Fort Pickens M1573.jpg
Attractions of the National Seashore
Besides Fort Pickens and the beach along the Gulf Islands National Seashore, there are nature trails to enjoy and appreciate the different forms of life contained on a barrier island. The Blackbird Marsh Nature Trail is on the bay side of Santa Rosa Island. The Dune Nature Trail is on the Gulf side of the island and offers a boardwalk over the fragile and changing landscape of the sand dunes. The area also has an amphitheater, picnic grounds, and a visitor center and museum.
On the bay side of the island adjacent to Fort Pickens a fishing pier extends into Pensacola Bay. No license is required and fishing is permitted twenty-four hours a day. However, a night owl permit is required to use the pier when the park is closed. One can be obtained from the campground registration office.
The campground for the Gulf Islands National Seashore and Fort Pickens has approximately two hundred sites many with electrical hookups. A campground store offering groceries and supplies is located near the campground reservation office. In addition to the camping fee, there is an entrance fee of $8 for the Gulf Island National Seashore and Fort Pickens and is good for seven days.
To get to the Santa Rosa Island section of Gulf Islands National Seashore and Fort Pickens, take Highway 399 south from US Highway 98 in Gulf Breeze. Gulf Breeze is the first city across the Pensacola Bay Bridge out of Pensacola along US 98. From Interstate 10, take I-110 through Pensacola to the US Highway 98. Follow the signs to the Pensacola Bay Bridge. In Gulf Breeze, look for Highway 399 and signs to Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens.
The extreme western part of Florida offers visitors the same white sandy beaches as the more notable sections and more. Fort Pickens and the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola Beach is a great place to get a way from the crowds and soak up sunshine and history at the same time.