At the westernmost point of Santa Rosa Island, along the shimmering sands of the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Trail comes to an end at one of the most important historic sites in Florida’s Panhandle, Fort Pickens.
Construction of Fort Pickens began in 1829 under supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers. President Abraham Lincoln considered Fort Pickens an important coastal defense, enough that he risked starting a war by sending Federal troops to occupy it. On November 22, 1861, the troops shot more than 5,000 cannonballs from Fort Pickens into Pensacola, its shipyard, and other fortresses on the western shore of the bay, convincing Confederate leaders to retreat and burn the city.
This segment of the Florida Trail is not an easy one. It’s out in the open, wind blasted and sun-drenched, and forces you to hike out and back or to arrange a shuttle, a taxi, or a water taxi to return you to Pensacola. But the sense of completion, and the weight of history, make this a compelling walk.
Location: Pensacola Beach
Length: 7.3 miles
Lat-Long: 30.3254, -87.181
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: Moderately difficult due to soft sand and lack of shade
Bug factor: Low
Restroom: Yes, at the campground and fort
Overnight camping is permitted in the campground for a fee. Carry plenty of water with you. You must hike in and out of Fort Pickens or arrange for a water taxi to meet you at the end of the hike.
From the intersection of CR 399 and Fort Pickens Rd in Pensacola Beach, drive west to the end of the road, just outside the gate of Gulf Islands National Seashore at Parking Area 20.
Start your hike at the big FNST sign at the boundary of Gulf Islands National Seashore. This is not an easy hike by any means. The sand is soft, it’s often windy, and the sun beats down mercilessly. You’ll find firmer footing where the waves meet the shore. It’s the kind of place where the theme from Lawrence of Arabia will run through your head. But it’s also unique, in that this sliver of land has been shrinking for decades and on it has the only National Scenic Trail that follows a beach. And you’re walking on it!
Your first landmark is Battery Langdon at Langdon Beach. It is one of several one World War II-era facilities built to supplement the 1840s armaments at Fort Pickens, for the protection of Pensacola’s naval prowess. The Florida Trail leaves the beach and crosses over towards the bay side to enter the Fort Pickens Campground, a nicely shaded facility in a maritime hammock. Restrooms are along the trail on the right as the trail exits the campground and heads west to Battery Worth, where pigeons roost in the remains of this World War II battery. A large parking area to the right has restrooms and potable water.
West of Battery Worth, you enjoy a variance in habitats here on the Pensacola Bay side of Santa Rosa Island, walking through maritime hammocks past salt marshes and man-made canals. Benches provide rest stops. It was in this area that Confederate and Union soldiers clashed on October 8, 1861, spilling blood on the sands as the Confederates attempted to retake this key fortress along the coast and avenge the destruction of the Confederate ship Judah. They did not succeed in their task, but withdrew with casualties.
After the end of the Civil War, Fort Pickens saw its most famous prisoner, Geronimo, installed within the walls as a “tourist attraction” by the U.S. Army in 1886 along with members of his Apache tribe. Installation of modern weapons for coastal defenses occurred after World War I. The fort was manned until 1947, and became a state park for many years until acquired and restored by the National Park Service as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
As you rise up the ramp onto the outer ramparts of Fort Pickens, you step into Florida’s long colonial history, these sands claimed by the Spanish, French, and British long before Florida became a territory of the United States. Consider the thousands who have stood at this point and looked across Pensacola Bay as you walk down to the trail’s end just outside Fort Pickens’ gate, completing your hike at the northern terminus of the Florida Trail.
0.0 Parking area at park gate
4.5 Pass Battery Langdon
5.5 Fort Pickens Campground
5.8 Pass Battery Worth
7.3 End at Fort Pickens