At the westernmost tip of Santa Rosa Island, after one last stroll along the shimmering sands of the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Trail comes to its Northern Terminus in the shadow of the most important historic sites in Northwest Florida, Fort Pickens.
Reaching the front gate of Fort Pickens, long distance hikers can feel their goal. The Northern Terminus of the Florida Trail lies ahead at the end of this section of trail, signaling completion of a hike from one end of Florida to the other. But this isn’t an easy wrapup, despite being at sea level. It’s entirely out in the open, blasted by the wind and drenched by the sun. But the sense of completion, and the weight of history, make this a compelling walk.
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. After the end of the Civil War, Fort Pickens saw its most famous prisoner, Geronimo, held 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. It became a state park for many years afterwards until acquired and restored by the National Park Service as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Dogs are not permitted along the beach section of this hike between the front gate and Langdon Beach, but may accompany you down the “Fort Pickens Trail” portion of the hike between Battery Langdon and Fort Pickens. There is a $7 per person or $15 per vehicle entrance fee to Gulf Islands National Seashore at Fort Pickens.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on any symbol for more details and on FT symbols to obtain custom directions to trailheads.
0.0 > Be sure to stop at the beach restrooms just outside the gate for water before tackling this long beach walk along the Gulf of Mexico, as it’s almost five miles to the next water source. An orange blaze on a post leads you towards the beach as soon as you step inside the gate at Fort Pickens. From here, it’s a simple walk along the sandy shore, with no breaks from the shade.
1.7 > What’s pleasant about this walk is the unbroken expanse ahead with no tall buildings crowding the shoreline. Don’t turn around or you’ll see them behind you.
2.8 > Fort Pickens Rd draws very close to the edge of the beach. It’s here that the sea has broken free several times, washing across the road into Pensacola Bay and forcing closures of the park for months at a time after tropical storms and hurricanes. While it may look tempting to drivers to walk over to the beach, there is nowhere to park, since the sand on both sides of the road is very soft.
4.1 > Fort Pickens Road once again pulls close to the waterfront, squeezed down a narrow sandy spit between the Gulf of Mexico and Pensacola Bay by relentless erosion.
4.6 > A cluster of maintenance buildings sits compass north, on the north side of Fort Pickens Road, your first clue that you’re nearing the developed portion of the park.
4.9 > Langdon Beach is a busy place, and it’s where the Florida Trail finally leaves the beach. It’s a welcome relief to have access to a little bit of shade at the beach pavilion. Water is available in the restrooms. Leaving the pavilion, look for the FNST sign hidden in the low dunes on the far side of the parking lot as you face Battery Langdon to the north. Follow the beaten path to Fort Pickens Rd, and cross it at the crosswalk. Follow the entrance road into Battery Langdon, which has a smaller parking area, picnic pavilion, and restrooms. The Fort Pickens Trail turns due west off this road down a gravel-and-limerock road with a “service vehicles only” sign. You see beaten paths to the left through the vegetation that lead up to overlooks off Battery Langdon.
5.1 > At a Y intersection, keep left. The road narrows to become a hard-packed trail, which is shared with bicycles all the way to Fort Pickens. You’ll notice many osprey nests in tall, dead trees in the salt marshes. They pile branches pretty high to make deep nests, so the nests are quite prominent, and you won’t miss the ospreys’ cries echoing across the landscape.
5.3 > Looking across the sweep of marsh compass south, you’ll notice the foundations of old military buildings peeping out of the maritime forest on the far side. Despite your distance from the ocean, the booming waves carry this far on the wind.
5.5 > Cross a wooden bridge over a canal lined with tall grasses. The trail continues beneath alternating sun and shade cast by oaks. The canal adjoins the trail, obvious from the grasses towering overhead. On the left, a prominent sign marks the junction for the Blackbird Marsh Trail, a short interpretive loop around a marsh with many blackbirds and several easy-to-view osprey nests. The trail continues into a brief bit of shade beneath the oaks of the maritime hammock.
5.8 > Crossing a bridge, the trail enters the Fort Pickens Campground and leads you right through the middle of it down the paved road past the RVs, campers, and tents, right through sections E, D, and B. Use the bathhouse at the east end of the campground as a water source.
6.1 > Leaving the Fort Pickens Campground, you cross the entrance road into the Battery Worth area. Constructed in 1899, Battery Worth housed coastal defense mortars to protect access to Pensacola Bay. These large guns were in place through 1942, when needs shifted to using the well-protected battery as a command post. West of Battery Worth, you enjoy a variety of habitats on the Pensacola Bay side of Santa Rosa Island. The trail leads you through puddles of shade in maritime hammocks. Benches become frequent, since campers walk (and ride) the trail to the fort.
6.7 > A wooden bridge provides a view across the salt marshes that began to hug both sides of the trail a short ways back. Look down, and you might see one of the ancient snapping turtles that live in this creek, attired in swirls of colorful algae. The official Florida Trail Northern Terminus marker is just ahead on the right, tucked under a frame of bricks that mimic the interior architecture of the fort itself. It’s very low to the ground, so a little tricky for that selfie.
6.9 > As you walk 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 at the kiosk just outside the entrance to the fortress, completing your hike at the northern terminus of the Florida Trail and the parking area for the fort. Be sure to step inside if the fort is open and sign the trail register in the gift shop; you can also get a commemorative National Parks stamp for the trail.
Services primarily lie outside this National Seashore along the Pensacola Bike Path, which the Florida Trail follows southbound from the beach walk at Fort Pickens into the heavily developed beach community.
RESUPPLY: Tom Thumb, 850-932-9541, 1000 Fort Pickens Rd. The northernmost convenience store along the Florida Trail, it is one mile east of the entrance gate to Fort Pickens along the bike path. It’s open 24 hours and offers a lot of prepared / healthy food options. Fort Pickens Campground has a camp store, but it can’t be relied on to be open.
CAMPING: Fort Pickens Campground, 850-934-2621, 1400 Fort Pickens Rd. Open to RVs, campers, and tent camping, with the best tent sites on the far west side of B Loop. It’s the only place you’re allowed to camp in this National Park. Reserve in advance to guarantee a space, $20-26 plus service fees.
LODGING: On this side of Pensacola Beach, Travelodge, 850-934-5400, 40 Fort Pickens Rd, has budget accommodations across from the main beach parking area with the giant beach ball water tower, $95 and up. On the east side of Pensacola Beach, try Paradise Inn, 850-932-2319, 21 Via De Luna Dr. Retro and dog-friendly, their cozy rooms are the best deal along the Florida Trail in Pensacola Beach, $69 and up.
DINING: The nearest restaurant to the entrance to Fort Pickens is Peg Leg Pete’s, 1010 Fort Pickens Rd, open 11-10 daily, a popular seafood house with excellent oysters. Otherwise, try Flounder’s Chowder House, 850-932-2003, 800 Quietwater Beach Rd, a fun and funky waterfront restaurant which many hikers gravitate to.
This section of the Florida Trail is at the end of Fort Pickens Rd off CR 399 in Pensacola Beach. Use US 98 east from Pensacola to reach Pensacola Beach.