No matter whether you’re here for the beach, the scenery, or the history, the Fort Pickens Unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore has plenty to explore. With more than 200 campsites in its campground, it’s also a major winter destination for snowbirds coming to Florida.
Walk the ramparts of Fort Pickens, climb to the top of Battery Langdon for an amazing view of the island, or ride your bike down an old railroad bed through marshes busy with birds.
In addition to seven miles of beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, it is home to the Northern Terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail. And a bonus feature that surprised and delighted us on one visit: you can watch the Blue Angels practice their aerial acrobatics over Pensacola Bay.
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Location: Pensacola Beach
Trailhead: 30.328385, -87.289956
Address: 1400 Fort Pickens Rd, Pensacola Beach FL
Fees: $15 pedestrian / cyclist, $25 vehicle (good for one week). National Park Passes are honored for admission.
Restrooms: at Langdon Beach, Battery Langdon, Battery Worth, and Fort Pickens
Land manager: National Park Service
The gates to the Fort Pickens Unit open 5 AM and remain open until dusk. The fort itself does not open until 8 AM. The bookstore and the campground registration office opens at 9 AM.
From Interstate 10, follow scenic US 90 south along the Pensacola Bay Bluffs into Pensacola to N 17th Street. Turn left and take this connector to US 98. Turn left at the light and cross the Pensacola Bay Bridge.
Once you are in Gulf Breeze, watch for the exit on the right for Pensacola Beach with its iconic jumping sailfish sign. This ramp leads to Pensacola Beach Rd (CR 399), which crosses Santa Rosa Sound on the Bob Sikes Bridge. A toll (ranging from $1 to $2.50) is charged to your SunPass or license plate.
At the traffic light with Fort Pickens Rd, turn right. Follow it through residential areas in Pensacola Beach to the National Seashore gate. Continue on to the entrance station to pay your entrance fee. All features inside the Fort Pickens Unit are along the next eight miles of roadway. The road ends as a loop around historic buildings at Fort Pickens.
While Fort Pickens – the fortress – is an imposing structure capping off the western end of Santa Rosa Island, the history of this area goes much deeper than the fort itself.
In 1722, Spanish explorers claiming this part of the New World for the Crown established the Presidio Isla Santa Rosa. A fortress and village, the second of three that the Spanish would build around Pensacola Bay, sat on this end of the barrier island.
A Grand Fortress
On behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Captain William H. Chase supervised construction of Fort Pickens between 1829 and 1834. Its location was strategic to controlling access to Pensacola Bay, Florida’s largest deep water port.
Construction materials came from all over the world, including copper from Switzerland for the drains and granite from Sing-Sing. The fortress also contains 21.5 million locally made bricks.
The night before Florida seceded from the Union – January 10, 1860 – Federal commander Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer moved his men from the mainland to Fort Pickens to hold what President Lincoln considered a key position in coastal defenses.
Confederate troops attempted to rout the entrenched Federals on Sep 2, 1861, during the Battle of Santa Rosa Island but failed, and subsequently abandoned the city to the Union forces. Chase was promoted to Major General soon after his demand for surrender of the Fort.
After the Civil War, the fortress served as a military prison. Apache chief Geronimo was imprisoned at the fort as a tourist attraction in 1886.
Fort Pickens came into play again during World War I with new defensive batteries constructed to protect Pensacola from foreign invasion. While a railway line was built to move heavy equipment between the batteries, none of the gun emplacements were ever used.
Fort Pickens and the batteries scattered across Santa Rosa Island ceased military operation in 1949. The land remained under Federal control but the buildings were abandoned. In 1971, this federal land became part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The Batteries at Fort Pickens
Inside the brick and mortar walls of Fort Pickens itself, Battery Pensacola was added to the defensive complex in 1899. It stands two stories tall and you can still climb up its staircases. Two rifles atop it could shoot a shell 8 miles.
Built in 1923, Battery Langdon is essentially an enormous bunker. The Florida Trail circles around the west side of it. From the back side, it simply looks like a big hill. It’s only when you are right up along it on Fort Pickens Rd you notice the pillbox entrance.
Battery Langdon had the biggest guns of all of the coastal defenses on Santa Rosa Island. It could lob a half-ton projectile from a 12-inch gun a good 17 miles out to sea.
Trails lead atop the structure from the Fort Pickens Trail along its back side. From the top, you get an amazing panorama of Santa Rosa Island and the sweep of beach in both directions.
Just west of the campground and adjoining the Florida Trail, Battery Worth is a large, block-shaped building with staircases you can climb up to the top for views over Pensacola Bay.
Built in 1899, it had two gun pits. By World War II, the structure was converted to house the Control Post and Command Post for defense of Pensacola Bay, which is why there is an observation tower on top.
From the Gulf of Mexico, you can’t see Battery Cooper. It just looks like a big hill. And unless you take the side loop drive over to see it, you don’t notice it from Fort Pickens Rd, either.
Built in 1905, its guns faced out over the Gulf to protect the approach to Pensacola Harbor. In 1917, those guns were removed and shipped to the European front in France for American troops to use from railway cars.
Battery Payne was the closest gun emplacement to the entrance to Pensacola Harbor. Built in 1904, it has tunnels beneath it for storage. Today, it provides a good place to climb up and look over the harbor channel between Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key.
Hiking at Fort Pickens
Hikers at Fort Pickens have several trails to choose from. The Bluebird Marsh Trail, a half-mile interpretive loop off the Fort Pickens Trail near the campground, is one of the better sites for birding.
The Dune Trail is a quarter mile interpretive boardwalk that has come and gone over the years with hurricane rebuilding efforts. If currently in place, you’ll find it across the road from the campground entrance along Fort Pickens Rd.
The Fort Pickens Trail spans 2 miles from Fort Pickens to Battery Langdon. This raised linear route is a straight line for good reason: it follows a railroad grade built for World War II coastal defenses.
The northernmost 6.9 miles of the Florida Trail traverses the length of the Fort Pickens Unit, coming in along the beach from Pensacola Beach and following the shoreline to Langdon Beach. It then crosses the road and follows the Fort Pickens Trail.
Just west of the bridge along the trail near Fort Pickens is a commemorative Northern Terminus marker that long distance hikers completing the entire 1,100 mile walk across Florida stop at for a final photo.
Inside the gift shop at the fort itself, a hiker register lets backpackers leave their parting thoughts about the Florida Trail.
Biking at Fort Pickens
Casual cyclists make heavy use of the Fort Pickens Trail, since it connects Langdon Beach with the Fort Pickens Campground, Battery Worth, and Fort Pickens itself.
Road riders enjoy traveling up and down Fort Pickens Rd for the scenic views of both Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Traffic speed is 35 MPH and there are few places drivers can pull off, so except on weekends, the road isn’t crazy busy.
Fat tire enthusiasts and folks with beach cruisers can tackle the shoreline. The sand is soft except at the tide line, so plan for a real workout.
Camping at Fort Pickens
The Fort Pickens Campground is at the center of all activities for this unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore. It is one of the larger National Park campgrounds, with 211 campsites arranged around a series of five loops, Loop A through Loop E.
Loop B has only 13 sites but it’s the nicest of the bunch, set under an oak hammock. It is strictly reserved for tent campers. Hikers backpacking the Florida Trail will want to make a reservation here in advance of their arrival.
Bathhouses are provided in or near each loop. These have hot showers and laundry facilities. The complex is large enough that it is worth having a bicycle with you to get around. Most of the RV-centric spots in the campground are in full sun.
Reservations are via Recreation.gov. As we discovered when a medical emergency caused us to cancel our reservation, you lose one night’s deposit no matter your length of stay, no matter how much advance notice you give them. Rates range from $26-40 per night.
Birding at Fort Pickens
Despite centuries of battering by hurricanes, the western tip of Santa Rosa Island still has significant stands of tall pines which attract osprey for nesting colonies.
You’ll find osprey nests within earshot of the Fort Pickens Trail both west of Battery Worth and east of the campground around the Blackbird Marsh Trail, which is a worthwhile loop for birding.
Both the marsh here and farther east along the Fort Pickens Trail are very productive for songbirds and wading birds. The bridge that’s a quarter mile east of the fort along the trail is also a good place to watch for wading birds.
Beaches at Fort Pickens
With more than 14 miles of waterfront inside this unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore, you can stake a claim on your own quiet corner of the beach.
Beach access points are provided at several stops along Fort Pickens Road. The only one with facilities – restrooms and a covered picnic pavilion – is Langdon Beach, across from Battery Langdon.
If you want a quieter stretch of sand, walk along the beach east or west from Langdon until you find your own private paradise. A lesser-used beach access is also found near the very tip of the peninsula, around the curve from the entrance to Pensacola Bay.
See our photos from the Fort Pickens Unit
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Spanning from Santa Rosa Sound to Pensacola Bay, Naval Live Oaks Area is one of America’s oldest federally protected forests, now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
With nearly a mile of boardwalks above Pensacola Bay, Pensacola Bay Bluffs Park offers scrambles up and down the steep hillside on many sets of staircases.