In addition to an array of maritime artifacts and naval strongholds dating back to the 1700s, coastal forests and bayous are also protected by the 216-square-mile Gulf Islands National Seashore.
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Location: Gulf Coast of Florida and Mississippi
Address: 1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze FL (headquarters)
Fees: Varies by unit. Entrance to the Naval Live Oaks Area (Headquarters) is free. Other locations may require an entrance fee of $20 vehicle, $10 pedestrian / cyclist. See individual unit information below for details on where admission fees are charged. National Park Passes are honored for admission.
Land manager: National Park Service
Open 8 AM to sunset. The visitor center at park headquarters is only open when staffed, 8:30-4:30 weekdays, closed Federal holidays.
Dogs are not permitted on beaches within the National Seashore.
Directions to Headquarters: From Pensacola, follow US 98 east over the Pensacola Bay Bridge to Gulf Breeze. Continue east on US 98 another 1.9 miles past the exit to Pensacola Beach to the main entrance for the headquarters building and visitor center.
National Seashore Units
Gulf Islands National Seashore encompasses six separate units in Florida. In Mississippi, there is one coastal unit – Davis Bayou – and six barrier islands within the National Park. Of these, West Ship Island and Horn Island are the most popular destinations.
Most of the barrier islands of Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi can only be reached by private boaters and paddlers, providing unique wilderness camping experiences. Ship Island can be visited by using an official tour boat out of Gulfport.
In addition to the units listed below, there is Okaloosa on Okaloosa Island along Choctawhatchee Bay, the Santa Rosa Area (which includes Opal Beach) on Santa Rosa Island, and Fort Barrancas in Pensacola.
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 more than seven miles of beaches along Santa Rosa Island, the Fort Pickens Unit at Gulf Islands National Seashore is a compelling destination at Pensacola Beach
Coastal Defenses on the Gulf Coast
Originally built by the British Royal Navy as a log redoubt in 1763, Fort Barrancas sits on a hill above the western shore of Pensacola Bay. The Spanish added their touches in 1797.
After Pensacola was selected to be a Federal naval yard in the early 1800s, the fort went through another update between 1839 and 1844, supervised by Major William H. Chase.
Although it is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, it is at the core of Pensacola Naval Air Station and you must go through a checkpoint to visit both Fort Barrancas and the adjoining Advanced Redoubt.
The Advanced Redoubt of Fort Barrancas was built between 1845 and 1859 to protect both Fort Barrancas and the Pensacola Naval Yard but was never used.
Fort McRee on Perdido Key dated back to 1834, with 128 cannons trained on the entrance to Pensacola Bay. It succumbed to erosion by wind and waves over the decades. Only a single battery built in 1942 remains.
Unlike Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt, there is nothing left to interpret of Fort McRee. Only boaters and divers can see what’s left in Pensacola Bay.
Of the forts now protected and interpreted at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island has the most storied history. Construction of Fort Pickens began in 1829 under supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers.
When it seemed America would slip into war, President Abraham Lincoln sent Federal troops to occupy Fort Pickens. On November 22, 1861, these troops shot more than 5,000 cannonballs from Fort Pickens into Pensacola. Confederate leaders retreated and burned the city.
Fort Pickens continued in use through World War II, sometimes as a military prison. In 1886 the Apache chief Geronimo was imprisoned at the fort as a tourist attraction.
For World War I defenses, concrete gun batteries were added at strategic points along Santa Rosa Island and atop the existing brick fortress itself. The military decommissioned Fort Pickens in 1949.
In Mississippi, West Ship Island is topped with the westernmost of these coastal defenses, Fort Massachusetts. Built after the War of 1812 in response to the British attack on New Orleans, it remained in service through 1903.
Hiking at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Short nature trails at several of the National Seashore units let you sample coastal habitats.
In Florida, these include the Fort Pickens Trail and Blackbird Marsh Trail at the Fort Pickens Unit, the Brackenridge Trail and the Jackson Trail at the Naval Live Oaks Area, the Trench Trail and the Woodland Trail at Fort Barrancas, and the Perdido Key Discovery Trail at Johnson Beach.
In Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Davis Bayou offers several short interpretive trails, including one that starts right at the Visitor Center.
With the exception of the Andrew Jackson Trail and a connected series of trails on the north side of Naval Live Oaks – which at an estimated 6 miles of trails, is long enough for a substantial day hike – all of the nature trails in Gulf Islands National Seashore are easy interpretive trails and many of them are accessible.
The Florida Trail at Gulf Islands National Seashore
The Florida Trail crosses Gulf Islands National Seashore east-west on Santa Rosa Island, providing one of the few places in America where you can walk a National Scenic Trail along the beach.
There are few blazes, but the entrance and exit points to the Santa Rosa Area and Fort Pickens segments have signage. Camping is not permitted along the beach, but hikers can arrange a tent site at Fort Pickens Campground with advance reservations.
At Fort Pickens, you’ll find the Northern Terminus of the statewide Florida Trail. A marker commemorates this along the Fort Pickens Trail, to the east of the fort itself.
Bicycling at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Cyclists are permitted to ride the entire length of the Florida Trail on Santa Rosa Island with the exception of the UWF/SRIA Dunes Preserve. Fortunately, the Pensacola Beach Bike Path starts right where that part of the trail diverges to Santa Rosa Sound.
At Davis Bayou in Mississippi, a paved bike path, the Live Oak Bicycle Route, connects the community of Ocean Springs with the National Park.
Paddling at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Paddlers have plenty of places to play at Gulf Islands National Seashore, since it is a National Park on the coast. The primary use of the Okaloosa Island Unit on Choctawhatchee Bay, in fact, is windsurfing.
At the Naval Live Oaks Unit, kayak launch points are provided both on Santa Rosa Sound near the Headquarters Building and on Pensacola Bay near the group campsite.
At Fort Pickens, look for a launch point into Pensacola Bay from the parking area adjoining Battery Worth. A boat ramp at Johnson Beach adjoins the Perdido Key Discovery Trail and serves as a launch.
For long distance paddlers, Fort Pickens is along Section 1 of of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, which starts to its west at Big Lagoon State Park across from Johnson Beach and involves a paddle across the open waters of Pensacola Bay
In Mississippi, Davis Bayou has a launch right by the visitor center at the fishing pier, and a boat launch farther along the park road.
Sea kayakers have the big advantage along this portion of the Gulf Coast, as they can paddle between all the barrier islands from Pascagoula to Gulfport, and camp on them. No facilities or water are provided.
Camping at Gulf Islands National Seashore
In Florida, Fort Pickens Campground is the only campground in Gulf Islands National Seashore. It has five loops containing 211 campsites. Loop B, with 13 sites, sits along the Florida Trail and is reserved for tent camping.
There are quite a few bathhouses scattered around the campground complex, which is large enough to get lost in. Most campers bring bicycles to get around. While some of the loop areas offer shaded spots, most sites are in the full sun.
Set in a coastal forest, Davis Bayou Campground in Mississippi has 52 sites, with three specifically reserved for tent camping. Electrical hookups, potable water, and a dump station are provided along with a bathhouse.
The only backcountry camping in the Florida units of Gulf Islands National Seashore is at the Naval Live Oaks Area. Scouting groups and other organized youth groups may reserve the group campsite, which provides access to Pensacola Bay for paddling and the Jackson Trail for hiking.
This is a tent camping site but you can drive within a close distance of it. Restrooms with flush toilets and a covered picnic shelter are provided. When the camping area is not in use, it is open to the public as a day use area off US 98.
Kayakers and boaters may camp on certain barrier islands within Gulf Islands National Seashore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. These include Horn Island, East Ship Island, Sand Island, and Petit Bois Island.
No permits or reservations required, but it’s smart to let the rangers know you are headed out there. These are wilderness areas. You are responsible for your well-being. There are no facilities, including no potable water. Pack out all trash.
See our photos of Gulf Islands National Seashore