9/2020 UPDATE: Hurricane Sally has broken the east end of Perdido Key into three parts. While still protected as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, Johnson Beach now has much less access than it did when we visited.
Along a narrow and windswept peninsula, Johnson Beach at Perdido Key provides one of the finer places to enjoy an unsullied shoreline near Pensacola. With miles of beach access, you can find a spot of quiet to call your own.
Location: Perdido Key
Entrance: 30.299047, -87.418159
Address: 13233 Johnson Beach Rd, Pensacola
Fees: $10 pedestrian / cyclist, $20 vehicle (good for one week)
Restroom: at the main beach complex just inside the gate
Land manager: National Park service
Open 5 AM to sunset. Overnight parking not permitted. Pets and glass containers are not allowed on the beaches.
From Pensacola, follow SR 292 west around Pensacola Naval Air Station. After the traffic light at Gulf Beach Highway, SR 292 crosses the bridge onto Perdido Key. Turn left onto Johnson Beach Rd after a half mile. Continue to the park entrance gate.
Perdido Key Discovery Trail
Showcasing the habitat diversity of Perdido Key at Johnson Beach, the accessible Perdido Key Discovery Trail is a gentle boardwalk over wetlands, forests, and dunes
Pensacola’s deep bay was of intense interest to the United States Navy as soon as Florida became a U.S. territory.
Establishing the Navy Yard for shipbuilding and tapping the oaks of Gulf Breeze for materials, they also sought to defend it. Three forts were built to do so.
Two of these forts – Fort Barrancas, built around an old Spanish fort near the Navy Yard, and Fort Pickens, built at the tip of Santa Rosa Island – still stand today. But the third has been lost to time.
Fort McRee was the smallest of the three forts, but occupied a strategic point at the eastern tip of Perdido Key. To get to the Navy Yard, attackers would have to deal with cannon fire from two sides if they sailed into Pensacola Bay.
Because of the Navy Yard, Pensacola was considered both a high-risk location and a prize when Florida’s militia began to organize to support the growing Confederate cause in 1861.
Just hours before the first salvo of what would become the Civil War broke out in Charleston, South Carolina, the local militia had been fired upon while scouting Fort Barrancas.
Held by Federal troops who fought off an attack in October 1861 from the growing mass of Confederate troops in Pensacola, Fort Pickens began barraging the other two forts with cannon fire.
With the help of two Union gunboats, they destroyed the brick walls of Fort McRee on November 22. Two months later, a lucky shot exploded the fort’s powder magazine. The Confederates finally abandoned the fort in May 1862.
Time and tides took their toll, and what is left of the original fortress, built on the shifting sands of Fosters Bank, is now well under the bay.
Other coastal defense structures still stand near the tip of the island in the dunes, but the original Fort McCree is no more.
Many years after the Civil War ended, local and state government in Florida enacted what were known as “Jim Crow” laws to limit the free movement of freed slaves and their descendants.
This oceanfront on Perdido Key was one of the few recreation areas in Pensacola open to African Americans that era of segregation.
After his death in 1950, the beach was named for the first local resident to be killed during the Korean War, U.S. Army private Rosamond Johnson.
Since 1973, Johnson Beach has been a part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Entering through the main gate, you are on Johnson Beach Rd. The first intersection is the only decision point within the park. To the right is the sweep of the original Rosamond Johnson Jr. Beach.
The only large parking area in the park adjoins Johnson Beach. A long pavilion separates the parking area from the oceanfront. It’s here you’ll find the only restrooms provided at this park.
Beach wheelchairs are available for visitor use. Ask at the ranger station. Mats are placed across the beach sand for wheelchair access.
One end of the Perdido Key Discovery Trail starts across the road junction just north of the parking area. It is a fully accessible boardwalk.
Making a left at that junction leads you down the road past one end of the Perdido Key Discovery Trail to the other end of it. Watch for hikers and cyclists along this short stretch of road.
The road ends at Big Lagoon at a small turnaround area with limited parking on the edges. A short boat ramp and a kayak launch provides access to the lagoon. There is a picnic table set under a tree in a breezy spot.
Johnson Beach Rd
The main road leading out to the end of the island straight ahead at the first junction is Johnson Beach Rd. On older maps it also appears as Fort McRae Rd.
Speed limits are understandably slow along it, and you’ll discover drifts of sand across the road in places. Parking pulloffs are obvious from use. Roadside parking is permitted except where posted.
Mind the “No Parking” signs, especially at the turnaround. Some are placed specifically because the sand is very soft.
Access trails over the dunes lead to wide open beaches on the Gulf of Mexico as well as more slender beaches on Big Lagoon. You can see the observation deck at Big Lagoon State Park to the north.
No facilities are provided along Johnson Beach Rd beyond the main beach at Johnson Beach.
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Big Lagoon State Park
At Big Lagoon State Park, enjoy exploring the sweep of coastal forest and wetlands along one of Florida’s largest lagoons
Gulf State Park
Stretching west from the tip of Perdido Key, Gulf State Park encompasses more than 6,000 acres of natural habitats on barrier islands between Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Perdido Key State Park
With sand as white as fresh fallen snow, Perdido Key State Park offers Florida’s westernmost public beach
Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park
Conserving a vast swath of wetland habitats in low-lying areas along the Perdido River floodplain, Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park is home to four species of Sarracenia – pitcher plants – unique to the Gulf Coast.