Artist and conservationist Robert Wyland once said, “The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination, and brings eternal joy to the soul.” And that’s what draws millions of visitors each year to the Gulf Islands National Seashore -- the crashing turquoise ocean, the most beautiful white beaches you will find anywhere, incredible flora and fauna, and fertile marshes. Add to that a good dose of history and lots of outdoor recreational activities and you have the perfect vacation getaway.
Established by Congress in 1971 and managed by the National Park Service (NPS), the Gulf Islands National Seashore is a 160-mile stretch of Gulf Coast barrier islands from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, to Cat Island, Mississippi. The islands help protect the mainland from erosion caused by the Gulf’s ferocious hurricanes and tropical storms while at the same time providing you with incredible adventure.
Along the islands, the park service has established a series of 12 sites for you to explore:
- Cat Island
- Davis Bayou Area
- Horn Island
- Petit Bois Island
- West Petit Bois Island
- Ship Island
- Naval Live Oaks
- Fort Barrancas
- Fort Pickens
- Perdido Key Area
- Santa Rosa Area
Getting Back To Nature
Gulf Islands National Seashore is a bird watcher’s paradise with over 300 species of birds found here. On the beaches, Black Skimmers and Brown Pelicans sail only inches above the ocean surf, searching for their next meal while Snowy and Piping Plover scurry along the water’s edge. Inland in the woodlands and marshes, the sound of Killdeer shrieking “kill deer” can be heard from the brush while bald eagles and osprey soar high overhead.
The islands’ beaches play host to many species of animals like the ghost crab that camouflages itself into the sand and hermit crabs that scurry about carrying their homes on their back. And of the six known species of sea turtles, six return each year to nest on the island’s sunny shores, including the loggerhead, green, Kemp’s, leatherback, and hawk bill.
In the marshes and wetlands, monarch butterflies burst into color using the islands as a landing strip of their 3,000-mile migration and alligators roam in the marsh waters.
Travel Back In Time
The barrier islands that protect the mainland were also used to protect the country from foreign invasion. Following the War of 1812, in which British forces attempted to reclaim the U.S. Gulf Coast, the federal government began erecting what are known as Third System Forts. These massive stone structures with 4-foot-thick and 20-foot-tall walls were virtually impenetrable and armed to the hilt with canons aimed toward the Gulf. Later, these forts were taken over by the Confederate army during the Civil War, where they saw some fierce battles.
Fort Barrancas is located on Naval Air Station Pensacola, and the U.S. Navy determines access. Fort Pickens is an incredible 11-mile drive down the island on Pickens Road with the blue waters of the Gulf and Pensacola Bay on each side of the highway. Fort Massachusetts is located 12 miles off the Mississippi coast on Ship Island and is only accessible by boat -- either your own private boat or by taking the 1-hour cruise on the Ship Island Ferry.
In addition to the forts, you can hike one of the 7.5 miles of easy walking trails at the Naval Live Oaks Nature Preserve that were once used by Andrew Jackson and his troops in the War of 1812. This is also where the live oaks, one of the hardest woods, were used to build the interior hulls of naval warships, including the USS Constitution.
Go Take A Hike (In A Good Way)
Speaking of hiking, you have many options to explore the islands on foot. In Mississippi, enjoy views of the wildlife and the dark and mysterious Davis Bayou at the park of the same name on the easy 0.5-mile-long Nature Trail or 0.25-mile CCC Spur Trail. Or hike and explore the narrow sand Horn and Petit Bois islands (the latter are only accessible by boat.
In Florida, in addition to the trails at Naval Live Oaks mentioned earlier, you can visit salt marshes on the 0.25-mile Perdido Key Discovery Trail, the sand pines of the Woodland Nature Trail at Fort Barrancas, and hike 7.5 miles of the 1,500-mile-long Florida Trail at Fort Pickens or 7 miles of the trail along the beach in Santa Rosa County.
We’re talking about the Gulf of Mexico, friends, with an abundance of water-related fun waiting for you in its blue-green waters. Of course, you will have plenty of opportunities to swim in the Gulf, but there is much more.
Fishing is one of the most popular sports at Gulf Islands National Seashore -- shore fishing, pier fishing, deep-sea fishing, crabbing, it’s all waiting for you. A saltwater fishing license is required except for the Davis Bayou area, where you will need a freshwater permit. Visit the seashore’s fishing rules and regulations for more information.
Scuba divers will love diving the islands in Florida at the jetties of the Fort Pickens seawall, the wreck of the tugboat Sport, and the battleship USS Massachusetts. Be sure to visit the National Park Service rules and regulations page before diving.
For something a little less adventurous but still exciting, you will love snorkeling the Gulf’s clear waters just offshore to experience a tremendous variety of fish.
There are no lifeguards at the beaches, so swimming is at your own risk. And pay attention to warnings about weather and dangerous rip currents.
Getting Lost In The Stars
One of the missions of the National Park Service is to protect natural darkness, also known as Dark Night Skies. It’s good for animals and good for your soul.
At Gulf Islands National Seashore, you have a chance to experience the heavens like never before -- in pure, dark night skies. Whether you use binoculars or just lie back on the beach and gaze upward into the myriad of stars and the Milky Way, it’s a breathtaking experience you will never forget.
Spending The Night Camping Under The Stars
Gulf Islands National Seashore offers up great year-round camping experiences and two totally unique backcountry camping options.
We’ve all heard of car camping where you drive to a campground at a state park and pitch your tent. How about Boat-In Camping? Boat-In Camping is just that -- sail your boat 10 miles off the coast of Mississippi to pitch camp on the beautiful white beaches of Horn, Petit Bois, or West Petit Bois Islands or Fort Pickens in Florida. There is no fee or permit required for boat-in camping, but there are strict guidelines you must follow to protect the fragile islands.
And there is hike-in camping at the Perdido Key, Florida area, where you pack in all you need to spend the night on one of the country’s most beautiful beaches. Unfortunately, careless hikers have forced the National Park Service to temporarily suspend hike-in camping at Perdido Key, but hopefully, they will reopen this unique hiking and camping experience soon.
For more conventional camping options, the islands are bookended by two developed campgrounds. To the west, there is the Davis Bayou Campground located on Park Road in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The campground has 52 improved campsites with electricity and water and three tent-only campsites. The campground is outfitted with clean bathhouses, and all sites have picnic tables and fire rings. While amenities are limited, Davis Bayou is the perfect spot for a quiet and peaceful camping experience. Reservations are required and can be made on the Recreation.Gov website, where you can also find the latest fee information.
To the east, you will find the most popular of the seashore’s campgrounds at Fort Pickens on Pickens Road in Pensacola Beach, Florida. Pickens has 185 campsites spread out over five camp loops, with 169 of the sites having electricity and water and 16 tent-only sites.
The most popular sites are in loop A where there is plenty of shade provided by sprawling live oaks and access to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. This loop also features the short Nature Trail, an interpretive trail with signage pointing out the interesting trees and animals found here. The trail connects to the famous 1,500-mile long Florida Trail that takes you directly to historic Fort Pickens.
The remaining sites at Fort Pickens have limited shade, so be prepared if you camp there in the hot summer months. All the loops have beach access points, fire grills, and picnic tables. Reservations are required. Just visit the Recreation.Gov website for fees and to reserve your spot but do so well in advance. These sites go fast.
Both campgrounds at Davis Bayou and Fort Pickens are open and staffed 24/7.
There are entrance fees charged at Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, Okaloosa, Perdido Key, and Santa Rosa areas. Find the latest entrance fee and pre-pay your admission on the NPS website. NPS passes are also accepted.
Many of the sites at the Gulf Islands National Seashore have ranger-led nature and history tours. Visit their online calendar for dates and event details.
The only drawback to an otherwise perfect visit to the seashore can be the weather. This stretch of the northern Gulf Coast is prone to hurricanes and tropical storms as well as sudden and severe thunderstorms in the summer. Keep tabs on the forecast and follow local warnings and advisories through the National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center, and NPS weather page. Also, in the summer, the heat can be brutal. Be prepared by drinking plenty of water and wear a hat and sunscreen.
Sites can be closed at a moment’s notice for a variety of reasons. Keep up with what roads and facilities are closed on the Gulf Islands National Seashore website.
Pets are not allowed on the beaches or inside visitor centers. In other areas, your pet must be leashed.
At Fort Pickens, whether you arrive by the Pensacola Bay Cruise ferry or in your own car, the park offers a free tram service to take you to all of the historic locations along the island. The tram arrives at each location every 15 to 20 minutes and runs from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.