Fort Pickens is named after the American Revolutionary War hero Andrew Pickens. It was completed in 1834 and used until 1947. Since it’s part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, it’s a part of the National Park Service. That means we showed our “America the Beautiful” card and got in FREE! We love free! If you’re visiting parks, that pass is definitely the way to go. Noelle here, by the way.
After visiting my sister in Louisiana for Christmas, we drove along the Gulf Coast. First we traveled through Mississippi and Alabama and then into Florida’s panhandle. We’d hoped to go further into Florida but needed to turn back due to family obligations. Apparently, the panhandle is NOT where snowbirds flock in January. It was so dang cold that I dug out my long johns to go to the beach. How wrong is that?! I mean we almost always wear long johns to the beach in Oregon. But in Florida?? Come on!
A little Fort Pickens History
During our visit, the Fort Pickens Discovery Center remained closed due to Covid-19, but we still had a great time exploring on our own. The fort was designed and constructed to defend Pensacola Bay and the Pensacola Navy Yard & Depot from foreign attacks. The five-sided design could unleash a ring of fire on approaching vessels. This massive construction gave it a threatening look. And although it never actually received an attack from other countries, the fort did see battle during the Civil War. It housed 200 canons, which poked through windows and holes in the walls. I think I read that only one life was lost at the fort, when a canon accident occurred.
So the National Park’s website says Fort Pickens has all these cool things I’m copying/pasting below. However, only Langdon Beach and the campground remained open during our visit. Partly due to the season, partly due to Covid-19, I think.
Fort Pickens Discovery Center: Explore indoor exhibits on the natural environment, wildlife, and history of the Fort Pickens Area.
Fort Pickens Bookstore: Educational products and keepsakes to remember your visit to Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Langdon Beach: This swim beach features a picnic pavilion, restrooms, parking, and is lifeguarded during the summer months.
Battery Worth Picnic Pavilion: This sound-side pavilion offers shaded picnic tables, parking, and restrooms.
Mine Storeroom: This restored historic structure has exhibits and a snack bar.
Fort Pickens Campground: Learn more about the park’s largest campground on our developed campgrounds page.
Fort Pickens Fishing Pier: Located in the historic district near the discovery center, visit our fishing page to learn more.
A seasonal tram normally runs up and down the island throughout the day. This free service goes to Langdon Beach, the campground, the Ferry Plaza and to the Pensacola Boardwalk. We’re going to have to come for another visit during warmer weather in a non-pandemic year!
The Fort Pickens Campground
We stayed two nights at the RV Park and campground. It’s a basic campground with not a lot of shade trees. Mostly campgrounds seems like parking lots with a little grass to me. I’m not the hugest fan, as we’d rather be in the outback away from humanity. But I digress. There are 147 RV spots with electricity and water. A central dump station serves the whole campground. Seems like it’ll get fairly crowded trying to empty tanks in the summer, but we had zero wait time. There are also 40 non-electric tent sites and one group tent site.
The bathrooms and showers are clean enough. The shower water got hot and we didn’t have to pay for it. Nothing aggravates me more than paying to stay somewhere and then paying again to take a shower. So none of that at Fort Pickens. Free, hot showers make me happy.
Open Year Round
The campground is open and taking reservations year-round. The online system is super easy and you can reserve up to six months in advance. I believe the six month window may be a necessity, because even in the cold of January the sites filled up. We use the Recreation.gov phone app. It tells us where campgrounds are and then allows us to see photos of each site. We make our best choice, but it’s hard to know which site is best in any given campground.
So close to the beaches!
Fort Pickens campground, and the fort in general, are on the barrier island of Santa Rosa. The Gulf of Mexico is on one side and the Pensacola Bay on the other. It’s a tiny bit closer to walk to the bay side from the campground, but it’s only a 5 minute walk across to the Gulf side. There’s a seasonal concession stand at the campground’s entrance. And across the road is a boardwalk out to the Gulf.
there’s even a fishing pier
One neat thing is that visitors to Florida can use the fishing pier (when not Covid-closed) without a fishing license. We like to sit on piers and drink beer, so not having to buy a license is good. Steve says it’s perfectly acceptable to sit on a pier in the sunshine drinking beer for as long as you want…as long as you have a fishing pole in the water. Without the pole, you’re simply a creeper. I have to admit that his logic is sound. 🙂
Lots of Hiking Trails near Fort Pickens
The island is home to the Northern Terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail. It’s an approximately 1,500 mile trail system including the Eastern & Western Corridors and road connector/trail gaps. Most hikers start in the south in January and end in the north at Fort Pickens by April. This schedule keeps the hiker in the “dry” season.
We took the one-mile section of the Florida Trail from the campground to the fort for exploring. I’m not sure how the rest of the trail is, but this section is flat and easy. It goes through a marshy area which is home to quite a few birds. We enjoyed stopping to watch them as they stopped to watch us.
The town life and restaurant scene
Another nice thing about the location of the campground is that it’s at the quiet end of a bustling island. I felt surprised when we originally crossed the long bridge onto the island by the density of the restaurants, hotels and tourists shops. So literally, the campground is quiet and peaceful but also close to shopping, eating and nightlife if that’s what you’re into. We aren’t really, but some people are and that’s good too. Truthfully, when we were on a little island in Thailand last year, I wanted to go to the “Full Moon Party”. So we do enjoy the nightlife too. Unfortunately Covid cancelled the monthly party anyway, so there’s that.
I was going to add a link to my post about our couple weeks on the beach, but it looks like I never wrote it. So check out this fun Thailand experience instead!
Okay, so Fort Pickens is a great place to spend some time. I’d definitely like to get back to the Gulf Coast during warm weather and hope that it works out that we can. Have you been to the Gulf? Drop us a comment and tell us about your favorite location!