You may choose to visit Pensacola Beach for its beautiful beaches and sunny skies. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover a storied past. Much of the city’s richest history lies at the far western point of Santa Rosa Island, in the bricked arches and winding tunnels of Fort Pickens.
So tear yourself away from the pool at your beachfront hotel, and go west, my friend. Head straight into Gulf Island National Seashore to delight in mile after mile of pristine white sand dunes – the Gulf of Mexico to your left, and the Santa Rosa Sound to your right.
When the road ends, you’ll find Fort Pickens. Let the exploration begin.
Fort Pickens was the largest of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay. Construction began in 1829 and was completed in 1834. It’s an important Civil War site and notorious in that it was occupied by Union troops. In fact, it’s one of only four forts in the South that was never occupied by Confederate troops. Fort Pickens also gained notoriety for imprisoning the Apache leader, Geronimo.
The fort is open daily from 7:00 am until sunset. Its Visitor Center and Museum are open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. During the summer season, park rangers lead tours, including themed speciality tours such as full moon walks, stargazing and candlelit adventures. A comprehensive self-guided tour is also available. All are free of charge.
Fort Pickens is especially beautiful at sunset, with vistas of the Gulf of Mexico as the perfect backdrop for photos. The old brick arches inside the fort make for a fantastic photo op any time of day. You will revel in imagining how the soldiers went about their daily lives in this architectural wonder.
Nature lovers can find more than enough to fill a day in the Gulf Islands National Seashore surrounding the fort. Keep an eye out for wildlife such as rabbits, red foxes, birds and other local creatures as you explore the nature trails. Bring your beach gear, too, because the area boasts miles of wild, uncrowded beaches.
Fort Pickens also sports some of the best local fishing holes. Locals ‘in the know’ cast their lines off the main pier, the new observation pier or ‘The Point’. Located at the far tip of the island, ‘The Point’ is a bit of a walk, but is worth the trip for both fishing and photography.
Gulf Islands National Seashore is also a wonderful place for camping, either in a tent or recreational vehicle, walking distance from the water. Its 200 sites range in length from 16 ft. for tent sites to 50 ft. for larger RVs. All have water, electricity, grills or fire rings and picnic tables – with nearby restrooms and dump stations.
Entry to the park is a mere $8 per carload. Your pass is good for all Gulf Island National Seashore entries and lasts a week. Before you explore the fort itself, explore the Fort Pickens website for more information.