Home » National Monuments Memorials & Preserves » Remarkable Fort Pickens: A Gulf Islands National Seashore Treasure

Fort Pickens has been on our Florida bucket list for a while and we were excited to add this stop as part of our Texas road-trip. This fort is one of the most remarkable historical treasures in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. It is at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, Florida. Engineers built it in the 1830s. Today there is no doubt that Fort Pickens is a prominent tourist attraction just by the sheer number of visitors it attracts yearly. This landmark’s historical significance is open to the public year-round, and guided tours, exhibits, and interpretive programs provide visitors with a glimpse into its history. For us, every camping trip is about exploring new destinations. At Christmas, we visited the Gulf Islands National Seashore to learn about the extraordinary legacy of Fort Pickens. Come explore this remarkable landmark with us.

Waves crashing along Santa Rosa Island shoreline
Waves crashing along Santa Rosa Island shoreline

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Fort Pickens: A Gulf Islands National Seashore Treasure: How to Get There

You can get to Fort Pickens in a few different ways. To get to the fort, take Highway 98 south to the Pensacola Beach toll booth. Follow the signs to Fort Pickens by turning left onto Fort Pickens Road. We stayed in Loop A of the campground.

A scenic option to visit Santa Rosa Island is to take a ride on the Pensacola Bay City Ferry. A relaxing yet unique way to arrive at Fort Pickens and enjoy spectacular views of the bay. The ferry also does optional ranger narrated cruises and sunset tours. Additionally, pleasure boaters can access the fort by boat from Pensacola Bay. There is a boat ramp near the fort’s entrance.

Fort Pickens Map Location (Source: National Park Service)

Eco-friendly visitors can also access the fort by biking or walking along the multi-use path that runs along Santa Rosa Island. A short trail from the campground gave us easy access to the park. The Pensacola Beach Trolley operates between Pensacola Beach and the city of Pensacola during summer, May through September. The Fort Pickens trolley runs on Saturdays,in conjunction with the ferry, making stops at several locations in and around the fort. Day visitors will find ample parking in the many lots close to the fort. Once at the fort, visitors can park in the designated parking areas during daylight hours to explore the area on foot.

Note: Sometimes delays and cancellations are caused by weather conditions and/or other extreme, unpredictable and unavoidable circumstances. 

Person standing in front of the Gulf Islands National Seashore park sign at Fort Pickens

Construction of Fort Pickens: A Fortress of History and Ingenuity

Fort Pickens Built in 1834

Like previous forts we have visited, such as Fort Clinch, Fort Pulaski and Fort Jefferson, Fort Pickens is part of the United States’ coastal defense system. These fort’s Third System of Fortifications were designed to defend the United States against coastal attacks. It surprised me with the immensity, as Fort Pickens is quite large. Apparently, this formidable brick fortress is one of the biggest in the system. The walls are 40 feet high and 12 feet thick and used 21.5 million bricks. It took 5 years to complete, that’s pretty impressive.

Quote from J. Earle Bowden

Fort Pickens: A Strategic Bastion During the American Civil War

Along with Fort Barrancas and Fort McRae, Fort Pickens played a pivotal role in the American Civil War. Understanding the relevance helped us appreciate the role it played during the conflict. Its strategic significance stemmed from its commanding position guarding Pensacola Bay, a vital port city and naval base. Blockading the harbor strangled the opposing forces. In 1861, Confederate forces attempted to capture the fort, but they were unsuccessful. The fort remained under possession of the Union forces for the rest of the war,

Bastion D Exploded side of Fort Pickens
Bastion D Exploded side of Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens Parade Ground Cannon
Fort Pickens Parade Ground Cannon

General Information to know before you go to Fort Pickens in Gulf Islands National Seashore

view from Bastion Tower to the Discovery Center Fort Pickens
view from Bastion Tower to the Discovery Center Fort Pickens

Fort Pickens Road is a loop road that encompasses the main fort, discovery center, piers and batteries. Numerous pull-offs and parking areas helped us to access the buildings. We opted to begin with the main fort, working our way back towards the campground-loop A.

Fort Pickens Discovery Center Exhibit on Shorebirds
Fort Pickens Discovery Center Exhibit

Dive into Fort Pickens History at the Discovery Center

The center has a few different exhibits on the history of Fort Pickens and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. This is where we found our information on a self-guided tour of the fort and got our National Park Passport stamps. We took time to watch “A Fort Pickens Tour,” a 15-minute film that provides a comprehensive overview of the fort’s history. The 2nd film, “Stories of Survival” is a 25-minute documentary explores the natural history and cultural heritage of the entire Gulf Islands National Seashore. For the kids, they can earn a Junior Ranger badge by completing activities that teach them about the park’s history, nature, and culture. Attend a ranger led talk learn about different topics related to the park’s history and natural resources. The Fort Pickens Visitor Center is open daily from 9 AM to 4:30 PM, except when closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

  • Casements at Fort Pickens appear as a tunnel
  • Reverse Double Arch Supports Fort Pickens

Uncover Fort Pickens’ Secrets: Embark on a Self-Guided Adventure 

Women standing against the 15 inch Rodman Cannon-Fort Pickens Gulf Islands NS
West Bastion of Old Fort Pickens with Mounted 15-inch Rodman Cannon

The area also includes the Discovery Center, administration buildings, wharf area and maintenance facilities. The wharf area includes a fishing pier, ferry pier, jetty, snack bar, and the mine loading and storage buildings. The snack bar/ferry building has a few exhibits detailing how the mines were laid out in the harbor. A bottle refile station sits just outside.

  • Map of Fort Pickens Area
  • Civil War era mines used to protect the harbor
  • Mine Loading Building Fort Pickens Gulf Islands NS
  • Pelicans on the Fishing Pier Fort pickens
  • Water Bottle Refill Station Fort Pickens
  • Ferry Service-Mine Storage Exhibit-Snack Bar-Fort Pickens

Beyond the Brick Walls: Discovering the Pre-Endicott Era at Fort Pickens National Seashore

Pre-Endicott Batteries (Brick Era 1895-1899):

  • Battery Cullum-Sevier (Currently closed to the public) Surrounded by chain-link fencing, we peeked at the deteriorating remains of this battery. Each had two 10-inch disappearing rifle batteries located on the upper deck. Named after Brigadier General George W. Cullum. In 1916, it was split into two batteries. John Sevier, Tennessee’s first governor, was the inspiration for Battery Sevier. In 1942, the guns were taken out.
  • Battery Worth (1899): It had four 8-inch rifles, but later upgraded to two 6-inch disappearing guns. Armed with two 32-pounder mortars, this battery played a crucial role in the Civil War siege. In later years, it became a harbor entrance control post.
  • Battery Pensacola: Built within the confines of the original Fort Pickens, it featured four 8-inch guns and served as the fort’s main armament during the early 19th century.
  • Battery Swearingen (currently closed to the public): Built to protect the fort during the war with the Spanish in 1898. It featured two-gun emplacements (4.7 inch). It also stored munitions. It is showings signs of deterioration, and the park is working to preserve the battery. In many of the batteries, it was easy to see how water seepage has impacted the reinforced concrete walls. This battery was deactivated in 1921.
  • Endicott Era-Battery Pensacola Fort Pickens
  • Battery Pensacola Fort Pickens

Silent Sentinels 1898-1905 the threat of Minesweeper & Torpedo boats

  • Batteries Payne (1904): Looking over the top, we could envision how this battery was used as a harbor defense command post. Hidden in a sand bunker, it was invisible from the beach.
  • Battery Trueman (1905): combined with battery Payne, this battery provided a 360-degree line of fire protecting the bayside inlet. It also was used to store munitions. To us, the eerie black painted doors gave the appearance of prison cells.
  • Seawall: In 1906, after a hurricane inflicted severe damage to the fort, construction was completed on a concrete seawall. Over a two-year period, the 11 feet high wall was completed. Standing atop the 5 feet wide protective wall, it was easy to see why this structure has withstood the test of time. The well-constructed base of 13 feet continues to protect this low-lying barrier island. Dunes and sea grasses have built up the beach protecting the inlet.
Man looking over the seawall Fort Pickens

Walking through these batteries, I closed my eyes, and the whispers became clearer–stories of bravery, boredom, and longing for home. They spoke of men who stared death in the face, young boys yearning for mothers’ kisses, and the quiet resilience of the human spirit. There is unimaginable history here.

We made a quick stop to see the Chasefield Plantation gravestone Cemetary. Although the original plantation was located across the bay at the what is now the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the tombstones were relocated here in 1957. However, it is unknown whether the skeletal remains were moved?

View of the sentry spotters platform at the top of Battery Cullen
Lone Sentry Platform Battery Cullen

Concrete Giants: Standing in the Shadow of Fort Pickens’ Endicott Guns

Walking the sugary sand beaches at Fort Pickens, we never imagined the sheer number of batteries built to sustain and protect the bay. Hidden behind many of the dunes are hulking concrete behemoths. These are the Endicott Batteries, testaments to a bygone era of coastal defense. As we approach the first battery, we notice plants sprouting from cracks and crevices, a testament to nature’s resilience. The Endicott Batteries were a series of modern batteries built in the late 19th century to defend against the threat of new weapons technology. Only three of the original Endicott batteries remained active during the World War II timeframe.

ominous black painted Battery Worth remnants
 Harbor Entrance Control Post and Harbor Defense Command Post (HECP/HDCP) atop Battery Worth
  • Battery 234: a seagull crying its lonely song is all we heard we approached this battery. Built in 1943, it is significant, as it featured two 6-inch guns on disappearing carriages (placed here by NPS 1976). Strategically disguised as a low hill for camouflage.
  • Battery Cooper (1905–1906): perfectly hidden in the dunes. This battery appears quite ominous, painted entirely black. It housed two 6-inch guns and remains well-preserved for visitors. A battery Commander Station is present on the adjacent hillside. It would be nice if the command station was open to the public. We speculated on what was hidden behind the door.
  • Spotting Tower: Across the street from Battery 234 is a dismantled radar site tower. Damaged during hurricane Ivan, it lies as a stark reminder of the threat of invasion.
  • The Vanishing Guns of Fort Pickens
  • Battery Worth Guns Fort Pickens Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • View of Battery Cooper Fort Pickens
  • Command Post Doors Battery Cooper
  • Interior of 6-inch gun Battery 234
  • Spotting Tower Fort Pickens

Battery Langdon: A Camouflaged Giant Hidden in Plain Sight

Initially, construction began in 1917. It is the heaviest gun battery at Fort Pickens. It housed two massive 12-inch long guns in open positions, typical of pre-Endicott era batteries. Faced with evolving threats, it underwent a significant transformation during World War II. Today, Battery Langdon is completely hidden in a concrete bunker covered with thick layers of earth and vegetation. The structure is effectively camouflaged from enemy aircraft. This was Sage’s favorite climb in the park. The panorama at the top was breathtaking. On one side, we could see the raging emerald, green gulf waters, while the bay side only had slapping waves against white sugary sand beach. There is no denying how perfect this impressive setting is on this barrier island. Here, under a sky painted with low gray clouds, history wasn’t just words on a page; it was the salt on my skin, the echo in the wind.

  • Man with Dog in front of the entrance to Battery Langdon Fort Pickens
  • Langson Beach Fort Pickens with rough surf
  • Pensacola Dog Beach mand and German Shepherd

Note: Sand spurs are prevalent on the trail, so we highly recommended dog booties for your furry friend.

Beautiful beaches surround Fort Pickens. Its beaches are known for their white sand and clear blue waters, making it a pretty spot. From the top of the hillside, we had beautiful views of Langdon Beach. Although it is known for its soft sand and calm waters, today is the exception. Usually it’s a popular spot for swimming and sunbathing. The offshore system has churned up the waves making it not an ideal beach day.

man, and his dog on the boardwalk bridge-Blackbird Trail - Fort Pickens Campground
Blackbird Trail Boardwalk over the marsh

Hike the Blackbird Marsh Trail Gulf Islands National Seashore

The Blackbird Marsh Trail is a 1.5-mile loop. Close to our campsite, we walked this well-maintained, easy to follow trail every morning with the dog. It is mostly flat, with a few gentle hills. The trail is also shaded for most of its length, making it a great hike for hot days. The trail will lead you through a marsh, where you can see a variety of wetland birds, such as herons, egrets, and ibis. As we hiked along the trail, it meanders through a scrub forest. Here we could see a variety of trees, including oak, magnolia, and cypress. The trail eventually emerges from the marsh and intersects the Florida National Scenic Trail.

Trails Fort Pickens Bayside with man and his dog
Dog Friendly Trails Fort Pickens

There are several hiking trails on Santa Rosa Island, including the Fort Pickens Nature Trail, which is a 0.9-mile loop trail that takes visitors through the dunes and coastal forest. The trail features interpretive signs that teach on the importance of dunes and how they protect the coastline. Dunes are vital in reducing erosion and storm damage, and they provide habitat for a variety of wildlife.

Note: Wear comfortable shoes, and bring water and sunscreen, especially if you’re visiting during the summer months.

Florida National Scenic Trail portion showing the boardwalk bridges.
Florida National Scenic Trail

Beyond the Beach: Discovering the Diverse Trails of Fort Pickens Gulf Islands

The Florida National Scenic Trail passes through the park. There’s a section of the trail that starts right by the fort, called the Fort Pickens Trailhead. From there, we moved east towards Perdido Key. No matter how long you hike, you are sure to see plenty of wildlife, including cottontails, migratory wading birds, and, if you are lucky, sea turtles. It’s a beautiful place to get some exercise and enjoy the great outdoors.

Beachside Trail 15 boardwalk with man

Note: Watch Wildlife. Santa Rosa Island is home to a variety of wildlife species, including sea turtles, dolphins, and shorebirds. Visitors can watch these animals in their natural habitats.

There is also the Opal Beach Trail, which is a 1.4-mile round-trip trail that leads to a secluded beach on the Gulf of Mexico. As we hike, we enjoyed breathtaking views of the Gulf of Mexico.

Sea oats on a Pensacola beach blow in the wind

Remember:

  • Pack sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water to stay hydrated under the Florida sun. A water bottle refill station is near the Discovery Center.
  • Wear comfortable shoes suitable for hiking and exploring uneven terrain.
  • Be mindful of the delicate coastal ecosystem and practice responsible tourism.
  • Leave no trace and respect the historical significance of this national park.
Brown Pelicans Gulf Islands National Seashore
Brown Pelicans Gulf Islands National Seashore

Discovering Adventures: Things to Do at Fort Pickens, Santa Rosa Island

Gulf Islands National Seashore is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Over 300 bird species have been spotted by park rangers and volunteers. In the early morning walking the dog, we listen to the melodious calls of catbirds, warblers and cardinals. Brown Pelicans are my favorite. As their wings barely miss the cresting waves, their graceful movements have always fascinated me. On the fishing pier and shoreline, I managed to get some great photos of feathered birds.

Brown Pelican on the Fishing Pier at Fort Pickens Gulf Islands National Seashore

Although we never had an opportunity to paddle among the dunes, renting a kayak or paddleboard here is a fun way to get out on the water. On the bayside, you can paddle through hidden coves where the waterways are more serene. On occasion, you can spot playful dolphins and experience the unique coastal ecosystem from a different perspective.

Sunrise over the white sands of Fort Pickens

Hit the beach and unwind on the pristine white sands. During our trip, it was gray, dismal skies with intermittent rain, but that did not stop us from feeling the soft sand between our toes. The high winds made the turquoise waters a bonus for surfers. On clear sunny days, kids can build sandcastles, collect seashells, or simply soak up the sun – the possibilities are endless.

Campground travel trailer Loop A in Fort Pickens

Places to Stay: Gulf Islands National Seashore on Pensecola Beach

While there are no accommodations within the fort itself, there are several options for visitors looking to stay nearby. Here are some of the best places to stay near Fort Pickens:

  1. RV and Camping: Fort Pickens offers camping and RV sites for visitors. The campground is near the fort and features electricity and water at many sites. I made our reservations online well in advance through Recreation.gov. Site 22 was close to the trails, showers, and restrooms.
  2. Pensacola Beach: There are several hotels and vacation rentals on Pensacola Beach, which is a short drive from Fort Pickens. The beach offers a variety of options, from luxury resorts to budget-friendly hotels and vacation rentals.
  3. Gulf Breeze: Gulf Breeze is a small town located just across the bridge from Pensacola Beach. There are several hotels and vacation rentals in Gulf Breeze, offering a quieter alternative to the busier beach area.
  4. Downtown Pensacola: The city of Pensacola is about 15 miles from Fort Pickens. Downtown Pensacola offers a variety of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and vacation rentals, as well as a lively restaurant and nightlife scene.

Overall, there are plenty of options for visitors looking to stay near Fort Pickens, from camping and RV sites to beach resorts and city hotels.

peeking out the window embrasures of Fort pickens

Best Places to Eat: Gulf Islands National Seashore on Pensecola Beach

There are plenty of options for seafood lovers near Fort Pickens, from upscale restaurants to casual beach bars.

  1. The Fish House: Located in downtown Pensacola, The Fish House is known for its fresh seafood and waterfront views. The menu features a variety of dishes, including oysters, fish tacos, and seafood platters.
  2. Peg Leg Pete’s: Peg Leg Pete’s is a prominent seafood restaurant on Pensacola Beach. We enjoyed the fresh seafood dishes, not to mention the drinks. There is also a bar and live music on weekends.
  3. Flounder’s Chowder House serves a variety of dishes, including chowder, crab cakes, and fish sandwiches. There is also a bar and live music on weekends.
  4. Casino Beach Bar & Grill provides a variety of casual dishes, including burgers, sandwiches, and salads. There is also a bar and live music on weekends.
  5. Crabs We Got ‘Em is a local hangout near the beach that serves fresh seafood dishes. The menu also includes burgers, sandwiches, and salads. There is also a bar and live music on weekends.
Santa Rosa Beach Sunset
Santa Rosa Beach Sunset

Final Thoughts on Remarkable Fort Pickens: A Gulf Islands National Seashore Treasure

This park was just the beginning of our adventures on our Texas and New Mexico Road trip. As the sun dipped below the horizon, painting the sky in fiery hues, I knew it was time to leave. But Fort Pickens had cast its spell. It wasn’t just a pile of bricks anymore; it was a living, breathing testament to the past, a silent chorus of echoes whispering in the wind.

So, whether you’re a history buff, a beach bum, or simply curious about the hidden corners of our world, I urge you to take a casual walk through the shadows of Fort Pickens Gulf Islands National Seashore. You might just be surprised by the stories you find waiting to be discovered.

Have you visited the Gulf Islands National Seashore? Are you interested in the history of Fort Pickens? Share your favorite memory of the park in the comments below.