Luckily, Bruce reserved a spot at Fort Pickens at the Gulf Islands National Seashore 6 months ahead. February is very busy and nearly impossible to find an RV campsite on short notice. We must have snagged a cancellation. Our two-week stay started out ominously. There was nearly zero visibility, torrential rain and wind as we made our way across Pensacola Bay and onto the unprotected Santa Rosa Island to the campground. The sun came out and dried up most of the pools of water by the next day, leaving only deep mud around the narrow RV sites. It was so humid that the mud didn’t dry up by the end of our stay 2 weeks later.
A year ago, we came to Fort Pickens but the National Seashore campsites were full so we stayed near Destin at Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park (click to see that post). This year, we had a completely different experience staying right there in the National Park campground. I love the safari walks along the trails and beaches with my long lens and mono-pod slung over my shoulder hoping to photograph wildlife. Getting my steps in this way is pure joy.
The Florida Trail (a national scenic trail) runs right through the campground and on over to Fort Pickens. Trails include a mixture of woodlands, freshwater ponds, wetlands, meadows, dunes and sandy beaches.
Nesting Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Herons and many other small busy birds are amazing to watch and hard to photograph but I never stopped trying. This unique combination of habitats brings in birds year round and is a busy stop over for migrating birds in season.
The National Seashore
The Gulf Islands National Seashore includes five areas. Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, Naval Live Oaks, Opal Beach, and Perdido Key. We focused on Fort Pickens after unsuccessful attempts to see a couple of the other areas. Our list of places for future visits just keeps growing.
Structures from the battery and armory surrounding Fort Pickens add interesting history and architecture which are accessible from the campground trails.
We didn’t spend as much time exploring the fort this time except for a black powder demonstration (click link IMG_0291). I enjoyed climbing on top of the sand-dune covered Langdon Battery. It has a view of the Pensacola Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other (click link IMG_0437 for a video).
Battery Worth is an interesting stop along the trail to the fort with it’s beautiful grass patterns growing on the black walls. Steep stairways lead to look-out stations with nice views.
This year, we tried to go to Fort Barrancas for the first time but that didn’t happen. The fort, lighthouse and museums there are located inside the Naval Air Station, Pensacola.
Upon arrival, we learned that the base was closed to all visitors except those accompanied by active military passholders (not even retired military were allowed). The rangers at Fort Pickens didn’t offer any information about the closures and the websites had inconsistent information. We were surprised to be turned around at the gate by a very serious MP.
Turns out, a the December shooting on base was determined an act of terror, which caused heightened restrictions for visitors.
Naval Live Oaks
Likewise, the only day we stopped to visit the Naval Live Oaks area was when the Visitor’s Center was closed. We figured the weekend would find the Visitor’s Center open, but we were wrong. The displays in the Visitor’s Center provide good, interactive exhibits that describe how live oak trees were used for ship building. We had been there the year before and hoped for a repeat visit while on an RV-parts errand. Not this time.
Fort Pickens Beaches
The spectacular white “sugar sand” that extends all along Santa Rosa Island is iconic. This is the squeaky, bright white quartz sand that doesn’t stick to your feet and blinds your eyes. National Seashore protection for this beach is part of the longest stretch of natural seashore in the USA. The Pensacola Bay side is calm and has very little wave action, while the Gulf side has some waves and whiter sand.
Shore birds abound on both sides and provide endless entertainment. Sanderlings are little daredevils as they follow the waves out, finding snacks in the wet sand before running full speed away from the waves as they return to shore. Busy groups challenge the composition and focus and they move so fast that it’s nearly impossible to focus on them for a photo. Willet are brave enough to wade into the deeper water but are also hard to capture in photographs. Snowy plovers resting in the seaweed are nearly impossible to see because when they are still, they blend in so well. I was surprised to see a Merganser and a Loon in the Bay one day, aren’t they a little far south?
Honestly, I didn’t research Perdido Key and Opal Beach much and in hindsight, I wish we had taken the time to check them out. We were perfectly content to sink in and experience the gorgeous Fort Pickens area completely.
National Park Service Limitations
These days, nothing about the hours in National Parks is logical and every Visitor’s Center follows their own guidelines and hours, so check carefully before visiting.
We have heard NPS employees and volunteers say that the web management has been cut back with the budgets. The closure and hours notations are inconsistent and must be researched carefully to find critical details. For example, the main page for Barrancas shows facilities are open but doesn’t mention that you have to get onto the base first. However, the individual page for the museum may alert to the base entry restrictions.
Aside from the security concern at Barrancas, we have been surprised more than ever in the last year and a half at the regular closures and restrictions during seemingly busy times. The trend of shortening hours for public access at so many National Parks or the Visitor’s Centers is truly disturbing. Budget cuts could mean It’s likely to get worse before it gets better – click for an article.