Exploring the Florida District of Gulf Islands National Seashore

Looking for dose of history with your powdery white sandy beaches? Then look no further than the Florida unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola.

With coastal fortifications dating back to when Florida was a Spanish Colony all the way to World War II, there’s tons for history buffs to get excited about. For those looking to enjoy nature, the Naval Live Oaks Area preserves the first “national forest.”

And then there’s the beach…miles of power white sand for sun worshippers to enjoy.

Gulf Islands National Seashore is known for its powder white sand beaches/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

Visiting Gulf Islands National Seashore’s Florida District

There are four areas of Gulf Islands National Seashore to visit in Pensacola: Fort Barrancas, Naval Live Oaks Area, Santa Rosa Island, and Perdido Key. 

Santa Rosa Island is home to some of the prettiest beaches we have ever seen; it’s also home to Pensacola Beach and a lot of development. The contrast of being able to turn one way to enjoy a relatively untouched barrier island or turn the other way to beachfront high rises is staggering. 

Santa Rosa Island is also home to Fort Pickens, a coastal defense fort overlooking Pensacola Bay and defending the naval yards. The fort was built following the War of 1812, and is one of the few forts that remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War. 

Battery 234 was a coastal artillery emplacement during World War II designed to protect Pensacola Bay from attack/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

The fort remained in use through 1947 and the island remains home to several World War II coastal artillery batteries designed to protect the harbor from German U-Boats. 

Across from Santa Rosa Island is Perdido Key, which has another section of gorgeous beach and the remains of Fort McRee.

Just across Santa Rosa Sound is the Naval Life Oaks Area. This area preserves the first “national forest,” which was set aside to provide lumber for building warships. Live oak proved to be denser and far more resilient than English oak and was very effective at defeating cannonballs. The USS Constitution got its nickname “Old Ironsides” due to how well the live oak protected the ship from British fire during the War of 1812. 

The Naval Life Oaks area provides a great place to get out on the trail and out of the sun/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

There’s nearly eight miles of shaded trails through the old forest and along the sound and Pensacola Bay to explore, offering a welcome respite from the sun and crowds.

The Fort Barrancas Area is located on NAS Pensacola, an active military installation. While the base is used to visitors and set up to accept them, it does bear mentioning the Navy does restrict where you can go and what you bring on the base.

Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt preserve a fortification going back all the way when Florida was a Spanish colony. The hilltop fort connects to a “Spanish water fort” designed to protect Pensacola Bay from enemy ships. 

The fortifications at Fort Barrancas date back to colonial Spain. The whitewashed brick is the old Spanish Water Fort and was designed to have artillery right at the waterline to destroy ships threatening Pensacola Bay/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

You can also visit the National Naval Aviation Museum and watch the Blue Angels practice. Be sure to check their schedule to see if they will be in town when you are there.

Final Thoughts on Gulf Island National Seashore’s Florida Division

Seriously, this place is great. We visited in November and had a blast even though it was cool. We also recommend checking out the campground. We haven’t stayed there yet, but with water and electric connections, we can certainly see making a point to stay there in our camper. 

For more on our visit to Gulf Islands National Seashore and several NPS sites in Alabama, check out our article here.

Header photo: Fort Barrancas/courtesy of NPS

Grant and Bonnie Sinclair are the founders of the travel blog, Our Wander-Filled Life. Both Georgia natives, they’ve lived in the Southeast their entire lives, and currently reside in Woodstock, Georgia, where they both work as high school teachers. When school is out, they hit the road to explore and learn more about the country through its national parks.


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