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Designated as a national seashore by the U.S. National Park Service, the Gulf Islands National Seashore is one of the most pristine coastlines along the Gulf of Mexico. As a frequent visitor to this part of the Gulf, I was aware of its existence due to the large signs on the highways leading to the many beaches.
But as someone who’s been trying to spend more time outdoors recently, I wasn’t aware of how large of an area America’s largest national seashore actually covers. As I was researching outdoorsy things to do, I realized that many of the beaches I’ve been visiting since I was a kid are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
I also wasn’t aware of how much there is to do along the national seashore besides sunbathing and swimming in the ocean at some more popular beaches. There’s a whole slew of activities that I had been missing out on.
That’s why this guide to visiting the Gulf Islands National Seashore has been created for you. When you find yourself on Florida’s “Emerald Coast” with its blue-green water and white sand beaches, you should know what a true “gem” the Gulf Islands National Seashore really is.
Where Exactly Is Gulf Islands National Seashore?
The Gulf Islands National Seashore has a coastline that stretches for 160 miles. The area is primarily located in Florida, but there are some barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi that are part of this national park.
But for this article, we’ll be focusing on the Gulf Islands National Seashore area that is located in Florida. The area the park covers extends from Perdido Key, Florida, to Fort Walton Beach, Florida. However, most activities are located near Pensacola Beach, a popular vacation destination along the Florida Panhandle.
Other popular destinations nearby include Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama and Pensacola and Destin in Florida. Although these towns are not part of the national seashore, they are only a short drive away.
That means that even if visiting the Gulf Islands National Seashore isn’t the main purpose of your trip to the Alabama or Florida Coast, it’s a day trip that is worth checking out if you’re in the area. You’re sure to find things to do that interest you, and you’ll get to experience some of the most beautiful beaches in America while doing them.
Is Gulf Islands National Seashore Free?
Although they are technically part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, public beaches near the main stretch of Pensacola Beach are free since they are owned and maintained by the city. But these will also be the more crowded beaches, as they draw in people who are staying in beach rentals on Pensacola Beach.
However, the parts of the national seashore that are owned and operated by the National Park Service do charge a fee. This includes all of the following sites:
- Fort Pickens Area
- Fort Barrancas Area
- Opal Beach Area
- Okaloosa Area
- Perdido Key Area
The entrance fee is the same no matter which site you visit. You can expect to pay $15 per person if you walk or bicycle in. Otherwise, you will be charged per vehicle instead of per person.
If you enter any of the sites on a motorcycle, you will be charged $20. All other non-commercial vehicles will be charged $25 per vehicle. The price may seem high, but you will receive a pass that is good for up to 7 days. That means that you can visit as much as you want within a 7-day period and only have to pay the very first time.
Or, if you’re planning on visiting a lot, you can purchase an annual pass for $45. The annual pass is good for up to a year from the date of purchase. Regardless of whether you buy a 7-day pass or an annual pass, you should be able to get into any area of the park without having to pay again for as long as it’s within the time on your pass.
Why Do I Have To Pay A Fee?
You may be wondering why you should pay the fee to enter the Gulf Islands National Seashore when you could visit other beaches in the area for free. But what you should consider is that there is way more to this national park than just the beach.
Besides, when you visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore, you are visiting some of the most pristine beaches in America. The section of Perdido Key that is part of this national park is heralded by the National Park Service as one of the most beautiful beaches in America (having been, this is a fact I can personally attest to.)
When you pay the fee to enter the park, you are helping pay for upkeep and maintenance to help keep these beaches clean and beautiful. You are also helping to fund research on the many plant and animal species that live there.
But since there are more than just beaches (including trails, facilities, and two historic forts), you are helping the National Park Service pay for their upkeep as well. So you can see that the fee is necessary for helping other visitors like you enjoy this beautiful area of our country.
What To Do At Gulf Islands National Seashore?
Whether you like relaxing on the beach, getting in touch with nature, or have a sense of adventure, there are plenty of things to do. Between five different paid areas and one free area, you’re sure to find something that fits your idea of fun.
Can You Swim at Gulf Islands National Seashore?
Yes, absolutely! Swimming is one of the main attractions that the Gulf Islands National Seashore has to offer. Various beaches spread throughout this national park where visitors can enjoy swimming or just relax on the shore.
Johnson Beach is located in the Perdido Key area in the park. It is one of the best beaches for swimming due to the beautiful water that makes this section of Florida famous. However, this beach does have two large parking areas and restrooms and picnic areas to be crowded during the peak summer months.
But, what is fantastic about this beach is that it is accessible to everyone. Beach wheelchairs are available to those who need them. All you have to do is ask one of the park rangers at the entrance gate for one.
Opal Beach is located in the Santa Rosa area and is another popular swimming area. This beach also features public restrooms and a picnic area. Plus, it is one of the only beaches in the area that has lifeguards on duty during the summer months. It’s a great beach for visitors who have kids.
Due to all of the facilities, the Opal Beach area can get pretty crowded as well. If you prefer a less crowded beach and are okay with not having as many facilities, then there are plenty of other beaches in the Santa Rosa area with parking lots with easy beach access.
Okaloosa Day Use Area
Another popular beach is the Okaloosa Day Use Area, located on the eastern end of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. This section of beach is known for being quieter with calmer waters, so it is great for those who truly just want to relax. Plus, it has public restrooms and a picnic area as well.
Naval Live Oaks Area
If you prefer a beach that is off-the-beaten-path, you will want to visit the Naval Live Oaks Area. This area is located off the main highway leading to Pensacola Beach and has a beach area that you can access with a very short hike.
The trail is a 0.5-mile sandy path that does not have a boardwalk, but it will take you through the Florida Wilderness to a secluded area on Pensacola Bay. The water is a little different here than what you’d see at other beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s a great beach for those who prefer a lesser-known area.
There are picnic tables and restrooms in this area, but it is just as fun to have a picnic the old-fashioned way on the beach. The best part is that, unlike the other beaches that have been mentioned so far, this beach is free as long as you’re up for a short hike.
What Else Is There to Do Besides Swimming?
If swimming isn’t your thing, or you just need a break from it, then don’t worry. There are plenty of other things for you to do as well. Hiking, birdwatching, and fishing are just some of the other activities that are available.
If you enjoy birdwatching, you will want to check out the Perdido Key Discovery Trail to see some of the birds that are native to the area. But even if you aren’t a birdwatcher, you will still enjoy taking a stroll. This trail features a boardwalk, so it is fully accessible.
If kayaking or paddleboarding is more your thing, then you’ll want to visit the Okaloosa Day Use Area. While launching boats from trailers is not recommended in this area, a boat launch is perfect for launching your kayak or paddleboard.
Naval Live Oaks
For those who love hiking, this is the best place to do it. While the trails are mostly flat along a sandy path and aren’t particularly challenging, there are 7.5 miles of them. There’s also the 0.8 mile Brackenridge Nature Trail that is fully accessible.
Fort Barrancas is a historic fort that played an important role for Alabama and Florida during the Civil War. The fort overlooks Pensacola Bay and is a popular attraction for history buffs or families with small children. There is also a visitor’s center and bookstore staffed by park rangers and volunteers.
The fort is located on the Naval Air Station military base in Pensacola. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not currently available to civilians at the time of this article. Only members of the U.S. military or those who hold a Department of Defense I.D. and their families are permitted to visit. Check the list of park facility closures for updates.
The other historic fort that is a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore is Fort Pickens. It is available to tour by all visitors to the park. This fort was built in 1816 to protect Pensacola Bay- an important seaport- from foreign attacks.
Along with the fort are a bookstore and discovery center. The Fort Pickens Discovery Center is great for kids and features exhibits about the history of Fort Pickens as well as wildlife and the environment. If you enjoy fishing, there is also a pier at Fort Pickens that you can fish from a long as you follow Florida fishing regulations.
How Much Does Visiting Fort Pickens Cost?
Fort Pickens is one of the most-visited parts of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. There are just so many things to do and explore. Fort Pickens is one of the areas of the park that you have to pay to get into, but you will be paying the same fee as you would elsewhere in the park. There is not an additional charge to explore the fort.
If you are traveling in a vehicle, you are paying the same $25 fee that you would pay to access the other paid areas. And remember that your pass is good for up to 7 days. So if you’re planning on staying a while, you can visit Fort Pickens as many times as you want within that 7 days and only have to pay once. However, items purchased from the bookstore are an additional charge.
Can You Swim At Fort Pickens?
Fort Pickens has everything, including a beach where you can swim. The beach is called Langdon Beach, and it has parking, restrooms, and a picnic pavilion. There are even lifeguards on duty during the summer months. If you only have one day to spend at the Gulf Islands National Seashore, I would go to the Fort Pickens area.
Can You See Blue Angels Practice From Fort Pickens?
The Blue Angels are a U.S. Navy flight demonstration squad. Watching them practice and perform their air show is the main reason many people visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
According to the park website, Fort Pickens is one of the best areas to watch the Blue Angels because they are headquartered at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. But since this is such a popular event, it is recommended to get there early, as parking spaces and viewing spots tend to fill up quickly.
Can You See the Blue Angels Practice From the Beach?
If Fort Pickens is out of your way or you feel like it would be too crowded, then you should be able to see the Blue Angels at the other beaches in the park. One of the best beaches to see them practice from is Perdido Key.
But keep in mind that you may not see them as well from other areas of the park. The practices occur over Pensacola Bay. Since Fort Pickens is located on Pensacola Bay and is the closest area of the park to the Naval Air Station, it still offers the best vantage point.
If you can make it happen, we highly suggest being able to catch watching one of their practices, or, if you're lucky, one of their air shows.
Where To Stay At Gulf Islands National Seashore?
One of the most important parts of any trip is figuring out where you’re going to stay. If you want to stay on the Gulf Islands National Seashore grounds, then the only way to do so is by camping.
The Fort Pickens area has five campgrounds that can accommodate either tents or RVs. The campgrounds have electric hookups and laundry facilities, showers, flush toilets, and potable water. Cell phone service is excellent, and there are even staff members to answer any questions you may have.
If you don’t want to camp, then there are plenty of hotels, condominiums, and beach rentals located in the nearby cities of:
- Gulf Shores, Alabama
- Orange Beach, Alabama
- Perdido Key, Florida
- Pensacola, Florida
- Pensacola Beach, Florida
- Fort Walton Beach, Florida
- Destin, Florida
Prices will vary based on the type of lodging, location, and season. But there are plenty of options, so you’re sure to find one to meet your needs and budget.
Is Gulf Islands National Seashore Worth It?
Yes, it absolutely is. This national park site is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the country. There is something for everyone to do here, whether you prefer a relaxing vacation or a more adventurous one. This is one destination you'll want to keep coming back to.