Whether you like to participate in outdoor recreation, visit museums, or simply rewind by being in a beautiful and quiet natural setting, Gulf Islands National Seashore offers plenty to see and do.
The protected area is not continuous but instead is spread out. Its westernmost point is at Cat Island, Mississippi, and it stretches eastward 160 miles to Fort Walton Beach, Florida. It includes 5,842 acres of public land as well as 52 miles of gulf and bay shoreline.
Established by Congress on Jan. 8, 1971, Gulf Islands National Seashore has a rich history that’s been greatly influenced by its geography. The Gulf of Mexico was and still remains an important influence that’s helped shape U.S. history and culture. Since Europeans first visited the Gulf in the early 1500s and found thriving Native American settlements, the Spanish, French, and English all vied for control of the area.
The following are some interesting historical sites to visit along the Gulf Islands National Seashore, many of which demonstrate the area’s importance in our nation’s military history:
Completed in 1844, Fort Barrancas was built using a staggering 6 million bricks on a bluff overlooking Pensacola Bay. Its purpose was to stop a potential foreign invasion, and its location was ideal for this purpose, even being built over the ruins of Spanish, British, and French forts designed for the same reason. Although it never was involved in combat with another country, it was used in the Civil War.
Fort Pickens was built to protect Pensacola Bay as well as the Pensacola Navy Yard and Depot. Its large and imposing appearance was designed to look threatening and to house 200 or more cannons and be occupied by 1,000 soldiers when needed.
National Naval Aviation Museum
More than 150 aircraft have been restored and are available to view at the museum, including the first jet fighter ever flown, which was built by the Nazis and captured by the U.S. It also houses an impressive collection of items including vintage military uniforms and historical documents. If you visit the museum, try to go when the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, is practicing.
Naval Live Oaks Reservation
Located east of Gulf Breeze, FL, the reservation was the site of the only federal tree farm designed to reserve live oaks used by shipbuilders in the 1800s. It’s located on a calm area of Santa Rosa Sound and includes over seven miles of hiking trails. You can see self-service exhibits about the area inside the park’s headquarters.
This lighthouse, which was built in 1859, still serves as a navigational beacon. If you climb its 177 steps, you’ll get to see amazing views from about 130 feet above ground.
Exploring the Gulf Island National Seashore
The seashore offers a wide variety of recreational opportunities, including the following:
Exploring the white-sand beaches, many of which have unobstructed views of the Gulf and a relaxed atmosphere that offers solitude
Visiting the forts and the Pensacola Naval Air Station, where Fort Barrancas is located
Taking a ranger-guided nature tour
Relaxing on a boat cruise to Fort Pickens or around Pensacola Bay
Visiting the Naval Aviation Museum, which features more than 150 aircraft and is home to the Blue Angels flight demonstration team
Climbing to the top of Pensacola Lighthouse (the tallest on the Gulf Coast) and take in the amazing view
Going fishing, hiking, biking, kayaking, or camping
Collecting seashells, which are plentiful and easy to spot
- Keeping an eye out for (and photographing if you’d like) wildlife such as sea turtles, osprey, bald eagles, dolphins, and more
Gulf Islands National Seashore is a hidden gem in Florida as well as Mississippi, and it’s well worth a visit. Its unique location and place in history, as well as its abundant wildlife and recreational opportunities, ensure that you could spend weeks exploring the seashore and still want to plan a return trip to see and do more.