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Gulf Islands National Seashore & Pensacola

Islands in the Sun

Stretching westward from Santa Rosa Island east of Pensacola, Florida, to West Ship Island south of Biloxi, Mississippi, the barrier islands of the national seashore provide some of the finest opportunities to explore the unique lifestyles of the barrier islands of the Gulf of Mexico.

This unusual park provides scenes of intense natural beauty on eleven separate units which include long, slim islands and parts of islands, bays, sounds, and a few mainland sites. There are no park units in the thin stretch of Alabama that reaches into the gulf on the west and east sides of Mobile Bay. Divided into two major districts (Florida and Mississippi), the park covers 137,598 acres. Florida has 9,366 acres accessible by land and highways, with another 56,450 acres reached only by boat.

Florida Sections

The park headquarters in Florida is located at Naval Live Oaks, two miles east of the town of Gulf Breeze, on U.S. Highway 98. This is a mainland unit, on a long sand spit that encloses Pensacola Bay. The facility here offers information on all of the park units, plus natural history exhibits, displays on Native American settlement, and audiovisual programs. Other park sections include Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Fort Pickens, the Pensacola city forts, and Perdido Key. In addition to the Naval Live Oaks information office, a Visitor Information Center is found at the north end of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, also via U.S. 90.

The mainland and island units offer an extensive variety of ecological discoveries, in addition to excellent boating, sailing, hiking, cycling, fishing, diving, and relaxing on some of the best beaches in the Pensacola area. Most of the sites have local historical importance, containing the remains of old military fortifications such as Fort Pickens which, was built to protect Pensacola Bay from foreign invasion when Florida was a U.S. territory, and then was used for two years as a prison housing captured Native Americans, including Geronimo.

The following information on the park units is organized in an east-to-west direction.

Okaloosa

This small day-use park is located south of the town of Fort Walton Beach, near the eastern tip of Santa Rosa Island. You get there by taking U.S. 98 east from Pensacola (across the Bay Bridge and then east), continuing on Highway 98 past the community of Mary Esther to the unit. From Fort Walton beach, take State Route 189 south to Highway 98 and turn east.

This is primarily a sunbathing beach with swimming and picnicking. The unit has outdoor showers.

Santa Rosa Island

One of two units on this island, just off the coast southeast of Pensacola, the Santa Rosa section is another day-use area (no camping), located on State Route 399, east of the toll bridge that joins the island to the town of Gulf Breeze. Offering beach walking, picnicking, swimming, and sunbathing, the park has a ranger station and outdoor showers. This unit has been left in a natural state, with boardwalks extending to Santa Rosa Sound and the gulf shore, to protect the fragile dunes. The beaches on both sides are in pristine condition.

Naval Live Oaks

Pensacola Bay, large enough to harbor a flotilla of ships, became an important naval port. The city had long been a settlement of the Spanish, French, and then English (for a very short while), and was frequented by pirates and buccaneers for many years, before provisional territorial governor Andrew Jackson was sent to Florida to make some order out of the lawless chaos. Jackson lived in a large house at the north side of the town. The city is full of historic sites from the Spanish period, including the large Seville District, plus buildings from the English years, such as Florida's oldest Protestant church, Old Christ Church. The city also benefits from an infusion of French Creole architecture during the short French occupation.

One of the places where Native American habitation is known to have existed in the area, the land around Pensacola Bay was home to native people at least 5,000 years ago. They settled along the water's edge, creating shell middens wherever they lived. They became farmers and moved inland to better agricultural land. Artifacts found in this unit include pottery shards and stone points used on projectiles. There are archeological sites in the unit, and these are protected from human intervention.

On U.S. Highway 98, near the south end of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, this 1,300-acre unit features 1,378 acres of southern magnolias, live (evergreen) oaks, pines, sweet bays, and wax myrtles -- a typical lowland northwest Florida plant community. The woodlands offer a home to snakes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, the occasional bobcat, some rabbits, and gray squirrels. You'll find native plants such as red basil along the trails. The park was named by the U.S. Navy, which was assigned to take over the area in 1827 as a reserve of live oak needed for shipbuilding. Most early warships including Old Ironsides (War of 1812) were made of this heavy, decay-resistant wood. It was the nation's first government tree farm. Today, the live oaks are still here, since ironclad warships made oak ship construction obsolete from about 1870. The oaks grow along the north side of the park (beside Pensacola Bay), and on the south side (on Santa Rosa Sound), with the oak hammocks extending inland from both sides to a depth of about 900 feet. The forests offer hiking and cycling on several trails. Other park activities are sailing, boating, scuba diving, and fishing.

There are marshes on the property, composed of tall grasses, including cordgrass, providing a home for terns, egrets, herons, and other water birds. Turtles and snakes are also found in the marshy parts of the park. The third ecosystem is the unique northern Florida sandhill community, found in the center of the park, with Sand Pine, turkey oak, saw palmetto, prickly pear cactus, and yaupon holly.

Four nature trails lead through this unit, mostly through the eastern end -- around a beaver pond and by two old quarries -- as well as from the Visitor Center, where a trail leads along a figure-8 loop, beside Santa Rosa Sound. The Pensacola-St. Augustine Road Trail runs through the middle of the park, lengthwise, offering a variety of sand pine, longleaf pine, and live oak woodlands, including southern magnolia, pignut, and scrub oak.

The Beaver Pond Trail is found at the northeast corner of the unit, leading one mile through an area of longleaf pine and oak groves. Also in the northeast section, the Old Quarry Trail intersects with the Old Borrow Pit Trail, connecting with the Beaver Pond Trail.

The only camping facility in this unit is a youth campground, located on Pensacola Bay. Picnic shelters, the visitor center, and an observation deck are all located along Santa Rosa Sound, on the south side of the park.

Camping Reservations

The national parks campground reservation system is in effect. For information on making national parks reservations and reservation numbers, go to this page.  

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