The Gulf Coast of the United States is surrounded by a chain of barrier islands that stretches from Florida to Texas. These islands are nature’s protection for the mainland, bearing the brunt of the crashing waves of the Gulf and violent hurricanes.

These islands also offer visitors an incredibly beautiful vacation getaway where crashing turquoise waves are soothing, sunny beaches offer relaxation, and outdoor recreational activities abound.

Luckily for us, these islands have been protected for all to enjoy. This is the Gulf Islands National Seashore (GINS). Created by Congress in 1971 and managed by the National Park Service (NPS), the Gulf Islands National Seashore has two units: one in Mississippi, the other in Florida.

The Florida unit encompasses an area from Okaloosa to Pensacola and is made up of six “zones”: Naval Live Oaks, Fort Barrancas, Fort Pickens, Okaloosa, Perdido Key, and Santa Rosa. Each of these areas offers visitors incredible adventures and experiences. Here are nine reasons you’ll love visiting Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore.

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1. The best beaches in the world

It is not called the Emerald Coast for nothing. Miles and miles of the country’s whitest beaches are bounded by the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Of these beaches, some of the best for swimming and sunbathing are located on Florida’s Gulf Islands National Coast.

GINS beaches tend to be a little less crowded than the main public beaches, but can still get crowded, so be patient and considerate of others. Lifeguards are located at specific park beaches during the summer season (mid-May through August), including Opal Beach in the Santa Rosa area, Langdon Beach in Fort Pickens, and Johnson Beach in Perdido Key. When they are not present, swim at your own risk.

Be sure to visit the GINS website for rules to follow when swimming in the gulf and learn what the colored flags mean and the rules you must follow for each.

People on bikes at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Photo credit: National Park Service

2. Take a bike ride

The Perdido Key and Santa Rosa areas of the seaside offer nice and easy 5 and 7 mile long road bike rides, but the best ride is in the Fort Pickens area.

The ride begins with an easy bike route from the front gate to the ranger station, a one-way ride of approximately 3.8 miles. It’s a beautiful ride with incredible scenes of the Gulf and Pensacola Bay and their sand dunes. Keep in mind, however, that there is no canopy to shield you from the sun. Wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water.

If you want something off-road, take the Florida Trail near the ranger station and hike the 2-mile (one-way) sandy trail along which you’ll be treated to even more breathtaking views as you pass through scrubby pines . and around sand dunes, cross bayous and wetlands, visit batteries long abandoned during World War II, and finally end the ride at historic Fort Pickens.

The trail is pretty well packed, so expect some moderate pedaling until the end.

Hiking trail at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Photo credit: Joe Cuhaj

3. Hiking by the sea

Miles of beautiful hiking trails lead you to a wide variety of experiences on Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore.

In Perdido Key, you can experience a transitional maritime environment along half a mile of ADA-accessible boardwalks that visit a salt marsh, a forested wetland, and snow-capped white sand dunes.

You’ll encounter the famous Florida Trail twice, once at Fort Pickens, where an easy 7-mile section of the trail follows a sandy trail through scrub pines and wetlands to the historic fort. You’ll meet him again in Santa Rosa, where you’ll be treated to a secluded walk on the 7-mile beach.

Park ranger leading a tour at Fort Barrancas
Visit to Fort Barrancas (Photo credit: Joe Cuhaj)

4. History comes to life

History abounds at the seaside, which includes historic Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas.

Construction of the massive Fort Pickens began in 1829. The stone and brick structure was the largest of four area fortresses that were built to defend the Pensacola area from invaders. The fort saw action in one of the Civil War’s heaviest bombardments during the Battle of Santa Rosa Island.

Across the bay from Fort Pickens is its sister, Fort Barrancas. Barrancas was unique in that it was positioned on a hill, giving it the ability to fight incoming invaders from all four sides. The fort was built with over 6 million bricks.

Be sure to take advantage of one of the free tours led by seaside rangers. These tours are very informative and bring the history of the forts and islands to life. Visit their online calendar, ranger stations or visitor centers for dates and times. Don’t be confused; the online calendar lists events for Florida and Mississippi.

Blue Heron at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Blue heron (Photo credit: Joe Cuhaj)

5. The shore is for the birds

To say that Gulf Islands National Seashore is a birdwatcher’s paradise is an understatement. Over 300 species of birds can be found here. Along the beaches and bays you can sit for hours and marvel at black skimmers and brown pelicans cruising inches above the waves in search of their next meal before soaring upwards. and dive into the water for their catch.

Also along the beach, snowy and piping plovers scurry to the water’s edge. In the woods and swamps, killer deer call out what sounds like “kill the deer” in the brush. Above, American bald eagles and ospreys soar.

Waves at Gulf Islands National Seashore
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6. There is more adventure under the waves

With such beautiful, clear water, it’s only natural that divers flock to the seashore to experience Gulf life on the piers and seawall at Fort Pickens and dive the artificial reefs formed by tugboat wrecks. sport and the massive battleship USS Massachusetts.

You can still experience this underwater wonderland on a smaller scale by snorkeling at the seaside beaches to see a wide variety of fish.

Be sure to visit the National Park Service Diving Rules and Regulations page before entering the water. And remember, many beaches are unsupervised, so swim at your own risk and watch out for warning flags about weather and dangerous rip currents.

7. Hang the big one

One of the most popular activities in the Gulf Islands of Florida is fishing. Tidal flow in bays and bayous creates a nutrient-rich environment in which fish thrive.

Cast your line or net to fish a little off the pier or crab fish in Fort Pickens or fish ashore in the crashing Gulf Surf.

A saltwater fishing license is required. Visit the Shoreline Fishing Rules and Regulations page for more information, restrictions and closures.

The Blue Angels flying over Pensacola, Florida
Cheryl Casey /

8. Rock the “blues”

Naval Air Station Pensacola is known as the birthplace of naval aviation, having been the training ground for US Navy pilots since it opened in 1914. The base is also home to the famous Blue Angels flying squad.

Nothing can adequately describe the incredible flying skill of these aviators as they fly from end to end performing barrel rolls, loops and high-speed maneuvers.

The team trains regularly for its upcoming show season here in Pensacola and the Gulf Islands gives you a vantage point to watch practice between March and November and the Blue Angels’ annual homecoming air show.

Park rangers advise you to check the schedule for practices, air shows and the homecoming show and arrive very early – it will get crowded. Also bring snacks, water, sunscreen, hearing protection (motor roar can get loud) and your camera.

RV Camping in Fort Pickens Florida
Fort Pickens (Fsendek/

9. Year-round camping

With the exception of occasional hurricanes, the weather along the Gulf Coast is phenomenal with many sunny days. Summers can get hot and humid, but the gulf breeze makes them pleasant. Winters are mild with only occasional freezing cold snaps.

All this to say that camping at the Gulf Islands National Seashore is a year-round treat. You have a few camping options. First, if you have a boat, you can do Boat-In Camping, where you can get your boat up and camp on the beaches near Fort Pickens. There are no fees or permits required for boat camping, but you must follow strict guidelines to protect the fragile islands.

And then there’s RV and tent camping at one of the most popular campgrounds in the Fort Pickens area. The campground has 185 campsites spread over five camping loops, 169 of which have electricity and water, while 16 sites are reserved for tents.

Make your campground reservations early and try to find a spot in Loop A where there is plenty of shade provided by extensive live oak trees and because they have direct access to the Gulf beaches. There is also a short interpretive nature trail within the loop.

All loops have beach access points, fire grills and picnic tables. The campsite is open and monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Reservations are required and can be made by visiting the website.

Pro tips

  • Admission is chargeable for entry into the Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, Okaloosa, Perdido Key, and Santa Rosa areas. The latest entry fee schedule is available online. While you’re there, you can purchase your admission in advance. National Park Service passes are also accepted.
  • Certain areas of the seaside may be closed at any time for various reasons. Before you go, check the website for the latest closure information.
  • Pets are not allowed on the beaches or inside the visitor centers. In other areas, your pet must be kept on a leash.

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