Gulf Islands National Seashore is perfect for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers. With locations in Florida and Mississippi, there are plenty of activities to keep visitors busy.
Explore this list of incredible things to do at Gulf Islands National Seashore and get ready for an unforgettable coastal adventure!
Where is Gulf Islands National Seashore?
The National Park Service protects the Gulf Islands. It has extensive acreage, stretching along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Mississippi. This national park covers seven islands, barrier islands, and a handful of areas on mainland Mississippi and the Florida panhandle, including beaches, historic forts, and coastal forests.
Florida Region of Gulf Islands
The panhandle’s beautiful white sand beaches and emerald coast attract millions of people, making it an exciting destination to explore and live nearby. A large part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore is near Pensacola, Florida. Pensacola is known for being one of the most livable cities in the U.S. because of its gorgeous coastlines, abundance of outdoor activities, and lower cost of living. Continue reading to learn more about the areas of Gulf Islands National Seashore and plan your next Florida vacation.
The Fort Pickens area is located roughly 40 minutes from downtown Pensacola. A short drive from Pensacola Beach, follow Highway 399, with dunes and shoreline along Santa Rosa Island. This part of the Gulf Islands is named after the historic war fort, Fort Pickens. Visitors can do a self-guided tour of the facility.
Along with visiting the fort, there are miles of intercoastal trails to explore and beaches to enjoy. (You might even glimpse the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flying overhead!) While exploring the coastline, keep your eyes open for dolphins and nesting shorebirds.
The Fort Pickens Campground is an excellent place to camp in the panhandle and makes for the perfect road trip home base to beach hop along the coast. Campers are steps away from overlooking Pensacola Bay, easily accessible boardwalks to the Gulf, incredible sunsets, and protected dunes. Each campsite has options for full hookup (aka full amenities) at Fort Pickens Campground.
Johnson Beach – Perdido Key
Johnson Beach is accessible by vehicle from Perdido Key. The area is well known among the locals of Escambia County for being unspoiled and has some of the most beautiful beaches in all of Florida.
Since parking is limited, get to the island early in the day to beat the summer crowds. And keep your eyes peeled because you might see a sea turtle.
This part of the Gulf Islands is the perfect place to relax and soak up the sun. Plus, there are plenty of restaurants, shopping, and condo rentals in the nearby town of Perdido Key to keep you entertained. You’ll enjoy the local seafood, (especially if you like oysters, crabs, or shrimp!)
On the north side of Johnson Beach is Big Lagoon. Big Lagoon is a great place to paddle, and there is a state park on the other side where visitors can camp and hike.
Opal Beach – Santa Rosa Island
Have you ever driven along Santa Rosa Island? If not, you’re missing out! Located roughly 20 minutes from Pensacola Beach, Opal Beach is famous for its sparkling emerald-green waters and magnificent white sand beach. It’s the perfect place to relax and soak up the sun. Plus, beach facilities offer a shaded pavilion, grills, restrooms, and beach showers. Opal Beach is one of the best beaches in Florida. The water is calm, shallow, and warm on a perfect summer day.
And, if you’d like to beach hop from Opal Beach, Navarre Beach is a short 15-minute drive away. Navarre Beach is a public beach, and the beach pier boasts the longest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico.
Aside from the gorgeous beaches and natural spaces, the Gulf Islands National Seashore protects Fort Barrancas. The historic fort overlooks Pensacola Bay on Naval Air Station Pensacola. It’s a great place to learn about military history. Plus, the views from the top are amazing! So, if you’re looking for something fun and educational to do in Pensacola, be sure to check out Fort Barrancas. You might also enjoy visiting the National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola Lighthouse, and Maritime Museums.
Naval Live Oaks Nature Preserve
Located near Gulf Breeze, Florida, the Naval Live Oaks Nature Preserve is known for being the first federal tree farm. The wood was harvested initially to build ships in the late 1800s. The preserve is still under federal protection and is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore today. It is excellent for hiking, biking, and exploring nature trails. And, if you’re out exploring with your dog, pets are allowed on the trails and bike paths. However, they aren’t allowed at the beach.
The preserve is also an excellent place to kayak, and some people like to paddle in Santa Rosa Sound.
The Okaloosa Island day use recreation area is another beautiful beach that is part of the Gulf Islands. Located off Highway 98, about 3 ½ miles west of Destin, Florida, visitors can soak up the sun with views of both the bay and Gulf of Mexico. On the island’s north side is Choctawhatchee Bay and on the south side is the Gulf. If you’re beach hopping, check out Fort Walton Beach or Miramar Beach close by.
Mississippi Region of Gulf Islands
The Mississippi region of the Gulf Islands National Seashore offers a slightly different experience than Florida, with more marshes and bayous making up the park’s terrain. In addition, there are rugged and wild islands off the coast that one can access via boat or kayak. Continue reading for more information on exciting things to do, including where you can see an alligator in the wild.
Mississippi is often known for its Delta region, where the blues was born, and cotton plantations thrived. But the state also has another side, one that’s full of natural beauty and outdoor fun. Davis Bayou is an excellent example of this, offering kayaking, boating, fishing, hiking, camping, and more.
If you’re looking for a pit stop on your next Gulf Coast road trip or want to experience some of Mississippi’s incredible nature, visit Davis Bayou. Davis Bayou is a great place to hike, fish, camp, and kayak.
Davis Bayou is not the place to swim and hit the beaches. Swimming is not allowed within any mainland areas since wild alligators are present. But it is an excellent place to see alligators in the wild and watch for wildlife.
The central part of Davis Bayou, where the visitor center and campground are located, is near Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The main park entrance is about two hours east of New Orleans or two hours west of Pensacola.
The Gulf Islands is a popular area for sea kayaking. Beginner kayakers can enjoy the bayou waters close to shore, or experienced kayakers can adventure out to sea for overnight trips to Horn Island, Petit Bois Island, Ship Island, West Petit Bois, and Cat Island. Boat-in backcountry camping is allowed on these secluded islands.
Best Time to Visit
The park’s main areas can get pretty busy during peak season, which is late May through early September. To avoid the crowds and seasonal summer vacation traffic, visit in early May and after folks return to school in September and October.
Most of the Gulf Islands can be visited year-round for an enjoyable trip, with summer being the best (and most popular) time to enjoy beach days. However, if you prefer fewer crowds and less heat, visit in the off-season.
If you are a winter snowbird, winter is a beautiful time to stroll the beaches, and you’ll likely be far fewer people.
Things to Consider
While planning to visit the Gulf Islands National Seashore, consider hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane season is from June through November. If planning a visit to the Sunshine State during hurricane season, consider purchasing travel insurance if a trip needs to be rescheduled due to a hurricane.
Since the National Park Service manages these areas, most require an entrance fee. Visit the National Park Service for more information.
Pets are not allowed on beaches at the Gulf Islands. However, pets are permitted at Fort Pickens and Davis Bayou Campgrounds. Check out each trail individually to determine if pets are allowed.
If you’re looking for a beach getaway that feels like a step back in time, the national seashore is the place for you. The park in northwest Florida has something for everyone: stunningly clear waters, undeveloped white sand beaches, and historic forts dotting the landscape. And if you can visit during off-peak season, even better! The emerald coast is one of the most beautiful places in the United States.
Mississippi offers a slightly different experience than Florida, with more coastal forests, fertile marshes, and bayous making up the landscape. However, you’ll have a chance to spot alligators or other wildlife, and the park is quiet and peaceful.
No matter which part of the seashore you choose to explore, you won’t be disappointed. So come and explore this incredible national park.
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Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation writer and founder of The Happiness Function. Her goal is to help inspire people to build a life they love by sharing how simple and fun it is to travel locally, connect with nature, and explore off-the-beaten-path. You don't have to spend a lot of money or use a ton of vacation time to explore close to home. Ashlee holds a BS degree in Biology and MS in Environmental Policy & Sustainability and has a passion for the outdoors. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo! They camp in their Aliner often and love road trips and hiking. You can read more about them at thehappinessfxn.com.