Gulf Islands National Seashore Pensacola Beach

Preserved for All

Driving down the highway on Santa Rosa Island through our stretch of the Gulf Islands National Seashore feels like a dream. You’re surrounded on both sides by bright, white sand dunes and crystal clear water. No tall buildings or power lines blocking your view, just the sand, sea, and sky. If you stood silently on the side of the road, all you’d hear would be the rhythm of the waves and the wind whistling through the sea oats.

The Gulf Islands National Seashore is a remarkable achievement in nature preservation and truly sets Pensacola Beach apart from other oceanside destinations. A treasure of the Gulf Coast, our segment of this National Seashore features over 18 miles of winding, pristine coastlines of sugar white sand and vibrant emerald waters and acres of preserved forestry. There are few domestic locales that can match the level of preservation our nature trails and coastlines have.

Gulf Islands National Seashore marsh and dunes.

The National Seashore’s History

During the 1800s, the United States government built various defensive fortifications along the Gulf Coast, including Fort Pickens in Pensacola Beach and Fort Barrancas. These proved to be extremely useful in the following years, with Fort Pickens in particular being used during the Civil War to drive the Confederacy out of Pensacola. In 1828, the government purchased a forest of curvy, live oaks on Pensacola’s mainland, known now as the Naval Live Oaks Reservation. This forest was once a key asset when we relied on a continuous supply of curved wood for constructing naval vessels. It was in 1971 when President Richard Nixon authorized the Gulf Islands National Seashore as a way to protect and preserve the government-owned barrier islands and mainland nature parks along the Gulf Coast. The Seashore is now managed by the National Park Service, who offer nature and history tours, as well as maintain the land. Today the forts and the forest remain beautifully preserved along the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Fort Pickens cannon at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Exploring the Gulf Islands National Seashore

The main areas you can visit within the National Seashore include the parks around the historic military Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas, the preserved forest at the Live Naval Oaks Reservation, and the standalone beaches all along the miles and miles of coastline, such as Johnson Beach and Opal Beach.

Regardless of where you go, one thing that’s constant on the National Seashore is the incredible wildlife all around you. Whether it’s brown pelicans flying overhead or sea turtles crawling along the beach, the Gulf Islands National Seashore is home to thousands of diverse animals, including a dozen threatened or endangered species. Of course, wildlife is “wild” for a reason, so be sure to respect the local ecosystem and refrain from feeding or disturbing the animals to help preserve this natural ecology for future generations.

Pelicans in the water at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Historic Military Forts

The largest stretch of the Gulf Islands National Seashore lies within the Fort Pickens area on the westernmost point of Santa Rosa Island. Not only can you tour Fort Pickens, a preserved piece of American history, but the park surrounding it has a campground, fishing pier, and a beach to explore as well.

Fort Barrancas, another amazing historic landmark, stands across the bay on the mainland.

Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Naval Live Oaks Reservation

Nestled in between Gulf Breeze Proper and Midway lies Naval Live Oaks Reservation, a 1,300 acre section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Originally purchased by the U.S. government in 1828, the area was established as the first federal tree farm. The native live oaks that filled the area were reserved for ship building. Eventually the need for hardwood diminished as ships were built with iron and steel.

Today, Naval Live Oaks Reservation is open to the public as part of the National Park system with  7.5 miles of hiking trails, primitive youth campsites, dense hardwood forest, windswept shorelines, fishing, kayaking, and snorkeling through grass beds on the sound side. You can even step foot on a section of the first road that connected Pensacola to Saint Augustine or test your fitness by scaling the 50 ft sandy clay bluff on the bay. 100’s of cars drive through this area every day down highway 98, many not knowing the amazing adventures that await.

White Sandy Beaches

If you’re heading west on Santa Rosa Island toward Pensacola Beach, the first landmark you’ll pass within the Gulf Islands National Seashore is Opal Beach, named after the 1995 Hurricane Opal. Prior to the storm making landfall here, this area was covered in tons of 20-to-30 foot tall sand dunes. Opal washed them all out to sea, flattening the area ever since. It’s a peaceful sight now, but a reminder nonetheless of the powerful storms we’ve persevered through.

Sweeping view of Opal Beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore.