Explore Fort Pickens, an Iconic Florida Landmark
On the western edge of Santa Rosa Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the deep channels of the Pensacola Bay, sits one of Pensacola Beach’s iconic landmarks: Fort Pickens. Built in 1843 from over twenty-one million bricks, the military fortress is firmly planted on some of the Gulf Coast’s most beautifully preserved shoreline. If you love exploration, recreation, or American history—and who doesn’t?—then the Fort Pickens area of Pensacola Beach is a must-see destination.
Arriving at the Fort
The most common way to reach Fort Pickens is by car. When you are approaching the Fort Pickens area of the Gulf Island National Seashore and first enter the park, you’ll have the Gulf of Mexico to your left and the Pensacola Bay to your right. As you drive, you’ll move through the gorgeous greenery preserved by the National Park Service and pass campgrounds and picnic areas. Look closely: when you start to see fixed artillery batteries scattered about, you’ll know you’re close. Shortly after, the time- and weather-scarred bricks of the fortification itself will come into view.
A Brief History of Fort Pickens
After the War of 1812, the American government began building military forts in strategic coastal areas all across the country in order to fortify its shoreline and deter future attacks. Fort Pickens is one such fortification. Designed by a French engineer and constructed almost entirely by slaves, Fort Pickens was completed in 1843, making it the largest structure defending the Pensacola Harbor.
Fort Pickens’ importance as a strategic bulwark made it the center of a number of Civil War skirmishes. On the same January day in 1861 that Florida officially seceded from the Union, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer took a small battalion of under one hundred soldiers and sailors to hold Fort Pickens, refusing to surrender it to the Florida militia. Slemmer and his men warded off attacks for three months before Union reinforcements arrived. Then, in October, the Confederate army launched the Battle of Santa Rosa Island in order to take back Fort Pickens with the might of a thousand men. But the Union army repelled the attacks, forcing the Confederates to retreat and, after a few more battles, eventually surrender.
Fort Pickens would remain under Union control throughout the duration of the American Civil War, making it one of only four Southern forts to be held by the North.
Tour the Fort
With both guided and self-guided tours available, you can explore Fort Pickens at your own pace. For those looking for an official experience, knowledgeable park volunteers will walk you through the Fort, explaining the nearly 200 years of history within its fortified walls.
If you’re looking for something a little less structured, you can set off on your own to investigate this incredible piece of American history. Wandering through the officers’ and prisoners’ quarters where sunlight peeks through the open-air windows will show you how people lived during and after the Civil War. The brick walls and arches were built to last—aside from the remnants of an 1899 gunpowder explosion that blew up a section of the fort, the structure is marvelously intact, holding nearly 200 years of history within its walls.
Go for a Hike
There are a few trails hikers can choose from at Fort Pickens. The Bluebird Marsh Trail—great for bird watching, as the name suggests—is an easy half-mile loop off of the Fort Pickens Trail.
Speaking of which, the Fort Pickens Trail is a linear, two-mile trail from Fort Pickens to Battery Langdon. The reason it’s so straight and flat is because it followed the railroad guide set up in the area during World War II for coastal defense.
Then, for serious trekkers, there’s the Fort Pickens’ section of the Florida Trail. The Florida Trail is a 1,300 mile trail running from one end of Florida to the other, with Fort Pickens serving as home to the Northern Terminus marker. The Fort Pickens segment of the Florida Trail is just under seven miles long, starting at the entrance to the park and eventually merging with the Fort Pickens Trail.
Ft. Pickens Campground is nationally recognized as a top 10 place to camp, and you’ll find multiple loops, dozens of campsites, and a variety of amenities and access points. Some loops offer basic tent camping and bare essentials while others offer electrical hookups, hot showers, and more. The park offers pet-friendly and bonafide group camping options as well. Wherever you settle, it’s all within close proximity of beaches and trails. To learn more visit our camping page.