This 12-unit National Park protects barrier islands along the Gulf Coast of the states of Mississippi and Florida; islands in Alabama are not included, and are part of state parks instead. The two state units are about a two hour drive apart. Gulf Islands National Seashore offers historical exploration, camping, recreational options and some of the finest white sand beaches. Many areas are closed with storm damage - the list changes frequently, so check right before you plan to visit.
- Park Headquarters, 850-934-2600
The Gulf Islands National Seashore includes many areas of historical interest. In Florida, Don Tristan de Luna founded the first attempt at a Spanish settlement in the mainland U.S. on Santa Rosa Island; this later became the city of Pensacola. Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, and the ruins of Fort McRee are all part of the National Seashore, and all were important during the Civil War. The Naval Live Oaks Reservation on the mainland is a relic of the era of wooden ships. This forest of curvy live oaks was purchased in 1828 by the U.S. government during the Adams administration, in order to ensure a continuous supply of the wood for the navy who preferred the hard, curved wood for ship hulls. In the 1970s, the U.S. government reasserted its right to the forest in court after Florida attempted to sell the land to private citizens. This led to the authorization of the Gulf Islands National Seashore on January 8, 1971, in order to protect the forest and all the government-owned islands nearby for future generations. The Mississippi islands were added to the park later, in 1978, in order to protect the pristine natural habitats there from development.
With the exception of the Naval Live Oaks Preservation in Florida and Davis Bayou in Mississippi, which are on the mainland, the Gulf Islands National Seashore is located on barrier islands. These islands are famous for their natural, bright white sand, which is composed of quartz and washes down from the Appalachian Mountains. Sand dunes form naturally near the coast, and further inland, scraggly pine tree forests make a living among the sandy soil.
Flora and fauna
Of the seven species of sea turtles, four nest at Gulf Islands National Seashore. Human development on the islands scared away many of the sea turtles, but recent conservation efforts have increased the number of nests in the park almost tenfold. There are twenty endangered species that live in the park. The most well-known is the Perdido Key beach mouse, a tiny mouse that lives in the sand dunes, and which was the cause of arguments and lawsuits between developers, residents, environmentalists, and the park service. Today, the lack of condominiums on Perdido Key can be attributed to the beach mouse.
The islands host a unique dune habitat; wind and waves blow sand into large piles, which are held in place by the root systems of beach grass and sea oats. Before this relationship between grass and dunes was understood, the plants were treated as a weed and were removed, leaving the dunes vulnerable to hurricanes. Hurricanes Erin and Opal in 1995 destroyed most of the dune habitat on the islands in Florida, but replanting efforts of sea oats and grass have slowly started to bring the dunes back. It's now illegal to remove plant life from the sand dunes.
The Seashore is sunny and warm most of the year. June through September are the most humid months and afternoon thunderstorms are common. The Seashore has been hit by numerous hurricanes throughout the years. Hurricane season is June through November.
Gulf Islands National Seashore is in Florida and Mississippi and both districts are south of Interstate 10. In Mississippi use Exit 57 or 50 to US Highway 90 to Ocean Springs. In Florida use Exit 12 to I-110 or Exit 22 to the Garcon Point Bridge to US Highway 98.
- The Perdido Key Area is off Florida Route 292, southwest from Pensacola on Perdido Key; turn east on Johnson Beach Road.
- Naval Live Oaks is on U. S. 98 east of Gulf Breeze, Florida.
- The Okaloosa Day Use Area is on U. S. 98 east of Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
- To reach Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt on board Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, use the Blue Angel Parkway (Florida Route 173).
- The Fort Pickens Area is west of Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island. The Fort Pickens Road, closed since 2004 because of Hurricane damage, re-opened May 22, 2009, and extends all the way to the west end of the island for accessibility to the Fort, as well as the newly re-built fishing pier. The speed limit varies from 15 mph in places (to protect endangered birds nesting by the roadside) to 35 mph.
- The Santa Rosa Area is located east of Pensacola Beach. The J. Earle Bowden Way (State Road 399) re-opened March 6, 2009, after being closed almost five years. Opal Beach is in this area, and contains a lifeguarded beach, restrooms, a ranger station, and clusters of picnic pavilions on the Gulf side and the Sound side. Two pavilion clusters are available for rental.
- The Davis Bayou Area is on U.S. 90, east of downtown Ocean Springs, MS. Use Exit 50 or 57 south from I-10.
- Islands. The islands are not accessible by automobile. Visitors to the Seashore’s barrier islands can enjoy island camping on all the islands but West Ship Island. Other activities include beachcombing, birdwatching, swimming, and fishing. NPS list of boat operators.
- Horn Island, Petit Bois Island, and East Ship Island are open year-round to private boaters.
- West Ship Island is open to private boaters from sunrise to sunset.
- The two miles of the western tip of Cat Island are within the Seashore boundary and are open to private boaters.
- A Pan Isles passenger ferry, Gulfport Yacht Harbor, Phone: 1-866-466-7386, . Takes visitors out to West Ship Island March through October.
Entrance fees: Per Pedestrian/cyclist (7 days) $3; Per Vehicle (7 days) $8; GUIS Annual Pass $ 25.00. Fees also apply for camping. See Sleep section below.
There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot/bike that provide free entry to Gulf Islands National Seashore and all national parks, as well as some national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and national forests:
- The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free pass by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
- The $80 Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a 50% discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.
- The free Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
- The free Volunteer Pass is available to individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.
- The free Annual 4th Grade Pass (valid for September-August of the 4th grade school year) allows entry to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid Outdoors website is required.
The National Park Service offers free admission to all national parks on five days every year:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January); next observance is January 16, 2023
- The first day of National Park Week (third Saturday in April); next observance is April 15, 2023
- The National Park Service Birthday (August 25)
- National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September); next observance is September 24, 2022
- Veterans Day (November 11)
- Fort Pickens, Fort Pickens Road (closed to cars in 2006), western Santa Rosa Island, ☏ . Daily 8AM-sunset. Built to defend Pensacola Bay in the 1830s. Self-guided tours open to hikers, bikers, and boaters. It saw heavy use in the Civil War and World War II. Access to some areas is restricted due to storm damage, as of October 2006.
- , ☏ . Off Highway 98, Gulf Breeze, FL. Daily 8:30AM to 4:30PM. An indoor hands-on exhibit on shipbuilding with Live Oak wood. Beaches and trails.
- Fort Barrancas Area Visitor Center, Taylor Road (about a half mile east from the Museum of Naval Aviation), ☏ . March–October at 9:30AM-4:45PM and November–February at 8:30AM-3:45PM. This center shows a 15 minute slide presentation on the history of Pensacola during the Civil War and has exhibits related to the fort. Bookstore, restrooms.
- Fort Barrancas. Tours daily at 2PM. Constructed between 1839-1844, was one of four forts built to protect the Pensacola Navy Yard.
- Bateria de San Antonio. Stands at the base of the barranca, or bluff, just below. It retains some of the Spanish ornamentation, and includes a rifle gallery and rear wall added by U. S. Army engineers. An underground passage connects the Water Battery to Fort Barrancas.
- Advanced Redoubt. Daily from November–February 8:30AM-3:45PM; March- October 9:30AM-4:45PM. One hour tours Sat. 11AM. Reached by the half-mile "Trench Trail" from the visitor center. It was built from 1845 to 1870 to defend the northern side of the peninsula from land-based attack.
- Fort Massachusetts. On West Ship Island twelve miles off the Mississippi coastline is reachable by boat or ferry from Gulfport, MS. Visitors must be prepared for sun and lack of water on the island. Bathrooms, a concession, and water are available on board the ferries. Visitors are required to pack out everything they bring to the island. A one-third mile trek is required to reach the Gulf beach on the island's south side. Large ice chests, wagons, bulky items, and glass containers are prohibited on the ferries. Ranger-guided tours are offered March–October.
- Naval Live Oaks has nine hiking trails including the Andrew Jackson Trail which, like numerous other trails in Northwest Florida, claims to be a trail that Andrew Jackson used during his military campaign here.
- The Florida Trail also runs between Santa Rosa Island and Big Cypress National Preserve.
- Naval Live Oaks - A paved 2.5 mile section of the 40-mile bike loop that runs alongside US Highway 98.
- Fort Pickens - The Fort Pickens Road, closed since 2004 because of Hurricane damage, re-opened May 22, 2009, and extends from the entrance gate to the west end of the island - a 14-mile round-trip. There is a well-marked bike trail on both sides of the road, extending about four miles in from the entrance of the park.
- Perdido Key - A five mile route runs from the entrance gate to the end of the Perdido Key Road.
- Davis Bayou Area - Mississippi's 15.5 mile round-trip Live Oaks Bicycle Route connects to the town of Ocean Springs at the Old Louisville and Nashville Train Depot. Green and white bike-route signs on the right side of the city streets mark the route. Maps are available at the Gulf Islands Visitor Contact Station and the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce.
There is no food or drinks available inside park boundaries, so you'll need to find other options. In Florida, all parts of Gulf Islands National Seashore are near coastal beach communities, which will have restaurants, if you don't feel like bringing your own food. This option isn't available at the Alabama islands, which aren't accessible by car, so be sure to bring your own food, and lots of water! At all Gulf Islands parks, picnickers are welcome, but remember that alcohol and glass containers are prohibited.
There are no hotels inside the national park, but you can easily find rooms or condo rentals in nearby communities, at Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, Gulf Breeze, and Perdido Key in Florida, and at Biloxi and Ocean Springs in Mississippi.
Primitive camping is allowed at the east end of the Perdido Key park. Primitive campers must sign up at the visitors station at the front of the park, and must travel at least a half mile past the end of the park's paved road.
- Fort Pickens Campground, Fort Pickens Rd. Campground loop "A" is open to hikers and bikers, $10 a night payable at the campground registration station. Potable water, cold showers, bathrooms, picnic table, cook grill and fire ring.
- Davis Bayou Group Campground, Ocean Springs, MS, ☏ . It is available to groups of 10 or more people, with a maximum limit of 40. $16
- Sharks are present in the Gulf of Mexico. Do not swim at dawn, dusk or night when sharks are active or feeding. Do not swim in murky waters. Beware of jellyfish and stingrays. If stung by a jellyfish apply vinegar and meat tenderizer. Do not touch irritated skin or wash with fresh water. Shuffle feet lightly while wading to scare stingrays away.
- It is not safe to climb on fortifications.
- Beware of fire ants and be sure to bring insect repellent, especially during the warmer months (May-Sept).