Discover the rugged natural beauty of the Emerald Coast at the Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve, where a peaceful and surprisingly secluded experience awaits. Spanning over 34,000 acres, this expansive preserve covers the western portion of Santa Rosa Island, as well as the eastern side of the Perdido Key. These key locations deliver a varied habitat, complete with seagrass and salt marshes.
Famously referred to by U.S. Congressman Jeff Miller as “a rare taste of old Florida,” the Fort Pickens region has long been a favorite hideaway among locals — and it remains largely forgotten among the vacationers who pack the Emerald Coast’s many other attractions. As such, it delivers a delightfully serene experience, free of the crowds you might typically find at the area’s most popular public beaches.
While fishing, diving, and a variety of other activities are available and encouraged at the preserve, exploration is arguably the most enjoyable pursuit. As you purposefully lose yourself within the expansive scenery of the preserve, you’ll observe not only the untouched beauty of Florida’s natural habitats, but also the many threatened and endangered species that call this space home. Keep an eye out for shorebirds, nesting sea turtles, and bottlenose dolphins.
If there is one downside to visiting this pristine preserve, it’s the occasional presence of noise pollution. Due to its location near the Pensacola Ship Channel and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the preserve sometimes sees heavy boat traffic. Some visitors regard this as a unique and enjoyable element of the Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve experience, while others view it as a nuisance. Despite the boat traffic, the preserve remains a wonderful place to visit, especially if you’re determined to see the Emerald Coast in its natural state.
A few of our favorite activities and amenities include the following:
If you’re ready to check off a few difficult-to-find birds on your list, you’ll find plenty of opportunities at the Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve, which is home to over 280 species. Grab your binoculars and your best camera — and set aside plenty of time to explore and observe.
Fishers of all levels adore the Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve, where a multitude of commonly sought species can be found in great supply. Highlights include flounder, snapper, redfish, grouper, and mackerel. Fishers can often be spotted on sea kayaks, although a variety of other vessels are also relied on for local excursions.
It’s not every day you get to witness a preserve within a preserve. That’s exactly what you’ll find at the Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve, which is home to a protected underwater archeological site known as the USS Massachusetts. This spot is regularly visited by dedicated diverse.
Interestingly, the USS Massachusetts was once best known as “the worst battleship ever made.” Its poor design left it vulnerable to a variety of accidents, the last of which proved damaging enough to have the ship retired and later recommissioned purely for the purpose of target practice. Since then, the wreck has become a full-on reef, where huge schools of fish and dolphins can regularly be spotted.
Whether you intend to dive to the USS Massachusetts, score a great catch while fishing, or simply spot a few new birds, you’ll have no trouble keeping entertained at the diverse and extremely beautiful Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve.
– Access is restricted in select portions of the preserve due to an ongoing seagrass restoration project made possible by a Prop Scar Restoration grant. Educational signs highlighting the various grass flats and restricted areas can be found at local boat ramps.
– The preserve is most easily accessible by boat, so plan ahead if you’re not already equipped with a reliable vessel.