Fort Pickens Discovery Center occupies a quiet, protected peninsula just offshore from the city of Pensacola. Despite its proximity to all that Pensacola has to offer, Fort Pickens itself feels like another world well-removed from the hustle of the city.
A ferry ride or a short, scenic drive will set you up for a few hours (or an entire day) of discoveries. Fort Pickens itself is a pentagon-shaped fortress that workers began to build in the mid-1800s–in part, as an effort to fortify all U.S. forts after the War of 1812. The Fort Pickens Discovery Center will give you a glimpse into the life of the area at different points of its history; it was a Union stronghold during the Civil War, for instance.
A 15-minute Ranger-guided walking tour is entertaining and fun for anyone with even a slight interest in the area’s history and natural beauty; tour guides are efficient and knowledgeable, and you might be surprised at how mesmerizing the history of place becomes as you walk among the fort’s ruins. The ruins of the fort itself are well-maintained and open to remarkably wide exploration. Wear good walking shoes, and get ready to climb a slew of stairs to get the most from the fort itself! You’ll get to see cannons overlooking the Gulf as well, and depending on the timing of your visit, you may get to see and hear the cannon fire.
Even non-history buffs will enjoy a stop at the Fort Pickens Discovery Center. The natural beauty of the well-preserved coastal areas here is spellbinding–especially compared to the beaches toward the city of Pensacola itself. Beaches here tend to be less crowded, and it’s not unusual to spot ospreys and pelicans while wandering.
The Discovery Center serves as a visitor center and small museum, featuring many hands-on exhibits for visitors of all ages. You’ll find an array of video-watching opportunities to learn more about the history and wildlife of the area. The attached gift shop and bookstore allow history buffs to dig deeper, and also stocks cold drinks and snacks for those looking to escape the heat of the day for a bit of a break.
The Fort Pickens Discovery Center is located at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, a scenic 35-40 minute drive from downtown Pensacola. It’s a great stop when exploring the Gulf Islands National Seashore, whether you want to spend just a couple of hours or make a day of it.
– Wear solid walking shoes if you want to explore the fort; although the park is very accessible to those with limited mobility, if you want to climb stairs to explore the ruins more thoroughly, you’ll want sturdy walking shoes.
– This is a great escape for a beach outing; beaches at Fort Pickens State Park tend to be far less crowded than many others in the Gulf Shores area.