Set at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens is one of the most historically fascinating sections of Gulf Islands National Seashore along the Florida and Mississippi Gulf of Mexico coasts. Its centerpiece is Fort Pickens itself, but the grounds also include vintage batteries as well as plenty of visitor facilities and recreational sites.
Named for the Revolutionary War commander Andrew Pickens, Fort Pickens was built in 1834 to defend Pensacola Bay. The five-bastion complex fronted the water with a bristling array of cannons and defended its eastern landward side with a sloping glacis and a counterscarp. During the Civil War, which saw the nearby Fort McRee (on the eastern tip of Perdido Key) and Fort Barrancas (on the mainland in Pensacola) occupied by Confederate forces, Fort Pickens remained under Union control. The Confederates attempted to overtake the fort on October 9, 1861, in the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, but the “blue-coat” defenders held firm—a prelude to the eventual successful Union sieges of the other forts.
Fort Pickens isn’t the only military relic here. Several gun batteries stand on this island height as well, some dating from World War II when defense of Pensacola Bay against potential assault from German U-boats was beefed up. These days, Battery Worth hosts a picnic area.
You can learn more about the backstory of Fort Pickens as well as the area’s ecological systems and wildlife at the Discovery Center, which includes some fascinating exhibits that’ll appeal to all ages.
The largest and most popular campground in Gulf Islands National Seashore by far is found in the Fort Pickens area, with multiple loops encompassing more than 100 sites. Fort Pickens also marks the northern trailhead for the roughly 1,000-mile-long Florida National Scenic Trail, one of the premier outdoor adventures in the Sunshine State; the southern terminus is all the way down the peninsula in another unit of the National Park Service, Big Cypress National Preserve.
Any and all history buffs are sure to enjoy a visit to Fort Pickens, where the military installations span more than a century of Pensacola Bay fortifications. Meanwhile, with the sprawling campground, the exhibits on display in the Discovery Center, and the picnicking, fishing, and hiking possibilities, this is one of the all-around tourism hotspots in the Gulf Islands National Seashore complex and a definite highlight of Pensacola Beach’s backyard.
– You don’t need a fishing license to cast (recreationally, that is) from the Fort Pickens Fishing Pier, given it’s an officially state-licensed saltwater fishing pier.