Gulf Islands National Seashore

Our next two stops were both at Gulf Islands National Seashore. This beautiful area of protected coastline along the Gulf of Mexico is found in both Florida and Mississippi. The two sections of the park are very different in character from one another, but both well worth visiting.

Gulf Islands Florida

Across from Pensacola is a long strip of island that is so narrow that at times you can see the water on both sides from the road. There are several different bridges that take you to the island, and if you choose wisely you can get across one without paying a toll. The eastern part of the island resembles any other beach community. As you drive down the road, you can at times glimpse the sparkling water through the gaps between beach front hotels. It is dense with chain restaurants, souvenir stores, surf shops, and billboards. There are people everywhere, even in March, dodging the traffic. Each intersection is a repeat of the same for miles, until you reach the border of the National Seashore area. And you can almost get out and draw a line in the sand where the border goes, because suddenly it all just stops. It’s like your eyes can exhale. Cross that line and it is completely undeveloped. There are sand dunes and drifting sand that needs to be plowed from the road. There are small, sand-dwelling bushes and plants, but nothing that obstructs your view of the blue water of the Gulf, stretching all the way to the horizon. A paradise unpaved, except for a single strip of road. And a campground.

Once we arrived we realized why it had been so difficult to get a reservation at the Fort Pickens Campground. We were lucky to find a space for one night but wish we could have stayed longer. Like so many national park campgrounds, this one was well-equipped and maintained without destroying the natural feel of the area. It was a short walk to a beautiful beach that we had mostly to ourselves, despite the campground being fully booked.

At the westernmost end of the island is historic Fort Pickens. A guided ranger tour helped us learn more about this pre-Civil War era fortress, built by predominantly slave labor, and perfectly situated to defend the mainland while being itself largely protected from hurricanes. The kids completed several Junior Ranger activities as they explored “secret” passageways and learned how cannons were fired.

ranger tour

Learning about Fort Pickens from the perspective of some of the people who lived and worked there

 

giant cannon

Look at this giant cannon!!

 

secret passageways

Forts are full of nooks and crannies where the imagination can run wild!

After touring the fort, we hit the beach and stayed long into the evening until rumbling tummies and cooling temperatures forced us home to get dry, warm, and fed. Since check-out time was noon, we promised some beach time again in the morning once we had the camper packed up and ready to pull out. But overnight the temperature dropped about 10 degrees and the wind was gusting. We went to the beach anyway but it wasn’t long before the struggle between the longing to be on the beach and the desire to get warm brought the kids to teeth-chattering tears. It was time to get on the road and head to Mississippi.

sand castle

Sand castle, under construction

 

national seashore

Hello Gulf of Mexico!

 

beach baby

Not to be left out of the action!

Gulf Islands Mississippi

We thought the Mississippi end of the park would be pretty much more of the same, but we were very wrong. We pulled off the main highway into the wooded Davis Bayou area of the National Seashore. It was very pretty, but not at all what we’ve come to expect from a national seashore – as in, we generally find a sea shore. Most of the Mississippi part of the park is on barrier islands only accessible by boat, and unless you have a private boat, you can only reach it in season from a different part of Mississippi. Minus points again for poor research and planning.

The Davis Bayou area has hiking trails, a fishing pier, picnic areas and a visitor center in addition to the campground where we stayed. The kids finished up the junior ranger activities that they started on the Florida side and we explored some areas around the visitor center, but the weather was cloudy and chilly so we took it pretty easy. On Sunday we found a local church to worship with and took advantage of the nearby town for running some errands.

The Mississippi part of Gulf Islands National Seashore was a good stop not far off of our route west along the I-10, but as a destination in itself we weren’t impressed. Granted, we weren’t able to take advantage of most of the park, but for the Davis Bayou area we felt that 2 nights was sufficient and we were ready to continue our travels west.

 

 

If you’re looking for a beautiful, natural beach environment on the Gulf Coast of Florida, then Gulf Islands National Seashore is hard to beat! Next time we will try to have more advance notice and hope for better availability there. If your path runs closer to the Mississippi end of Gulf Islands, do your homework and plan ahead much better than we did.

Have you been to Gulf Islands National Seashore? Has anyone been to the barrier islands on the Mississippi side? Is it worth making the trip back there? What do you look for in a good beach spot?

 

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