Everything that happens on a camping trip—whether in a resort campground in a fully equipped motor home, a small camper, or tenting—begins in and is often colored by the campground experience.
Have you ever heard camping summary comments that go something like this?
“You know, the rodeo (or other event) was sort of disappointing, but we really liked the campground. Yeah, we had a good trip.”
“The airshow (or other event) was okay. Might have enjoyed it more if the campground had been nicer. Won’t do that again.”
Now, we know that a campground really can not affect the quality of an airshow—but it can color the overall experience. A campground that meets campers’ expectations almost certainly ensures satisfaction with the trip.
Fort Pickens Campground
For Pickens Campground, on Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola, Florida, did not disappoint!
On the road again. We agreed when we got the Retro camper that we would make a point of using it “regularly”—that it would not sit idle for months at a time, a testament to “good intentions.” Right now, we are making good on that commitment. After John and I returned from our Michigan trip, my wife took it on a week-long trip to Stone Mountain, where, incidentally, she got to try out the modifications made by the factory and declared it a complete success.
Now we are in Fort Pickens State Park, near Pensacola. Florida. This is another multifaceted trip. First, it started as a gathering of my wife’s travel campers, and coincidentally, on the weekend of the last Blue Angels’ demonstrations for 2014. They are based at Pensacola Naval Air Station. When she said I was invited too, there was no hesitation.
Fort Pickens Campground
Summary: “We really enjoyed the airshow, and the campground was everything we expected.”
Fort Pickens Campground is located on the west end of Santa Rosa Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The campground is about six miles from the intersection with Fort Pickens Road and Rt 399.
There are four designated campgrounds, identified “A” through “D.” We had a spot in Campground A. This wooded camping area is in a scrub pine and live oak stand. There are 40+ paved sites along the “A” loop. Most sites are back-in pads, but there are one or two pull-through sites. Sites are level to a moderate slope. Campers can easily be leveled with the tongue jack and stabilizers. Each site is provided with a 30/50 amp electrical connections and water, a fire ring and grill, and a picnic table. There is a dump station in the loop. The clean, well maintained bathhouse, with separate showers and toilets, is heated in cooler weather. There is limited additional parking for second or guest vehicles. The campground accommodates everything from tents to motor homes.
Campgrounds B-D are similar, although there are some camp sites that are best suited for tents or small campers.
Activities and Experiences
From Campground A, there is access to several trails. The Blackbird Marsh Trail is a half-mile loop around a marshy area. The patient observer can spot many species of birds, occasional lizards and amphibians, and wildflowers. The trail is level and easy to walk. Mosquito repellent is recommended in warmer weather. It certainly is appropriate to spot eagles in a “national” park. We saw several eagles, both adults and the immature eagle in the photo.
Across from the entrance to Campground A, there is a board walk over the dunes to the gulf beach. Signs along the boardwalk interpret the view and the ecology of the dunes. The board walk provides an easy five-minute walk to the beach.
I found it most relaxing to take my folding chair and sit on the beach or up on the dunes and watch the surf, pelicans, wading birds and the occasional fisherman or surfer. The sand is sugar-white and just as fine.
On a walk down the beach I encountered some clever beach art left by some well-balanced beach goer.
The white sands of Santa Rosa Island are the perfect place for a long walk on the beach or through the dunes. Stop and create some sand art like the tribute to the Blue Angels that I came across.
Away from the beach in the dunes there were several varieties of colorful flowers and many butterflies.
Walking west further through the dunes, I came upon the last of Fort Pickens gun batteries. This 6-in. rapid fire gun, with the plotting tower in the background, was designed to provide coastal defense during World War II, but the war ended before it was activated. There is a second gun on the left side of the dune (see: The Batteries of Fort Pickens).
The guns of Battery 234 were intended for coastal defense during World War II, but were not activated before the war ended.
A bicycle built-for-two is great for getting around on the island and touring Fort Pickens. It is a little tough peddling through the fine, dry sand.
Not sure there are any bicycle tires suitable for the soft, dry sugar-like sand of the dunes.
The beach was active with shore birds, herons and gulls. Flights of pelicans soared low over the water, their flight path undulating with the waves beneath them.
I spotted a plover-like shorebird that I believe is a Ruddy Turnstone. The key identifying features are the yellow legs and broad round chest patch. If anyone knows for sure, let me know.
In Tennessee, Great Blue Herons are very wary of humans and it is difficult to get close for a good photo. Not so here. I believe this guy would have had his head in my bait bucket—if I had a bait bucket.
In the evenings on the beach, an impressive sunset is almost guaranteed, even with no clouds in the sky.
Our camping was coordinated with a group of campers. Evenings were spent on the beach, around a campfire, sampling camping cuisine, swapping stories, and discussing the day’s events and tomorrow’s plans (like going to the National Museum of Naval Aviation or the Blue Angels airshow, or fishing, or exploring).
We had several “fisher-women” in the group who enjoyed several afternoons surf fishing. There is a fishing pier that can be used by visitors without a Florida fishing license. There is also a public picnic pavilion with ample parking near the parks camp store and Worth Battery (see map above).
Historic Fort Pickens, a pentagonal fort built to defend Pensacola Bay in 1834, is just one mile from the campground. The structure was fortified with a number of gun batteries around the area after the War of 1812 and was one of four forts in the South never occupied by Confederates during the Civil War (See: Fort Pickens).
The campground is a short distance from restaurants and beach nightlife, downtown Pensacola, the Pensacola Naval Air Station and Naval Aviation Museum, the Pensacola Lighthouse and other historic sites. Campsites are within 1/4 mile of the beaches of the Emerald Coast of the Gulf of Mexico and Pensacola Bay.
The Fort Pickens camping area, offering 180 family sites with electricity and water, is open for reservations year-round. There is also a group camping with available water.
Access and Admission
Access to Santa Rosa Island and Fort Pickens is via US Route 98 to Gulf Breeze and then from Gulf Breeze to Santa Rosa Island via route 399 across a short toll bridge to Pensacola Island. Once on the island, follow signs to Fort Pickens—a right turn off of Rt 399. Fort Pickens is approximately seven miles from Rt 399.
It is necessary to arrive before the 5:00 pm closing time for the entrance gate and camping registration office. Registered campers receive a code to operate the entrance gate after hours.
Admission Fees – Day Admission
$ 3.00 per person (walking, jogging, bicycle, motorcycle, etc.)
$ 8.00 per vehicle up to 15 passengers. There are additional fees for groups of 15 or more, commercial tours, buses, etc.
Since it is part of the National Park System, passes such as the America the Beautiful pass provide significant discounts. The Senior Pass offers free admission to the park for everyone in the car—as many as 14 people if you have a big car— and fifty percent discounts on camping.
For more information, including rates for camping and to select a camping site on Fort Pickens go to: http://www.recreation.gov/camping/fort-pickens-campground/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=97219
Camping at Fort Pickens was a new experience—and a very pleasant one. The campground, although unremarkable in any specific detail, offered a very pleasant experience. Set in the middle of a Gulf coast barrier island, it truly can serve as a base for whatever you want to make of it; walks on the beach, cooking around the campfire, discovering history, exploring sand dunes, relaxing, fishing, surfing, access to good restaurants, or as a base to explore the many faces of Pensacola. Fort Pickens, Florida Camping Experience is a photo essay that describes the campground and our experiences within an easy walking distance.
Fort Pickens, Florida Camping Experience describes the campground and its immediate surroundings including the beaches, sand dunes, and historic Fort Pickens.