Destination: Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens, Florida
A family man with a chronic case of wanderlust, Adam Porter cruises America’s highways and byways looking for the best and “best-kept secret” RV getaways.
Gulf Islands National Seashore Park includes a broken chain of Gulf Coast barrier islands that stretches across three states, from West Ship Island in Mississippi to Santa Rosa in Florida. The eastern and western halves of the shoreline chain are split by peninsular Alabama, and each is only accessible from their respective state’s mainland. In this article, we focus on the central section of the eastern wing: Pensacola Beach.
Let’s just cut to the chase. The postcards don’t lie; Pensacola Beach is gorgeous. It is also loud, boisterous and bathed in neon — the consummate coastal Florida tourist destination. The shoreline itself, despite the towering hotels and funky little beach bars blocking the view, is every bit as stunning as advertised, even when overcast October skies threaten rain. When I visited with my family, a storm had followed us across the Panhandle, into central Alabama and back. Fortunately, the next morning was clear and dry, offering the opportunity to not only explore Pensacola Beach but also discover an “in-plain-sight” surprise hiding around the corner from the surf-side strip.
WHAT TO DO AT PENSACOLA BEACH
Stop by the Pensacola Beach Visitor Information Center at 735 Pensacola Beach Blvd., near the intersection of Fort Pickens Road and the main shoreline drag, Via DeLuna. Keep an eye out for the multicolor “beach ball” water tower; you’ll find the center just before it. The friendly folks here can provide insider information on all the surf-and-turf fun to be had on Pensacola Beach.
- The beach, particularly along the Fort Pickens National Seashore (see below), is pristine — an endless expanse of sugar sand and inviting blue-green water.
- Visit the Pensacola Beach Pier for fishing and wildlife viewing. Catch mackerel, cobia, pompano, mahi-mahi, flounder, whiting, trout, redfish and even tarpon or bonito. See dolphin, manatees, sharks and rays. And stay for the amazing sunsets.
- Scuba enthusiasts flock to Pensacola to dive the USS Oriskany, one of world’s largest artificial reefs.
- Give water sports — including jet-skiing, paddle-boarding and windsurfing — a try.
- Charter a boat to fish inshore for redfish, pompano or cobia, or offshore for amberjack, grouper, wahoo and sailfish.
- Enjoy the eclectic annual events including the Blue Angels air shows; art, music and wine festivals; and live-music beach parties.
For information on local equipment rental vendors, charter services and events, click over to to the Visit Pensacola Beach website.
WHERE TO SHOP & EAT ON PENSACOLA BEACH
- Island Style — Find just about anything for a day at the beach. Located at 8715 Ortega Park Dr. in nearby Navarre; call 850.939.2777.
- Castaways — Fresh-catch seafood, sushi bar and after-hours nightclub. Eat inside or out. Located at 400 Quietwater Beach Rd.; call 850.934.6117.
- Crabs — Come here for crustaceans, including fresh local blue crabs, as well as cold beer and a waterside view. Located at 6 Casino Beach Boardwalk; call 850.932.0700.
- Flounder’s Chowder House — Part restaurant and bar, part artifact museum. Come hungry or just for drinks; either way, this place is worth a visit. Located at 800 Quietwater Beach Rd.; call 850.932.2003.
- The Grand Marlin — Enjoy excellent seafood dining and cocktails. Located at 400 Pensacola Beach Blvd.; call 850.677.9153.
- Paradise Inn Bar & Grill — Catch a good pub meal and some fun local music on the weekends. Located at 21 Via DeLuna; call 850.916.5087.
- Peg Leg Pete’s Oyster Bar — This family-friendly restaurant is known for its good food. If you like spicy, try the Cajun-style grouper. Located at 1010 Fort Pickens Rd.; call 850.932.4139.
My favorite reason to visit Pensacola Beach is found on the isolated western end of Santa Rosa Island. Fort Pickens National Seashore is more than a place to park your RV; it is an endless stretch of snow-white beach 10 minutes from a bustling tourist town, a place where you can roll down your windows and hear … absolutely nothing. Being so close to civilization, the silence seems magical — as if the dunes cast a sound-dampening spell.
During an age when coastal forts were the emphasis of effective national defense, harbors and ports depended on installations like Fort Pickens to keep potential invaders from setting foot on American soil. The largest of four coastal batteries protecting Pensacola Bay, Fort Pickens was in service for over a century. The history here is unmistakable, etched into every brick of a compound that was repeatedly reinforced and reimagined as military technology advanced.
- Work on the fort was initially completed in 1834, and the fort remained in use until 1947. Batteries in various stages of ruin are scattered around the west end of Santa Rosa Island. Two of these, Langdon and Worth, bookend the RV campground.
- The earliest batteries were built during a time when shore canons held a decided advantage in both range and accuracy over ship guns. The lynchpin here was a massive 15-inch Rodman canon — the largest smooth-bore canon ever used by the U.S. Army.
- The updated Battery Pensacola was constructed in 1898. Rifled canon replaced the outmoded smooth-bore version, increasing both the range and the accuracy of the guns.
- During the Civil War, Fort Pickens was one of four southern forts that remained in Union hands. The greatest battle, ironically, came not from the sea, but from an unsuccessful Confederate land attack during the fall of 1861.
- Fort Pickens once housed 16 imprisoned Apaches, including the infamous war leader, Geronimo.
While hiking the parade ground, it is easy to imagine the echoing footsteps of generations of American soldiers, shouted orders and the explosion of canon fire — the acrid smell of gunpowder mixing with a salty sea breeze. Walking through the dank and dark lower levels, you can almost feel the ghosts of the past: patriots, Yankees, rebels and the defeated remnant of a people whose world was forever changed. For information, visit the Fort Pickens National Seashore website or call 850.934.2600. Fort Pickens is located at 1400 Fort Pickens Rd., Pensacola Beach, FL 32561. GPS: 30.3303316, -87.2925574
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
If you come during summer, the free beach trolley service makes it easy to get around. Click over to the Visit Pensacola Beach website for an online “trolley tracker” and to view and download Pensacola Beach maps.
RV PARKS NEAR PENSACOLA BEACH
Fort Pickens Campground
Located along the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Pickens Campground is just a short walk from a secluded sugar-white sand beach and a quick drive to both historic Fort Pickens and downtown Pensacola Beach. Though, after passing several miles of nothing but blacktop and sandy dunes, you’ll feel utterly and blissfully secluded.
- Hookups: water and electric (50-amp)
- No Wi-Fi or cable TV
- Currently no pull-through sites; big rigs should try to stick to A Loop sites
- Family-friendly and pet-friendly
- NOTE: Fort Pickens Road is susceptible to flooding; before you come, call 850.934.2656 to confirm road conditions
Walk-ins are welcome from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the campground office, but reservations are recommended. Call Reserve America at 877.444.6777 or register online at Recreation.gov. To contact the campground directly, call 850.934.2621. According to the folks at the campground office, the campground has no specific address. We used the entrance address, 1400 Fort Pickens Rd., and just followed our nose. GPS: 30.324386, -87.189997