Millions of visitors flock to Gulf Islands National Seashore for outdoor recreation along the Gulf of Mexico. With hiking, paddling and swimming in the calm waters, there are plenty of ways to stay active and immerse yourself in nature.
Gulf Islands National Seashore offers more than 135,000 acres of beach and natural resources on the Gulf Coast of Florida and Mississippi. The Florida side of Gulf Islands National Seashore is located near Pensacola and offers beaches, many historic forts, and more than 35 miles of hiking trails. Pelicans, warblers, osprey and many types of gulls call Gulf Islands home.
Glistening white sand lines the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and contrast with the aquamarine waters at Perdido Key, home to Johnson Beach. This is one of the most beautiful beaches in Gulf Islands’ section of Florida. Wade into the gentle waves of another popular section, Opal Beach, located in the Santa Rosa Day Use Area. Dolphins can often be seen from the shores as they glide through the water.
What Makes It Great
With its maritime forests, hidden bayous and marine habitats, Gulf Islands National Seashore is the perfect spot to become one with nature. Inland, the undeveloped land is home to winding nature trails and historic remnants. For hikers, the Northern Terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail is accessible from Fort Pickens inside the park boundaries of Gulf Islands National Seashore. This trail stretches 1,300 miles into south Florida, and 28.2 miles are located in the park. This section of the trail begins at Fort Pickens and follows an oyster bed, travels across Navarre Beach and eventually departs from the park’s boundaries.
Naval Live Oaks Area of Gulf Islands features more than 7.5 miles of trails to hike. One of the shorter trails, but among the most educational and scenic is the Breckenridge Nature Trail. The 0.8-mile trail makes a figure-eight path and features descriptive signs to identify plants. The oaks along this trail were used in shipbuilding in the early days. Another scenic trail that travels through the longleaf pines is the Beaver Pond Trail. The one-mile trail leads to a beaver dam at the north end of the trail, and is a prime spot for wildlife viewing. The Naval Live Oaks Area is located east of Gulf Breeze, Florida.
Who is Going to Love It
The hiking trails at Gulf Islands National Seashore are all flat and are perfect for any level of hiker. The mix of both beach and maritime forest hiking offers ample opportunities to spot different wildlife, including the Perdido Key Beach Mouse, river otters, foxes, beavers, and more than 300 species of birds. A guide to spotting the native wildlife: mammals are best spotted in the morning and evenings. Amphibians are often out after rain or in the evenings, and reptiles sunbathe during cool afternoons.
Those who want to snorkel in the waters will want to explore the 1906 tugboat wreckage, 0.9 miles east of the Fort Pickens Ranger Station on the bayside.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Gulf Islands National Seashore is open year-round. Perdido Key is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Santa Rosa Day Use Area and Naval Live Oaks is open 8 a.m. to sunset. For a full list of park hours, visit the website. The park fee for Gulf Islands National Seashore is $7 per person and is valid for one to seven days.
Lifeguards are on duty at Opal Beach, Johnson Beach, Langdon Beach and Perdido Key Area, so be aware of the flags that fly from their stand. Green flags signal all is clear, yellow flags indicate currents and medium surf, while red flags indicate high currents and rough surf. A purple flag signals dangerous marine life has been spotted.
Note that pets are not allowed on the beaches, but are allowed on all trails as long as they are on a six-foot or shorter leash.