Gulf Islands National Seashore

A woman walks along the board walk over the dunes

Growing up in Arkansas I assumed everyone flocked to the Gulf of Mexico during the summer because it was the closest salt water beach to us. But after visiting Gulf Islands National Seashore, I soon realized Arkansans don’t go to the Gulf simply because it’s close, it’s a prime destination, and we are lucky to be close.

Feet are shown in the water on the beach

While camping on the Atlantic Ocean once on Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina I chatted with a local. When he found out I was from Arkansas, he said, “Oh, I bet you go to the Gulf of Mexico a lot.” At that point, I had never been. Looking back, he didn’t make the comment because I’m close to the Gulf, it was because it’s a great destination.

Gulf Islands National Seashore is a wonderful place for a beach trip without the hustle and bustle of beach towns and people

I was in my 30s before I ever visited the Gulf. As a lover of public lands, I just assumed beach towns were full of drunk college kids or families working on their tans. I’ll take high-rise free wild spaces, please! I thought before I realized you can visit the beach without the city.

The dunes are shown at Gulf Islands National Seashore

But when my sister invited me on our first trip to Pensacola Beach, Florida, I, of course, immediately began perusing maps. While looking at maps on Google, I noticed our condo was only about a quarter of a mile from Gulf Islands National Seashore, and the entire western part of the barrier island was green on the map – meaning wild spaces.

Gulf Islands National Seashore

A series of barrier islands that stretch from Mississippi to Florida comprise Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Six smaller islands are off the coast of Mississippi and can only be accessed by boat. Passenger ferries can transport visitors from Gulfport and Biloxi to the national seashore.

The sea is shown through the dunes

In Florida, Gulf Islands National Seashore dots along a longer barrier island, Santa Rosa Island, which is also home to popular beach destinations Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach. The national seashore also inhabits the eastern portion of Perdido Key in the westernmost part of Florida.

Davis Bayou and Fort Barrancas are located on the mainlan and offer visitors displays of history and a tour of the unique nature where the mainland turns to the sea.

A diverse ecosystem

There are many levels to a barrier island, and Gulf Islands National Seashore showcases all of them. I feel this aspect of visiting the beach is lost when you only stay in towns or populated places. Because there, people have paved over the diverse ecosystem.

Wetlands on a barrier island at Gulf Islands National Seashore is shown

A barrier island is flanked by a sound and the ocean, or in this case the Gulf. It is also comprised of maritime forest, which includes the Yaupon holly and pine trees, and wetlands. Between this ecosystem and beach are the dunes.

Dunes at sunset are shown

Across the sound on the mainland, you find estuaries, a mix of saltwater and freshwater. And further inland you find the bayous.

More than just beach time

Sure when you go to the beach, laying on white sand adjacent to turquoise water and soaking up the sun is nice, and I highly suggest it! But there is a lot of other fun and interesting things to do at Gulf Islands National Seashore. By the way, the white sand does not get hot!

Fort Pickens is shown
Fort Pickens is shown

There are several historic sites you can tour and learn about like Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, and Fort Massachusetts.

A tunnel at Fort Pickens is shown at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Inside Fort Pickens

Birding and other wildlife watching are also popular on Gulf Islands National Seashore. According to the park’s brochure, more than 400 fish species, 300 bird species, and a dozen federally listed threatened and endangered species call the park home.

Some wildlife who make their home at the park include dolphins, Perdido Key beach mouse, ghost crab, diamondback terrapin, and Alligator. Also keep your eyes out for baby loggerhead turtles, which hatch at the park. Some of the birds include the snowy plover, black skimmer, American oystercatcher, red-winged blackbird, osprey, and great blue heron.

A woman rides a bike on the island at sunset

Biking, hiking, and, snorkeling are also fun because you can slow down and experience the area with all senses. On my first trip, we rented bikes in Pensacola Beach rode along the seashore’s main road. We had a wonderful time.

There are many hiking trails, and the Florida Trail begins at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Boating and fishing are also very popular at the park.

Camping

There are two campgrounds on Gulf Islands National Seashore – Davis Bayou Campground and Fort Pickens Campground. Davis Bayou offers 52 campsites with electricity, and Fort Pickens offers more than 100 campsites, most with electrical hookups.

Gulf Island National Seashore, a must visit

I highly recommend visiting this national seashore for anyone who plans a beach vacation along the Gulf of Mexico. It really shows you what the area looked like before human settlement, is full of history and just plain beautiful. Also, if you are a lover of national parks, I highly recommend putting national park beaches on your list.

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Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi is a wonderful alternative or addition to visiting the beach for your summer vacation.

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