Exploring The Parks: Fort Pickens At Gulf Islands National Seashore

Fort Pickens in GUISFort Pickens from top of stairs

Fort Pickens views. All photographs by Danny Bernstein

If you want to understand why Fort Pickens in Gulf Islands National Seashore was built, you need to really listen and read the words of our national anthem.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,

O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.


The British burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, but Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor kept the British fleet out. After all the bombing by the most powerful fleet in the world at the time, our flag was still flying, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner. The fact that Fort McHenry held firm led the U.S. military to conclude that masonry forts were the answer to homeland security.

After the War of 1812, Congress created a cohesive system of national defense. At the time, national defense meant protecting the country from a naval invasion. So, castle-like forts were built at all major harbors. The fort-building was fairly rampant; between 1816 and 1867 more than 30 forts were built, including Fort Monroe (Virginia), Fort Sumter (South Carolina), Fort Pulaski (Georgia), and Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida).

Ironically, foreign invaders never attacked these forts. During the Civil War, Fort Pickens stayed in Union hands; Gulf Islands alone has four forts. Fort Pickens, the largest, protected the Pensacola coastline until World War II.

Today, motels, private homes, restaurants, and shops appealing to tourists fill the beach community of Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island. Both ends of the wide, skinny island are part of the national seashore. Leaving the ice cream vendors and shops selling beach paraphernalia, I drive west into the pristine national seashore, heading for Fort Pickens. Pelicans and gulls now inhabit the beach. Sea oats hold the sand together on the barrier island. Unlike Cape Hatteras National Seashore, vehicles are not allowed to drive on the sand.

Once in the park but long before reaching Fort Pickens, I feel that this tip of land was a place of war, or at least, national defense. Between the Civil War and World War II, ten batteries were built to protect the coastline along today's six-mile drive. Battery Langdon, hidden behind vegetation, was constructed between 1917 and 1923. During World War II, soil camouflaged the structure to hide it from enemy aircraft. Though the area was never attacked by foreign enemies, artillery men felt the brunt of firing practice. "Lots of boys would bleed from the mouth and ears because of the concussions of the guns', a soldier observed during the 1940s.

At Battery Worth, completed in 1898, gun crews were advised to “stay loose and keep your mouth open.” Though cotton was available to stuff into their ears, the large majority of soldiers didn't use it. Most batteries have either a dirt path or stairs to the top. You don't have to appreciate military defense or understand how these weapons were supposed to work to be awed by the massive casemates--a fortified chamber from which guns fire.

In the middle of all this defense armament lies Chasefield Plantation cemetery. William H. Chase, who supervised construction of Fort Pickens, lived on the plantation. The headstones of several Chase family members were moved from land now occupied by Pensacola Naval Air Station.

After several more batteries, I reach the formal gates of Fort Pickens. This general location long was prized for its defensive posture. In the mid-1700s the British built the Royal Navy Redoubt on the mainland of today’s national seashore near Pensacola. The young United States saw Santa Rosa Island as a better position, and started work on Fort Pickens there in 1829. The project took five years and more than 21 million bricks. The five-sided brick fort came from the same design as the other forts of the era: the dry moat, sally port, casemates, secret rooms, and numerous tunnels.

You can spend the day exploring all the ups and downs and twists and turns of the fort. The fort houses the bookstore. One of the rooms shows the 15-minute introductory film, the start of any park visit. In the movie, the ranger historian takes you on a tour of the fort. After the film, check to see if there's a ranger-led tour of the fort scheduled. If not, pick up a self-guiding pamphlet and spend some time exploring on your own. You can wander by the Officer's Quarters, including those that held Apache prisoners in 1887, past the casements, and up onto the Tower Bastion, which provides sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico.

The fort was modernized several times to keep up with new threats of the times. The day after Fort Sumter surrendered, the fort was reinforced, preventing Confederates from controlling Pensacola Bay and using the Pensacola Navy Yard. In 1898, a concrete and earth gun battery, named Battery Pensacola, was built in the fort's parade ground. After a disastrous explosion and fire the next year, Fort Pickens was repaired and modernized. Atomic bombs, guided missiles, and long-range destroyers rendered obsolete the complete military structure at Santa Rosa Island. The last soldier left in 1947. First, the area became a Florida state park and then part of the national seashore in 1971.

From visiting many forts in the Southeast, I conclude that if it weren't for the War of 1812, we wouldn’t have all these national park units.

Fort Pickens is one of 12 areas comprising Gulf Island National Seashore in Mississippi and Florida. The state of Alabama, in between, chose not to become part of the National Seashore. In addition to visiting forts, you can walk flat, sandy trails, sail, camp, and watch birds. More than 80 percent of the seashore is underwater. The park describes itself as an "oasis in a sea of development."

Fort Pickens is also one end of the Florida National Scenic Trail. The trail meanders east and south for 1,300 miles to Big Cypress National Preserve. It's administered by US Forest Service and lovingly watched over by the Florida Trail Association. The organization builds, maintains, protects, and promotes the Florida Trail.

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On the Florida Trail

From the little study I've done, it seems that the trail has many of the same attributes as the Mountains-to-Sea Trail with challenging accommodations, some road walking, and changing conditions. Since the trail is so low, it's subject to flooding. The Association website lists detours, closures, and relocations. Twenty hikers finished the Florida Trail in 2011, many from all over the country. In comparison, 715 hikers became 2000-milers on the Appalachian Trail in the same year.

The Association information states that the trail may sound easy because there's essentially no climbing. However, the challenge is water, either too much or too little. As the website says In high water years portions of the trail may have to be waded, cutting your mileage in half. In low water years, water sources may be few and far between making for high mileage days between campsites.

On my visit, I walked about two miles on the Florida Trail from Fort Pickens in wonderful sunshine. A heron stood in a creek. An osprey sat proudly on its nest, on a tall dead tree. Several other ospreys were circling and squawking, probably letting me know that I'm in their territory. Red-winged blackbirds, cardinals and sparrows, and savannah sparrows flitted about. With so much water and open space, you're going to see flora and fauna. I can't dismiss the idea of walking the Florida Trail.