Gulf Islands National Seashore

Gulf Islands National Seashore is a beautiful stretch of land from Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island that is Florida coastland in its natural state at its best. Clear emerald water, sugary white soft quartz sand with un-touched sand dunes and natural habitats for wildlife. The protected areas that encompass Gulf Islands National Seashore are not a continuous shoreline.

Location: Northwest Florida / Emerald Coast

Additional Resources: Official Website

In Florida, there are 6 distinct areas of the seashore.

  • Johnson Beach area on Perdido Key
  • Fort Barrancas area on the Naval Air Station in Pensacola 
  • Fort Pickens area on East Pensacola Beach
  • Gulf Breeze area on Gulf Breeze
  • Santa Rosa Island area on West Pensacola Beach
  • Okaloosa Island area on Fort Walton Beach

Natural Florida & Beautiful Beaches

With a seashore that stretches 160 miles, there are plenty of places to enjoy the beautiful beaches. All of the areas offer a shoreline and 4 of the areas are directly on a barrier island where white sands, tall dunes and gorgeous wide beachfronts are the top feature. While these barrier island beaches are the main attraction at Gulf Islands National Seashore, there are two areas, Gulf Breeze and Fort Barrancas, that offer a glimpse of Florida’s natural areas on the other side of the barrier islands.

Johnson Beach Area on Perdido Key

* Beach, Dunes, Picnics, Wildlife, Bird-watching, Primitive Camping

The Perdido Key Florida area of the Gulf Islands National Seashore includes Johnson Beach which is a popular beach with picnic areas, fishing, hiking, biking, and swimming. This area is a haven for shore birds and wildlife with gorgeous beach dunes and wide open beachfront.

Fort Pickens Area

* Beach, Historical, Developed Campground, Visitor Center

Fort Pickens area of the Seashore is located at the westernmost end of Santa Rosa Island in Pensacola Beach. An interesting fact from our Pensacola Beach City Guide is that Fort Pickens was the only fort in the south not to be taken by confederate troops during the civil war and is recognized as an underground railroad location. This area extends across some of the areas most spectacular dunes and soft white sands.

Santa Rosa Island Area

* Beach, Picnics, Wildlife, Bird-watching

Santa Rosa Island area of the Seashore is on the eastern side of Pensacola Beach between Pensacola Beach and Navarre. There are numerous parking and access points with public restrooms, showers and picnic areas. This is the largest stretch of preserved dunes and extends from Pensacola Beach to Navarre Beach.

Okaloosa Island Area

* Beach, Picnics, Wildlife, Bird-watching

Okaloosa Island Day Use area is located on the easternmost area of Santa Rosa Island in Fort Walton Beach just west of Destin. It is a quiet natural area with picnic areas, public restrooms, outdoor showers and a boat launch for kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.

Gulf Breeze Area

* Picnics, Hiking, Wildlife, Bird-watching, Visitor Center

Gulf Breeze sits across the Santa Rosa Sound from Santa Rosa Island and features picnic areas, a small beachfront, and lots of nature to explore. The Naval Live Oaks Nature Preserve offers 7.5 miles of hiking trails with a place to launch a kayak or paddle board.

Fort Barrancas Area

* Historical, Lighthouse, Nature, Visitor Center

The Fort Barrancas Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore sits inside the Naval Air Station property. This is a historical site with Fort Barrancas and the Pensacola Lighthouse as the main attractions.



Image by National Park Service

The natural beachfront and dune habitats provide a natural habitat for all sorts of coastal animals. Wildlife includes sea turtles and other sea life, birds and small mammals. Protected Sea turtles nest in Florida from May through October. The Perdido Key Beach Mouse is particularly important as Perdido Key is the only home for this species of mice.

The Gulf Islands are also havens for water and shore birds. Gulf Islands National Seashore is the longest stretch of protected seashore in the country and the first stop for hundreds of migrating birds.

Hiking and Activities

With so many options and areas of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, the nature lover will never get bored. Activities include hiking directly on the beachfront, hiking through the natural habitats inland, snorkeling or scuba diving off-shore, fishing, boating, camping and biking. There are also fort tours and ranger-led programs at some of the areas.


Fort Pickens area offers a developed Campground with facilities. Reservations are recommended. Primitive camping is available at the east end of Johnson Beach, starting a mile from where the road ends.

Weather and Hurricanes

The Gulf Islands are highly affected by the weather and storms that pass through the area. Storms can shape and reshape the Barrier islands and the dune system that stretches along the Gulf Islands.

FloridaSmart Editor’s visit the area 1 month after Hurricane Sally. Dunes are flat. Johnson road has been cleared.

Hurricane Sally slammed the Pensacola area in September of 2020 causing roughly $4.5 million in damage to several of the Gulf Island areas. Perdido Key was hit particularly hard and Johnson Beach area was flooded. This caused many of the dunes to flatten and the end of the island was breached forming three isolated islands at the tip. Restoration started in 2021 with sand and vegetation being brought in. This long process is hindered by high winds and storms to the area.

Check the National Park Website for details on park hours, fees and more. 

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About the author

Patti Jewel

Patti Jewel, aka Beach Jewel and Florida Jewel, has been a life-long Florida resident, beach lover, mom to 4 amazing children, and someone who sees the glass as both half empty and half full but in either case, always wants to fill it up.