Gulf Islands National Seashore & More

Stretching eastward 47 miles, from the entrance to Pensacola Bay to Fort Walton Beach, skinny Santa Rosa Island is home to the resorts, condominiums, cottages, restaurants, and shops of Pensacola Beach, the area's prime vacation spot. This small, low-key resort began life a century ago as the site of a beach pavilion, or "casino," as such facilities were called back then; and the heart of town -- at the intersection of Pensacola Beach Boulevard, Via de Luna, and Fort Pickens Road -- is still known as Casino Beach. This lively area has restaurants, snack bars, an arcade, a miniature golf course, public restrooms, walk-up beach bars with live bands blaring away, an indoor sports bar, and an outdoor concert pavilion. The shops, restaurants, and bars of Quietwater Boardwalk are across the road on the bay side of the island. If you want an active beach vacation, it's all here.

One reason Pensacola Beach is so small is that most of Santa Rosa Island is included in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Jumping from island to island from Mississippi to Florida, this magnificent preserve, possibly the best beach in the state, includes 150 miles of undeveloped and federally protected white-sand beach and dunes covered with sea grass and sea oats. Established in 1971, the national seashore is a protected environment for more than 280 species of birds. In the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil-spill disaster, Gulf Islands National Seashore is on a constant oil vigil, an official National Park Service statement saying, "The nature of oil's movement means we cannot predict which, if any, beaches will have oil on them or the quantity of oil to be found at any given time." During the spill, more than 700 sea-turtle nests along the gulf coast were carefully excavated and relocated across the Florida peninsula to be hatched and released in the Atlantic.

The most interesting part of the seashore is Fort Pickens (tel. 850/934-2635; www.nps.gov/guis), on the western end of Santa Rosa Island, about 7 miles west of Pensacola Beach. Built in the 1830s to team with Fort Barrancas in guarding Pensacola's harbor, this brick structure saw combat during the Civil War, but it's best known as the prison home of Apache medicine man Geronimo from 1886 to 1888. The visitor center has a small museum featuring displays about Geronimo, coastal defenses, and the seashore's ecology. Plan to be here at 2pm, when rangers lead 45-minute tours of the fort (the schedule can change, so call the fort to make sure). Seven-day admission permits (that's the minimum you can get) to the Fort Pickens area are $8 per vehicle, $3 per pedestrian or bicyclist, and free for holders of National Park Service passes. The fort and museum are open March through October daily from 9:30am to 5pm, November through February daily from 8:30am to 4pm. Both are closed Christmas Day.

The Fort Pickens area has 200 campsites (135 with electricity) in a pine forest on the bay side of Santa Rosa Island. Nature trails lead from the camp through Blackbird Marsh and to the beach. Camping fees range from $10 to $30. Call tel. 800/365-2267 for reservations (enter code GUL) or 850/934-2623 for recorded information.

The national seashore's headquarters are in the 1,378-acre Naval Live Oaks Area, on U.S. 98, a mile east of Gulf Breeze (tel. 850/934-2600). This former federal tree plantation is a place of primitive beauty, with nature trails leading through the oaks and pines to picnic areas and a beach. Pick up a map at the headquarters building, which has a small museum and a gorgeous view through the pines to Santa Rosa Sound. Picnic areas and trails are open from 8am to sunset year-round, except Christmas. Admission is free. The visitor center is open daily from 8am to 5:30pm.

The national seashore maintains historic Fort Barrancas, on the U.S. Naval Air Station west of town.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.