The largest of three military installations to supplement island protection following the War of 1812, Fort Pickens State Park is a true preservation of history, nature, and wildlife. Situated on the western point of Santa Rosa Island in Northwest Florida, this park is an exciting destination for anyone who enjoys historical sites, nature, and fresh air activities. Locals love to visit the park in the off-season from October to April. This destination offers something for everyone from historic armories and battle stations to wildlife and, of course, the 175 year old Fort Pickens itself.
Fort Pickens State Park spans the western seven miles of the island and is home to hundreds of species of wildlife and plants. Inside of the park are trails and boardwalks that are part of the Florida Mountain Bike Trails tour and there are plenty of them to go around. Most trails are accessible by bike and all are accessible by foot totaling 6 miles of hiking or biking enjoyment. Heavy on wildlife, it is not rare to discover all kinds of animals native to the area. Wild herrings, armadillos, and many other creatures populate the park.
Not far into the main bike trail, which also connects many of the Fort’s artillery bunkers and rifling points, campers and visitors will cross one of the natural waterways that run through the park. The accompanying foot bridge allows visitors to view the turtles, fish, and marine bird species that like to congregate at the waters edge. The adventurous can leave the beaten path and explore many side trails that branch from the wider bike trails. Many of the side trails lead to the beautiful quarts white beach for which the area is famous, where visitors can find secluded areas to relax and take in the view.
Scattered across the sprawling park are redoubts used for long range rifling and cannon barrages. Each of the battle stations and artillery holds are a preserved piece of history and are included in the visitors guide obtained at the main entrance. A museum of island history is located in the park at which visitors can view and learn about the wildlife around them and other interesting facts about the surrounding areas of nature. The sea wall is prime real estate for fisher people as well, where many game fish can be coaxed onto a hook. Shell hunting along the sugar white beach is a popular activity for campers and locals, alike.
Fort Pickens itself is a preserved structure that is situated on what was once water front. Although island movement has put the fort further inland, miles of beach and bay can be viewed from atop the fort. (Visitors can learn all about island movement and other island phenomenon at the on-site museum.) Restored battle stations, cannons, and artillery rooms are plentiful throughout the fort. Enthusiast will enjoy exploring winding cellars, narrow passageways, underground bunkers, and raised grassy knolls.
This sprawling structure is a history book of information. Numbered placards and a printed tour guide are all that’s needed to learn the history of the fort and surrounding battle stations, how each area of the fort was used, and even stories about the people who worked or were detained there. One example is the famous Native American Geronimo who served a stint at Fort Pickens during his capture by the military. This story, among others, paints the richly historic background of the area.
An important note to visitors of the Fort Pickens State Park: Always check on the latest condition of the park roads and access. While the park is open, has much to explore, and camping sites available, RV campers and those that do not have a boat will need to walk or bike to the park. After the catastrophic hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, Fort Pickens suffered severe damage to the sand dunes that once surrounded the road leading to the park. Visitors may access the park on foot, by bicycle, or by boat. However, the two mile hike will be well worth it as is immediately obvious once visitors encounter the pine forests and fresh air. Along the road to the fort are many areas of interest, side roads and trails, artilleries, and a historic cemetery.
Known locally for its wildlife and hidden vantage points of the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Pickens State Park is a year round park attracting hundreds of visitors and campers each year. With so many species of wildlife, it’s a rare occasion that one doesn’t encounter one of these creatures while exploring the remote west end of Santa Rosa Island. From beginning to end, the park offers up much more than camping and seashells. Thick in history and loaded with adventure, Fort Pickens State Park is the destination of choice for enthusiasts of all types who travel to the gulf coast.