The Gulf Islands National Seashore
And so, we followed the water west. Soon we were driving through Panama City, then the resort area of Panama Beach. Further west, the conglomeration of Miramar Beach, Destin and Fort Walton were negotiated through. Lots of commercialism and heavy traffic. Businesses of all kinds catering to tourists and seasonal residents. Mile after mile. Not our kind of place. We drove on, finally going through a brief interlude of pine forests and deserted beaches before entering the town of Gulf Shores. It was there we made a turn, taking another long bridge to another barrier island. Santa Rosa Island stretches for 40 miles along the gulf coast, with a stark contrast of personalities.
You enter the island to La-La Land . . . restaurants, nightspots, shops, stores and souvenir places galore. Places to play and while away lazy afternoons and evenings—miniature golf courses, movie theaters, even a huge Ferris Wheel. What were we getting into?
But then we made a right turn (two meanings to that word). Soon the span of high-rises was in our rearview mirror. Ahead of us was a landscape of spreading sand dunes and waist-high sea oats, with a scattering of wind-ravaged, stunted live oaks. We approached the gates of the national seashore.
Sometimes, our government does things right. Preserving (and thereby saving) certain parcels of land is perhaps what our national park system is really all about. I’m sure this national seashore is a testimony to that objective. And this particular stretch of seashore was definitely worth saving. The landscape spread out before us literally gave us both pause . . . and almost simultaneously we exclaimed “It looks exactly like snow!”
Congress established Gulf Islands National Seashore in 1971 to provide recreation and to protect the wildlife, barrier islands, salt marshes, historic structures, and archeological sites along the Gulf of Mexico. There are historic forts, shaded picnic areas, trails, and campgrounds. Of the ten national seashores in the National Park Service, seven are located along the east coast, two along the gulf and one on the west coast. GINS is the largest, encompassing land both in Florida and Mississippi.
After our initial astonishment, we both lapsed into silence while we drove the four miles to the campground. With the white sand reflecting the warm colors of the late afternoon sun, the setting couldn’t have been more inviting. If ever there was a pristine landscape . . . this was it. The white sands of St. George Island paled in comparison to this place, whose sands were easily as white as the newly-fallen, driven snow. I think we were going to like this place.
As well as being very happy with our campsite. There were two separate camping areas, both having water and electrical hookups (another happy aspect). Loop A seemed to have more tree cover and that was where we found our site, sandwiched between two knarly live oaks. A prime site, unless one’s RV happens to be just slightly taller than ours (which many happen to be). Overhanging branches prevent the high-profiles from parking here. But there were plenty of other sites able to accommodate those big beasts . . . many here for the maximum 2-week stay. Chris wasted no time in setting up our trailer in its full regalia.
There’s plenty to do here at the Fort Pickens Unit of GINS, both recreational and educational. On our first morning we were anxious to do both, so we put on our helmets and biked the few miles to the namesake of this place.
One of the lessons our country learned during the War of 1812 was that our key naval ports were not well defended. Intended to be a line of first defense against foreign invaders, Fort Pickens was begun in 1829 and completed in 1834. The fort is the largest of four built to defend Pensacola Bay and its Naval Ship Yard. Constructed on the westernmost tip of Santa Rosa Island, originally it was 75 feet from the gulf waters (now it’s more like three-quarters of a mile). Three other forts situated around the Bay were built around the same period, all having the purpose of defending the significant deep-water harbor of Pensacola Bay as well as the Navy Yard. Ironically, the fort was never involved in battle against foreign enemies; the only conflict occurring here was in the early months of our Civil War. Fort Pickens was the only fort held by Union forces, the others by the Confederate Army. We explored the premises and later took a ranger-guided tour.
Fort Pickens went through periods of time when it was totally abandoned. After the Civil War, the fort was used to imprison the Apache Indian, Geronimo, along with 15 of his warriors after being captured in Arizona in 1886. With no way off the island except by boat, the Indians weren’t kept in cells, and were allowed the freedom of the premises. Tourists began to visit the fort to see him and the others, where they remained for a couple of years. He and the others were then relocated to a reservation in Oklahoma, where he would live for another 20 years. (Geronimo)
Fort Pickens remained in use until 1947. During the two World Wars many changes were made to the fort, including the addition of weapon batteries both inside as well as the immediate area outside the fort. New cannons were installed, some of which have been left on display. After WWII the fort once again was abandoned. It became a Florida State Park before becoming part of the GINS in 1971.
By the end of our first full day we knew that this place had a lot of offer as well as being in such a scenic location. Having one of the best sites in the campground made our decision definite. Discovering our site would be available, we added three extra days to the three we had already reserved. Now we settled in, relaxed a little and began to enjoy the following days in a more leisurely manner.
We walked the beaches several times. Melinda even moreso. As usual, she went out early to catch sunrises, stayed out while the light warmed the dunes, and then later would end the days at some other spot she had lined up. Actually, just about every place one looked it was easy to see something photogenic. The form of the dunes, the twisted shapes of the oaks, the shore birds wading around, all set off by the brilliant pure white sand.
Part Two follows . . .