We’re narrowing down the best activities and must-see attractions within the white sand, idyllic dunes and historic sites known as GINS.
According to the National Park Service, the 160-mile seashore (which includes Florida and Mississippi) is America’s largest national seashore. That means endless options for fun and exploration, but I’m limited by time (and word count) so here are my top five picks for you.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: Entrance fees.
- Adults: $10/person or $20/car <15 people
- Annual pass: $40
THRIFTY ALERT: There are five days out of the year you can get free entry (January 20, April 18, August 25, September 26 and November 11)
1. Get Lost in Time
Ditch the map and explore the historic ruins – you’ve got plenty to pick from! Gulf Islands National Seashore’s Fort Pickens has a long history from its Civil War days and one-time status as a prison for the heroic Apache warrior Geronimo. But just across Pensacola Bay from Fort Pickens is also Fort Barrancas, located within Naval Air Station Pensacola. The National Park Service runs both historic sites, and you can take a guided tour to learn about each fort’s unique history or just tour the structures on your own time. PRO TIP: Dress accordingly as you’ll likely be doing a lot of walking/climbing!
2. Be One with Nature
Check out the Naval Live Oaks trails paralleling the Santa Rosa Sound in Gulf Breeze and be on the lookout for plenty of birds. There are an estimated 300 species to find there – likely why GINS is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Have you ever seen a Roseate Spoonbill? They’re like the area’s version of a flamingo. Talk about Instagram worthy!
Do some shell collecting, or just take a closer look at the nature along the shoreline. If you find something really neat, snap a pic and post it to www.inaturalist.org – they document wildlife sightings around the world. Everything from American Alligators to Atlantic Sea Pork (yes, Google it!) have been spotted at GINS.
Take a dip. If you thought the sights on land were cool, wait until you get into the crystal-clear water. Bring a snorkel, you’ll see lots of shells and fish. If you’re lucky, maybe even a sea turtle. PRO TIP: Bring a GoPro to document your experience.
3. Get Physical
BYOB: Bring your own board! Paddleboarding is a relaxing way to get up close and personal with critters in the water without actually having to get wet. Also, it’s a solid workout! If sitting down is more your speed, try kayaking. If you don’t have your own kayak or paddleboard – there are a few places on Pensacola Beach (before you get onto GINS) you can rent from. Just keep an eye out!
4. Pitch a Tent
Fort Pickens campground offers five camping loops with amenities to serve everything from RV’s to those simply pitching a tent. Loop A is the most popular, with live oaks and other trees providing shade over nearly all sites. Many sites can connect RVs. Costs range from $20 - $100 a night. Beach access is directly across the street and the Blackbird Marsh Trail, a nature trail with interpretive panels. Check out the details on the rest of the loops on the Fort Pickens Campground site. PRO TIP: If you’re more into glamping (glamorous camping) I don’t blame you, but be sure to reserve RV/trailer spots far in advance as they fill up quickly.
5. Guide Tours
Not brave enough to venture into the GINS wilderness alone? A guided tour may be more your style. A knowledgeable park ranger (yes, they wear the hat, and no, you can’t borrow it for a selfie) will take you on a tour around the area, hitting the most touristy spots.
ALL ABOARD — for a bonus activity!
- The ferries are a relatively new-ish option at GINS. Pensacola Bay Cruises operate The Turtle Runner and The Pelican. They run seasonally from downtown Pensacola to Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens. Bicycles, coolers, unicorn floaties, you name it— are all allowed. Tickets range from about $10 to $30 depending on the cruise. The best part? They have booze cruises! PRO TIP: Don’t be late. The ferry will leave without you (I know from personal experience).
There’s your guide to GINS – do have fun, don’t forget the sunscreen!
NOTE: GINS hours of operation fluctuate throughout the year. Check their website, https://www.nps.gov/guis/index.htm for updated hours before you make the trek out there!