Fort Pickens: Pensacola Harbor Defense Turned Geronimo PrisonFebruary 20, 2011 1 Comment
Fort Pickens, Florida is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore that includes barrier islands along the Mississippi and Florida gulf coasts. Acquired by the National Park Service (NPS) in 1971, Fort Pickens today includes a series of former military defense batteries, a quartz sand beach and an extensive campground.
Fort Pickens Road
The new road, opened in 2009, is intentionally built below grade. This allows sand to wash over the road surface, minimizing damage from future flooding. However, it also means that the road may flood during even relatively minor storms, potentially stranding campers on the island for a few days. Call ahead to determine road conditions before your trip, and consider packing a few extra supplies.
As of 2011, it costs $8 per vehicle or $3 per person (biking, walking, etc.) to enter the Fort Pickens property. The fee is valid for up to seven days. A Gulf Islands Annual Pass costs $25. The park also honors National Park Service passes. Each pass provides free entry for everyone in the pass holder’s vehicle, or the pass holder plus three adults and all accompanying children.
Fort Pickens offer nearly 200 campsites on five loops. Loops A, C, and E are mostly used by RVs, while the smaller sites on loops B and D are best for tent campers. I was surprised to see how much the campground was shaped and changed by Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis. In 2003, my then-husband and I tent camped on a wonderfully spacious two-level site. We pitched our tent at the top of the small hill. Our fire ring was at ground level below. We lined the walkway between with tiki torches, which illuminated the site beautifully. Sadly, that gorgeous site was flattened by the hurricanes.
Nonetheless, the campground has been meticulously repaired. Some signs of damage remain, but the campsites are clean and well-maintained, each providing a fire ring and picnic table. The RV parking pads, which were recently resurfaced, are nicely level and free of debris. It is obvious that both the rangers and volunteers put a great deal of effort into the campground. A camp store sells a limited menu of food items along with a wide range of camping supplies, including firewood.
For most of the year, campground reservations are available on the websites reserveamerica.com and recreation.gov, and are highly recommended. From November through February, however, the campground is walkup-only. The main ranger station can advise you as to whether sites are available and provide any last-minute information you need. For example, shortly before we arrived there was a break in the water line. Although it had been repaired, Loops C and E were under a Boil Water Order. We chose to stay in Loop A to avoid having to boil our water.
Self-registration kiosks are located along the main roads to each campground loop. Simply take a list of site lengths and a self registration envelope. Choose your site and insert your payment into the envelope. Rip off the top flap of the envelope and place it on the post at your site, and deposit the envelope in the drop safe outside the Campground Office. You may pay by cash, check or credit card.
As of 2011, the camping fee is $20 per night for both tents and RVs. The National Park Service Golden Age and Golden Access passes, for seniors or those with disabilities, provide a 50 percent discount, although standard annual passes do not.
The Fort and Batteries
It is possible to visit both the main fort and the associated gun batteries in a single day. Guided fort tours are offered at 2 p.m. every afternoon, so we headed out around 10:30 a.m. to visit the batteries. We were able drive around and take photos, read descriptive signs and even get out to climb some of the batteries, and were finished by 1:30 p.m. We stopped by our RV for lunch, and then drove down to the fort.
The fort tour was a lot of fun. Our guide was terrific at providing history in an entertaining, easy to follow manner. Fort Pickens was built in the 1820s as part of a three-fort defensive line protecting the deep water port of Pensacola. Fort McRee sank into the ocean as part of the natural changes that occur on barrier islands, but the third fort, Barrancas, is open for tours on the grounds of the Pensacola Naval Air Station.
Constructed entirely of brick arches, which prevent them from sinking into the wet sand, both Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas provided excellent defense against the smooth-bore cannons of the 1800s. But they never saw real combat until the Civil War. Pickens remained in Union hands, while Barrancas was taken by the Confederacy. However, their cannons were accurate only to a distance of about one mile. The forts are a mile and a half apart. So they traded lots of cannonballs, but did no real damage to each other.
After the Civil War, Fort Pickens was abandoned. In 1886, it was used as a prison for legendary Apache leader Geronimo and some of his men. For decades, modern historians believed that Geronimo was held in a heavily protected room that seemed to be a cell. But later evidence revealed that the Apache prisoners were not locked up. Instead, they were given the run of the island. Their families joined them shortly after their imprisonment. Soon the Apaches became a tourist attraction, with visitors taken to the island to see how they lived. Apparently the Apaches developed quite a trade in shells and traditional handiworks, which they sold to the tourists.
When rifled cannons came into play, brick forts were no longer a suitable defense. In the 1890s, a new concrete fort was built on the Fort Pickens parade grounds. The fort worked well until air combat, when it proved to be an obvious target. New hidden earthenworks batteries were constructed in the area, but after World War II all three Pensacola-area forts were declared obsolete for defensive purposes.
Today the guided tour visits many, but not all, rooms of the fort. A self-guided walking map allows you to conduct a more thorough tour on your own. The fort closes at sunset.
One of the most interesting parts of Fort Pickens is the natural terrain. The heavy tree cover of the island’s interior gives way to scrubland and towering sand dunes before opening up to a white quartz sand beach. Swimming is permitted along most of the beachfront when conditions allow. A boardwalk with identifying signage provides a fascinating walk through the various terrains. The Gulf of Mexico is generally fairly calm with clear water, making it a wonderful choice for families, but storms can stir up the ocean with little advance notice. Keep an eye on weather reports and get out of the water immediately if the sky turns threatening.
The Oil Spill
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 was the biggest accidental marine spill in history. The beaches along Fort Pickens were affected and there are still signs of the spill today, mostly in the form of tar balls along the beach. However, cleanup crews are on hand, working diligently to fix the damage while remaining sensitive to the unique characteristics of the island. Although we did not swim, the water appeared clear and the wildlife seemed healthy. We received paperwork at the Visitor Center regarding the spill cleanup procedures, but were not notified that any sections of the beach or the water were closed to the public. Dad has some pretty severe chronic illnesses, including respiratory ailments, and was not affected in any way. Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens are open for business as usual, and there seems to be no reason to stay away. Of course, if you or your kids suffer from any medical conditions, it is best to seek the advice of your physician.