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Gulf Islands National Seashore Guide — Hiking, Camping, and More

Amar Hussain's image
Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

Senior Content Contributor

769 Published Articles

Countries Visited: 63U.S. States Visited: 9

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications incl...
Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
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Keri Stooksbury

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With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now Editor-in-Chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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Gulf Islands National Seashore is an incredible park in both Florida and Mississippi. This park protects 7 barrier islands and features the Gulf of Mexico’s emerald coastal waters, pristine white beaches, and lush marshes. This park is brimming with historical stories and landmarks relating to America becoming a nation, Latino culture, the Civil War, and many more significant historical events.

Everyone will find something to enjoy, including hiking, wildlife viewing, guided tours, and camping. Over 5.5 million visitors each year come to this national seashore to discover this place’s natural beauty and fascinating history. 

How To Get to Gulf Islands National Seashore

Where Is Gulf Islands National Seashore?

Gulf Islands National Seashore is comprised of units in Florida and Mississippi. The 2 areas of the park are not connected, making planning a trip here a bit difficult. This national seashore stretches 160 miles from Cat Island in Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island in Florida. Some of the closest cities to this park include Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and Pensacola, Florida. 

Gulf Islands National Seashore Opening Hours and Seasons

This national seashore is open year-round. The park’s hours are typically from 8 a.m. to sunset. There are varying hours for the different facilities and sites throughout the park, so it is best to call ahead to see those specific hours. The visitor centers are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. All facilities within the park are closed for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. 

Nearest Airports to Gulf Islands National Seashore

There are 2 main airports visitors take when visiting this national seashore, one on the Florida side of the park and the other on the Mississippi side. Check out these airports to see which will work for your vacation needs.

Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GPT)

Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport is located in Gulfport, Mississippi, very close to the Mississippi side of the park. It is about a 35-minute drive to the park. 

This airport is serviced by 6 popular airlines, including Allegiant, American, Breeze, Delta, and Sun Country. Nonstop flights are offered year-round to major hubs such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Houston.

This airport is just a hop, skip, and jump from the park. It is an excellent option for those who want to start their Gulf Islands adventures on the Mississippi side of the park. 

Pensacola International Airport (PNS)

Pensacola International Airport is located in Pensacola, approximately 13 miles from the Barrancas Visitor Center. 

This airport offers year-round service to many U.S. airports, including Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, and Miami. This airport services many well-known airlines, such as American, Silver, Southwest, Spirit, and United.

Bottom Line:

If you plan to begin your journey to this park on the Florida side, Pensacola International Airport is the best option for making the most of your travel time.

Driving To Gulf Islands National Seashore

Driving To Gulf Islands National Seashore
Image Credit: Beckie Mims via NPS

The park is vast, stretching across 2 different states, so knowing which area you want to explore is imperative before setting out for your trip.

The Davis Bayou area is near Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where the Mississippi side of the park has its visitor center. You will come from I-10 and take exit 50 or 57 toward Ocean Springs to get to the parking area. The entrance is at the intersection of US 90 and Park Roach.

For those who wish to arrive at the Fort Barrancas Visitor Center on the Florida side of the park, I-10 E will be the route to take. Exit 7A to Pine Forest Road and North Blue Angel Parkway will lead you to the visitor center.

Taking the Train to Gulf Islands National Seashore

There is no direct train service to this park.

Taking the Ferry to Gulf Islands National Seashore

The Pensacola Bay City Ferry offers ferry service between the City of Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and Fort Pickens. Round-trip service is only offered to the Fort Pickens area on Saturdays. Still, there are some special cruises and programs throughout the year. The ride to each landing location takes about 30 to 40 minutes. Utilizing this ferry service is a fantastic way to explore the park on the water. 

Getting Around Gulf Islands National Seashore

The best way to get around this national seashore is to enter by private vehicle and drive or walk through the park. Another option is to explore by boat, as 80% of the park is comprised of water. The National Park Service offers printable and interactive maps to help you plan your itinerary.

What To See and Do in Gulf Islands National Seashore

There’s no shortage of things to see and do at this national seashore. From boating, hiking, and exploring historic sites to participating in ranger-led tours, there’s something everyone will enjoy at this park.

Boating

When visiting this national seashore, boating is a fantastic way to explore the water that surrounds the park. You can rent a boat or participate in a boat tour during your visit. Many outdoor enthusiasts will kayak or paddleboard these waters.

With so much of the park encompassing water, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to fish, watch for wildlife, and admire the stunning views of the surf and sand. 

Guided Tours

Guided Tours Gulf Islands National Seashore
Image Credit: NPS

There are a variety of ranger-led programs at this national seashore. Participating in these tours and programs is the best way to learn about the history and culture of the park, as well as how we can protect it. Some tours take guests to historic brick forts, on hikes through salt marsh habitats, or even snorkeling in the emerald-green waters.

Spending time touring the park with a knowledgeable guide is a wonderful way to interact with park rangers and have your questions answered firsthand.

Hiking

Many miles of hiking opportunities can be found on both the Mississippi and Florida sides of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. These trails take visitors through forests of old pines and oak trees along the coast and to and from historic sites.

The trails here range in difficulty and length, providing hiking opportunities for visitors of all ages and abilities. Some popular trails include the Andrew Jackson Trail, Civilian Conservation Corps Spur Trail, Davis Bayou Trails, Fort Pickens Dune Trail, and Perdido Key Discovery Trail.

Historic Sites

Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens. Image Credit: NPS

Several historic sites are within the boundaries of this national seashore, each telling fascinating stories of the Civil War and how the military used this area.

Some places to explore here include Fort Pickens, Fort McRee, Fort Massachusetts, and Fort Barrancas. You can explore these sites independently with a self-guided tour or with a park ranger and other visitors.

Bottom Line:

Reading about the sites is a great way to learn about their significance, but seeing them up close is an entirely different experience that brings history to life.

Snorkeling and Diving

Snorkeling and scuba diving are thrilling and excellent ways to explore Gulf Islands National Seashore. There’s an entire world just under the surface of the water, and immersing yourself in the water is a spectacular experience.

Some of the popular places to scuba dive and snorkel are around the jetties of Fort Pickens seawall in the northwest corners, at the 1906 tugboat wreck site, about a mile east of the Fort Pickens Ranger Station, and about a mile and a half outside Pensacola Pass where you can see the sunken USS Massachusetts battleship.

Be sure to read about the rules and regulations before heading out for these activities, and remember that weather can seriously impact these activities.

Best Times To Visit Gulf Islands National Seashore

For the most part, Gulf Islands National Seashore is a wonderful experience, no matter what time of year you visit. Some times are better than others, especially if you want to participate in a specific event or activity.

Best Time To Visit Gulf Islands National Seashore in Winter

For winter travelers, the best month to visit is in March. The temperatures range from the mid-50s to the low 70s, and there is typically an average of 6 days of rain. As the temperatures are still on the cooler side, be sure to bring clothes to layer to stay comfortable during your adventures. 

Best Time To Visit Gulf Islands National Seashore To Avoid the Crowds

Exploring a new place without crowds is a dream for many travelers. If you want to visit this national seashore without the stress of crowded situations, plan to come in November. This is the least busy month of tourism for this city, which means you can tour the park and enjoy all the activities at your own pace. 

Best Time To Visit Gulf Islands National Seashore for Ideal Weather

Davis Bayou Fishing Pier
Davis Bayou Fishing Pier. Image Credit: Kiss via NPS

Weather can make or break a trip, so planning your visit around typical weather is great. May is a great month to visit this park for its ideal weather. The temperatures range from the high 60s to the mid-80s, perfect for hiking, camping, and more. There is an average of 5 days of precipitation, so be sure to pack rain gear just in case.

Bottom Line:

With the comfortable temperatures and fewer rain chances, May is a wonderful time to plan a trip here.

Cheapest Time To Visit Gulf Islands National Seashore

Saving money while traveling may seem impossible, but with some research and planning, it can be a reality. The cheapest time to visit this national seashore is mid to late September. This is when the flight and accommodation rates are at their lowest, which means you could save hundreds in travel expenses. 

Annual Events in Gulf Islands National Seashore

Most events at this national seashore are regular, reoccurring events such as ranger-led tours, hikes, and campfire talks. There is 1 event that takes place on an annual basis.

Public Lands Day

Each year, the park celebrates Public Lands Day on the fourth Saturday in November. This event brings in many visitors who want to positively impact the environment. Participating in this event is free, and participants will receive a 1-day pass to any park or public land in the National Park Service.

Each year, volunteers will focus on different areas of the park and work to remove litter and debris from the area. In past years, over 2,500 pounds of trash were removed from the park’s beaches and water on this special day. 

Where To Stay in Gulf Islands National Seashore

Planning where to stay is one of the first orders of business for any trip you organize. When visiting this national seashore, you are in luck, as there are abundant opportunities for accommodations within and around the park.

Inside the Park

The only option for lodging within this park is to set up camp for the night under the stars. There are 2 developed campgrounds here and several opportunities to camp in the backcountry. Let’s take a closer look at these options. 

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping is a phenomenal way to experience this park. There are numerous sites within the park’s boundaries to camp in the wilderness, on islands, or near historic ruins.

Some areas where this type of camping is permitted include the Perdido Key Area in Florida and on Cat Island, Horn Islands, Petit Bois, and West Petit Boise in Mississippi. This type of primitive camping offers campers a spectacular way to experience the rugged beauty of nature.

Davis Bayou Campground

Davis Bayou Campground
Image Credit: NPS

Davis Bayou Campground is nestled in a wooded area next to Davis Bayou on the Mississippi side of the park. This small campground offers 52 sites for tent campers and those in RVs. Amenities include restrooms with flush toilets and hot showers, grills or fire rings, and picnic tables.

It is a popular place to stay within the park’s boundaries, especially if you are looking for easy access to boating, fishing, and trails for biking and hiking. Making a reservation in advance is recommended, as these campsites tend to fill up quickly. 

Fort Pickens Campground

The Fort Pickens Campground is on the Florida side of the park. This campground is listed in the top 10 busiest campgrounds in all of the national parks and sites. Visitors can camp here year-round and have access to the pristine beaches and trails, including the popular Florida National Scenic Trail. Tents and RVs are welcome here.

Amenities include bathhouses with toilets, potable water, hot showers, fire rings and grills, and picnic tables. These campsites fill up quickly, so making online reservations in advance is recommended. 

Towns Near Gulf Islands National Seashore

Many towns and cities near this national seashore offer a world of possibilities for visitors who prefer to stay outside the park’s boundaries. From large cities with lots of entertainment to quiet towns, there’s something for every traveler close to Gulf Islands.

Biloxi, Mississippi

Biloxi is located 9.5 miles from Gulf Islands National Seashore. This city is known for its beaches and casinos and makes a wonderful option for a home base near the park.

The accommodation options are fantastic in Biloxi. From 5-star resorts and luxury hotels to budget-friendly motels and private rentals (and everything in between), this town offers whatever lodging option you seek. 

This city is known for its seafood restaurants, but there are dozens of other types of restaurants throughout the city. Burger joints, steakhouses, and barbecue smokehouses are popular places to grab a bite during your stay. 

This city’s nickname is the “Playground of the South,” so you don’t have to worry about running out of things to do during your stay. There are world-class casinos, pristine beaches, and championship golf courses that provide days of fun. There are also numerous historic sites, famous landmarks, museums, and parks just waiting for you to explore.

Bottom Line:

Biloxi is ideal for a home away from home when visiting Gulf Islands National Seashore. There is so much to see and do here and countless options for accommodations and dining, making it a perfect place to settle during your trip.

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Ocean Springs is about a 15-minute drive from this national seashore. This city is popular for visitors who want to stay near the park. Charming inns, refined hotels, and affordable motels are just a few options. Visitors can choose to stay in the lively downtown area or a quieter part on the outskirts of town.

Food enthusiasts are in for a treat when visiting this Mississippi town. The seafood selection is outstanding, but there are also Italian restaurants, pizza parlors, steakhouses, and Cajun restaurants to try. No matter what you crave, you can find a hunger solution. 

Recreation abounds in Ocean Springs, with beaches, museums, art galleries, and historic sites to explore.

With its close proximity to the park and the many lodging, dining, and recreation options, it is no surprise why so many guests choose to make Ocean Springs their home base when visiting Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Where To Eat in Gulf Islands National Seashore

There aren’t any dining options within the Gulf Islands National Seashore’s boundaries, but plenty of restaurants are nearby. The surrounding cities offer a wide variety of cuisine, from cultural restaurants to classic diners, but their all-time claim to fame is Cajun food, which can be found everywhere you look.

The Crawfish House

The Crawfish House is a top-rated restaurant in Ocean Springs, just 5 miles from this national seashore. This restaurant offers visitors an authentic taste of Cajun cooking for lunch and dinner 6 days a week.

Burgers, po’boys, tacos, boiled and fried seafood are just some items on the menu here. Some of the most popular dishes include jambalaya, crawfish po’boys, beignets, and shrimp and grits. 

Should hunger strike during your Gulf Island National Seashore adventures, head to The Crawfish House and get your feel of down-home Southern/Cajun food. 

Woody’s Roadside

Woody’s Roadside is a burger house located 2.5 miles from the park. This restaurant serves classic American dishes and offers a full-service craft cocktail bar. 

This restaurant has something for every palate, from popular items like fried green tomatoes, pulled pork sandwiches, ribeye steaks, and seafood dishes with the fresh catch of the day. Customers rave about the ahi tuna salad, homemade onion rings, Shrimp Smackers, and the bison burger. Don’t forget to top off your meal with an icy beer or signature cocktail. 

With so many options and excellent customer service, Woody’s Roadside is an incredible lunch, dinner, or drinks option. This spot is a fantastic place to unwind after a long day exploring the park.

Gulf Islands National Seashore Facts

Fort Barrancas
Fort Barrancas. Image Credit: NPS

1. A New Park Established

Congress established this national seashore on January 8, 1971. 

2. Original Inhabitants of the Park

Native American groups were the first to settle in this area. Some of the tribes that lived here included the Apache and the Seminole. 

3. Changing Ownership

Several different nations have owned this national seashore. First, it was owned by the Spanish, then the British, followed by the Spanish again, and finally, it became a part of America.

4. Andrew Jackson Trail

There is a trail that winds 2.4 miles in the Naval Live Oaks Area of this national seashore named the Andrew Jackson Trail. This trail holds an intriguing bit of history. It created the first major federal highway in Florida. Many key moments in Florida’s history took place because of the creation of this road. 

5. An Abundance of Animals

This park is home to a wide variety of animals. There are over 300 bird species, countless land and sea mammals, numerous reptiles, fascinating fish, crustaceans, and invertebrates. There are 12 types of animals living here featured on the federal endangered and threatened species list. 

Final Thoughts

History buffs and outdoor adventure seekers alike will discover many amazing sights and activities at Gulf Islands National Seashore. Enjoy snorkeling, scuba diving, exploring historic ruins, hiking along the coast and through marshes, and countless opportunities for adventure and learning.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to enter Gulf Islands National Seashore?

A standard entrance pass is $25 for each private vehicle that enters the park or $15 for those entering on foot.

How much time should I spend at Gulf Islands National Seashore?

There are so many places to visit and explore at this national seashore. A recommended amount of time to spend here is 3 to 5 days. This will allow you time to visit both sides of the park, hike, and participate in some of the special programming.

Can I bring my dog to Gulf Islands National Seashore?

Pets are permitted at this national seashore as long as pet owners agree to follow the rules and regulations. Some of these expectations include the dog being on a leash at all times and dog owners cleaning up after their waste. Several places prohibit pets, so be sure to read the regulations prior to planning your trip.

Can I keep the shells I find at Gulf Islands National Seashore?

As long as the shells you find don’t have living creatures inside of them, you can collect and keep the shells from the park.

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About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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