Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fort Pickens Campground at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida

We returned to Fort Pickens for our second visit during October, 2014. One of the facts you must deal with when heading to this park is that you will pay a toll to cross the bridge heading to the island. The question about the toll is how much you will pay.

Last year our GPS took us over a $12 toll bridge to get to the island. While paying the toll, the attendant told us that we could have saved a bundle by picking the $1 toll bridge, which was down the road.

Armed with that knowledge, we double-checked our GPS's route against Google Maps to make sure we took the U.S. Highway 98/Gulf Breeze Parkway path to the park.

On the road to Pensacola Beach

Speaking of the toll, it is only charged for the south-bound traffic. Vehicles leaving the beach area are not charged the toll.

On the road to Fort Pickens Campground

Just as before, we found the beach road leading to the park to be magical in that our spirits were lifted by sight of the surf, dunes and sand on this beautiful beach. Snow-white sand and clear blue water help us think that the Gulf of Mexico beaches along the Florida and Alabama coasts to be the best in America.

Road to the campground after a day of 20 mph winds

Fort Pickens Campground is inside the Gulf Islands National Seashore. You have to pay admission to the National Seashore park before you can get to the campground. If you have the Senior Pass for federal parks, your admission to the National Seashore is waived plus the campground fee is cut in half.

The sign at the entrance of the park

The last time we camped at Fort Pickens was during the Spring and enjoyed seeing the many bird nests in the park and the osprey and herons feeding their young hatchlings. While we saw osprey, bald eagles and herons this time, we didn't see any baby birds.

A heron on the fishing pier (bay side)

The baby birds were replaced by bigger birds; much bigger birds.

Fort Pickens is across the bay from the Pensacola Naval Air Station. This is where all Naval and Marine aviators learn how to fly. We watched those early in their training go up in prop airplanes in the morning and more advanced students go up in the jets during the afternoon. Mid-days were special because this was when the Blue Angles, the Navy's precision show air team practiced their routines.

It was an amazing sight to see the Blue Angles in their F/A-18 Hornet fighters scream across the sky above Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer. We watched as the Blue Angles practiced their routines two days while we were at Fort Pickens.

The Navy's Blue Angles flying over Rosie

The Blue Angles over Fort Pickens
The Blue Angles

This camping trip was made special because our youngest son and his wife were able to visit us in the park. We really enjoyed being able to see them and explore the fort together.

Jeremy and Elizabeth join us at Fort Pickens

There are three main areas of the park. The first is the Gulf beach area. We think this is one of the best beach areas from those we have seen. The water is clear and the sand is soft and snow-white.

The Gulf at Fort Pickens

Steve and Becky along the Gulf

The second area of interest in this park is the fort itself. Fort Pickens was active during the Civil, First and Second World Wars. It is interesting to see the maze of rooms inside this fort.

Fort Pickens

Fort Pickens

The third place of interest is the bay side of the park. You find more shells and there is a pier for fishing on the bay side.

The fishing pier

Path to the Bay

We thought we did just about everything you could do at Fort Pickens on our first visit. We were wrong. There are many things to see and do at this park and we have more things to do when we return for our next visit.

Some specifics about this park:
  • There are five camping loops in this park. Loop E is where you find mostly tent campers. Loops A-D is where you find RVs.
  • The maximum length listed on the Web for each site is very optimistic. It was a tight fit to get Rosie in our site.
  • There isn't a lot of shade in this park. You would want to make sure your air conditioner is working at peak capacity if you decide to camp at Fort Pickens during the heat of summer.
  • Some of the bath houses need more than causal maintenance. They need to be demolished and replaced. We were not sure if the mold or the unidentifiable bugs were more alarming in the bath house serving Loop A. The campground host said that the park has scheduled replacing that bath house and the new one will operational within a year.
  • There was only one bath house in Loop A. There were multiple bath houses in the Loops B-E.
  • Bring your bicycles. There are some great trails to ride in this park. The vegetation on our site backed up to Rosie's rear bumper. After hooking up shore power and water we discovered that poison ivy was the predominant vine at our site. We did not see poison ivy at other sites.
  • Most sites in Loops A-D have 20, 30 and 50 amp service.
  • AT&T provides reasonable 3G and 4G service over the park. We had to carefully choose the window we would place our iPhones near in order to connect to the Internet.
  • There is no Wi-Fi service in the park.
  • There are two dump stations in this park. One serves Loop A and the other is for Loops B-E.
  • There is a camp store in the park. It has the normal supplies you expect to find in a campground store.
  • If you need more food items than the campstore can supply, there is a Publix about six miles from the park. You will spend a dollar in tolls to cross the bridge to this grocery store.
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS from our TV antenna. We also received digital signals with programming from ME-TV, GET-TV and MY-TV.
There were six Airstream trailers at this park while we were there.

Fort Pickens was the inaugural trip for our new kitchen tent. We talked for a while about getting a kitchen tent to place over the picnic tables at our camping sites. We recently camped at a park that had, as Grandma would say, more flying bugs than Carter had Little Liver Pills. That experience convinced us that we needed to look for a screened-in kitchen tent instead of a canopy type.

Our trips to the usual sporting goods stores were not promising. Most of the designs appeared to have been created by a disgruntled engineering school drop-out who wanted to add mental anguish to humanity.

While sitting on the floor at a major sports retailer, we realized that most of these screen houses were too small, too complicated or they have too many little parts to loose. That was when we found a YouTube video about a screen house from the Clam Corporation. The video boasted that anyone could put the Clam up in 45 seconds or less.

That was a bet we were willing to take. It was worth the risk to order a Clam to see if it would be the answer to our search. Turns out it was.

The downside is that the Clam does not fold down into a tiny package. The carrying case is probably 6 feet in length, so you need to know how you are going to transport it.

We were also concerned about how to put it up over the camping site's picnic table. That turned out to be easy because we simply unfolded it on top of the table then started the 45 second set-up process.

Inside the Clam Kitchen Tent
Inside the Clam Kitchen Tent

The set-up was very easy and it didn't take more than a minute. The campers in the next site came over to ask about our screen kitchen tent. It appears that our rookie attempt to set it up impressed them enough that they wanted to get one.

As before, we found Fort Pickens to be an amazing campground and one we plan to frequent in the future.

Path to the Gulf

Foot/Bike bridge on a nature path near the Fort

Family photo inside the fort

Bald eagle nest near the campground

Happy campers at Fort Pickens
Sunset at Fort Pickens

Scene along one of the bike/hiking trails at Fort Pickens

1 comment:

  1. Looks like you two are having fun.... Griffin has been out for ten weeks on medical leave so no camping!,,,, We head south to Cape San Blass in seven days