A closer look at one of our most favorite tracts of National Parks Service Property: the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore is a 160-mile stretch of gorgeous and very secluded beaches. It is undisturbed by development and characterized by blue-green sparkling water.
So big is this property that it lies in two states – Florida and Mississippi – and is divided into 12 district areas.
The protected regions include mainland areas and parts of seven islands. If you count Alabama, the area is even longer. Some islands along Alabama coast were originally considered for inclusion, for some reason, they are not officially part of the national seashore managed by the National Parks Service.
The Areas Around the Gulf Islands National Seashore
The area we visit the most is known as the Santa Rosa Sound area and it is found between Okaloosa Island and Fort Walton Beach, FL and the eastern outskirts of Pensacola.
To the south is the Gulf of Mexico, an area of the Florida Panhandle known as the Emerald Coast because of the beautiful turquoise color of the water.
To the north is Santa Rosa Sound, a popular saltwater area that connects Pensacola Bay and Choctawhatchee Bay and is part of the Intercoastal Water Highway.
We Head West…
We cross over on a bridge from U.S. Highway 98 in Navarre and head west. This stretch of the Seashore is about seven miles long and there is no development, once you get past the pier at Navarre Beach and the high rise waterfront condos nearby.
The two lane road – perfect for cyclists – is bordered by the Gulf and the Sound, so you have water off both sides. There are beautiful white sand dunes as well.
There are numerous pull-offs and plenty of parking, plus a large picnic area.
Besides swimming, bicycling, snorkeling, fishing, hiking, beachcombing, bird watching and boating, there are two historic forts:
The Fort Barrancas Area is onboard Pensacola Naval Air Station where visitors can tour Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt.
The Fort Pickens Area is located west of Pensacola Beach features historic fortifications from the early 1800s through the mid-1900s, as well as miles of beaches.
Another area we like to visit is theThe Okaloosa Day Use Area on U. S. 98, between Destin and Fort Walton Beach, FL. It has picnic tables, a boat launch, parking, and restrooms with outdoor showers.
Daycamping at Gulf Islands National Seashore
But it's the stretch just west of Navarre that keeps drawing us back. We drive our RV out early and stay till sundown, daycamping.
We haul out our beach chairs and take them down to the water and use the RV for picnic preps. And of course our own private restrooms. And it's totally free.
Overnight Camping Options
For overnight campers, the Gulf Islands National Seashore does maintain two developed campgrounds, one in Mississippi and one in Florida. Each campground offers water, grill/fire rings, restrooms, and picnic tables.
In Mississippi, the Davis Bayou Campground near Ocean Springs, Mississippi has 51 sites. The sites are affordable and some sites can accommodate RVs up to 45 feet long. All sites have water and electricity. The bathhouse has restrooms and hot showers.
The Fort Pickens Campground is located near Pensacola, Florida. It has 200 campsites, ranging in length from 16 feet to 50 feet, and one group tent site. All sites have water, electricity, grills/fire rings, and picnic tables. Restrooms and dump stations are nearby.
Gulf Islands National Seashore Entrance Fees
Park entrance fees are not included in camping reservations. Campers who have Golden Age/Interagency Senior and Golden Access/Interagency Access Pass holders receive a 50% discount.
I don't think you can find any more beautiful beaches anywhere.
There are very popular campgrounds, especially in the summer. To get one, we suggest reserving a campsite well in advance by visiting www.recreation.gov or calling 1-877-444-6777. You cannot make reservations by calling the park.
There are also nearby private campgrounds in Fort Walton Beach, Navarre, and Pensacola.
Best Things to Do at Gulf Islands National Seashore
We have a whole article on how to keep you busy: Things to Do in Pensacola & The Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Mike and Jennifer's Favorite Places in Florida – all 3 ebooks!
We RVers may wander far and wide but it’s true for most of us that we end up with some favorite “Go-To” places – places that draw us back again and again.
Florida is one of those places for us. And we know it is for many RVers looking to get away and explore during the winter.
That's why we've created three guides, covering Florida's Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the Keys.
Each of these guides is a seven-day guided exploration of one of the coasts. And each stop is a curated view of the best things that we’ve enjoyed on this trip and want you to experience.
Altogether these guides are over 300 pages of content!
FAQ's about Florida Gulf Coast beaches of interest to RVers
What is the weather like along Florida's Gulf Coast?
The weather along Florida's Gulf Coast can vary depending on the time of year and the specific location. In general, the area experiences hot, humid summers and mild, pleasant winters.
The Panhandle region can be quite cool in January. It is seldom below freezing, but daytime highs are typically in the 50s. It warms up about 10 degrees each month.
You can also generally add about 10 degrees for every 150 miles you travel south down the Florida peninsula.
By the time you hit Naples, daytime highs in January are in the comfortable 70s.
Are there any websites that can help me get a reservation for a Florida beach campground?
One of the best resources we can recommend is called Campnab. This service monitors parks for cancelations and sends you an alert when an opening matches your criteria. That said, it isn’t magic. The app doesn’t create availabilities.
The service works – but it is not free.
Campnab offers two ways to use the service. The first is individual pay-per-use scans. These watch for vacancies at a specific park for a specific date. These work well if you know exactly when and where you intend to camp. Pay-per-use scans cost $10 – $20, depending on how frequently you want them to check availability.
The second way to use the service is through a membership. These typically run monthly and are tailored to those who camp more frequently or are looking to maximize their chance of finding a site. Membership allows you to scan multiple parks and/or dates simultaneously. With memberships, you pay a monthly recurring fee ($10, $20, $30, or $50), depending on your needs.
Are there places in Florida where you can literally camp on the beach for free?
Not many. And they are very pricey. If you want to sleep directly on the sand in an RV, you'll have to stay at a developed commercial campground like Camp Gulf on the Emerald Coast or an RV resort like Big Pine Key Resort in the keys. Some state parks like the Gamble Rogers State Memorial Recreation Area in the Atlantic Coast or Bahia Honda State Park in the keys or Fort Desto State Park near St. Petersburg have beachside sites, too.
But are there free, unrestricted RV beach camping spots in Florida?
Sorry, none that I know of that would work for RVs.
There is unrestricted camping on wild beaches on a couple of islands, but you need a boat to get there, and it is for tent camping only. If you want to sleep directly on the sand, there is Anclote Key offshore Tarpon Springs, and Shell Key in Pinellas County. Another favorite is Keewaydin Island between Naples and Marco Island but that area remains pretty devasted from Hurricane Ian.
Did Hurricane Ian destroy many beach campgrounds on the Gulf Coast?
While it severely damaged almost two dozen RV parks and campgrounds, about 8-10 campgrounds in the Naples-Ft. Myers area were completely destroyed. Most of the damaged campgrounds have been repaired and reopened.
Check with the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds if you have questions or concerns.