Explore America's park logoGulf Islands National Seashore, the country’s largest national seashore, includes six barrier islands stretched out for 160 miles from Santa Rosa Island, Fla., to Cat Island, Miss. The white sand beaches are swell spots for swimming, beach combing, birdwatching, snorkeling or just napping until it’s time to watch the sunset.

 

The beaches in the Florida unit near Pensacola, Fla., are the most accessible. The barrier islands that comprise the Mississippi section are accessible only by boat. A passenger ferry takes visitors from Gulfport, Miss., to West Ship Island from March through October. The ferry makes the 11-mile water jaunt twice a day. You’re likely to have company on the trip — Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins often play in the wake of the boat.

 

History:

Congress authorized creation of Gulf Islands National Seashore on Jan. 8, 1971.

 

Things to do:

Away from the white sands and emerald water of the beachfront, there is hiking and biking. The Naval Live Oaks Area, located on U.S. 98 east of Gulf Breeze, Fla., has nine trails totaling more than seven miles, including the 2.4-mile Andrew Jackson Trail.

 

In Mississippi, bikers can pedal the 15.5-mile round-trip Live Oaks Bicycle Route that connects the Davis Bayou Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore to the Old Louisville and Nashville Train Depot in the town of Ocean Springs.

 

Ranger programs are a good way to learn about the human history and natural history of Gulf Islands National Seashore. Check the park schedule for the alligator walk. Meet up with a ranger at the Davis Bayou picnic area to learn about gators and their habitat. The program includes a walk to the pond to look for alligators.

 

Why you’ll want to come back:

Want to be Robinson Crusoe — if only for a long weekend? Consider wilderness camping on Horn Island, Petit Bois Island, East Ship Island or the public section of Cat Island. These islands in the Mississippi unit of the national seashore are accessible only by private (or chartered) boat. Double check that packing list, because you’re on your own once the boat leaves.

 

Flora and fauna:

While 80 percent of the area protected by Gulf Islands National Seashore is water, there is plenty of room for land-based critters. You may spot foxes, beavers, armadillos, raccoons and river otters. Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins can often be seen from the ferry to West Ship Island or from the beaches.

 

[skipwords]The islands’ mix of beaches, dunes, marshes and maritime forests provides habitat for more than 300 types of birds, including clapper rails, brown pelicans, killdeer, great blue herons, black skimmers and an assortment of ducks.[/skipwords]

 

Fact box:

  • Website: Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • Park size: 137,989 acres or 216 square miles
  • 2011 visitation: 5,501,872
  • Funky fact: Fort Pickens, completed in 1834, is the largest of four forts that defended Pensacola Bay. The fort remained in Union control throughout the Civil War.
 

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

 

MNN tease photo of Florida: Shutterstock