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As mentioned in our previous post, we weren’t too thrilled with the campground but we did enjoy the nature trails and exploring Ft. Pickens and its beautiful views of Pensacola bay and the inlet. Practically every day, weather permitting, we would hop on our bikes and pedal our way over to loop D which was the start of the bike trail over to the fort.
Also note the Pensacola Naval Air Station where the Blue Angels are based is just 1-1/2 miles across the bay, so Ft. Pickens is a great place to watch them practice. Unfortunately we missed the show but click here for the latest show schedules.
On the morning after our arrival, following a hearty breakfast prepared by Chef Robbie, we decided to jump on our bikes and ride down to Fort Pickens.
Once we were out of the campground and on the trail, we passed by Battery Worth. Although we didn’t walk up the steps, we did read about the history. According to the National Park website, Battery Worth was “completed in 1899,and housed eight 12-inch mortars in two gun pits. Although the battery lost half its armament in 1918 in accordance with the War Department policy to reduce weaponry mounted in the nation’s older emplacements, the other four mortars remained active until 1942. The battery became essential for Army-Navy defense activities in the 1940s by housing the Fire Control Switchboard Room, Harbor Entrance Control Post and the Harbor Defense Command Post.”
Right next to the parking lot near Battery Worth, the bike trail continued on. Although it wasn’t paved, the trail was packed dirt/sand so it was an easy ride through the live oak and pine forest. In previous posts we have mentioned the 1300 mile long “Florida Trail” – Fort Pickens is the western most point of the trail that winds it way throughout Florida. It actually follows the old oyster shell path through the Fort Pickens Campground and then follows the beach to the park boundary.
As we pedaled along, we could see lots of ospreys flying overhead or nesting as well as herons nesting on the tops of tall trees. Pretty neat!
On one particular trip, we crossed over a bridge where there was a young boy fishing – he (as well as others there) was a little chagrined because instead of a fish, he had caught a rather large turtle and wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Someone had contacted a park ranger to come help release it. On our way back, both the fisherboy and the turtle were nowhere to be found so we assume a happy outcome.
Named after Revolutionary War hero General Andrew Pickens, Fort Pickens is the largest of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard. Begun in 1829 and completed in 1834, the fort was used until 1947, protecting the coastline from foreign invasion. Over 21.5 million bricks were required, most made locally and barged to the island where skilled African- American slave labor was used to construct the fort. Not an easy task as the workers were exposed to an unfriendly climate, yellow fever and experienced heat exhaustion.
Although it was built to protect against foreign invasion, the only real action the fort endured occurred when the country was at war with itself during the Civil War. In 1861, Union forces faced Confederates holding the mainland where they came to blows. The Confederates abandoned Pensacola so they could bolster sagging defenses in Mississippi and Tennessee so in 1862, the Union troops raised “Old Glory” at Fort Pickens, Forts Barrancas and McRee.
Over the years, the fort underwent dramatic changes to keep up with changes in weapon technology. Smooth bore cannon were replaced, recycled or converted to rifled cannon. Mines were stored at Fort Pickens for deployment in Pensacola Bay.
Another interesting fact about Fort Pickens was that from October 1886 to May 1887, Geronimo, the famous Apache Indian was imprisoned in Fort Pickens, along with several of his warriors.
By the end of World War II, atomic bombs, guided missiles, and long-range bombers made such forts obsolete so the Army abandoned the forts. The fort became part of a popular Florida State Park until the creation of Gulf Islands National Seashore in 1971. Following extensive repairs by the National Park Service, the fort was reopened in 1976.
On Saturdays and Sundays, free tours of the fort are given by one of the park rangers at 2pm but we weren’t able to take the tour. They have a self-guided tour brochure so we were able to explore the fort on our own.
Each time we went to the Fort, Rob kept saying that we had been there before. I remembered going to a fort but not this particular one. Of course, not remembering isn’t unusual these days at least for me. After searching through photos, it turned out that Fort Pickens looked very much like Fort Morgan which we had been to in 2012. Whew, that mystery was solved!
In addition to the fort there is also a museum which reopened in 2012, 8 years after it sustained damage from the storm surge during Hurricane Ivan. The museum is free and, according to what we have read about it, has interactive displays, 3-D and textured maps, and models, weather radar video and high definition television programs and much more. For some reason, we never made the time to visit the museum.
From the fort, we biked along the road overlooking Pensacola Bay passing by several gun batteries that were built near the fort. There are a total of 10 batteries which were built in response to a particular threat between 1898 and 1943 in the area surrounding Fort Pickens.
Besides the bike trail to the fort, there are several other biking/walking trails. One day we took the Dune Nature Trail which begins at loop A of the campground, eventually crossing Fort Pickens Road. It was a short walk on the boardwalk across the dunes to the sparkling emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. At this location we were 2-1/2 miles from the western end of Santa Rosa Island. What a perfect day it was for taking a very long walk along the beach. Since you can’t walk on the dunes, we had to walk quite a distance before we came to a path leading back towards the road. Instead of sand castles, we discovered a very cute sand turtle. And yes, in case you were wondering, the sand squeaked here as well!
Once back on the road we had to walk back to the campground. Our path took us past another battery, Battery Cooper. This particular battery was completed in 1906 and had two model 1903 6-inch guns mounted on disappearing carriages. The guns were removed for use on railway mounts in France during WWI. Four emplacements for 155mm guns were constructed around Battery Cooper in 1937 when it was designated as Battery GPF, remaining part of the Harbor Defense Project until April 1945 when it was disarmed.
On March 10th, we had lunch at a nearby restaurant, Peg Leg Pete’s on Fort Pickens Road in Pensacola Beach. Known for its oysters, we figured it would satisfy our continuing hankering for more oysters (cooked, not raw). As we walked into the restaurants, there were signs plastered every where stating that they were out of oysters. Darn! What to do now? We debated on going somewhere else but didn’t feel like driving far so we decided to stay. Since there were no tables outside, we ate in the inside dining room. We asked our waiter about the oyster shortage to which he replied that they had run out of them because of Mardi Gras. They normally offer Louisiana as well as Apalachicola varieties. Oh well, we decided to have the special of the day which was a grouper sandwich. It was very good.
After lunch we headed to Pensacola Beach and at the end of Fort Pickens Road turned east onto SR-399 to explore more of the Gulf Islands National Seashore on the Santa Rosa barrier Island. We stopped several times along the way to take short walks on the beach. Finally we turned around at Navarre Beach where SR-399 heads back to the mainland and headed back to the bus where we started to get prepped for our departure the next day.