We’re on the move again! On March 7th, we left Blackwater River State Park, heading south west back towards the coast and over to Ft. Pickens National Park. Ft. Pickens is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and our plans were to stay until the morning of the 11th. Once again, it was another short drive, only about 50 miles.
Once we exited Blackwater and made the five mile trip back to the main drag, we had to maneuver that turn over the railroad tracks again which was no big deal but gave the coach suspension a good workout. Our route took us onto Hwy 90W/FL10, then onto FL-87S, eventually turning onto I-10W. At I-10 exit 12, we merged onto I-110 towards Pensacola/Pensacola Beach and stayed on that until exit 1B, Gregory Street. Then taking a left onto the Gulf Breeze Parkway to FL-30E/US-98 across the Pensacola Bay Bridge (also known as the 3 mile bridge) into Gulf Breeze.
In Gulf Breeze we merged onto FL-399, crossing another bridge to Pensacola Beach ($1 toll for any vehicle arriving) until we finally turned onto Ft. Pickens Road. At the entrance station to the Gulf Islands National Seashore there is an entrance fee of $8 which is good for 7 days and is NOT covered by your campground reservation, however, that fee is waived if you have a National Golden Pass.
Several miles later we arrived at the campground registration office (located yet a few miles more before the campground) where we parked the beast. Inside we were greeted by several very friendly and very helpful National Park Service rangers who gave us brochures and map of the campground.
Once we unhitched the toad we were on our way again. The ten mile ride down Ft. Pickens Road was beautiful – sugar white beaches next to the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico on one side and Pensacola Bay on the other. We had noticed chunks of black material of some sort strewn around the roadside and wondered what it was. Later we learned from the ranger that these were chunks of asphalt leftover from the destruction of segments of the road during Hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Dennis (2005). More than 3,000 cubic yards of debris has been removed by volunteers but there is still a lot more to do.
In 2009 sections of the road were reconstructed to accommodate vehicle access with minimal disruption to the natural habitat so the elevation of the road is very low, making it subject to periodic flooding – although this is almost exclusively due to storm surge. At times the volume of water and sand deposited can cause impassable driving conditions for days or weeks. The day before we were due to check in, we received an email suggesting that we call their hotline (850-934-2656) to make sure the road was passable, which of course we did. We don’t advise visiting here during very heavy weather or hurricanes! The ranger told us that if there is any risk of flooding, they would evacuate the campground. Good thing the weather report for our stay was sunshine!
The campground has 5 loops (A through E), each with its own bathhouse and 180 sites with electric and water hookups. Loop A has it’s own entrance off Ft. Pickens Rd. and loops B-E share a second entrance. No sewer on any sites but there are 2 dump stations (one located on the road to loops B, C, D and E; the other located on loop A). Loops B & D seem to have mostly very short pads and are exclusive to tenter’s and very small vehicle campers. There is also a separate group camping area.
The interior roads are all paved, albeit narrow and each campsite has an asphalt pad surrounded by grass (sort of), a fire ring and a picnic table. There is little to no vegetation between sites so privacy is minimal.
Our particular site, #30 on C loop, was listed as a 47′ back-in site but we barely fit mainly because the cement curbing near the end of the pad prohibited Rob from backing down further. Even when backed down as far as we could go, with our butt end hanging over the curb, there was only about 4′ of clearance left in front so we estimate the actual usable pad length to be no more than 40′, so beware of the stated pad lengths when making reservations.
Note that without the tag axle we would have gained another couple of feet in front of the coach, so non-tag Diesel Pushers and particularly gas Motorohomes, will have much less of an issue with the curb stone placement. But for us, once again we had to take out the shoe horn to park the van in front, in fact we had to turn the van around, maneuvering it to within a fraction of an inch of the coach and facing the wrong way on the street so it would fit better. One of the camp hosts even stopped to remind us we were facing the wrong way on the one way street!
Other amenities here besides the beautiful beaches include a small (minimally stocked) grocery store, nature trails (including the 1200 mile Florida Trail), biking trails, close proximity to Fort Pickens (more about that in a later post), and a nearby fishing pier.
This is a national park and has recently been subjected to the sequester and other budget cuts and it shows. When comparing this to some of the FL state parks and even other federal parks, Ft. Pickens is showings its age, but the price is right at $13/night (with the federal Golden Age Passport, $26 otherwise). The beaches were totally awesome, being so close to the Fort was great, and the nature/bike trails were terrific but the campground itself was in need of some upgrading.
Probably when this campground was first built, the pads were fine for the smaller rigs of the day but they definitely need to be lengthened to accommodate today’s bigger rigs – and there is plenty of room behind most of the sites for expansion. With the narrow roads, backing in and maneuvering was difficult (particularly with many vehicles extending into the road) so there were big, deep ruts in the grass on both sides of the road at the majority of the sites. Speaking of grass, on our site it was pretty much non existent so it was somewhat muddy due to the recent rain.
The electric hookup was in adequate condition although well used and we did not experience any power problems. Our water spigot however had a bad washer and could not be shut off – one of many signs of poor maintenance we observed. The bath house appeared clean, but very old and not very appealing. It had an exhaust fan that needed updating as we could hear it all the way to our site 100′ away.
No problem receiving OTA TV channels here or satellite. We had a decent Verizon LTE signal, but for some reason were only able to achieve 3G speeds – which are painfully slow once you’re used to 4G LTE. UPDATE: we later discovered this may have been an equipment issue that could have been resolved by reconfiguring/rebooting our MiFi.
Our stay spanned the weekend so every site was full with an assortment of motor homes, trailers, 5th wheelers and tents. In fact, we had a couple of big tents directly behind us only a few feet from our fire ring, perhaps they were associated with a nearby 5th wheeler – they weren’t actually on a site but straddling an open area between several sites. Not sure if they were supposed to be there or not. And being a weekend, the noise level was pretty high because of the weekend partying, the kids playing and skateboarding in the street and the general traffic from the diesel pickup trucks driving around the loop. Happily, check out time on Sunday was at noon so a lot of people (including the tenters behind us) left and the volume decreased accordingly.
During our stay we did a lot of exploring at Fort Pickens and in the surrounding area – more about that in our next post!