Beach Camping on Gulf Islands National Seashore
By Lauren Tjaden
Florida’s National Parks, Preserves, Monuments, Seashores and Forests promise unparalleled adventure, graphic history, and natural wonders.
You can snorkel vivid coral reefs, splash in crystalline waters and discover a magnificent Fort at the mysterious Dry Tortugas National Park; ditch your sandals and curl your bare toes into the pristine sugar-sands of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a phenomenon that stretches endlessly alongside emerald-hued waves; and explore the legendary Everglades National Park, the wild ‘river-of-grass’ where the furtive Florida panther hides.
Here's where to learn about Florida’s National Parks and how to find the ones that stir your spirit.
Big Cypress National Preserve
Conserving more than 729,000 acres of the immense Big Cypress Swamp, vital to the welfare of the nearby Everglades, Big Cypress National Preserve is a wild place with meandering trails, dense forests and abundant water. It’s favored by wildlife that includes a healthy population of alligators; birds like herons, kites, hawks and anhingas; and mammals like the Florida Panther, bears, manatees and fox squirrels.
You can immerse yourself in the enchantment of this natural wonderland with things to do that include hiking, kayaking and exploring in an offroad vehicle. If you want someone else to show you around, swamp buggy, airboat, canoe, kayak, flat boat, hiking and driving tours are available through permitted commercial service operators. For a magical experience, camp in one of eight campgrounds under the Preserve’s vast starry sky, which is an attraction in its own right, designated as an ‘International Dark Sky’ due to the utter lack of light pollution.
For more information or personal advice, stop by one of the two visitors centers, the Nathaniel P. Reed Visitor Center and the Oasis Visitor Center, both located midway between Miami and Naples along the Tamiami Trail in Ochopee.
Biscayne National Park
Within view of the bustling streets of downtown Miami, Biscayne might as well be on another planet—a glorious, watery world resplendent with colorful coral reefs, emerald-hued islands, and an underwater trail marked by shipwrecks and an ancient lighthouse. You’ll only find one mile of road in the entire park, and because 95% of the park is covered by water and no bridges or ferries link to its islands, a whopping 90% of visitors access the park via boat. Its waters reveal mysteries like Stiltsville, a village built on stilts in the 1930’s that was infamous for illegal alcohol and gambling; the Jones Family Historic District and Lagoon, where Israel Jones and his family grew pineapples and key limes on Porgy Key and Totten Key (purchased for $300 and later sold for over a million); and the Maritime Heritage Trail, where you can explore the skeletons of shipwrecks like the Lugano, a 350-foot, 3,770 ton, iron-hulled cargo steamship that grounded on Long Reef in 1913.
If you don’t have a boat, you can opt for a guided boat tour, investigate the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, check out a ranger program or stroll the short jetty trail.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Constructed by the Spanish in St. Augustine to defend La Florida and the Atlantic trade route, Castillo de San Marcos is an imposing structure with impossibly thick walls; battlements, towers, and a moat as well as cannons atop and around it, aimed in all directions. It’s the oldest masonry fortification in the continental United States, providing a backdrop for more than 450 years of drama and cultural clashes.
Its storied past includes tales of the First Thanksgiving in 1565, shared between the Spaniards and the native Seloy tribe; the 1702 siege on St. Augustine, an attack by English forces from Charles Town, Carolina where an old 16-pounder iron cannon exploded while being fired, killing three men and wounding five others (half of this very cannon is on display inside the Castillo today); and the Seminole Incarceration in 1837, a saga of deception where the Indians were lured by the promise of a truce and taken prisoner-- though 20 escaped under the leadership of Wild Cat, forever changing the future of the tribe and the outcome of the war. Experiences include investigating the castle, guided by brochures and maps you can pick up at the Monument. Or you can download Castillo's park app to access the self-guided tour on Android and iOS. Videos that you can watch on your device or in the Theater Room reveal some of Castillo’s stories. Rangers and volunteers are happy to answer your questions – and those in period dress will pose for a picture with you- and you can enjoy formal presentations as well.
Canaveral National Seashore
Canaveral National Seashore, a pristine barrier island nestled against the Atlantic in Titusville and New Smyrna Beach, delivers miles of unspoiled beaches where you can reconnect with nature, explore age-old Timucua Native American mounds - and even witness a rocket launching into the great beyond. With bragging rights as the longest stretch of undeveloped Atlantic Coastline in Florida, the Seashore encompasses dunes, hammocks and lagoons that provide sanctuary for thousands of plant and animal species.
Popular things to do include fishing, boating, hiking and backcountry camping. If you’re in the area when a rocket launch is scheduled at Kennedy Space Center, it’s truly a blockbuster experience, with the ground rumbling, billows of smoke and white flames, and Canaveral’s Playalinda Beach offers the best view of the launches. Here are some tips for watching launches. Stop by or contact Apollo Beach Visitor Center for more information about the Seashore.
De Soto National Memorial
This National Memorial in Bradenton unveils Conquistador Hernando de Soto’s four year, four-thousand-mile crusade, a zealous quest for glory and gold that boiled with deception, warfare, disease, and discovery. De Soto and his army of soldiers, mercenaries, craftsmen and clergy landed on the shores of Tampa Bay in 1539, where they were greeted with savage resistance from the natives defending their homelands. Today, you can step into this tumultuous past at the Memorial’s Living History Camp Uzita, open December through April, where rangers and volunteers dressed in period clothing present talks and demonstrate weapons as well as Spanish and native crafts.
Other things to do include kayak tours; hiking the nature trail –either on your own or on a guided tour; bird watching; fishing; or kicking back on the park’s small beaches.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Remote, stunning, and utterly unique, Dry Tortugas National Park is sited nearly 70 miles west of Key West. Climb aboard the Yankee Freedom Ferry or a seaplane – or your own boat -- for an epic journey to the 100-square mile park, most of which is open water dotted with seven small islands. Magnificent Fort Jefferson, one of the nation’s largest 19th century forts, dominates one of these keys, set amid brilliant blue waters and dazzling coral reefs. There, you can explore the Fort; swim or snorkel around the moat wall to see marine life that includes reef squid, cement barrels, nurse sharks, anchor chains and hogfish; kayak or paddleboard; and fish—or even spend the night in a tent to view the stars like never before.
Everglades National Park
With entrances in three different Florida cities-- Miami, Naples, and Homestead- and spanning a stunning, 1.5 million acres of wetland, Everglades National Park is a legend, shielding an unrivaled natural landscape that’s home to rare and endangered species like the beloved manatee, toothsome American crocodile, and elusive Florida panther. Things to do include hiking, canoeing, kayaking, biking, fresh and saltwater fishing, and camping, either in a drive-in campground—or, for a once in a lifetime expedition, in a wilderness campsite like one in a Crooked Creek Chickee. You can explore with a narrated boat tours along the mangrove coast at Flamingo and the Gulf Coast; with Tram Tour naturalists at the Shark River Slough; and through sightseeing programs with the Everglades National Park Institute.
Fort Matanzas National Monument
The Nation’s Oldest City of St. Augustine has countless tales to tell, and you’ll discover some of them at this National Monument. It preserves the stern coquina watchtower, completed in 1742, that was employed to defend the southern approach to the Spanish military settlement of St. Augustine, and shelters 300 acres of coastal landscape containing dunes, marsh and maritime forest. Things to do include hiking, unwinding at the beach, or fishing the generous waters—but there’s only one way to get to the fort for a grand adventure, aboard the ferry that runs multiple times each day.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
If you’ve ever yearned to have a white-sand beach fringed by impossibly turquoise waters all to yourself, Gulf Islands can bring the fantasy to life-- and you can even camp right next to the surf in some areas. Hugged against the shores of Gulf Breeze, the Seashore offers a wealth of recreation, with activities that include fishing, boating, stargazing, swimming, snorkeling and diving. It encompasses numerous historic sites as well, like the somber, imposing Fort Pickens, still bristling with cannons overlooking the sound.
For a spine-tingling thrill, watch The Blue Angels, the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, practice in the skies over Gulf Islands National Seashore from March through November each year. The legendary team practices over Pensacola Bay and the Fort Pickens Area, and you can watch from multiple park areas.
Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve and Fort Caroline National Memorial
Nestled on the Atlantic Coast in Jacksonville, Timucuan Preserve is brimming with salt marshes, coastal dunes and hardwood hammocks as well as a turbulent history. A visit to Fort Caroline National Memorial reveals a lost colony, a tribute to the short-lived French presence in sixteenth century Florida, swirling with tales of exploration, survival, religious disputes, territorial battles, and the first contacts between American Indians and Europeans. Kingsley Plantation brings to powerful light the story of a fortune hunter and those he enslaved. You can explore the remains of 25 tabby cabins, homes of the slaves -- men, women, and children who lived and worked on Kingsley Plantation more than 150 years ago—which are still curved in a semi-circle on the plantation.
Guano Tolomato National Reserve
Conserving 76,760 acres south of Jacksonville on the northeast coast of the Sunshine State, this National Estuarine Research Reserve was christened for the Guana, Tolomato and Matanzas Rivers that link it together. It affords habitat for a wealth of fish and wildlife, including 48 protected animals and eight protected plants. The Reserve's Visitor Center, sited in Ponte Vedra Beach, is open from Tuesday through Saturday, offering life-size dioramas of local wildlife and an opportunity to learn about the area. The Center also hosts programs aimed at educating the public about estuaries and other conservation topics; hands-on learning experiences for students grades K-12; and a Coastal Training Program for working professionals.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Founded in 1931 to provide wintering territory for migratory birds, St. Marks shelters over 80,000 gloriously pristine acres of coastal marshes, islands, tidal creeks and estuaries in Northern Florida’s Wakulla, Jefferson, and Taylor counties, as well as roughly 43 miles along the Gulf Coast. It’s home to diverse wildlife, including alligators– which each sport 80 teeth; 20 active nesting pairs of Bald Eagles; and rare species like the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.
The Refuge has an intense cultural past and is the site of the St. Marks Lighthouse, built in 1842 and still in use today.
Things to do include birding, hiking, trails, fishing, photography and environmental education.
Apalachicola National Forest
You’ll find Apalachicola National Forest close to Tallahassee, a peaceful landscape where your whole tribe can enjoy outdoor activities like fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, biking and trail-riding.
Silver Lake Recreation Area, encompassed by the Forest, is a destination in its own right, with a 250-foot sandy beach for swimming, a mile-long interpretive trail and abundant picnic tables, each complete with its own grill.
Ocala National Forest
Laced with over 600 lakes and rivers where you can swim, fish, snorkel, canoe and boat, Ocala is home to migratory birds, good-natured manatees, and brilliant freshwater springs.
Salt Springs Recreation Area is one of the Forest’s gems. There, a whopping 52-million gallons of gin-clear, 74° Fahrenheit water bubbles from the earth every day, making for an ideal spot to take a dip, camp or hike.
Osceola National Forest
Sited west of Jacksonville, Osceola’s flatwoods and swamps deliver a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It beckons visitors to reconnect with nature with stellar hunting, fishing and swimming, and brings history to vivid life on the Olustee Battlefield Trail, where the one-mile loop showcases the decisive Civil War battle that took with place here with personal accounts, diaries and letters from soldiers who fought in the battle.
Florida National Scenic Trail
Most often referred to as The Florida Trail, this federally-designated, non-motorized recreation path curves across Florida for approximately 1,500 miles, from the tropical swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve in the south to the glistening sands of Gulf Islands National Seashore at the western tip of Florida’s panhandle. Hike this national treasure for an epic experience, with views of some of the grandest, most distinctive landscapes in the United States. For printed navigational maps, tips, and more information on hiking the Florida National Scenic Trail, check out the Florida Trail Association.