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From Gulf Breeze, take US Highway 399 across the toll bridge to Santa Rosa Island, and continue your tour through the past in this once highly contested area of the United States. Following the War of 1812, the U.S. settled on an economical means of defending the coast through the use of large forts capable of deterring any attempt at naval invasion. Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821. Pensacola Bay was selected for a navy yard in 1825 and construction of the four forts began in 1829. Ships were still being built of wood at the time, and were relatively slow and difficult to maneuver. The forts, with shot furnaces designed to heat cannonballs and cannons capable of firing their red-hot shots up to 3 miles, could defend the coast with a minimum of manpower.

Of the four Pensacola forts, Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt remain largely intact. While on Santa Rosa, be sure to visit Fort Pickens, located on the west edge of the island. Built between 1829 and 1834, its construction represented a massive undertaking involving imports of copper, lead, lime and granite from all over the world and heavy use of slave labor. More than 20 million bricks were used for its construction making it the largest of the four forts. Ranger-led tours are available daily, or feel free to explore it on your own. In addition to coastal defense, the fort has served as a Union stronghold during the Civil War and as a prison whose inmates included the famous Chiriahua Apache warrior, Geronimo and other tribe members and their families.

The fort's brick structure became outdated by 1865, leading to the construction of concrete gun batteries, with fewer but more powerful cannons. Advances in weaponry led to changes in defenses until the dropping of the atomic bomb that signaled the end of both World War II and the era of coastal defenses. Fort Pickens was officially closed in 1947. Ironically, its greatest opponent sits on the mainland, just across the bay.

Fort Barrancas

Located on a bluff overlooking the Pensacola Bay is Fort Barrancas where it eyes its one-time rival, Fort Pickens, across the water. Parts of the Fort Barrancas complex, which includes a fortified water battery (a sea level stronghold), were constructed as early as the late 18th century. The British were first, with construction of the Royal Navy Redoubt, in 1763. The Spanish, who also provided the name (Barrancas means “bluff” in Spanish) made improvements in 1797. Later, an American engineer by the name of William Henry Chase replaced the fort with a behemoth of brick between 1839 and 1844. Chase fortified the old Spanish water battery and connected the two structures by means of a tunnel. He then began building the Advanced Redoubt 1400 feet north of Barrancas in 1845 but retired before its completion in 1869.

Fort Barrancas

Although never intended to be used against its big brother, Fort Pickens, in 1861 the two forts tested each other’s mettle in a clash early in the Civil War. State troops occupied Fort Barrancas and the other two mainland forts, McRee and Advanced Redoubt, in January of 1861. Federal troops led by Lt. Adam Slemmer fell back, occupying Fort Pickens across the bay where they were reinforced the day after the firing on Fort Sumter. The opposing sides exchanged fire several times during the next two years leading to the destruction of Fort McRee. The Confederates abandoned Barrancas and Pensacola in May of 1862. Fort Barrancas, located at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, is open 5 to 7 days a week depending on the season from, 8:30am-3:45pm in the winter and 9:30am-4:45pm during the summer. Tours of the Advanced Redoubt are given on many weekends as well. More information is available at 850-455-5167.

Fort Pickens

Fort Pickens

After touring the forts, spend some time on the trails on Santa Rosa. The western terminus of the Florida Scenic Trail is located at Fort Pickens, where two miles of the trail can be used by cyclists. The Blackbird Marsh Trail and the Dune Nature Trail offer an interpretive walks that explains the importance of the dunes in protecting flora. The Fort Pickens area on Santa Rosa Island offers the only campgrounds in the Florida section of the Seashore. Numerous sites are available, many with parking pads, picnic table, water and electric hook-ups. Electric sites are $20 per night; non-electric, $15 a night. Reservations are required. Call 1-800-365-CAMP, or 850-934-2641 for more information. Spending the night here is a good idea if you'd like to sample the remaining, day-only beach areas in the Florida sections. These sections, all along the coast of Pensacola Bay, include the west side of Santa Rosa island; the Okaloosa Area, on the Choctawatchee Bay; and Perdido Key, a quiet stretch often ranked as the nation's top beach. All of these areas feature picnic areas, some sheltered, and are available for swimming, sunbathing, boating and fishing in designated areas. Perdido Key offers primitive camping on a self-registration basis as well. Call (850) 934-2600 for more information.

Information provided by the National Park Service