Free or Cheap Camping in Florida – Fort Pickens Campground – Gulf Islands National Seashore

Ft Pickens Campground Featured Image

Welcome to camping at Fort Pickens Campground within the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida!

Gulf Islands National Seashore Beach
Gulf Islands National Seashore Beach near Fort Pickens Campground

The National Parks Service (NPS) needs no introduction! With over 130 camping areas to choose from nationwide, families can spend a lifetime exploring the great American outdoors in the NPS.

Florida Camping Map - National Parks
Florida Camping Map – National Parks – click to enlarge

Please note – NPS camping is NOT FREE. In fact, it is NOT CHEAP either with rates up to $42 (electricity) per site! But National Park campgrounds are very popular and for this reason, I decided to include them in this camping series.

Organization of Public Camping in Florida

Organization of Camping in Florida
Organization of Public Camping in Florida – source: Eben Schoeman (click to enlarge image)

As described in the first article of this series and in the org chart above, there are three National Parks in Florida with drive-up camping facilities.

Dispersed drive-up camping is NOT ALLOWED. You must camp in developed campgrounds as listed below:

National Parks Service (NPS) Campgrounds in Florida (click to enlarge)

Gulf Islands National Seashore – Fort Pickens Campground Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of the campground. Here the two official sources of information:

  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about campgrounds in Gulf Islands National Seashore including maps and photos. Official booking site for NPS campgrounds.
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore – official website with detailed background information about the Park.

Recreation.gov

If you are unfamiliar with Recreation.gov, do spend some time exploring the site. It is the official portal for reservations, venue details, and descriptions of 12 Federal Participating Partners: Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Federal Highway Administration, National Archives & Records Administration, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, Tennessee Valley Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, US Army Corps of Engineers and US Forest Service.

Fort Pickens Campground Overview

It’s all about location, location! If you are looking for the perfect campground then Ft. Pickens may disappoint you but the location is simply wonderful, so please keep this in mind when you read a few of the negative reviews.

I will start with some of those negatives:

  • Toll bridges – you have to pay at least one bridge toll to get to Pensacola Beach towards Fort Pickens – even when out shopping for groceries! Unfortunately, you have to pay TWO bridge tolls if arriving from Interstate 10. In early 2021 some tolls may be suspended due to construction!
  • Speed limits – the low 25 mph speed limit for 7 miles between Pensacola Beach and the campground is ridiculous. And trust me – you WILL get pulled over and ticketed when caught speeding. It takes a long time to go anywhere.
  • Weather – the campground is very vulnerable to tropical storms and suffers from flooding and a lack of vegetation resulting in sites with little or no privacy. The month of January can be cold in the Panhandle – beware if you are a snowbird looking for beach time!
  • Design – too many sites and most are close to each other with very short driveways with Loop A the exception if you can get in. Tent sites fit only one vehicle and RV sites are hardly any better. The second vehicle must park sideways to fit! At times the campground looks like an RV dealer parking lot.
  • Popularity – as with all National Parks, locals and frequent visitors book the few good sites many months in advance. The rest of us must take what we can get and this can lead to unhappiness when a site is too small or too close to neighbors on all sides.
  • Many Rules – please read the rules before booking. They are strict about many things. The number of vehicles, how and where to park, your camp setup. In summer, forget about using an A/C in your tent, for example.

If you can live with the drawbacks then Fort Pickens campground is a delight. The beach area is not nearly as crazy as Destin or Panama Beach. Here are a few highlights:

  • Pensacola Beach – one of my favorite beach towns in the Panhandle! It is not a shopping destination but instead, you will find a fun selection of tiki bars, beach bars, and darn good restaurants.
  • Endless powder sand beaches – despite the crowded campground you can find seclusion on the white beaches with warm blue water to calm your soul.
  • Florida National Scenic Trail – it runs through Fort Pickens campground and the northern terminus is just a mile away!
  • Fort Pickens and Battery Units – who can resist exploring a historic Fort? This one is well-preserved and one can spend hours wandering about.
  • Blue Angels – from March to early January, the famous Blue Angels are based at NAS Pensacola and they practice every Tuesday and Wednesday morning (schedule and weather permitting). They often fly low over the campground!
  • Facilities – I love the design of the bathrooms! The shower stalls are more private and the water is piping hot!
Gulf Islands National Seashore Ft Pickens
Gulf Islands National Seashore Ft Pickens
Ft Pickens Campground Showers
Ft Pickens Campground Showers
Florida Trail at Fort Pickens
Florida Trail at Fort Pickens

Fort Pickens Campground Notes

The campground is divided into 5 loops (A, B, C, D, E). Due to the lack of privacy and close proximity of your neighbors, you will do better if you pick the best loop for your rig.

My general recommendations:

  • Loop A – Power and water. Best for larger rigs. Longer driveways and more trees for added privacy
  • Loop B – No power or water. Recommended for car campers and/or tents. No generators, trailers, pop-ups, or vans. The outside sites are more private.
  • Loop C – Power and water. All types
  • Loop D – No power or water. Recommended for car campers and/or tents. Generators, vans, and Class B allowed. No trailers or pop-ups. The outside sites are more private.
  • Loop E – Power and water. All types

TIP – I offer specific camping site recommendations for my Patreons – https://www.patreon.com/letseeamerica. Please consider joining my growing number of supporters! Your contributions help pay for gas and camping fees, which in return, allow me to offer more accurate reviews and advice.

Ft Pickens Campground Loop A
Ft Pickens Campground Loop A
Ft Pickens Campground Loop B
Ft Pickens Campground Loop B
Ft Pickens Campground Loop C
Ft Pickens Campground Loop C
Ft Pickens Campground Loop D
Ft Pickens Campground Loop D
Ft Pickens Campground Loop E
Ft Pickens Campground Loop E

Free or Cheap Camping Map of Florida

This map shows each of the campgrounds or areas, grouped by color. For example, State Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown as Orange, National Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown in Red.

Free Camping in Florida – The Ultimate Guide – State Forests – Part 6

Florida State Forest Camping

With 38 State Forests, Florida offers a wide selection of camping opportunities away from the crowds. While most of the State Forests are in the northern half of the State, there are luckily a few forests with camping in the warm south (much appreciated in winter)!

Florida State Forests Map
Florida State Forests Map – Clik to enlarge

In this article, I cover State Forest camping in Florida. Please note – State Forest camping is NOT FREE but affordable starting at $10 per site per night.

Point Washington SF Entrance
Point Washington SF Entrance – click to enlarge

Organization of Public Camping in Florida

Florida Camping Org Chart
Florida Camping Org Chart (Click to enlarge)

As described in the first article of this series and in the org chart above, Florida State Forests are a Division of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Several Florida State Forests are managed in cooperation with other agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and different sets of camping rules may apply. Safety regulations during hunting season are of specific importance to State Forest visitors.

At last check, I counted 77 vehicle accessible campgrounds available to book via the online booking service Reserve America. In 2020 as a result of COVID-19, booking options changed and online booking is the only method to reserve sites. Drive-up and pay is no longer an option.

If you do not have an account, I suggest you register with Reserve America at your earliest convenience.

Florida Camping Org Chart - State Forests
Florida Camping Org Chart – State Forests (Click to enlarge)

Camping Guide for each National Forest

With so many camping options available in each State Forest, I will write a separate guide for each Forest or region. In the meantime, you can locate all the campgrounds and sites on my interactive map below!

Please check in often!

Krul Campground 1
Krul Campground in Blackwater River State Forest (click to enlarge)

Free or Cheap Camping Map of Florida

This map shows each of the campgrounds or areas, grouped by color. For example, State Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown as Orange, State Forest Campgrounds (fee required) are shown in Blue.

In Part 7, I write about Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) in Florida and camping opportunities.

Florida State Forests have this signage:

Florida Forestry-Logo
Florida Forestry Logo

Return to Part 5 of this series

YES, Take me to Part 7!

Free Camping in Florida – The Ultimate Guide – National Forests – Part 5

National Forests in Florida

National Forests and BLM lands offer the ultimate free camping experiences in the USA. Unfortunately, BLM camping is not an option in Florida but the State has three wonderful National Forests to explore.

Let me introduce them:

National Forest Map - Florida
National Forest Map – Florida – Click to enlarge

In this article, I cover National Forest camping in Florida. Please note – National Forest camping is NOT always FREE.

Organization of Public Camping in Florida

Organization of Camping in Florida
Organization of Public Camping in Florida – source: Eben Schoeman (click to enlarge image)

As described in the first article of this series and in the org chart above (green block), there are three National Forests in Florida with drive-up camping facilities.

Dispersed drive-up camping is allowed (with restrictions) but developed campgrounds are very popular for many reasons as I will describe:

Florida Camping Org Chart - National Forests
Florida Camping Org Chart – National Forests (click to enlarge)

Camping Guide for each National Forest

With so many camping options available in each National Forest, I will write a separate guide for each Forest. Please check in often!

Below is a summary.

Apalachicola National Forest – Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the two best sources of information:

  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about campgrounds in Apalachicola National Forest including maps and photos. Official booking site for National Forest campgrounds.
  • Apalachicola National Forest – official website with detailed background information about the Forest and camping opportunities.
White Oak Landing Campground

Ocala National Forest – Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the two best sources of information:

  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about campgrounds in Ocala National Forest including maps and photos. Official booking site for National Forest campgrounds.
  • Ocala National Forest – official website with detailed background information about the Forest and camping opportunities.
Clearwater Lake Campground

Osceola National Forest – Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the two best sources of information:

  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about campgrounds in Osceola National Forest including maps and photos. Official booking site for National Forest campgrounds.
  • Osceola National Forest – official website with detailed background information about the Forest and camping opportunities.
West Tower Campground

Recreation.gov

If you are unfamiliar with Recreation.gov, do spend some time exploring the site. It is the official portal for reservations, venue details, and descriptions of 12 Federal Participating Partners: Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Federal Highway Administration, National Archives & Records Administration, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, Tennessee Valley Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, US Army Corps of Engineers and US Forest Service.

Free or Cheap Camping Map of Florida

This map shows each of the campgrounds or areas, grouped by color. For example, State Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown as Orange, National Forest Campgrounds (fee required in most cases) are shown in Grey.

In Part 6, I write about State Forests in Florida and camping opportunities.

Return to Part 4 of this series

YES, Take me to Part 6!

Free Camping in Florida – The Ultimate Guide -National Parks Service – Part 4

Everglades NP Camping at Flamingo

The National Parks Service (NPS) needs no introduction! With over 130 camping areas to choose from nationwide, families can spend a lifetime exploring the great American outdoors in the NPS.

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of NPS camping opportunities available in Florida.

Florida Camping Map - National Parks
Florida Camping Map – National Parks – click to enlarge

In this article, I cover National Park Service camping in Florida. Please note – NPS camping is NOT FREE. In fact, it is NOT CHEAP either with rates up to $42 (electricity) per site! But National Parks campgrounds are very popular and for this reason, I decided to include them in this camping series.

(Feature Image – Flamingo Campground – Everglades National Park)

Organization of Public Camping in Florida

Organization of Camping in Florida
Organization of Public Camping in Florida – source: Eben Schoeman (click to enlarge image)

As described in the first article of this series and in the org chart above, there are three National Parks in Florida with drive-up camping facilities.

Dispersed drive-up camping is NOT ALLOWED. You must camp in developed campgrounds as listed below:

National Parks Service (NPS) Campgrounds in Florida (click to enlarge)

Everglades National Park – Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the two best sources of information:

  • Flamingo Adventures – the official booking site for the two drive-in locations Long Pine Key Campground and Flamingo Campground in Everglades National Park. Guest Services, Inc. is an authorized Concessioner of the National Park Service to provide retail, restaurant, lodging, campground, boat tours, boat rentals, kayak, and canoe rentals, and bike rentals.
  • Everglades National Park – official website with detailed background information about the Park.

Big Cypress National Preserve – Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the two best sources of information:

  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about campgrounds in Big Cypress National Preserve including maps and photos. Official booking site for NPS campgrounds.
  • Big Cypress National Preserve – official website with detailed background information about the Park.

Gulf Islands National Seashore – Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the two best sources of information:

  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about campgrounds in Gulf Islands National Seashore including maps and photos. Official booking site for NPS campgrounds.
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore – official website with detailed background information about the Park.

Recreation.gov

If you are unfamiliar with Recreation.gov, do spend some time exploring the site. It is the official portal for reservations, venue details, and descriptions of 12 Federal Participating Partners: Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Federal Highway Administration, National Archives & Records Administration, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, Tennessee Valley Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, US Army Corps of Engineers and US Forest Service.

Free or Cheap Camping Map of Florida

This map shows each of the campgrounds or areas, grouped by color. For example, State Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown as Orange, National Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown in Red.

In Part 5, I write about National Forests in Florida and camping opportunities.

Return to Part 3 of this series

YES, Take me to Part 5!

Free Camping in Florida – The Ultimate Guide -US Army Corps of Engineers – Part 3

Ortana South Campground - Source Recreation.gov

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a large federal provider of outdoor recreation with more than 400 lake and river projects in 43 states! Their campgrounds are extremely popular with campers. Unfortunately, there are only 3 recreation areas in Florida.

In this article, I cover the Army Corps of Engineers camping in Florida. Please note – USACE camping is NOT FREE. In fact, it is NOT CHEAP either with sites costing $30 and more for electricity and water. But as stated above these campgrounds are beautiful and much loved by campers nationwide. For this reason, I decided to include them in this camping series.

(Feature Image – Ortana South Campground – Courtesy Recreation.gov)

Organization of Public Camping in Florida

Organization of Camping in Florida
Organization of Public Camping in Florida – source: Eben Schoeman (click to enlarge image)

As described in the first article of this series and in the org chart above, there are three Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas in Florida. They are:

USACE Campgrounds in Florida
USACE Campgrounds in Florida (click to enlarge)

Information and Booking

I will soon post a video review of each campground. In the meantime, here are the three best sources of information:

  • USACE Lake Okeechobee – informative website describing the USACE Recreation opportunities at Lake Okeechobee. Here you will find directions and information about facilities and amenities.
  • USACE Lake Okeechobee – The USACE Lake Okeechobee Mission Pages. Detailed background information about the area.
  • Recreation.gov – excellent website with detailed information about the campgrounds including maps and photos. Official booking site for USACE campgrounds.

Recreation.gov

If you are unfamiliar with Recreation.gov, do spend some time exploring the site. It is the official portal for reservations, venue details, and descriptions of 12 Federal Participating Partners: Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Federal Highway Administration, National Archives & Records Administration, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, Tennessee Valley Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, US Army Corps of Engineers and US Forest Service.

Free or Cheap Camping Map of Florida

This map shows each of the campgrounds or areas, grouped by color. For example, State Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown as Orange, National Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown in Red.

In Part 4, I write about National Parks in Florida and camping opportunities.

Return to Part 2 of this series

YES, Take me to Part 4!

Free Camping in Florida – The Ultimate Guide to Public Campgrounds and Dispersed Sites – Part 1

Florida River Island Campground

YES, FREE camping is possible in Florida!

At first glance, finding free camping in Florida is an easy process. Simply go to one of several websites or camping phone apps and browse an area of interest. But that’s when things get interesting because the State of Florida is host to a variety of free (or cheap) camping possibilities and many ways to book a site!

In this article, I discuss the overall management or organization of public camping (free or not) in Florida. It is important to understand this Organization Chart because ultimately you are required to have a solid understanding of the rules and regulations of each wildlife/outdoor department or branch of the State of Florida.

Free Camping Resources

Here are the two best websites to research when looking for free or cheap campgrounds in Florida:

  • Freecampsites.net
  • Campendium

Other websites/apps to try:

  • The Dyrt
  • FreeRoam
  • Allstays
  • iOverlander
  • US Public Lands – a paid app showing the boundaries of public lands

It really depends on what you are looking for and your experience level. If you are familiar with an area it is best to go directly to the relevant website, for example, the National Forests in Florida – https://www.fs.usda.gov/florida

Regardless of the source of your information, it can be incomplete/missing, dated, vague or plain wrong! In addition:

  • Every season in Florida brings new camping challenges and site reviews can be misleading. For example, a campsite gets 5 stars in January but go camp there in June and you may encounter swarms of biting yellow flies and aggressive mosquitoes.
  • Hunting seasons present more challenges and campers are expected to know and respect the many different hunting timetables and rules.
  • Vague directions can get you lost and you cannot depend on cell phone service to assist you!
  • Road conditions vary greatly depending on seasons and rainfall. Florida remote camping is often on swampland and roads flood easy. High-clearance 4WD vehicles do provide peace of mind.

For these reasons (and others), I’ve decided to do some research and author a series of articles explaining the options for free (or cheap) camping in Florida.

Free versus Cheap Camping

Free camping is available in Florida but with strings attached! I will get into the details of this in future articles but for now, just be aware there are different procedures and rules in place when camping for free on different lands.

For example, some free sites require online booking. Others are available on a first-come-first-serve basis, meaning you can just show up. Most have stay limits (14 days usually). Some free sites are closed in hunting season or other times of the year.

Unfortunately, the most popular free camping locations in Florida are often fully occupied in winter when snowbirds flock to the area. At times you may have to opt for a fee-based site. For this reason, I include cheap campgrounds and sites in my articles. How much is CHEAP you wonder?

  • $1 – $10 per site per night – CHEAP camping in my opinion.
  • $11 -$20 per night – AFFORDABLE camping.
  • $21 plus per night is generally beyond my budget except for special occasions. These campgrounds are mostly in State Parks and a lack of privacy can be an issue despite the high rates. It is a shame that some Florida State Park campgrounds are poorly planned and overpriced.

Terminology – Dispersed Camping

If you camp on public land away from a designated campground, you are doing dispersed camping! Generally, this means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits. Some popular dispersed camping areas may have toilets – either seasonal or permanent.

In Florida, dispersed camping is allowed on some (not all) public land and during certain times of the year. I will discuss this in future articles but hunting season (“general gun” in particular) is not the best time to disperse camp! In most areas, you are then required to utilize designated campgrounds (often called “hunt camps”).

Terminology – BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in Florida

It irks me when folks talk about free BLM camping in Florida because BLM Camping does not exist in Florida! BLM is huge out west but not so in the East.

I will say a lot more about BLM in future articles but for now, let’s stop using the term “BLM Camping in Florida”. Please, folks!

Terminology – Boondocking versus Dry Camping

I use the term “boondocking” rather loosely! In my writings, it covers all types of overnight stays as long as it’s free. A Walmart parking lot can be a boondocking spot, or a truck stop, or a pullout along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. These are short-term stays and you generally do not set up camp. At times you must park stealthily in order to avoid law enforcement officials!

Dry Camping refers to actual camping but without hookups of any kind. You camp at some basic level without available water sources, power, or sewer. It can be challenging especially in the heat or cold but it is often the most rewarding style of camping.

Free camping in Florida requires a dry camping setup – you have to be self-efficient and self-contained! Water and even the occasional toilet and/or dump station are available at a few free campsites but you cannot depend on it because these may be locked for some reason or another. I will point to these sites in upcoming articles.

Organization of Public Camping in Florida

Organization of Camping in Florida
Organization of Public Camping in Florida – source: Eben Schoeman (click to enlarge image)

The State of Florida has 3 departments that are of great interest to outdoor enthusiasts. These are marked in blue in the chart above. I will discuss them in more detail in upcoming articles:

  • Department of Environmental Protection
  • Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)
  • Agriculture and Consumer Services

The State of Florida also has stewardship of the lands of 4 national organizations (most of these are well-known and very popular destinations) and dotted-line connections to local county and city governments:

  • National Forests
  • National Parks
  • Army Corps of Engineers
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • City and County Parks in Florida

Looking at the chart above, there are many “owners” of public camping lands in Florida with many different booking procedures and rules. As stated earlier – in upcoming articles I will explain them all!

To prepare for my future articles, please study my map below.

  • The campgrounds or sites of each Department or Division are shown in different colors. Click on the Table of Contents icon (top-left) to see the Index.
  • Nightly rates are provided in most cases but this is a work-in-progress! I show both FREE and FEE-BASED campgrounds.
  • If you find a missing campground please let me know!
  • Only campgrounds accessible by vehicles are shown. Walk-in sites are not shown unless next to a parking area.
  • RECOMMENDED – To open a FULL-SCREEN version of the map, simply click on the square in the top right.

Free or Cheap Camping Map of Florida

This map shows each of the campgrounds or areas, grouped by color. For example, State Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown as Orange, National Park Campgrounds (fee required) are shown in Red.

In Part 2, I write about BLM and its presence (or lack thereof) in Florida!

YES, Take me to Part 2!