Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida) | SANTA ROSA AREA

Santa Rosa Area map (click to enlarge)

Santa Rosa Area map (click to enlarge)

The Santa Rosa Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore is an 8-mile stretch of beach located at the middle of Santa Rosa Island between Pensacola and Navarre beaches. It is a day-use area only, meaning that camping is not allowed. Activities revolve entirely around the beach—swimming, sunbathing, shore fishing, and picnicking.

This is the home of Opal Beach, the Santa Rosa Area’s designated swimming beach complete with lifeguards (in season), restrooms, outdoor rinse-off showers, picnic tables, and picnic pavilions that can be reserved for a fee. The main facilities are on the Gulf side of the road, but there is also a parking lot and facilities on the bay side. See the Opal Beach web page for more information.

In addition to Opal Beach, there are three other parking areas that offer a primitive beachgoing experience, meaning no restrooms or other facilities are available. The island is narrow, so you can get to the bay-side beaches just as easily as the gulf-side beaches.

Highway 399 is a public highway that runs down the middle of the island, so even though it passes through National Park Service property, it cannot be gated like the entrance into the Fort Pickens Area. However, the National Park Service still gets its fees out of you because you must purchase a Gulf Islands National Seashore entrance pass to park at Opal Beach, both on the Gulf side and the Santa Rosa Sound side of the island. If you have already purchased an entrance pass at another section of the park, it is good here as well (within seven days of purchase). There is no charge to access the beach at the other parking lots. For the current prices, visit the official Gulf Islands National Seashore Fees and Passes web page.

On the eastern side of the Santa Rosa Area next to Navarre Beach, development runs right up to the doorstep of the National Park boundary. However, the beach just outside the Santa Rosa Area’s western border is the city-run Pensacola Beach, and it is as pristine as those in the National Seashore. The main difference is that you can park anywhere along the side of the road at Pensacola Beach and can thus access any area without a long walk, whereas visitors to Gulf Islands National Seashore must park in the designated parking lots and then walk down the beach to avoid the crowds. Seeing that Pensacola Beach is closer to Pensacola, free, easier to access, and equally beautiful, it is bound to be much more crowded than the beaches within the Santa Rosa Area.

For bikers, a bike lane runs down either side of the road within the park. Outside the park boundary, both east and west, the trail continues as a Multi-Use Path that is situated well off the road. It is possible to ride your bike from Langdon Beach in the Fort Pickens Area all the way to the Hwy 399 bridge on the far side of Navarre Beach, a 25-mile stretch of bike trail.

Here is a rundown of the free parking area beaches, east to west. Names are given for reference only and are not official names. Each is identical in all aspects—a fifty-five car parking lot, no facilities, and nice, white sandy beaches.

PARKING LOT #1

This parking lot is 1.25 miles from the eastern boundary of the park. Because it is the closest beach access point to the population center of Navarre Beach, it is much more popular than the free parking areas farther west. However, even at its busiest it won’t come close to matching the crowds at Opal Beach.

Beach at Parking Lot #1 at the Santa Rosa Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore

Beach at Parking Lot #1 at the Santa Rosa Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore

PARKING LOT #2

This parking lot is located about two miles west of Opal Beach. Expect less crowds here than at Parking Lot #1, which is not to say it won’t get busy in the summer. During my Spring Break visit, this was the least crowded of the four beach access points in the Santa Rosa Area.

Beach Parking Lot #2 at the Santa Rosa Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore

Beach Parking Lot #2 at the Santa Rosa Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore

PARKING LOT #3

This parking lot is located two miles from the western entrance. The crowds are much sparser here than at Opal Beach and the access area near Navarre Beach, and I suspect that the low turnout is due to competition from Pensacola Beach. However, this doesn’t mean you will have the place to yourself on a summer weekend.

Family enjoying the beach at Parking Lot #3 in the Santa Rosa Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore

Family enjoying the beach at Parking Lot #3 in the Santa Rosa Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore

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Last updated on April 28, 2022
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