Pensacola: Beyond the Beach

Summertime is a popular season for travel, and with schools and universities closed, many families and college students make plans to go to the beach for Summer Break.

The last time I went to the beach (and what a beautiful beach it was) was November 2019. I’m thankful that I took the opportunity to completely disconnect when I visited The Cove Atlantis in the Bahamas, because it was my last vacation before the pandemic.

Last summer, right before the back-to-school countdown started, it was quite obvious that everyone in my family needed a break. In addition to the ongoing pandemic, our family pet that we adopted suddenly died and a good friend of mine passed away. I did my best to manage the grief and stress, but there’s only so much a person can take.

One day, I was online researching hotels that were within driving distance of home and close to the beach. My daughter was assisting me with the search, and pointed out a hotel in Pensacola, Florida, where I could use my rewards points for 6 nights and get 1 night free. Without hesitation, I booked the room for a week.

When I travel, my family usually accompanies me. What I did not want to do on this trip was spend 7 days at the beach. I researched the summer temperatures in Pensacola for the week I was going to be there, and it was obvious that late afternoons were going to be our best bet for really enjoying our time at the beach.

I needed to put the other hours in the day to good use.

A search on Google for ‘things to do in Pensacola’ produced a few good results, but most of the the results centered around shopping or attractions that were too expensive or did not interest me or my family.

I decided to stop searching and focused on making my first few days of a much needed vacation as relaxing as possible. That meant checking in at the hotel and making the first day on vacation a beach day.

A perfect day at Pensacola Beach

After a few hours of wonderful weather at Pensacola Beach, the sky darkened and clouds started to roll in. It was evident that we needed to pack up and head back to the hotel. The change in weather gave me the perfect opportunity to do a little more research on places to visit in Pensacola.

Pensacola Museum of Art

My family and I discovered two interesting destinations in our research, and we were on our way to the first one. Using a discount code available on the Historic Pensacola website, there was a significant savings of 50% on entrance tickets if we visited on a Sunday.

What a deal! I immediately purchased 4 tickets online.

Our hotel was located close to the interstate, and the drive to the Pensacola Museum of Art, located in Historic Pensacola (downtown Pensacola), was about 20 minutes. A 2-hour parking option along the street with no charge was available, and we walked a short distance to the Pensacola Museum of Art.

Two exhibits were available inside the museum: “End of Century” with a focus on Art Nouveau, and “A Dead Reckoning” with a focus on contemporary ceramics.

“End of Century” – Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is characterized by flowing lines, floral ornaments, geometric forms, and use of symbolic figures.

Art Nouveau is one of my favorite styles of art, and I was excited about exploring its history inside the museum. I learned that the Art Nouveau movement was largely promoted by German-born art dealer, Siegfried Bing. Bing opened a contemporary art gallery in Paris called L’Art Nouveau in 1895. He designed rooms in his gallery that promoted Japanese prints, Tiffany glass, and Toulouse-Lautrec posters. L’Art Nouveau closed in 1904, but the gallery and creative works showcased within its walls gave the movement its name.

Another aspect of Art Nouveau displayed inside the museum was Art Nouveau Glass.

In opposition to the mass-produced decorative objects that flooded the market during the Industrial Revolution, artists, craftsman, and French officials crafted handmade, decorative glass pieces that embraced nature as its primary theme. The result of this combined effort to bring dignity to Art Nouveau was beautiful, original glass pieces that reflected the talents of late nineteenth century glassmakers.

“A Dead Reckoning” – Navigating Contemporary Ceramics

dead reckoning (noun)

the process of calculating one’s position, especially at sea, by estimating the direction and distance traveled rather than by using landmarks, astronomical observations, or electronic navigation methods

After learning the meaning of dead reckoning, I was curious to find out how this term applied to contemporary ceramics. According to the description written on the wall at the entrance of the exhibit, “Ceramics is an art form currently moving in all directions.” The traditional use of clay to form ceramics has been upgraded with techniques such as 3D printing. “A Dead Reckoning” invited visitors to view the featured works to determine which direction ceramics were going. Each piece had its own point-of-view and kept one guiding element: clay.

The first art piece that I encountered was the most interesting piece in the exhibit. As it was explained to me by an employee at the museum, the artist, named Better Lovers, had kidney stones and decided to pulverize and use them (along with pulverized, fossilized shark teeth, pulverized arrowheads, and porcelain) in a piece titled BRUK-siz-um.

Brixism (BRUK-siz-um) is a condition in which you grind, gnash, or clench your teeth.

Directly behind BRUK-siz-um was an exhibit titled Circles, Squares + Ovals by Columbia, S.C. ceramic artist, Virginia Scotchie. The positioning of the shapes on the wall reminded me of the pieces that someone would use to gain their footing while climbing a rock wall.

A long table in the middle of the Dead Reckoning exhibit showcased several additional works in ceramics. One of my favorites was a piece by artist Nick Lenker titled COOL RANCH. It looked just like an empty, crumbled bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Who knew ceramics could be so… cool?

A display of tea cups, bowls, and plates in porcelain was next. From afar, The Collection by Janice Jakielski looked like paper or wood cutouts. The pieces were pretty and delicate, and I was drawn to the pastel colors and varying patterns on each piece.

The most moving ceramic piece that I witnessed in the exhibit was called The Patriot by Kyle and Kelly Phelps. In the brief moment that I viewed this artwork, it provoked me to think about the plight of homelessness among veterans in the United States.

The next room I visited was a place of contemplation called Stone Fruit. Here, museum guests were invited to use soft clay to participate in a community art installation. Whatever I chose to create with the clay had to be able to fit in the palm of my hand. At the close of the exhibition all contributions were fired and added as a permanent part of the installation. My family and I enjoyed thinking about what to create to leave behind as a part of this sculpture built by the hands of the visitors of the museum.

While I explored the Dead Reckoning exhibit, I met someone who would change the course of my planning for my remaining vacation days in Pensacola. Lilly works at the Pensacola Museum of Art. We chatted about my visit, and then I mentioned that my goal during this visit was not to spend every day at the beach, but to discover what other attractions Pensacola offered.

Lilly asked all the right questions and found out that I wanted to go somewhere that was family friendly and affordable. A smile slowly spread across her face, and she told me about Fort Pickens. She also told me that it was the place to be for views of beautiful sunsets.

There will be more about my visit to Fort Pickens later.

Lilly helped me find my next adventure in Pensacola.

When traveling, it always helps to speak to a local. Lilly was a great source of information about the activities offered in Pensacola.

I enjoyed spending time inside the Pensacola Museum of Art. The exhibits were informative and thought-provoking. As we wrapped up our visit into the world of art in Pensacola, it was time to venture into another aspect of Pensacola culture.

Pensacola Museum of History

The Pensacola Museum of History was included in our admission price and is located on the same street as the Pensacola Museum of Art. We crossed the street and took a three minute walk to the building. The sculpture outside the museum, dedicated to First Nations, was creative and eye-catching.

In Tribute To Our First Nations pelican by Dave Kessler

City of Five Flags

Near the entrance of the museum was a small exhibit that explained the history of Pensacola.

The Trader Jon Room

One of the largest exhibits inside the museum is the Trader Jon Room. Trader Jon’s Bar was owned by Martin “Trader Jon” Weissman, an eccentric character known for his mismatched socks. The bar was open for over fifty years and was a popular hangout for flight students, military personnel, locals and tourists, and the occasional celebrity.

Weissman was trained as a U.S. paratrooper in WWII, and his love of aviation was present throughout the bar. No surface was spared when it came to decorating the bar with memorabilia. Walls, doors, and ceilings were covered with military and aviation items, and sometimes drinks were exchanged for memorabilia.

City of Five Flags and the Trader John Room are permanent exhibits at the museum.

Greetings from Pensacola

Have you ever received a postcard from a friend or relative that was traveling?

How did you feel when you opened your mailbox and saw a handwritten postcard from far away?

Greetings from Pensacola takes museum visitors on a journey through the development of the postcard and how these small, colorful works of art encouraged people to visit the area.

Greetings from Pensacola is an exhibit that will remain open through September 2022.

Happy Journey: Hank Locklin and Country Music

The third floor of the museum housed an exhibit dedicated to Lawrence “Hank” Locklin. Locklin was born in McLellan, Florida on February 15, 1918. He went on to become one of country’s greatest tenors. He had two number one hits on Billboard’s country chart: “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” and “Please Help Me, I’m Falling.”

The exhibit featured costumes worn by the country star, and there was a theater room that played a documentary about his life and career.

This was the last exhibit I visited before returning to the first floor of the museum.

Before I knew it, the time spent visiting the Pensacola Museum of Art and Pensacola Museum of History had come to an end. Touring these two museums was a great way to spend a day indoors and away from the beach.

For tickets and information about current exhibits at the Pensacola Museum of History and the Pensacola Museum of Art visit the Historic Pensacola website.

Fort Pickens and Gulf Islands National Seashore

Pensacola Beach is a busy place. From the moment you drive past the sign marking the entrance, there are shops and restaurants dotting the landscape. There is no doubt that you have arrived at a place meant for all things sun and surf.

If I had not taken the time to talk to Lilly at the Pensacola Museum of Art, I would not have known that a hidden gem waited for us just a short drive beyond the familiar Pensacola Beach landmark. Initially, what drew me to visit Fort Pickens was the hope of being at a location that was rumored to be the place for viewing some of Florida’s most beautiful sunsets. I was unaware of the beauty and history that awaited beyond the beach.

After we passed Pensacola Beach, things looked different, yet familiar. For a few minutes, hotels and condos were the only scenery around us.

Pensacola Beach landmark
Adventure awaits beyond the familiar Pensacola Beach landmark.

Then the scenery began to change:

The scenery entering Gulf Islands National Seashore is nature at its finest.

There is an entrance fee for Gulf Islands National Seashore – Fort Pickens Area, and we stopped at the entrance station staffed by a Park Ranger to make the payment. We paid the vehicle fee of $25.00 (check the entrance fee page of the National Park Service for up-to-date pricing) and received a brochure and map of the area and a Gulf Islands National Seashore magnet in the shape of a turtle. The Park Ranger informed us that the entrance pass we purchased was good for 1 to 7 days.

Know Before You Go: Digital entrance passes can be purchased online. You can also plan your trip around annual fee-free entrance dates on the NPS website.

After we passed the entrance station, the scenery became more beautiful. The emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico bordered both sides of the two-lane road we were driving along. The white sand stood out among the green landscape. Even with an overcast sky above, this was a stunning drive, and I couldn’t stop staring out of the car window.

Fort Pickens was on the agenda for the afternoon, and now that I knew my entrance pass would allow me to return, I immediately started planning for a return trip to enjoy the beach.

Fort Pickens: “Guardian of the Gulf”

Fort Pickens entrance

Fort Pickens is nicknamed the “Guardian of the Gulf” and is named after Revolutionary War hero, Brigadier General Andrew Pickens. It is one of the largest brick forts built in the United States and was the setting for a serious conflict right before the outbreak of the Civil War. Fort Pickens was a Union fort, and secessionist forces from Pensacola tried to capture the fort from the US Army months before the firing on Fort Sumter, the site of the beginning of the Civil War.

In the 1800s, Pensacola Bay was considered one of the most important bays along the Gulf Coast. The length of the bay and depth of its waters provided excellent conditions for anchorage and protection of ships. Pensacola Bay became US territory when Spain ceded East and West Florida to the US in the Transcontinental Treaty in 1819.

In 1825, President James Monroe signed a law establishing a new navy yard and depot on the bay. Fort Pickens was built in 1829 on the western end of Santa Rosa Island, a low-lying barrier island. This strategic location allowed the fort to control access in and out of the bay, monitor approaching ships, and work with forts around the channel to keep foreign invaders from launching attacks against the navy yard.

Enslaved labor was used to build, and later repair, Fort Pickens.

In 1829, William H. Chase began serving as the Superintending Engineer in Pensacola Harbor, Florida. Using US Army money, Chase “rented” slaves from plantation owners and paid the owners in exchange for the construction of the fort. Slaves did not receive any of the money that was exchanged.

Knowing that Fort Pickens was built by slaves made it ironic that Fort Pickens became a destination on the Underground Railroad during and after the Civil War. Fort Pickens joined the list of official Network to Freedom sites and was added to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network in October 2020.

Self-Guided Walking Tour: Points of Interest

The NPS app that I downloaded prior to my arrival at Fort Pickens came in very handy as I started to walk through the fort. Each point of interest inside and around the fort is numbered so that visitors can use the self-guided tour feature in the app to learn about each location.

This section will highlight some of the Numbered Stops in and around Fort Pickens.

Numbered Stop 2 on the self-guided walking tour is an officers’ living quarters. Though Fort Pickens once had 6 officers’ quarters, most officers’ quarters no longer exist. During the first year of the Civil War, some of these rooms served as a hospital for Union troops.

Around 1888, rooms like this were used to house Chiricahua Apache prisoners of war, including Geronimo and his family.

This is an officers’ living quarters inside Fort Pickens.

Numbered Stop 4 was a doorway that led into the first mine casemate at Fort Pickens. The room was completed in 1894 and became one of several onshore buildings that was used by soldiers to operate an underwater minefield. In its day, underwater mines were considered one of the main weapons necessary to defend a harbor. At the command of an officer, a soldier at the operating panel flipped a switch and detonated a mine.

Numbered Stop 5 was a countermine. Countermines have three narrow chambers that extend into the wall. During a battle, countermines gave soldiers the ability to move kegs of gun powder from a powder magazine to a chamber. Each chamber held up to 1,027 pounds of gun powder.

In case of attack by an enemy, the gun powder could be ignited to explode the chamber. The explosion risked ruining the fort, but it would stop an enemy attack.

It was one thing to stand in front of the countermine, but I wanted to have an idea of what it might have been like to be inside the chambers, so I walked in to take a look around. The narrow space inside indicated that this was an area of the fort that was designed for a quick entry and exit.

Adjacent to the countermine was Numbered Stop 6, the powder magazine. The small doorway opens into the only remaining powder magazine. Fort Pickens had three powder magazines, and each was lined with wood to help keep the powder dry. Anyone entering the magazine had to remove their shoes or put socks over them to prevent sparks. This is because the soles of shoes were sometimes attached with nails.

A peek inside the only remaining powder magazine at Fort Pickens.

Outside the fort, Numbered Stop 14, Tower Bastion, was where soldiers fired cannons over the fort’s wall. From the top of Tower Bastion, coast artillerymen could sound the alarm if ships were approaching Pensacola Bay.

Atop Tower Bastion sits a 15-inch Rodman gun that was installed in 1868. It was never fired in combat and had a three-mile range capable of firing a 15-inch diameter explosive shell or a solid 450-pound shot. The barrel weighs 50,000 pounds. The circular iron tracks allowed the cannon to be turned and fired in any direction.

Numbered Stop 15 is Battery Pensacola. Battery Pensacola was part of a newer defense system built on Pensacola Bay. It was completed in 1899 and had four new technologies that made it revolutionary:

  1. Reinforced concrete made it stronger than Fort Pickens. It was painted black to reduce the glare of the Florida sun.
  2. Electrical distribution was newly invented and provided electricity to make loading and firing the battery’s guns easier.
  3. The telephone was a new invention and allowed soldiers to communicate quicker and over greater distances.
  4. Steel guns were available and could withstand extreme forces that allowed soldiers to hit targets with deadly precision.

Though it was a newer structure, Battery Pensacola, like Fort Pickens, became obsolete. The Army stopped using it in 1933 and removed the guns in 1934.

The final stop on the NPS app Fort Pickens walking tour is Numbered Stop 16, Bastion D.

The damage seen on the pier and arch is the result of an accidental explosion in the late 1800s. On the morning of June 20, 1899, soldiers discovered a fire in a casemate that held large wooden blocks for moving guns and artillery supplies.

As the fire crept toward Bastion D, Second Lieutenant Robert H.C. Kelton, 1st US Artillery, led 60 men in fighting the fire. The fire eventually spread to a nearby powder magazine holding 8,000 pounds of explosives. Kelton withdrew his men before the magazine exploded.

The explosion wounded Private Henry Hopgood and killed Private Earle F. Welles. Private Welles rests across Pensacola Bay at Barrancas National Cemetery.

The cause of the fire has never been discovered, and eleven soldiers, including Second Lieutenant Kelton, were recognized for their heroic efforts.

After exploring all that Fort Pickens had to offer, I couldn’t forget that the promise of a beautiful sunset is what originally drew me to visit.

It was a cloudy day, but the sun still shone through to give a soft glow to everything it touched.

Fort Pickens closes at sunset, so after watching the sun go down, I left the fort with a new perspective on Pensacola history. I also left knowing that my entrance pass could be used for a few more days, and I would be back to see what else Gulf Islands National Seashore and the Fort Pickens area had to offer.

Know Before You Go: Download the official National Park Service (NPS) app, and toggle the switch to save the information for the park you’re visiting for offline use. Cell service in parks can be unreliable, and having the guides available will make your visit easier.

Fort Pickens Area Driving Tour

The day after I completed the self-guided tour of Fort Pickens, I returned to Gulf Island National Seashore to explore the Fort Pickens area.

Under the Self-Guided Tours section of the Gulf Islands page in the NPS app, there is an option to take the Fort Pickens area driving tour. If you start early enough, the driving tour can be paired with a few hours spent enjoying the soft, white sands of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

A small amount of parking space is available at each stop of the driving tour.

Note: The open/closed status of each stop mentioned below changes from time to time. Use the NPS app to find out which stops on the driving tour are open to visitors.

Battery Langdon

After driving through the entrance station, we remained on the two-lane road and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery on both sides. The first stop we chose to make was Battery Langdon.

Battery Langdon is named in honor of Brigadier General Loomis L. Langdon, who served at Fort Pickens in 1861 and returned as commander in 1885.

Completed in 1923, Battery Langdon was built half-hidden by raised slopes of sand and thick vegetation. During WWII, soil was added to camouflage the massive bunker from enemy aircraft.

Battery Langdon as it exists today

Battery Langdon was Fort Pickens’ most powerful gun emplacement. It had 12-inch guns that could throw a projectile 17 miles out to sea. When the guns were fired, hats blew off, pants split, and concussion ripples appeared in the sand.

“Lots of boys…would bleed from the mouth and ears because of the concussion of the guns.”

-R. Hoover Weems, a soldier at Battery Langdon in the 1940s

There is a narrow trail beside the concrete wall of Battery Langdon that allows visitors to climb to the top for a view of the Gulf of Mexico. I proceeded up the sandy trail with caution, and the view at the top was worth the grains of sand stuck to my feet.

Sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico from the top of Battery Langdon

The next stop was Battery 234 and its twin, Battery 233.

Both batteries are located on Perdido Key and were never armed.

The batteries were built with curved shields that were designed to house 6-inch guns. The shields provided protection against machine gun and light artillery fire. Both batteries received their shields and carriages in 1946, but never received the 6-inch guns.

Strategic plans for Battery 234 and 233 included relaying precise calculations of enemy ships to the gun crews manning the batteries. Soldiers in nearby end towers took compass readings of approaching enemy ships and telephoned the information to the plotting room. Soldiers in the plotting room used the readings to plot a triangle on a table and calculate the distance to the target. This information would be relayed to the gun crews for precise firing.

The guns, shields, and barbette carriages that are present today were placed there in 1976 in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution.

Battery 233 is located around the corner from Battery 234.

A very short drive away was Battery Cooper. This battery houses one of two remaining 6-inch disappearing guns in the country. Battery Cooper was built in 1906 and named after Lieutenant George Cooper who was killed in action in the Philippine Islands in 1900.

Battery Cooper housed two 6-inch disappearing guns.

Battery Cooper’s guns were unique in that they had a mechanism that gave them the ability to “pop up” during use. The guns were then lowered below the battery walls when they were being loaded or were not in use. Hence the name “disappearing guns”.

In 1917, the guns inside Battery Cooper were removed and sent to France during WWI. The Smithsonian Institution provided the existing gun inside Battery Cooper in 1976.

When I walked around Battery Cooper’s main structure, I found the space where the other disappearing gun would have been located. The view of the Gulf of Mexico from the position of this gun made it easy to see how well Fort Pickens was protected before an enemy ship could even enter Pensacola Bay.

Sunset was right around the corner and I wanted to spend time at the beach, so the stop at Battery Cooper concluded my driving tour. If you wish to continue exploring the driving tour route when you visit, the NPS app is a great tool to keep you on track so that you don’t miss points of interest.

Langdon Beach

If the name Langdon sounds familiar, it is because Battery Langdon was the first stop on my driving tour of the Fort Pickens area. Langdon Beach is located within Gulf Islands National Seashore on Santa Rosa Island. The entrance fee that I paid on my first day visiting Gulf Islands National Seashore included the opportunity to spend some time enjoying the white sands that mesmerized me on my drive to Fort Pickens.

Langdon Beach is lifeguarded during the summer months (May – September), making it an ideal beach for families. It is far less crowded than Pensacola Beach, and it was easy for us to find a place to put our beach chairs and beach umbrellas. This beach also has the cleanest, softest sand that I have ever experienced on a beach. I walked on the sand with my bare feet and it made a squeaky sound, like when you walk on a freshly polished floor with shoes on.

Battery Langdon beach near sunset

I spent time listening to one of my favorite sounds, waves rolling in and out. I dug my feet into the soft sand and then waded into the water. Soon, sunset settled over the beach.

After sunset, a light drizzle started and signaled the end of my visit to Gulf Islands National Seashore. The next day was planned for traveling back home, and I was glad that I ended my visit with a relaxing evening at Langdon Beach.

Have you ever visited a popular tourist destination and discovered something new?

Where was it, how did you learn about it, and what did it help you learn about the place you were visiting?

The experience of discovering what Pensacola offered beyond the beach showed me that a place known as a popular destination for one activity can be experienced in a different way when time is taken to research other activities in the area. It showed me that there are more options to take advantage of that can widen my perspective and enrich my travels.

6 thoughts on “Pensacola: Beyond the Beach

  1. So happy to hear you and your family were able to get away for a bit. From your post though it sounds like you were busy discovering a lot of things! I found myself doing the same when I went to Helsinki. Not knowing a lot about the city, I decided to just see where it led me once I was there and it was a marvelous way to explore. Hope this finds you well and safe.

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    1. Thank you, Atreyee! When you discover new things about a city, it is quite exciting, isn’t it? The days that I managed to spend time at the beach made up for the days that were spent visiting museums and the National Park. This trip was a good balance of both relaxation and exploration.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Esteban. It makes me happy to hear that this post encouraged you to go beyond the beach when you visit Pensacola. There’s so much beauty, art and history to discover when you visit.

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    1. I was quite surprised about the amount of non-beach, family friendly activities that could be part of a visit to Pensacola. I hope you have the opportunity to visit the museums in the future.

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