More than 50 miles long and less than a mile wide in most places, windswept Santa Rosa Island gleams with white sand next to the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico in northwest Florida. Not to be confused with the community of Santa Rosa Beach to the east, Santa Rosa Island is part of the extensive Gulf Islands National Seashore that runs in sections from Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle. The island also contains the beach resort towns of Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach and Fort Walton Beach between its long swaths of pristine, undeveloped coastline. Camping is limited on this mostly protected island, with some notable spots close by.
Fort Pickens Campground
At the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, you can camp and get a good dose of history along with the salt air at Fort Pickens. Completed in the 1830s, Fort Pickens saw action during the Civil War and was operational up until World War II. Today, it's managed by the National Park Service as a unit of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Fort Pickens Campground has primitive and water/electric campsites within walking distance to the beach and the fort. Make reservations through Recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Check current road conditions before heading out because the road to Fort Pickens is prone to close after hurricanes or other significant weather events as a result of flooding and wash outs.
The two privately operated campgrounds on Santa Rosa Island, at the time of publication in June 2013, are RV resorts that don't allow tent camping -- Pensacola Beach RV Resort and Destin West RV Resort. Many more campgrounds are available across the Navarre Beach Bridge on the mainland along Navarre Beach Parkway. Navarre Beach Campground on Santa Rosa Sound has specific tent sites, along with a pier jutting out into the sound that provides a nice view of the island. Like most privately run campgrounds along this stretch of the coast, you'll encounter more RVers than tent campers at Navarre Beach Campground.
You may be tempted to make your own campsite in the dunes or on the miles of undeveloped beach on Santa Rosa Island, but no specified areas exist for this type of camping. The units of Gulf Islands National Seashore outside of Fort Pickens are day-use only. Santa Rosa Day-Use Area (aka Opal Beach) is in the the middle of the island, between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach, and Okaloosa Day-Use Area is at the eastern end near Fort Walton Beach. Both give you plenty of opportunity for uncrowded daytime recreation at the shore. It's important to note that the eastern end of Santa Rosa Island is also locally known as Okaloosa Island because it's in Okaloosa County, but it's all still one island.
If you want to pitch your tent directly on the beach, head to the eastern tip of Perdido Key, just west of Santa Rosa Island. The two islands form the mouth of Pensacola Bay. Perdido Key is a lot like Santa Rosa Island in that it includes protected sections of the Gulf Islands National Seashore along with developed beach resort areas. You're allowed to make a campsite directly on the beach at the eastern end of Perdido Key. And you'll feel like you have the beach to yourself here since this part of the island is only reachable by making a very long walk over sand, or by boat.