Northwest Indiana to Gulf Islands National Seashore: a Roundtrip Vacation Travel Itinerary
Before the pandemic and quarantine changed everything, our spring break plans were to visit Gulf Islands National Seashore. About a month before break, everything shut down and we received an email telling us our reservations were cancelled. Fast forward a few months to fall break. We made new reservations, determined to take this trip in 2020. Then along comes a hurricane, causing damage to the park property and surrounding areas, and another email telling us our reservation was cancelled. We were disappointed but still determined! We made reservations for spring break 2021 and then January brought a diagnosis of breast cancer. Two surgeries later, I had my surgical drain removed a week before we were set to leave, and off we went. Finally. Here is the itinerary to follow for this trip.
Day One: Drive NWI to Columbus, IN
We left on a Friday around 5:00 pm and traveled three hours south to get a head start on the long trip ahead. We stayed at a Boondockers Welcome site in Columbus, Indiana. It was pretty close to a busy road, so not the quietest night sleep, but a convenient location.
Boondockers Welcome Site: https://www.boondockerswelcome.com/hosts/17552/
Day Two: Drive Columbus, IN to Mammoth Cave National Park
About three more hours south brought us to Mammoth Cave National Park. My husband and I had been here about 16 years earlier and we did the Frozen Niagara cave tour. This time, due to Covid, tour options were limited. We chose the Extended Historic Cave Tour. During the pandemic, this was a self guided tour. There were rangers posted throughout the tour area to give information as needed. I personally enjoyed the self guided aspect. I don't particularly love caves, so a rapid pace suits me well. We were in and out in less than two hours. In hindsight, we probably could've gotten back on the road at this point and driven another 4 hours closer to our destination. But we had a reservation for the night at Mammoth Cave campground. We checked in after our tour and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The campground had level spots with a fair amount of space in between. It is a short bike ride away from the visitor center area, where there are restaurants and shops. Lots of roads and trails to ride around on. There was a ranger program going on in the amphitheater that evening. I don't think I would ever spend more than 24 hours at this park, but it is definitely a place worth stopping for a few hours or for the night. Mammoth Cave NP Info: https://www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm
Also note, definitely make your reservations to tour the cave before you arrive. Cave tours easily sell out within the first hour of the day.
Day Three: Drive Mammoth Cave NP to Gulf Breeze, FL
Back on the road to Florida sunshine, we had plans to spend the night at a Boondockers Welcome property in Alabama. However, everyone was so anxious to get to the beach that we ended up cancelling that and driving straight through to the coast. We arrived late in the evening but our reservation at Gulf Islands National Seashore didn't start until Monday, so we spent the night in the Walmart Parking lot. Again, not the quietest night sleep. The hurricane that hit the previous fall had taken out the main bridge to Pensacola. So, the only remaining bridge across Pensacola Bay was on highway 281, and ended at the Walmart parking lot. There was construction going on through the night as well, so lots of traffic. It ended up being a smart idea to arrive late at night though, since traffic during the day around the bridge was pretty congested.
Day Four: Arrive at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Monday we finally drove across the Pensacola Beach Boulevard Bridge and arrived on Santa Rosa Island. We had made it to the Gulf! Pensacola Beach is your typical beach town with high rise hotels along the coast, restaurants, shops, and activities like mini-golf and ropes courses. All of the things we typically avoid on vacation. When you head west along the island, away from Pensacola Beach, the buildings get smaller, then fewer, until you are surrounded by nothing but sand. This is where we vacation. We parked and walked along the beach for a bit, and then were luckily able to check into our campsite a few hours early.
Gulf Islands National Seashore Info: https://www.nps.gov/guis/index.htm
Day Five through Nine: Relax and Enjoy the beach
We spent Monday through Friday camped at For Pickens Campground on Gulf Islands National Seashore. This campground has large sites and is quiet, peaceful, and serene. It is a short walk to the beaches on both the gulf and bay. However, every morning around 10:30 the Blue Angels fly over for about 30 minutes doing their practice flights for air shows. We loved it. That was one thing that drew us to this location. The sound of fighter jets is a plus to us. We also saw an Apache helicopter fly along the gulf coast one afternoon. Just be aware, that your quiet beach days at Gulf Islands NS will also include the occasional sounds of military aircraft.
During our week on the island, we rode bikes, hiked part of the Florida Trail, watched lots of birds, walked along the beach at all hours of the day, fished from our canoes, tried unsuccessfully to catch crabs in our crab trap, enjoyed the Blue Angels overhead, walked through Fort Pickens and the many accompanying military batteries, and soaked up as much sun as possible. It's worth noting that there is a large concentration of osprey on the island. We've never seen so many in one place. They are really fun to watch.
We ate at two local restaurants worth mentioning. Cafe Nola had pretty good cajun/creole seafood, but their service was horrible during our visit. I think they were just terribly understaffed. We liked it because it was not as overcrowded as most of the other touristy places. We also ate at Crabs on the Beach. This was definitely a tourist spot, and very crowded, but we were seated pretty quickly. They have seating right on the beach so it's a fun place for vacation dinners. We ate fried everything while there.
Cafe Nola: https://www.yelp.com/biz/cafe-nola-gulf-breeze-3?osq=cafe+nola
Crabs on the Beach: https://www.yelp.com/biz/crabs-on-the-beach-gulf-breeze
On Friday it was time to pack up and start the journey home. We visited the Naval Live Oaks area of the National Seashore, but it was honestly disappointing. I'm sure the locals enjoy the trails and protected green space for public use, but if you are searching for old growth live oaks, this is not the place.
From there we went to old downtown Historic Pensacola. This was a quaint area to walk through and it was here that we finally found the old growth live oaks we were after. The best part of this stop though would have to be lunch...Grits A-Ya-Ya. Shrimp and grits are never the same from one place to another, but the shrimp and grits at The Fish House, called Grits A-Ya-Ya are definitely worth trying. You can easily park your RV at Bantram Park and have a short walk to both the Fish House restaraunt and Seville Square.
The Fish House: https://www.yelp.com/biz/the-fish-house-pensacola
Our campsite for the night was at Historic Blakely State Park in Alabama. This place, what a gem. Lots of history at this park. Lots of trails. And an amazing, enormous live oak that is absolutely breathtaking. So glad we spent a night here. The campground had the absolute biggest campsite we have ever seen. We had a level, pull through site, with water, electric, and sewer. We could've easily fit three or four rigs just like ours on the pull through road on our campsite. The site was so large that deer were grazing there at one side while we sat and watched from the other. Plenty of space for them to feel safe at a distance. Hiking along the Tensaw River at sunset was also a highlight of our visit. Historic Blakely State Park info: https://www.blakeleypark.com
We woke early so that we could go into Mobile and get beignets before we hit the road. Because you can't leave the gulf shore without a beignet. We headed to Mo'Bay Beignet Company on Dauphin Street, and just like a fool, when those sweet goodies cooled, we ate til we ate way too much (J.Buffett). After gorging ourselves on sugar and dough, we walked through Cathedral and Bienville Square and loved the laid back ambiance of Mobile on a sunny Saturday morning. Mo'Bay Beignets Info:
The rest of the day was spent driving the entire length of Alabama to Nashville, our destination for the night. We stayed overnight at a Boondockers Welcome site. It was a little tricky to navigate getting back into the spot, and definitely not the most level, but it was very quiet and safe. We had planned to go into Nashville for dinner and to see the lights and sights on Broadway, but after a long day of driving, we were just done for the day.
Boondockers Welcome Site Info: https://www.boondockerswelcome.com/hosts/15260/
Our last leg of the journey was uneventful. We drove Nashville to Northwest Indiana. Home sweet home. Our trip to Gulf Islands National Seashore finally happened. And what a great trip it was!