Gulf Islands National Seashore


In 1978 Congress acted on a resolution to set aside Horn and Petit Bois Islands as wilderness areas. The passage of the bill recognized the islands as being among the last undisturbed in a chain of islands stretching from Maine to Texas.

Where to Camp
Camping is allowed anywhere on East Ship, Horn, or Petit Bois Islands at any time of year. No permit is required. From June through October, camping is often best on the barren tips of the islands where insects are less of a problem. During the harsh weather it is best to seek some protection from stiff winds on the lee side of woods or high dunes. Never camp on the top of dunes where a careless footstep can cause irreparable damage.

Horn Island, which is 14 miles long and has the most varied terrain, offers the best hiking. Although the islands are seldom more than a mile wide, crossings are restricted by dense vegetation and numerous lagoons. Catfish barbs, stickers, and cactus spines make shoes a necessity. During the summer, the white sand gets hot enough to burn bare feet.

Seashells and driftwood may be collected for personal use. Hermit crabs and other live creatures should be left undisturbed.

The islands are famous for their mullet, flounder, speckled sea trout, bull reds, and Spanish mackerel. No fishing license is required although all Mississippi state fishing laws apply. Be familiar with restrictions placed on gill netting and on the taking of shrimp, oysters, and female blue crabs with eggs.

As Mark Twain said, "There is only one thing certain about the weather, there is going to be plenty of it." Summer temperatures normally exceed 90 degrees F and there is little shade from the intense sun. During the winter months cold fronts drop temperatures to near or below freezing. Sudden thunderstorms, occurring on an average of 75 days per year, can suddenly change a calm gulf into a raging sea. Always check the weather forecast before departing for the islands, especially during the hurricane season from June through November.

A long-sleeved shirt and long pants should be brought along for protection from the sun and insects during the warmer months. High humidity and strong northerly winds in winter drop the effective temperature to well below what a thermometer indicates. Bring along warm, wind-resistant clothing.

Mosquitoes, sand gnats, and deerflies can make a visit to the islands unpleasant. They hatch throughout the year and their numbers fluctuate in cycles that are unpredictable. When insects are swarming it is best to avoid them by staying clear of vegetation, not moving around at dusk, and by camping on the windward side of the island where the ocean breeze is insect free. Insect repellent and a tent with mosquito netting fine enough to bar "no-see-ums" are necessities.

Every year on the islands, shrimp boats, sailboats, and small outboards are destroyed and lives are endangered because of improper anchoring techniques. Many boaters anchor close in on the lee shore only to find that a sudden shift in wind has left them pitching dangerously in breakers. Because a 5-foot-high wave breaks in 6 1/2 feet of water, it is common during a blow to have surf as far as 1/4 mile offshore. Be sure that your anchor, line, and fittings are suited to the size and type of your boat.

There is no dependable source of fresh water available on the islands. Campers must bring water with them.

Please take it with you. Wind and wildlife will quickly uncover buried trash creating an eyesore. Buried cans can take a century to decompose. Glass bottles are prohibited on these islands.

Fires should be built on the beach near the sideline where the ocean will erase any fire scar. They are prohibited on dunes or in wooded areas where sparks fanned by the wind have caused raging fires. Although no firewood may be cut, driftwood is ample in most locations. Please douse your fire with water before leaving your campsite and disperse the coals and ashes in the ocean.

insects and sunburn cause more discomfort than any other hazards. Jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-wars are common during the late summer and some relief from their painful stings may be attained by sprinkling meat tenderizer on the affected skin. The barbs of stingrays and saltwater catfish contain a toxin that can cause swelling and intense pain. Immersing the puncture wound in hot water for 30 minutes should relieve the pain. There are alligators and poisonous cottonmouths on the islands but they have a natural fear of man. As long as you keep a respectful distance from them, they are not dangerous. In winter an ocean temperature of 50 degrees F coupled with high winds can cause hypothermia. This critical loss of body heat can be fatal to those without warm, dry clothing.

The Ranger Stations on Horn and West Ship Islands are operated year-round. Should you require assistance, signal any other boat with a red flag, flare, smoke, or continuous horn. If an airplane flies over you, stand on the highest part of your boat, outstretch your arms, and slowly and repeatedly raise and lower them. The Coast Guard continuously monitors VHF Channel 16 for emergencies. If you have a CB radio, attempt to contact Open Gulf Watch on Channel 14, React on Channel 9, or Long Beach Rescue on Channel 1. If you reach a radio station on shore, have them telephone Gulf Islands' 24-hour number 875-0823 to relay a message to the island rangers for assistance.

Island Habitats
Separating the shallow waters of the Mississippi Sound from the Gulf of Mexico is a chain of narrow, sandy, barrier islands. Lying an average distance of ten miles offshore, these islands preserve a rich variety of plants and animals in their delicate natural balance. Behind their sandy beaches is a patchwork of tidal marshes and pine forests that are seldom visited by man.

A change in elevation of inches can lead to succession of an entirely new plant community. Various species of lizards, snakes, turtles, and frogs can be found on the islands. It is not uncommon to see an alligator or cottonmouth basking in the morning sun near a brackish pond. Huge sea turtles, now in danger of becoming extinct, still crawl up the beach to lay their eggs in a nest scooped in the sand. Few mammals have been able to cross the sound's barrier and establish breeding populations on the islands. Some mammals that have are raccoons, otters, rats, mice, rabbits, nutria, and hogs.

Over 250 species of birds have been identified on the islands. They provide an important nesting area for ospreys, skimmers, snowy plovers, royal, least, and sandwich terns. Sanderlings stop off from their 8,000-mile migration between the Arctic and South America to feed on the islands. Peregrine falcons, hummingbirds, warblers, and many other migratory birds can be seen there in the spring and fall. Rafts of waterfowl winter on the islands. It is seldom that you gaze at the beach of one of the islands without seeing a sandpiper, willet, plover, or other shore bird searching or probing the shoreline for food. Nowhere on earth is life more abundant than where land and ocean meet. Thousands of small creatures including ghost crabs, seaworms, sand fleas, and larvae lie hidden near the water's edge. Nearly every unbroken snail shell is now occupied by a scavenging hermit crab. Just offshore the ocean teems with squid, shrimp, jellyfish, horseshoe crabs, schools of silversides, and an incredible variety of marine life.

Man on the Islands
Arrowheads and pottery fragments found on Horn and Ship Islands indicate that the first humans to visit the islands were coastal Indians who came to take advantage of the abundant food supply. During the 16th and 17th centuries pirates used them to prey upon gold-laden Spanish galleons in the Gulf of Mexico. Pierre le Moyne d'lberville explored the islands in 1699 and claimed the area for France. This early French influence is evidenced by the islands' names. Petit Bois, named for the "little woods"; Horn Island, originally the Isle a Come, named after a powder horn lost there by an early explorer; and Ship Island, originally Isle aux Vasseaux, was so named because of the safety it provided ships with its natural harbor.

The safe anchorage and proximity to the New Orleans shipping channel made Ship Island predominant in the barrier chain. In the 19th century it served as the staging for both the British invasion of New Orleans in the War of 1812, and the Federal (U.S.) invasion of 1862. It served as the site of a former French warehouse, a yellow fever quarantine station, and the still standing masonry fort. Horn and Petit Bois Islands saw only minimal use until the Waters family moved to Horn Island in 1845. They and their descendants would continue to raise livestock and crops there for the next 75 years.

In the 1920's, a resort and gambling casino stood on the Isle of Caprice, midway between Horn and Ship Islands. All of the island's sea oats were harvested and sold to a Chicago florist to enhance floral arrangements. When a hurricane slashed through the island in 1926 there was nothing left to anchor the dunes and most of the sand washed away. Within five years all that remained of the island was a submerged sand bar. The natural forces that build up and erode away barrier islands are in such delicate balance that any impact by man can threaten their very existence.

Offshore, scores of "Biloxi Schooners" anchor in the lee of the islands when not shrimping. The growing logging industry used the islands to transfer their rafts of logs to ocean-going vessels. Also, sand was collected from the north shore of Horn for the glass industry in New Orleans. The Army took over Horn and Ship Islands during World War II, but little evidence of their facilities remain. In 1971, Congress set aside these islands as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore to preserve them unimpaired.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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