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Spotlight on Gulf Shores/Orange Beach

Walk the golden sands of Dixie’s Gulf Shore

When you think of Alabama, the vision of deserted white sand beaches, clear waters and fecund inland waterways teeming with creatures great and small doesn’t tend to spring to mind. While Florida steals all the fun-in-the-sun glory, the 32 miles of picture-perfect Alabama Gulf Coast have lurked quietly under the tourist radar, much to the conspiratorial delight of those in the know. Made from quartz grains washed down from the Appalachian Mountains thousands of years ago, the sugary sands and crystal waters that entwine the fringes of Alabama’s southern border with the Gulf of Mexico are a world apart from Florida’s overly commercialized sands.

While Alabama’s coast still retains all the charm and allure of a classic 1950s all-American vacation, there’s no denying that the resort towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are in the throes of a construction boom. Sleek glass-and-steel condos with infinity pools and every conceivable bell and whistle stand sentinel above pristine stretches of sand where children build sandcastles, parents sip beers and volleyball players compete with a frenzy.

Great Times at Gulf State Park

For a less-manicured beach experience, the dunes and crashing waves at Gulf State Park beach are popular with local families that set up shop for the day within reach of the new outdoor pavilion, complete with snack bar, restrooms, showers, tables and picnic benches. At Orange Beach, the nation’s largest artificial reef program (over 1,200 square miles) lures deep-sea fishermen who cast their lines for red snapper, grouper, amberjack, trigger fish, porgy, vermilion snapper and cobia. A variety of fishing charters are available at Orange Beach.


The Alabama Bureau of Tourism & Travel/Courtland Richards

Safe Harbor: Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

You don’t have to venture too far to experience Alabama’s untamed alter ego. A rich profusion of marshlands, sprawling bayous, backwater canals and wild sand dunes nudge up against waterways. The 7,000-acre Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is a primeval landscape of aquatic forests and coastal marshes. Bon Secour (meaning safe harbor) was designated in 1980 to protect a Neotropical migratory songbird habitat and endangered species. Encompassing a huge swath of Alabama’s last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitat, the wildlife population is mind-blowing.

In addition to red fox, coyotes, armadillos, ospreys, herons and hummingbirds, the refuge is a nesting site for loggerhead, green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. It also provides a haven for the endangered Alabama beach mouse that inhabits the beach dune and scrub/shrub habitats found along the Fort Morgan Peninsula. The refuge operates as a research center and aims to raise public awareness of environmental conservation.

Dauphin Island: Birds of a Feather

A charming Southern town with a much-storied maritime history, Dauphin Island, the “Sunset Capital of Alabama,” is one of the Gulf Coast’s undisputed highlights. Along quaint streets, there are plenty of “ye olde” stores, art galleries and eclectic restaurants with local seafood front and center on every menu. In addition to mile upon breathtaking mile of calm, virgin sands, there’s outdoor recreation in the form of stellar fishing and bird-watching at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary.

Dauphin Island, which revels in the mantel of “America’s Birdiest City,” is classified as a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. The sanctuary, which encompasses 164 acres of maritime forest, marshes and dunes (including a lake, a swamp and a beach) is deemed one of the premier spots in the country to view the hundreds of Neotropical migrants that pass through this lush island habitat.

A 3-mile looped trail system, complete with interpretive signs, includes a 1,000-foot-long boardwalk that leads from the parking lot to the serene Gaillard Lake, where you can spot myriad waterfowl from a pier. Along the boardwalk trails, which are also raised above the Tupelo swamp, Alabama’s Osprey Nesting Trail is comprised of two large nesting platforms in a wind-swept dune area. Visitors can also amble scenic beach trails to Civil War-era Fort Gaines, deemed to be one of America’s Most Endangered Historical Sites.

Built in 1821, Fort Gaines witnessed the 1864 Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay, in which a Union fleet commanded by Rear Admiral David G. Farragut attacked a smaller Confederate fleet led by Admiral Franklin Buchanan. Facing a confederate attack, Farragut is reported to have uttered the famous quote, “Damn the Torpedoes, full speed ahead!” The Union fleet won the day.

On the Waterfront

With some 400,000 acres of estuaries and more than 1 million acres of lakes, recreational opportunities along Alabama’s Gulf Coast abound. Some of the Southeast’s most picturesque waters offer water-skiing, wakeboarding and pontoon boating. Across the waterways of Longs Bayou and Wolf Bay, you can encounter dolphins, try your hand at shrimping and crab-catching, learn how to harvest local oysters, and work on your wildlife-spotting log with a wide variety of marine and bird life.

Running for 631 miles, the Alabama Scenic River Trail is the longest water trail in any single state in the country. Beginning at the Georgia state line, the trail meanders through serene lakes within the stunning wildlife preserves and secluded bayous that characterize the Delta region.

The man-made Gulf Intracoastal Waterway runs for 1,050 miles from Brownsville, Texas, to Carrabelle, Florida. The other section of the Intracoastal Waterway System, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, funnels from Key West, Florida, to Norfolk, Virginia. Despite the waterways’ barge traffic, recreational boaters and snowbirds flock here to embark on leisure cruises of the Great Circle.

For More Information

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism




Alabama Tourism Department