We recently took a day trip down to Dauphin Island, Alabama.  Located less than an hour from Mobile, and on the southwest edge of Mobile Bay, it is a 15 mile long barrier island that often goes undiscovered by I-10 travelers.  We were on a tight schedule with only a few days to spare until we needed to be in Orlando, and we have a big rig (40-foot toy hauler) and weren’t sure what the campgrounds down there would be like, so we left our fiver in Mobile while we drove down for the day.

Once we got there, we were wishing like crazy that we had more time and would have brought our RV down.  (There are several campgrounds on Dauphin Island, so be sure to go to the Good Sam Campground Directory to check them out and see which one would best suit your needs/wants).

Dauphin Island was charming. It has a distinct small-town feel, where kids are still free to ride their bikes around the neighborhood after school, where you can walk to the local snack shop for an afternoon treat, where the locals wave and smile even though they’ve never seen you before; an island getaway where you can buy fresh shrimp, and you can hear the sound of the ocean waves from just about anywhere on land.

We made several stops on the east end of the island. Our first destination was the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Estuarium. The DISL Estuarium was an interesting and educational stop for us northerners. We learned all about the four local habitats, and watched a short, but informative film about Mobile Bay (which we had previously known nothing about!).  As a roadschooling mom, I loved that the Estuarium was broken up into 4 distinct areas, one for each habitat, and that there was so much to learn in each without the information being presented dryly (there are even corresponding worksheets available to download off their website if you want to)—but this is not just a kid-friendly stop, it is so interesting for adults also.

We had a few favorite stations at the Estuarium – the first was the touch table that is in the Delta section.  This table was manned by a very knowledgeable docent, and was covered with real, preserved, sea creatures.
Much like you would have handled in high school biology, these alcohol-preserved specimens were removed from their preserving solution, and were laid out on the table just so you could handle them. The volunteer that was manning the table the day we visited was incredibly knowledgeable, and we loved the (engaging) talk that he gave us. He asked the kids questions and kept them involved and interested.
In addition to the exceptional touch table, there was also a touch tank—it had horseshoe crabs in it as well as a large whelk.  There was a smaller section on this table that had numerous hermit crabs in it, and that was a little less intimidating to the younger kids than the larger horseshoe crabs.  Also, each section has a large fish tank where you can view that habitat’s wildlife/ocean life; we were there during the feeding time for the 3 large tanks, and it was so interesting to watch the fish go into a feeding frenzy.  (You can learn more about our visit to the Estuarium on our personal blog post here, or you can go straight to the Estuarium website here and check it out for yourself).
After we spent several hours at the Estuarium, we next visited historic Fort Gaines, which is just across the street.  Established in 1821, Fort Gaines is nearly 200 years old (!), and was one of the 2 forts that were witness to the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay, which made the quote “Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!” famous.  This fort is an exceptional one to visit as nearly the entire 5-sided fort is open for exploring!  Your self-guided tour starts out in a fun little gift shop, where you will receive a flyer that not only gives you some information on the different areas of the fort, but also gives a great, concise overview of the history of the fort if you are not already familiar with it.  The grounds and fort are well maintained, and there are even costumed staff on hand to show you how to fire a musket or run the blacksmith forge (check out their schedule on the fort’s website).  In addition to the self-guided tour, be sure to check out the multi-room museum that is in the fort.  It is inside, so a great place to get out of the heat (or to warm up if your visit is on a chilly day like ours was!). On the upper level of the fort walls, there are still several cannon in place, and you are privileged a lovely view of the entrance to the bay.
On a side note – if you have a big rig, do not take it past the fort on the dirt road that goes between the fort and the beach – it dead-ends in a small parking lot with no room to turn around.  😉   (we have more pictures from our visit on our website here, and this is the link to the Dauphin Island pages on Fort Gaines).
Also located on Dauphin Island is a Audubon Bird Sanctuary Trail.  We spent about an hour walking some of the 137 acres’  3 miles worth of walking paths.  We took a loop that led us out to the beach and spent some time walking along the peaceful shore and watching the terns dive into the waves in search of their dinners.  The paths have plaques scattered along them that picture and identify local plants, animals, and birds.  There is a lake on the grounds, benches for resting scattered along the paths and water, and some boardwalks.  It was a fun and easy excursion into the wilds of Dauphin Island.
From (or to) D.I., you can take a scenic ferry ride, with or without your rigs, across the entrance and over to the Gulf Shores side of the bay.  We were not able to take the Mobile Bay Ferry ride (we wanted to without our vehicle) since it was so cold the day we visited, but it looked like it would be a fun and unique experience. It would be a great day out to ride the ferry over to Gulf Shores and check out Fort Gaines’ sister fort, Fort Morgan; all done easily on foot.
While visiting Dauphin Island, don’t forget to check out the fun local stops and eateries. We asked the locals, and the overwhelming consensus was that if you visit Dauphin Island, you must stop by Skinner’s Seafood and purchase fresh shrimp.  Skinner has his own fishing boat, so the seafood is always incredibly fresh; you can either take it home to cook, or they will gladly steam it for you!  Also, you will want to walk/ride your bike down to D.I. BBQ & Seafood – I hear their gumbo is TDF.
Dauphin Island certainly exceeded our expectations!  We would love to pull our RV down there for at least a week!   Our days would be full of walks along the gorgeous beaches, bike rides from the campground for ice cream treats, meanders through the woods, and repeat visits to the Estuarium and Fort Gaines.  And don’t forget all that fresh caught seafood!  It’s definitely a place where you could lose track of days and time, and never miss either.

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