After so much time at home, it’s high time to get out of town. Another staycation, eating takeout, and hitting up the farmers market? Just not an option. The Caribbean sounds lovely, but international travel? Too much of a hassle for the time you have off. For a pearly-beach vacation back into the swing of things, Alabama’s Gulf Shores & Orange Beach is the place to point your travel radar.
Fronting the warm waves of the Gulf of Mexico, the communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are a seven-hour jaunt from Memphis, a five-hour road trip from Atlanta, and a leisurely three hours from New Orleans. While you could easily spend your days never going beyond your Alabama beach chair, if you do, here’s what’s in store.
1. Birding on and off the beaches
The Alabama Gulf Coast has always been for the birds. The Alabama Birding Trails — 280 sites, 400+ species! — crisscross the state, but the trails along the coast are some of the wildest.
Spanning 200+ miles, six designated birding loops fit snugly down here in Baldwin and Mobile counties. The Gulf Shores–Orange Beach Loop alone has 10 viewing spots — from the sea-oat habitat of Perdido Pass to the canals and coastal marshes of Wade Ward Nature Park, you’ll catch ospreys, owls, orioles, loons, snowy plovers, egrets, cranes, and dozens of other species swooping, preening, and singing. Birding is an especially scenic way to spend a day enjoying the region’s flora and fauna with any age group. Pack those binos!
2. Getting inspired by nature experts
Don’t skip the Gulf State Park Nature Center when you visit the park of the same name — it’s a “living museum” that makes learning about the uniqueness of this corner of Alabama totally hands-on. You can talk to experts while interacting with (and holding, if you’re lucky!) snakes, owls, baby gators, and even hissing cockroaches.
The center also offers weekly programs that showcase the best of the park, including guided backcountry nature walks, pier walks, and beach walks, along with various educational programs for both kids and adults. Visit at the front of your trip so you can spend the next few days saying things like, “Wait, is that a cormorant?”
3. Hiking one of the “10 Natural Wonders of Alabama”
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is widely acclaimed for its work protecting coastal Alabama’s native and migratory species. The name means “safe harbor,” and that’s exactly what this place is for thousands of the region’s fuzziest, feather-iest residents.
Located on 7,000 acres, Bon Secour is one of the largest undeveloped areas on the Gulf Coast, earning it recognition as one of the “10 Natural Wonders of Alabama.” With four hiking trails open year-round, ranging from a light walk (Jeff Friend Trail) to a moderate to strenuous trek (Pine Beach Trail), the refuge offers a wonderful way to spend the day. End it by watching a cotton-candy sunset over the water, tallying up your wildlife sightings. Besides birds, how many six-lined racerunners, armadillos, red fox, and bobcats did you spot?
4. Gallivanting through estate gardens
One of the more splendid estates in the area, Bellingrath Gardens and Home seems a place fit for high tea and tiny pastries just for the wealthy — but it started as public gardens for all to enjoy.
A private home was built onsite in the early 1930s, constructed with elements from much older buildings in Mobile. The final product was an English-Italianate mansion with a six-car garage, fountain-sporting courtyard, swimming pool, and chapel, which is now open for tours. The surrounding 65-acre grounds comfortably claim the title of the state’s most beautiful public garden.
Note: While spring and summer are peak times to view the spectacular garden, Bellingrath has something in bloom every month of the year.
5. Riding the open road along the salty shore
Motorcycling in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is something of a ritual. With quiet backroads, warm weather, and views every mile, gazing out car windows just doesn’t cut it. You’ll feel freer here on two wheels.
One of the more popular routes is the 118-mile Breweries Down the Byway Run. It takes travelers along the Coastal Alabama Scenic Byway — a jaunt that loops all the way around pretty Mobile Bay — stopping at breweries, restaurants (can you smell the barbecue?), historical sites, and nature spots.
If it’s nature you’re after, the more beach-centric “Island Time” itinerary gives bikers an almost 33-mile round trip of constant views of inviting sand and picturesque Gulf waters…which is exactly why this part of Alabama is so popular with the biking community.
6. Fishing with friends
Maybe you’ve never picked up a fishing pole in your life — but what if you knew of just the spot to give it a try? That’s the Gulf State Park Fishing and Education Pier, newly renovated for those who love to capture the catch of the day, with 725 feet of fishing space on both sides of the pier.
Grab a non-resident fishing license at the bait shop (the process is simple), rent a pole, ask for tips, and make it a memorable-yet-silly day on the Gulf for the whole fam. And if one of you is a pro, even better! Flounder, Spanish mackerel, and Florida pompano may come reeling your way — and if they don’t, let dolphin sightings pass the time.
Note: The pier currently has a capacity cap of 200 people to allow for social distancing.
7. Playing captain in the coves
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach love their watersports — they’re a rather serious endeavor here — but don’t assume it’s all adrenaline rushes, balancing acts, and high-flying acrobatics. One of the most nostalgic, classic water-centric pastimes? Pontooning. The options are staggering: standard pontoons, double-decker pontoons, luxury cruisers, pontoons with slides, pontoons with shark tubes, pontoons with SUPs, tiny pontoons for four, and 30-footers that fit up to 12. If the pontoon exists, you’ll find it here.
All you have to do is get you and your pod somewhere like Hudson Marina, take your pick of the ‘toons, and get to cruising Terry Cove, Johnson Cove, and around the islands — no captain skills required. Bring tubes for floating (and tubes of sunscreen) and a fully-stocked cooler, and that’s a guaranteed day well spent in the Gulf sea breeze.