Enjoy golfing, watersports, and nature trails in small family-friendly beach towns
Years ago we cruised our boat High Life from Mobile Bay along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, but we only saw as far as we could peddle our bicycles. We passed by lovely beach homes, condos and waterfront restaurants of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and vowed to return by car someday to see more of the area. We found family-friendly beach towns with golfing, watersports, nature trails and beautiful beaches at Golf Shores, Alabama.
The neighboring beach communities stretch across the pristine waters of the Gulf of Mexico from the mouth of Mobile Bay east to the FL Panhandle and are connected to the mainland by AL Highway 59. The narrow peninsula from the Florida line to the tip of Fort Morgan is 32 miles. The turquoise waters and white sandy beaches draw vacationers – especially families – to enjoy the sun and fun with stays at affordable to luxurious motels, hotels and vacation homes. You’ll find several campgrounds and RV parks, too. Visitors come by car and plane to Mobile and Pensacola airports for a Gulf Shores and Orange Beach getaway.
Golfing friends told us Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, AL were their favorite winter destination because of its many public golf courses. We counted five of them. We don’t golf, but we like the beach and nature trails and of course, sampling their seafood.
The Lodge at Gulf State Park
We stayed at the Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel set in a landscape of 6,000 acres while attending the Outdoor Writers of America Assn. annual conference. The Lodge is a full service conference hotel with everything you’d expect, including accessibile accommodattions, a spacious outdoor pool, restaurants, room service and EV charging stations. It is ideally located in the park with 28 miles of trails for walking, riding and pushing a stroller. A welcoming beach pavilion offers a lush beach from sunrise to sunset. The Nature Center there is a living museum of plants and animals native to the Gulf Coast region.
Get wet in the water
For adventures on the water you can rent a kayak, jet ski, paddleboat or go sailing and parasailing. Take a dolphin cruise, a cat boat cruise or a pirate ship cruise. You’ll find lots of ways to enjoy being on the water. Or choose a stay with a pool and lounge away the day.
Fishermen come in their own boats or charter with captains who know just where to go and what the fish are doing.
Our firsthand experience using binoculars when traveling: 8×25 compact binoculars are a good choice for traveling because they’re lightweight and easy to tuck into a backpack or purse. The first number”8” is its magnification which makes an image 8 times closer than what you see with your eyes; it’s good for a wider field of view. The “25” is the size of the objective lens measured in millimeters that defines how much light the binocs can gather. A larger objective lens has more light gathering power so the image resolution will be higher and brighter.
Local artists and their work
While the area is known for its family friendly atmosphere you’ll find a nice selection of art studios. In Gulf Shores the Gulf Coast Arts Alliance, the Sea Oat Studio and Pottery Central feature the creations of local area artists. Susan N. McCollough’s gallery showcases her abstract work in mixed media.
At Orange Beach the Coastal Arts Center has the Clay Studio with demonstrations by a resident ceramics artist and glass blowing classes at The Hot Shop. The Prosperous Pelican displays the work of more than 50 local and regional artists including pottery, jewelry and more.
Special places for birders and nature lovers to explore
The region surrounding Mobile Bay is the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and is called America’s Amazon because of its diverse forest and river system with an incredible array of wildlife. Birders are drawn to the area for its diversity of beaches, dunes, freshwater and salt marshes, and maritime forests all attracting hundreds of bird species. The Gulf’s location provides a critical resting place and food resource for birds migrating between the north and south. And it’s a year-round location for shorebirds, gulls and terns.
Here are nature trails to explore in the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area.
- Audubon Bird Sanctuary has 164 aces of maritime forests, marshes, dunes, a lake, swamp and beach- iles of walking trails, some wheelchair accessible, to look for different bird species.
- Bon Secure, which means safe harbor, is a National Wildlife Refuge with an abundance of undisturbed coastal habitats.
- Fort Morgan at the tip of the peninsula is a National Historic Site and an important fortress to protect Mobile Bay’s critical shipping lane beginning with the Civil War. During WWI troops were stationed there and in 1941 the U.S. Navy occupied the fort to defend the coast. Today you can roam the grounds surrounded by Gulf waters.
Lots to explore In Gulf Shores
We asked locals for suggestions and found Kitty’s Café for breakfast enjoying country fried pork chops and grits.
For dinner at the Flying Harpoon we had a rum concoction and their seafood specialties. The twin beach towns offer more than enough choices in eateries and we found their Southern BBQ and oyster bars especially good eatin’.
A short road trip
From our hotel at Gulf State Park to Fort Morgan is a easy drive, about 32 miles. We headed west on Alabama 180 toward Fort Morgan. Lots of places to explore, shop and of course many places to eat.
As we drove west we stopped to check out shrimp boats. We saw a mix of smaller boats with many different types of rigs, tied up with large shrimp boats and commercial fishing boats.
As we drove further west there were surprised to see drilling rigs just off shore, some appeared to be in operation even they were very close to shore.
At the end of the of the peninsula is Fort Morgan, completed in 1834, it was active during four wars — the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World Wars I and II. The fort is most famous for its role in the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay. Here, Union Rear Admiral David Farragut damned the torpedoes and went full speed ahead to win the battle. The fort features an active living history program that interprets all the military periods and holds an annual event commemorating the Battle of Mobile Bay.
Dauphin Island is a day trip worth a visit
For an easy and informative day trip away from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, take the Mobile Bay Ferry Service from Fort Morgan at the tip of the peninsula to Dauphin Island across Mobile Bay. It’s a nice boat ride to where you can visit the Alabama Aquarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. The aquarium takes you on a science trip from the Gulf waters to the Mobile Delta with interactive displays to learn more about this diverse ecosystem. Here’s a video to know more about it https://www.disl.edu/aquarium/
Find more information online go to Gulfshores.com. Want a nice vacation guide? Click Plan your vacation at the top of the page, then click “Order a vacation guide.”
- Birding North Alabama: The Top Spots and Surprises
- Boating the Panhandle and Gulf Coast from Mobile AL to Fort Myers FL
- Favorite National Wildlife Refuges
Gene and Katie Hamilton are bird watchers who attend birding festivals and events and write about the wonders of the birding world. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.