Between the popular vacation towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama, sits the region’s shining jewel, Gulf State Park. This 6,200+ acre park is home to three fresh water lakes, a golf course, campground, cabins, a fishing pier and 2 1/2 miles of incredible beach.
Look beyond the obvious features, though, to discover a vacation destination your family will treasure for years to come. I’ve been to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach several times, but I always bypassed Gulf State Park. From the road, it looks rather uninspired — all you can see easily from Route 182 is dunes — lots and lots of dunes. You can’t climb the dunes, so I didn’t give the park much thought.
Until this trip… when I took an up close look at everything Gulf State Park has to offer.
10 reasons to visit Gulf State Park
Gulf State Park is quite large and encompasses a great diversity of preserved ecosystems. In other words, there’s more than dunes out there! There’s a woodland forest, swamp, wetlands, the dunes (of course) and more. The more time I spent in the park, the more I wanted to see.
As I researched for this post, I found one incredible bonus reason to visit Gulf State Park, so I hope you’ll read to the end. Seriously, parents, you don’t want to miss this!
This family friendly trail system has seven distinct trails through six distinct ecosystems. Along the trails, you’ll discover all sorts of different plants and animals, including a bald eagle (if you’re lucky), butterflies, and an alligator named Lefty. Here’s the complete guide to wildlife viewing on the Backcountry Trail.
If eagles and alligators don’t convince you to go, maybe this will:
For a closer look, download the Gulf State Park Trails Map to plan your adventure.
If your kids love pirates and treasure hunts (who doesn’t), geocaching is a great way to get outside and explore Gulf State Park.
Geocaching uses GPS-enabled devices for real life, outdoor treasure hunting. Simply input a specific set of GPS coordinates into your map and try to find the container hidden at the location.
The rules are simple:
- If you take something from the “cache” (container), leave something of equal or greater value.
- Write about your find in the cache logbook.
- Share your experience at Geocaching.com.
I’m fairly new to geocaching, and caught the bug after seeing my friends’ posts on Facebook as they explored all sorts of neat outdoor places. It’s a great way to inspire kids to explore outdoors!
My brother is an avid bicyclist — he always has been. Me, not so much. I am always afraid that I’ll hit a rock and go flying over the handlebars. It’s an irrational fear, I know, and one I’m trying to overcome. So, what did I do last week? I rode a bike 7.5 miles along the trails in Gulf State Park. I did not wipe out, not even close. And, I actually had fun! Like serious, grin on my face fun.
I think it helps that Beach Bike Rentals (located next to the Rosemary Trail entrance) was involved. The staff there is super-friendly. They took the time to explain all the bike’s features to me and adjusted my seat to the perfect height. They go over every bike after each ride to ensure they are clean and in pristine riding condition. Every rental includes bike, helmet, basket, bell and lock — and a trail map, of course. If you ask, they’ll help you plan a route that meets your interests.
Added bonus: Wherever you stay in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, they deliver!
While I’m not a big time bike rider — yet — I’m 7.5 miles closer to having confidence.
Outdoor adventure across the country
4. Refuge Golf Club
Golfers and beach vacations go hand in hand, so it should come as no surprise that Gulf State Park has its own golf course. Course fees start at $18, though prime time golfing is a bit more expensive — though, still a bargain. To learn more about the course or to schedule a tee time, click here.
I am not a fisherman. Nor am I a fisherwoman. But, my daughter is — and she would love to spend a day at the pier. This is actually the second pier in the park. The first was washed away by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The new pier, which opened in 2009, is the longest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico! And, it’s not just for fishermen.
The Gulf State Park Pier has air conditioned concession stands, clean restrooms, and a souvenir shop. Avid fishermen will appreciate the bait and tackle shop, fish cleaning stations, electrical outlets (for bubblers if you, like me, have no clue what serious fishing entails) and sea turtle friendly lighting for night fishing.
The pier is completely accessible to those in wheelchairs. There are even fishing spots specially designed for easy access.
If you can’t tell, I was pleasantly surprised by the pier. I even enjoyed watching people fish — especially Kristen Walters from Arkansas who caught her first big fish at the pier while I was there. Oh my goodness, she was so excited!
Really, I should be talking about the white sandy beaches and warm gulf waters, but you know… the beach pavilion at Gulf State Park is pretty awesome too. It offers a snack shop, covered eating areas, real bathrooms and showers with warm water! I don’t know about you, but after a day in the sand and surf, I am glad I can wash the sand off before driving “home.” Use of the pavilion is free, but it’s $6/car to park.
The park offers a number of lakeside and woodlands cabins and cottages for vacation rentals all within the beautiful park setting (that does mean alligators live nearby, though). Some rentals are pet friendly which is a bonus if you want to bring your furry friend — and there’s a dog beach at one of the lakes!
Besides the quiet location, Gulf State Park cabins are quite affordable. You can rent a 3 bedroom/3 bath cottage weekly for about $2,000 during peak summer season!
If you have a camper or like to tent camp, the state park campground has close to 500 spots for you to enjoy, many of them are pull-through sites with water views.
Campground amenities (it’s nice, y’all) include:
- 11 air-conditioned bathhouses,
- a camp store,
- onsite laundry,
- outdoor swimming pool with splashed,
- tennis/pickleball courts,
- the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, and
- a nature center with weekly activities.
True story: On my bike ride, I got to the end of the campground and saw the trail stretch out ahead of me. But, there were all these warning signs. I had no idea if I was allowed on the trail or not! If you have seen the TV show, “Once Upon a Time,” I felt much like I’d reached the end of the town of Storybrooke — what would happen if I crossed over?!
I think I might need new glasses, because this sign, just beyond the blockade, explains it all!
Tucked in the campground by the pool is the Gulf State Park Nature Center. It’s got exhibits featuring the wildlife that live in the area, but the weekly activities are the best part. Families, not just kids, can attend free weekly activities to learn more about the area. Most events are free for those staying at the state park. Others pay $2 to park, but the events are free.
Here’s a sample:
- GeoCaching 101: Bring a smartphone or other GPS device and learn about geocaching. Then, go with the guide to try it out!
- Exploring Coastal Creatures: Guests meet at the foot of the fishing pier to learn about fish and other creatures found in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a hands on activity and you will get wet.
- Eco Art: Meet at the camp store pavilion to create an art project/craft that highlights a natural aspect of the Park.
- Guided Kayaking Tour: Head over to Lake Shelby for a one hour guided kayaking tour to learn the basics of kayaking and a take short trip around the lake. $20 includes single kayak, lifejacket. Call ahead for reservations as space is limited.
For this, I think a picture or two should suffice!
And there you have it, ten amazing reasons to vacation at Gulf State Park in Alabama this fall — or winter or next year. But, I promised you one more, right, parents? I didn’t forget!
Your Gulf State Park bonus
Parents, if you visit Gulf Shores (whether you stay at the state park or anywhere else in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach), Kidcam Camp! That’s right. Kids’ summer camp at the state park! Kids can go for a week, two weeks, the whole summer or — for vacationers — just for a day or two.
Camp runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Register online and voila! You’ve just made your own all-inclusive vacation. The kids go to an awesome camp while mom and dad go kayaking or parasailing or just relax on the beach. It’s a win-win for everyone. Kids have fun, and parents get some quality time.
Check out Kidcam Camp at Gulf State Park and start planning your summer getaway today!