While Alabama’s Gulf Coast is known as a playground for water sports, you’re missing out if you stick to the usual beachside tourist spots. You don’t have to travel far off the beaten path to discover great outdoor destinations in the Gulf Coast area—and you will be amply rewarded for the effort. Here are 10 of our favorite places to hike, bike, paddle, and simply enjoy the outdoor life—with a few lesser-known, intriguingly mysterious spots thrown in for good measure.
1. Fort Morgan State Historic Site
Fort Morgan's tattered historic masonry star formation at the mouth of Mobile Bay has guarded the shipping channels for over 180 years. Built in 1812, withstanding battles and hurricanes, the fort’s architecture is among the finest in America. Listed as one of the nation’s 10 most endangered battle sites, it is one of few, if not only, fort to have a live 90-pound Union naval shell uncovered during repair excavations. Try tiptoeing around the grounds with that information in your head. Though there are no marked trails, the fort itself, along with the surrounding bluffs and shorelines, offer a day’s work of memorable hiking.
2. Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail
This trail system involves more than 15 miles of hiking, cycling, and running trails with six distinct ecosystems. Trails are paved but each with its own unique character. From tall wispy pines and fragrant magnolias to the sand dunes and marshes, the Backcountry Trails connect both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Near the hub where most of the trails meet, a butterfly garden and Boulder Park add to the charm. For those who need a respite, swings and benches are erected along the trails.
3. The Gulf State Park Lake Shelby Park
This park features a 900-acre freshwater lake, which accommodates swimming, paddling, fishing, and a backdrop for the zip lines. Large oak trees shade picnic pavilions. A nice sandy shoreline supplies a cool dip without the bothersome jellyfish and the soft waves are perfect for stand up paddling. Kayakers will enjoy the lush, foliage-lined shores with several resident osprey, which nest there.
4. Redoubt Trail Loop at Blakeley State Park
The Redoubt Trail Loop at Blakeley State Park in Spanish Fort, AL, is only a short 15-minute drive from the USS Alabama Battleship Park . If you're all about exploring history, you don’t want to miss this hiking experience through what has been called “the last major battle of the Civil War.” This six-mile trail is part of the National Civil War Trail List. Don’t be surprised if you encounter someone on horseback.
5. The Eastern Shore Trail
The Eastern Shore Trail is not for the faint of heart. Cyclist can begin either at the USS Alabama Battleship Park in Mobile or Mullet Point in Fairhope. The trail is a good 23 miles on asphalt and concrete. On occasion a boardwalk will provide access over blogs, marshes, and streams. The Grand Hotel Marriott Resort in Point Clear, once a military hospital in 1847, is a great place to end your trip. The resort has some 300 slain Confederate soldiers buried adjacent to the hotel grounds.
6. Paddle the Bon Secour River
For the first-timers, a few kayak rental companies are available along the river and nearby. For the more experienced, a public launch can be found next to Aquila’s Seafood in Bon Secour. Nearby a retired schooner, the Mary Etta whose keel was laid in 1860, gently rocks among the other ghostly vessels. For nearly two centuries this small community has been the heartbeat of the Gulf’s seafood industry. The aged oyster shell mounds that line the banks are a testament of its past success.
7. Discover an Ancient Forest
Take a dive and see why one curious fisherman seemed to have hit the fishbowl lottery. After finding success at one particular spot in the gulf off the Alabama Coast, he asked a diving friend to explore what was underneath the caramel waters. What they found astonished scientists—a 50,000-year-old primeval underwater forest of bald cypress trees. Thought to be uncovered by Hurricane Katrina, the trees are so well preserved the smell of fresh sap is still evident.
8. Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve offers guided and self-guided tours along nature trails, which include wetlands, marshes, forests, and bogs. For a closer look, put in a kayak at the reserve. Fish River, Magnolia River, and the Mobile Bay all feed into Weeks Bay providing miles and days of exploration of unspoiled nature and diverse habitats.
9. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta Full Moon Paddle
This one-of-a-kind adventure is only available during full moons, of course. Five Rivers Delta Safaris equips the curious for two hours of educational fun. Bring a flashlight and camera to catch some red-eyed gators skinny-dipping.
10. Styx River
The Styx River is a family favorite for Deep South paddling and camping. Several options including kayak, canoe, or tubing rentals are available. You will also find RV and primitive campsites. The RV campsites cater to those who want more of a resort atmosphere. Overnight kayak adventurers will have the opportunities to discover white capped sandbars shaded by winding tree lined banks during the day and starlit skies after dusk. No city lights obscuring the sparkling vista here.
There you have it, our top 10 secrets about the Alabama Gulf Coast. Not your ordinary lineup for a beach trip, but surprisingly inviting. What are you waiting for? The Gulf is calling.