15 Miles Along the Alabama Gulf Coast: How to Backpack the Perdido River Trail

Hikers head out on a beautiful spring day from the Perdido River’s southern trailhead.
Hikers head out on a beautiful spring day from the Perdido River’s southern trailhead. Joe Cuhaj
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It isn’t a rugged, long-distance backpacking trip over a towering mountain peak or a hike deep into a remote wilderness. But what it lacks in difficulty and length is more than made up for in beauty, serenity, landscapes, and wildlife: It’s the Perdido River Trail, a new backpacking trail that’s only minutes from the bustling Gulf Coast towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach but a world away from the tourists. The trail is currently a 15-mile point-to-point trek, with more to come, and makes for a great overnight backpacking trip through an amazing eco-system alongside its namesake blackwater river.

Looking to explore this awesome piece of the Alabama outdoors? Here’s how to do it.

A Brief History

The landscape and sky reflect off of the still waters of the Perdido River at the northern trailhead.
The landscape and sky reflect off of the still waters of the Perdido River at the northern trailhead. Joe Cuhaj

The region is brimming with fascinating history over centuries, making the hike a must-do for history buffs. Native Americans once called the banks of the Perdido River home hundreds of years ago, setting up villages and making a life along the fertile river that flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Today the river forms the Gulf Coast border between Alabama and Florida, but before that it was the border for countries of the New World. In 1719 it was the border between France, which controlled Mobile Bay to the west, and Spain, which controlled Pensacola Bay to the east. After a succession of the land from France, the river became the border between Britain and Spain, and finally the United States and Spain. Its name actually means "lost river" in Spanish.

From the late 1700s to 1800s, old Native American trails in this region gradually evolved into stage coach routes. You may see remnants of these paths as you walk the trail, especially when crossing streams near a pine savannah that the trail weaves through. Along a stream in this stretch of trail, keep an eye out for pieces of old bridges where the stream banks have eroded.

The Trail

At times the bed of the Perdido River Trail is deep, white sand.
At times the bed of the Perdido River Trail is deep, white sand. Joe Cuhaj

The Perdido River Trail winds through some truly beautiful habitats. The river itself is a slow mover as it meanders towards the Gulf of Mexico. Fun fact: Over the centuries, dead or dying vegetation in the river has acted like tea brewing in a cup, and the tannins from that vegetation turn the river varying shades of brown. These types of rivers are called "blackwater" rivers.

Take note of the varying habitats as you walk: a towering longleaf pine forest, floodplain swamp that has amazing Atlantic white cedars, the waving grasses of a pine savannah, and quirky pitcher plant bogs. Much of the trail is thick sand through the forest. And several gleaming white sandbars make for great swimming, and an excellent respite from the Alabama heat on warm days.

Along the way, keep your eyes out for a wide variety of reptiles, including coachwhip, pine, and rainbow snakes. You may also see—or hear—a diamondback rattler or two. Be on the lookout for gopher tortoises along the sandy path or burrowing just off it. You may also run into an alligator snapping turtle.

From the brush, you’ll kick up bobwhite quail, Henslow sparrows, and American kestrel. And don’t forget to look up, too: You may see bald eagles and red tail hawks swirling above the treetops.

The Hike

Gleaming white sandbars along the route make great spots to have lunch, swim, or pitch camp.
Gleaming white sandbars along the route make great spots to have lunch, swim, or pitch camp. Joe Cuhaj

The trail uses a combination of old dirt logging roads and two-foot-wide sand and dirt paths as it makes its way from the south trailhead to the north. The path is blazed with yellow paint blazes making it easy to follow. Sharp turns in the trail are marked with "dit-dot" blazes—two blazes, one on top of the other. The top blaze shows you the direction of the turn. If it’s offset to the right, the trail turns right; offset to the left, it turns left.

Currently the trail is 15 miles long (one way), which gives you a good overnight point-to-point hike that would require a shuttle vehicle, or a 30-mile out-and-back trek. Volunteers with the Alabama Hiking Trail Society are continuing construction on the trail; the next phase will unveil another five miles, bringing the total to 20 miles one way.

You can camp on any of the many sandbars along the river; the best is a large one about two miles from the southern trailhead. Camping is also available at one of the four trail shelters that were built by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. These elevated structures are shared by hikers and paddlers on the river, are fully enclosed, and sleep eight. They are elevated to keep animals out, and when the river is running high, keep the shelter dry. There is now a $20 a night rental fee to reserve a shelter and reservations must be made. Contact the 5 Rivers Delta Center in Spanish Fort for information or to make reservations.

A couple words of caution about hiking the Perdido River Trail. It’s hard to believe, but you will be hiking in a completely isolated area far from the tourist crowds of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Cell service can be intermittent. While most of the roads to the trailheads are now improved with gravel, many others are only drivable with rugged vehicles. ADCNR suggests that you make sure yours has enough clearance to avoid bottoming out or getting stuck in the mud after a hard rain and if you can’t see the bottom of the mud puddle, avoid driving through it. You can also check the river stages on the National Weather Service website.

If You Go:

  • For trail maps and additional information, contact the Alabama Hiking Trail Society. South trailhead coordinates for the Perdido River Trail: N30 39.488', W87 24.206'; north trailhead coordinates: N30 44.551, W87 31.851

  • Keep in mind that the river is prone to flooding and flash flooding. During these times portions of the trail will be completely under water. If there has been substantial rain in the area or just to the north, it’s best to wait a couple days before heading out.

  • The trail is located in a state wildlife management area, which means that hunting is allowed. Visit the ADCNR website for hunting season dates.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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