The first thing my northern friends say to me when they arrive in L.A. (Lower Alabama) to pay a visit isn’t “how are you doing?” or “great to see you” or “where’s the bathroom?” It’s more like, “when can we see an alligator?”
Not long ago it was a rarity to see American alligators lurking beneath the waters along the Gulf Coast, but now this once-endangered species has made a triumphant return with a booming population. There’s a pretty good bet you will see one, or two, or more in the waters around Mobile.
And like I said, everybody wants to see an alligator when they come to the south. They’ve seen all of the Discovery Channel shows with the gator people wrestling, roping, and releasing them and want to see them up close and personal. While some are up for a challenging paddle on an alligator’s home turf, others don’t want that much of adventure and would like to see at a safe distance. Fortunately in the Mobile area there are plenty of options for seeing gators, both for the adventurous and the not-so adventurous, and these are just a few of the best.
Please keep in mind that alligators are naturally afraid of humans, but don’t tempt fate. Feeding them changes the rules. They look deceptively slow but can move pretty fast out of water for a short burst. Keep children close at hand and dogs on a leash.
1. Mobile-Tensaw River Delta
The absolute best place to experience a gator face-to-face is in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. The delta is the second largest in the country with thousands of miles of wetlands, bayous, and sloughs where gators lurk just below the surface or hang out on the banks.
There are a couple ways for to experience alligators in the delta. The first is by paddling the Bartram Canoe Trail. The trail is a series of marked trails down narrow bayous and channels and where the gators will be literally sliding off the banks as you round bends.
The delta, however, isn’t for the neophyte paddler. Even though the trail is marked the myriad of inlets and sloughs make it easy to get lost. Unless you’re an experienced paddler it’s best to venture out with an experienced guide.
Besides being a great paddle with ample opportunity to do some gator watching, the trail takes you deep into the cypress-tupelo swamps and marshes where more than 50 rare and endangered species of plants and wildlife may be seen. To top it off you can camp right in the middle of it all on one of a number of floating campsites.
Learn more about the trail and obtain maps here. Several outfitters run regular guided paddles on the trail including Five Rivers Delta Safaris. Delta Safaris also offers numerous pontoon boat rides up the delta for alligator spotting. One of the best tours is the sunset cruise where literally hundreds of sets of red eyes surround you as you slowly sail up the channels.
2. Village Point Park Preserve
For those of you who are not into paddling and want something a little closer to town, take a stroll along the boardwalk at the Village Point Park Preserve in Daphne. The park has 2-miles of hiking trails, but for gator spotters the best path is a 0.1-mile long boardwalk that begins at the park’s northern trailhead at Bayfront Park (GPS coordinates to the trailhead: 30.629963, -87.918242).
Not long after leaving the parking area you will be immersed in a magnificent little wetland where the murky waters of a small inlet of Mobile Bay is lined with tall grasses. Look careful at the banks of the inlet—something is watching you.
For families with small children this is one of several excellent areas to take them to view alligators and other wildlife including great blue heron, blue crab, and a variety of snakes hanging off of trees near the water. The boardwalk has high railings over the wetland and the length of the trip is easy for kids of all ages.
3. Alligator Alley
You wouldn’t expect that one of the best places to watch alligators would be right in the middle of a busy Gulf Coast town, but it is. It’s known as “ Alligator Alley ,” and it is located in the town of Daphne. The “alley” is a beautiful wide boardwalk that weaves its way for about 0.4-miles over D’Olive Creek and around the banks of Mobile Bay. The boardwalk is very safe for even the youngest of children with high rails and tightly placed balusters. The trail is open from sunrise to sunset. The trailhead is located just off of N. Main Street in Daphne. (GPS Coordinates to the trailhead: 30.651544, -87.911698.)
4. Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail
Heading farther to the south and only minutes from the Gulf of Mexico is the Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail in Orange Beach. Named for a former superintendent at Gulf State Park, the trail systems boasts more than 15 miles of paved multi-use trails that are used by joggers, cyclists, and hikers. The trails lead you through a beautiful maritime forest, over ancient sand dunes, and to several wetlands and some beautiful shimmering lakes. It’s in these waters that you will see alligators.
The first wetland is located only a short walk or bike ride from the Gulf Oak Ridge trailhead (GPS coordinates 30.271593, -87.655160). The other is a slightly longer trek, about 1.5 miles, to the banks of Little Lake on the Rosemary Dunes Trail (trailhead coordinates: 30.257762, -87.634016). In the marsh alongside the lake keep an eye out for the trail’s favorite gator, “Lefty.” Can you guess where he got his name?