48 Hours of Adventure: How to Have an Unforgettable Weekend in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

48 Hours isn’t enough time to cover all the things there are to do in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach—but give it your best shot.
48 Hours isn’t enough time to cover all the things there are to do in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach—but give it your best shot. Stephanie Pluscht
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Coastal Alabama has become on of the most popular vacation destinations on the Gulf Coast, and it’s no wonder. Yes, there are the beaches, those beautiful sugary white sands and dunes outlined by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but there is more to coastal Alabama than just fun-in-the-sun on the beach. With a myriad of waterways there are plenty of opportunities to paddle and fish; biking and hiking trails wind through exotic eco-systems with remarkable wildlife; and there are wonderful restaurants, coffee shops, and places to stay that will make your weekend complete.

There is so much to do and see that you will probably need more than one weekend to take it in, but here are a few tips to get you started.

Where to Get Caffeinated

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With a motto like, a “Passion for the Perfect Brew,” the Liquid Life Cafe has all your caffeine needs covered. Warm up with a cup of Cinnamon Dolce De Leche or Caramel Macchiato and during the holidays nothing makes you feel more at home than a Pumpkin Spice or Gingerbread Latte. Top it off with the delicious fresh baked bagels or, later in the day, soup, salad, or a panini.

A local favorite is Café Beignet. This small shop serves up some of the best beignets—those puffy powder-sugar covered French donuts. These sugary delights are enhanced with a cup of rich and sweet French vanilla Cappuccino, the hardy taste of Chicory in a Café Au Lait, or the Café’s own freshly ground French roast.

For a little Southern hospitality then swing by the Southern Grind at the Wharf. Pair a lightly sweet salted caramel Frappe or a hot Chai Latte with one of their Breakfast Burgers—a quarter pound of beef with cheddar cheese over an egg and bacon on a croissant.

Hit the Trail

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The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area is the home of an amazing eco-system ranging from coastal wetlands, maritime marshes and forests, transitional forests leading down to the Gulf, and of course the beaches of the Gulf itself. These ecosystems are full of birds, animals, plants, and, of course, beautiful landscapes. The best way to experience this wonderland is by taking a hike. Just north of Gulf Shores in the town of Foley is the Graham Creek Nature Preserve, which features 10 miles of trails along the preserve’s namesake creek, through longleaf pine forests and acres of white-topped pitcher plants.

The trails at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge meander around the banks of Little Lagoon through a transitional forest, an impressive maritime wetland, and to one of the most secluded stretches of beach in the area, which is a prime nesting ground for loggerhead sea turtles. At Gulf State Park, you can walk the miles of multi-use trails on the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail or hike the trails along the backwaters and bayous of the park.

Where to Bike

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Biking is always a popular activity around a beach community, and Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are no exception with plenty of paths for cyclists of every stripe. Families and recreational bikers will love cruising on the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail through a towering longleaf pine forest past brilliant lakes, wetlands, and marshes where deer, bobcat, coyote, and maybe even an alligator will be seen.

For off-roaders you won’t find real hardcore mountain biking with difficult hills and rocks to navigate, but you will have a good workout and challenge at Graham Creek Nature Preserve. Its 10 miles of trails have two creek crossings and plenty of swales and mud-runs to test your skill. If you want to just cruise the beach, then try the Alabama Coastal Connection route along Highway 182. This 4-mile out-and-back ride travels right alongside the white-sand beaches and blue waters of the Gulf.

Roadies can take to the pavement on one of several road routes ranging in length from a 6-mile loop around Gulf State Park’s Lake Shelby to a 27.4-mile run from Gulf Shore’s main public beach to Perdido Key State Park in Florida.

Where to Paddle

Bring along your kayak or SUP or rent one locally because Gulf Shores has a ton of remarkable paddles awaiting you. Try your hand at sea kayaking in the Gulf, silently gliding alongside bottlenose dolphins. For something a little calmer put-in at the Jeff Friend Trailhead of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge for a circuit around Little Lagoon. View alligators and one of hundreds of species of birds as you paddle Portage Creek, Wolf Bay, or the triad of lakes at Gulf State Park.

Where to Unwind

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OK, so you’ve hiked, biked, and paddled. Now you’re beat. Time to kick back and unwind. For fine dining try the award-winning menu of chef Michael Pophin at Nolan’s Restaurant and Lounge. Delicious steaks, seafood, and Greek-style dishes await you and there’s dancing nightly. For a great burger and brew then head on over to Bill’s By the Beach, home of Bill’s Beach Burger—8 ounces of ground beef short rib, brisket, and sirloin topped with red onion, lettuce, and tomato on a pretzel bun and four types of cheese.

For family dining a favorite is the Original Oyster House with its outdoor playground and wonderful fresh seafood. And speaking of seafood—you are on the Gulf of Mexico, after all—then try Bahama Bob’s, where they serve up delicious shrimp cocktail, the popular Crab Cay Crab Claws, coconut fried shrimp, and more.

Where to Get a Good Night’s Rest

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After a full day, it’s time to turn in. There are many options around Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, including beach houses, condos, hotels, bed & breakfast inns, and campgrounds. And there you are. As you can see, a weekend isn’t enough time to take it all in. Trust us, you’ll be back time and time again.

Originally written for Gulf Shores AL.

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