Alabama’s southern coastal region is an under-the-radar outdoor oasis, with plenty of opportunity to savor the region’s stunning white-sand beaches, wet pine savannas, and wildlife-rich bayous. And the fact that it’s significantly less advertised than other stretches of the Gulf Coast is a boon for outdoorsy types, who can take advantage of myriad ways to enjoy everything the area has to offer, sometimes in relative solitude.
Blending the freshwater streams and wildlife sanctuaries of Grand Bay with the saltwater fisheries and beaches of Gulf Shores, this iconic maritime area is where land meets water—the transition zone between the river basins of North America, continuously extending and shifting the landscape. A wealth of waterways means plenty of opportunities for paddlers of all stripes. The Bartram Canoe Trail, a 200-mile canoe-specific trail located in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, is one of the longest and most scenic aquatic trails in the country, offering a unique multi-day adventure.
Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge, meanwhile, gives hikers a view of some of the most diverse flora and fauna on the southern coast, particularly of the reptilian variety, while Gulf Shores caters more to adventures on sand—horseback riding, zip-lines, mountain biking, and jogging.
Here, a primer on your next adventure to the stunning beaches and magical waterways of Alabama's southern coast, as well as nearby wilderness areas.
One of the park’s highlights is the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail System , a series of multi-purpose paved trails connecting Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The six main trails are conveniently posted with distance makers, restrooms, and water fountain stops. Helpful stations along the paths with information on natural species and wildlife for each trail.
You can also make a night of it here, with primitive and RV camping within Gulf State Park. But for a little more comfort, there are 20 cottages and 11 cabins available for rental along the beachfront and the 900 acres of nearby Lake Shelby. Dotted amidst Palmetto forests and longleaf pines, the accommodations are a convenient and relaxing way to enjoy the low-key vibe.
Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge
The brackish waters of the Escatawpa River system converge and wind their way toward the Gulf of Mexico in what is one of the largest wet pine savannas remaining on the southern coast. This area was deemed worthy of conservation efforts and made a wildlife refuge in 1992.
The state border between Mississippi and Alabama bisects this area, which is best suited to adventurers looking to hike, fish, and explore acres of pristine landscape. Paddlers will have plenty to pick from, too, with estuaries that eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico easily navigated by canoe, airboat, or kayak.
One remarkable out-and-back paddling route begins at a launch at the conclusion of Bayou Heron Road, which may be located on the Grand Bay Interactive Map just west of the Mississippi border. This route takes paddlers down the Matte Clark Bayou and, three miles later, into Middle Bay. The current here is generally pretty manageable, but inexperienced paddlers should consider the speed of the current while traveling south as this route includes a return trip.
Species variation is uniquely diverse in this area and offers a wide spectrum of fish, fowl, and flora that depend upon conservation efforts for their habitat. Alligators and turtle species abound here as well, so be on the watch to avoid unwanted interactions. Nine species of carnivorous plants, including sundews, butterworts, and pitcher plants are equally noteworthy sights.
Birding enthusiasts will find plenty to keep them busy, too. Warblers, tanagers, and rainbow-feathered painted bunting all may be found within the habitats located in the refuge during their unique seasonal migratory paths.
Five Rivers Delta
For a multi-day paddling adventure, the Bartram Canoe Trail, a 200-mile canoe-specific trail located in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, delivers on all fronts. It's one of the longest and most scenic aquatic trails in the country, passing through estuarine marshes, cypress-tupelo swamps, and bottomland hardwood ecosystems.
A map of the trail system is available online and outlines some of the various stops along the route. The Boatyard Landing is located at the conclusion of CH 80/Boatyard Road east of Tensaw, AL and serves as a suitable entry into what can become a multi-day trip that concludes at the Rice Creek Landing, southwest of Vaughn, AL some 200 miles later.
Another bonus for adventurers? Camping along this route is free and doesn’t require reservation. And for a truly local experience, consider a floating campsite, which is an anchored platform in the water that is secure to land on but moves up and down with the ides. The 12.9-mile Jug Lake Loop is one recommended stop for experienced paddlers.
If You Go:
- Just over the state line in Mississippi, a stop at the Grand Bay Coastal Resources Center is recommended for all visitors in this neck of the woods to getting your bearings regarding the nearby waterways
- 5 Rivers – Alabama’s Delta Resource Center is an excellent resource on paddling routes and other info about the region. It's open seven days a week during regular business hours in Spanish Fort.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.