Exploring Alabama's Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

The refuge is full of marshes, marine wetlands, and endangered wildlife.
The refuge is full of marshes, marine wetlands, and endangered wildlife. Stephanie Pluscht
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In French, bon secour means "safe harbor", which is quite a fitting name for a 7,000-plus acre wildlife refuge tucked amid the tourism bustle of the Alabama Gulf Coast and its high-rise condominiums, beach houses, and entertainment options. Established in 1980 by Congress, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is just that: a safe harbor for hundreds of species of birds, endangered wildlife, and enchanting wildflowers.

With more than 7,000 acres spread across five units, the refuge affords visitors some remarkable outdoor adventure to experience this beautiful environment. Here’s how to explore it.

An Oasis on the Alabama Gulf Coast

The refuge protects one of Alabama’s last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitats.
The refuge protects one of Alabama’s last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitats. Alan Cressler

Bon Secour is a spectacular oasis for birds, wildlife, and plant life along the Alabama Gulf Coast. Within its boundaries, more than 360 species of birds have been cataloged. It is also the home of several endangered species of wildlife, including the Alabama beach mouse that makes its home in the tall sand dunes bordering the Gulf. The beach also is home to the endangered loggerhead and Kemp Ridley sea turtles, which find their way to this spot annually to lay their eggs.

The refuge protects one of the last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitats in Alabama. Your visit to the refuge is a trip through a transitional environment beginning with a maritime forest to the north of mixed pines and oaks that gradually slopes down to a maritime wetland brimming with swamps and freshwater lakes (and a few alligators), before reaching tall coastal sand dunes and one of the most stunning and secluded beaches on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

Hiking the Refuge

Stop and take in the wildlife and scenery at the 2-story viewing platform that is located 1-mile along the Pine Beach Trail.
    Joe Cuhaj
Stop and take in the wildlife and scenery at the 2-story viewing platform that is located 1-mile along the Pine Beach Trail. Joe Cuhaj

Bon Secour hosts four hiking trails, all of which offer spectacular wildlife and nature viewing. The Jeff Friend Trail is an easy 1-mile loop hike through a nice wetland and along a boardwalk on the north bank of Little Lagoon with amazing views of the water. The trail is ADA accessible, with boardwalk and packed gravel.

The Gator Lake Trail is a fascinating 2-mile out-and-back hike along a fine white sand trail through coastal flora like deer moss, scrub oak and pine, wild rosemary, and saw palmetto. The trail reaches the banks of its namesake lake near the turnaround point at its intersection with the Pine Beach Trail.

For a more ambitious outing, check out the Centennial Trail, a 5-mile out-and-back through a gorgeous wetland. Spring is an especially scenic time to explore this trail, when wildflowers line the path and the trail’s boardwalks lead you over wetlands topped with blooming lily pads. To access the trail, you’ll have to walk either about a mile down the Pine Beach Trail or a half-mile on the Jeff Friend Trail.

The far end of the Pine Beach Trail leads to a stunning secluded beach that’s a prime nesting area for sea turtles.
    Joe Cuhaj
The far end of the Pine Beach Trail leads to a stunning secluded beach that’s a prime nesting area for sea turtles. Joe Cuhaj

And then there’s the refuge’s most popular trail, the Pine Beach Trail. This 4-mile out-and-back offers a good look at the Gulf Coast’s transitional environment, from a maritime forest past the saltwater Little Lagoon and freshwater Gator Lake, then across sand dunes to the perhaps the most beautiful and secluded beach on the Alabama Gulf Coast. About a mile into the 2-mile walk to the beach there is a large 2-story wildlife birding platform, the perfect place to take a break and watch birds and wildlife.

Alabama Coastal Birding Trail Site 11

Snowy plover are year-round residents of the refuge.
Snowy plover are year-round residents of the refuge. Stephanie PLuscht

Bon Secour is a prime area for birders to check a few species off their list. The refuge is site #11 along the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail and is home to more than 360 species of birds. Not only are you likely to see common Gulf Coast species like osprey, terns, and blue heron, but you may also spot yellow-billed cuckoo, several species of warblers like the hooded and black-throated green, and the beautiful little wading bird, the snowy plover, a year-round resident of the refuge that darts about the preserve’s beaches.

Paddling Little Lagoon

At sunrise, Little Lagoon virtually begs for a paddle.
At sunrise, Little Lagoon virtually begs for a paddle. Stephanie Pluscht

A fairly new addition to the refuge is the Jeff Friend Kayak Launch. Located on the banks of Little Lagoon, it provides perfect access to the 8-mile wide saltwater lake. Whether you kayak or stand-up paddleboard, there are plenty of bayous and inlets ripe for exploration, as well as plenty of open water for paddling as well.

If You Go

The Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 360 species of birds.
The Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 360 species of birds. Stephanie Pluscht

Before you explore this Gulf Coast wonderland, keep in mind the following:

  • You may encounter alligators. Keep a safe distance and keep children close at hand.

  • This is a very sensitive environment so pets are not allowed.

  • Walking on the sand dunes is prohibited. Stay on the designated trails.

  • Bicycles, camping, and fires are not prohibited.

  • Access to the refuge is permitted only between sunrise and sunset. An electric gate at the Jeff Friend Trailhead locks after sunset and reopens at sunrise.

  • Removal of artifacts, plants, or animals is prohibited.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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