When my family first visited Gulf Shores in the 1950s, it was a rustic, sleepy town that attracted few tourists. A single pay phone stood at the main road intersection, and rental cabins sitting close to the water were cooled with ocean breezes rather than air conditioning.
By the time I was a teenager in the ‘80s, we had upgraded to a three-story beachfront condo that sported a pool (and air conditioning), but Gulf Shores was still relatively quiet compared to spring break Meccas like Florida’s Panama City Beach.
These days, Gulf Shores and neighboring Orange Beach draw a whopping 6 million visitors each year, and high-rise hotels and condo buildings line the coast. With the beach crowds growing larger and the buildings rising higher, my family and friends have migrated west to vacation on the Fort Morgan Peninsula.
More remote and much less developed than Gulf Shores, the Fort Morgan area gives travelers a glimpse of what the Gulf Coast was like decades ago.
The Low-Key Side of the Gulf
As you traverse the peninsula on Fort Morgan Road (Highway 180), you’ll pass old neighborhoods, single-family homes, and the few businesses that dot the area. When you turn off the road and approach the Gulf waters, you’ll encounter rental homes, rather than high-rise buildings, hugging the beaches.
At first, it seems curious that this stretch of beach isn’t as developed as Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, but it’s partly due to the efforts of locals. Over the years, the residents on the peninsula have enacted ordinances that control the density of buildings, and locals have fought to remain independent from the more developed Gulf Shores municipality.
Development has also been limited due to the presence of the 7,157-acre Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1980, the refuge was created to protect migratory songbirds as well as endangered species, including sea turtles.
To explore the refuge and get a glimpse of what the Gulf Coast was like before much was built on the peninsula, you can take a 4-mile out-and-back trek on the Pine Mountain Trail. Beginning in pine forest, you’ll eventually walk through stands of live oaks, and finally pass through sea oats to arrive at impressive dunes on the beach.
One of the best aspects of the Fort Morgan peninsula is the character of the actual beach. Because there are few large condo buildings, waterfront structures cast very little light onto the beach at night. Under these dark conditions, the beach seems more wild, which makes it much more enjoyable to kick back in your chair and enjoy the night sky. Plus, the lack of light pollution benefits the local population of sea turtles. According to experts, lighting near the shore can cause sea turtle hatchlings to become disoriented and wander inland instead of heading toward the water.
While there’s little light pollution from houses on the beach, if you gaze at the ocean at night you will see the distant yellow glow of lights from several oil rig facilities. While it would be nice to look out at an undisturbed ocean horizon, you get used to this distraction.
Downhome Restaurants & Markets
If you decide to vacation on the peninsula, it’s important to remember that you’ll have to drive several minutes to reach major shopping centers and large clusters of restaurants and fast-food joints.
But that’s not to say that you can’t find most of the provisions you need on the peninsula. On Fort Morgan Road you can get what you need at little markets, liquor stores and Sassy Bass, a down-home establishment that includes a small but well-stocked grocery store, a liquor store, seafood market and butcher shop. Sassy Bass even has a restaurant that serves all kinds of fresh seafood, including tasty fish tacos.
If you’re tired of cooking and you want to eat at a restaurant in the Fort Morgan area, you can also head to Tacky Jacks, a waterfront bar and grill that serves a wide range of seafood, including awesome shrimp and grits and a shrimp wrap with creamy buffalo sauce.
Another good option is to order steamed shrimp from Fresh Market Seafood. The family that runs this no-frills market has its own shrimping boats, so odds are that your shrimp will have been pulled from the Gulf that same day. And that’s as fresh as it gets.
Escaping the Big Crowds
Because the Fort Morgan peninsula offers fewer accommodations, restaurants and amenities than Gulf Shores, it draws smaller crowds. Granted, in the height of summer, the Fort Morgan beaches see plenty of visitors, but they’re still less crowded than neighboring beaches to the east.
To really avoid the crowds and enjoy some solitude, visit the Fort Morgan beaches in the offseason, which is roughly September through May. When visitation peaks in July, vacationers occupy more than 90 percent of condominiums on the Alabama beaches, according to the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. But, by the end of August, less than 65 percent of the condos are rented, and in October the number drops below 50 percent. If you want particular accommodations on the Gulf Coast, you’re much more likely to find available dates after the summer crush.
Also, in the offseason, the cost to rent a house on the Fort Morgan peninsula goes down considerably. In some cases, prices drop 50 percent compared to peak season.
In addition to smaller crowds, you’ll also enjoy very comfortable weather in the offseason. In early fall and late spring, the temperatures and humidity are milder, and the Gulf waters are still warm enough for swimming.
If you’re thinking about visiting the Fort Morgan peninsula, just keep in mind that the area is gradually becoming more popular, so you need to book months in advance to secure a desired rental property. With a little planning, you can put together an unforgettable trip that offers a glimpse of what the Gulf Coast was like when it was still a hidden gem.
Written by Marcus Woolf for RootsRated in partnership with BCBS of AL.