Hiking Alabama’s Barrier Island: Dauphin Island

A beautiful reflection of the summer sky in the Audubon Bird Sanctuary’s Gaillard Lake.
A beautiful reflection of the summer sky in the Audubon Bird Sanctuary’s Gaillard Lake. Joe Cuhaj
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Stretching for 14 miles along the Alabama Gulf Coast, Dauphin Island is best known for its charming seaside village, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium, and excellent fishing and sea kayaking. But, this thin strip of land—just 1.5 miles wide at its broadest point—also offers great places to hike. As you walk the island's beaches and trails, you can enjoy amazing views of the Gulf and explore one of the world's most important locations for migratory birds.

If you're planning a trip to Alabama's Gulf Coast, Dauphin Island makes a great side trip, and we've highlighted our favorite walks that not only explore tranquil stretches of beach, but also wind through lush tracts of forest teeming with wildlife.

Pelican Island

Take a 3-mile out-and-back walk along the sugary white beaches of Dauphin Island’s Pelican Island.
Take a 3-mile out-and-back walk along the sugary white beaches of Dauphin Island’s Pelican Island. Joe Cuhaj

Somewhat of a hidden gem, Pelican Island sits just off Dauphin Island, but it's not easy to spot on a map. To see Pelican Island on Google Maps, you have to look up Dauphin Island, and then switch to the satellite view.

Not that long ago, Pelican Island was just a little spit of sand where hundreds of brown pelicans nested and lived. Through the action of the tides, hurricanes, and tropical storms, the sands slowly shifted to form a sandy peninsula that juts out into the Gulf and now serves as part of the public beach at Dauphin Island.

Depending on the tide, you can walk up to a mile and a half into the Gulf on the sands of Pelican Island, making for a nice 3-mile out-and-back trip. It's a beautiful, serene stroll, with the waves crashing on shore, dolphins playing in the waves, and brown pelicans dive-bombing into the blue water for their next meal.

This is one of the few public beaches in Alabama where you can bring your dog, but remember to keep you pet on a leash near the pelican nesting grounds for the safety of the birds and your dog.

As you can imagine, this is also great place to go swimming, but remember there are no lifeguards on duty here, so swim at your own risk. In particular, be on the lookout for a red flag that indicates a high risk of dangerous rip currents swirling in the waters. If two red flags are flying, it means the water is off-limits to swimming.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary/Fort Gaines

The Audubon Society is a globally important location for migrating birds.
The Audubon Society is a globally important location for migrating birds. Stephanie Pluscht

Some of the best hiking on Dauphin Island is at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, which has a little more than 3 miles of hiking trails that wind through a maritime forest. Because all the of trails interconnect, you have several options to lengthen or shorten a hike.

The Audubon Society has called the preserve a globally important location for migrating birds and has even declared the island one of the top four locations in the world for bird watching, hence the town's motto, "America's Birdiest Coastal Town."

Along the sanctuary's Lake Loop Trail, you'll pass the glistening waters of Gaillard Lake, where several benches line the banks and provide opportunities to observe a great variety of waterfowl. Lining the banks of the lake you might also see a flotilla of lily pads with white blooms. As you skirt the placid lake, keep in mind that it's home to alligators, so you should keep pets out of the water and close at hand and on a leash.

The morning sun glints off the waters of Gaillard Lake along the Audubon Bird Sanctuary’s Lake Loop Trail.
The morning sun glints off the waters of Gaillard Lake along the Audubon Bird Sanctuary’s Lake Loop Trail. Joe Cuhaj

For another great walk, take the Swamp Overlook Trail to the still waters of a swamp with a gorgeous pond at its center. From an overlook platform you'll get a good view of the pond where logs are lined with turtles taking in the sun.

Other trails in the sanctuary lead to the Gulf beaches, where you can look to the horizon to spot the Sand Island Lighthouse, which was built in 1838. As you stroll along the shore, you might also see bottlenose dolphins frolicking in the surf. If you bring your favorite canine on the trip, he or she can take a dip here, as these are dog-friendly beaches, but there are no lifeguards on duty, so be vigilant.

A walk along the beaches from Dauphin Island’s Audubon Bird Sanctuary takes you to historic Fort Gaines, a key player in the Civil War’s “Battle of Mobile Bay”.
A walk along the beaches from Dauphin Island’s Audubon Bird Sanctuary takes you to historic Fort Gaines, a key player in the Civil War’s “Battle of Mobile Bay”. Joe Cuhaj

Just a short distance from the bird sanctuary on the eastern tip of the island is historic Fort Gaines, a massive stone fortress that played an important role in the Civil War's Battle of Mobile Bay. At the fort there are guided tours, occasional camp re-enactments, and demonstrations at the blacksmith shop.

While it's possible to drive right up to the fort, you can also take a 0.8-mile hike on a beautiful Gulf beach to reach the fort's main gate. And it's well worth the hike.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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