There's More Than the Beach on Alabama's Gulf Coast
By Victor Block
My first thought was that I had taken a wrong turn. This couldn't be Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, perched on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. That place is known for its long stretches of magnificent sand and expanses of unspoiled nature. I was passing a line of high-rise condominium buildings that seemed to be competing for the title of most glitzy. Restaurants ranging from gourmet elegant to beach-dive casual tempted hungry passersby.
It wasn't long, though, before I understood. I was in a something-for-everyone place. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach combine the usual list of to-dos and to-sees available at many sun-and-sand destinations with a number of other possibilities, including some unique to the area.
Those who like to commune with Mother Nature have plenty of ways to do so. Active types may choose from a long and varied list of pursuits. Even folks seeking new learning experiences can drop by museums devoted to a diversity of topics. Enhancing the mix is what many locals consider to be the best of Alabama's 22 state parks.
Granted, beach tourism is the reason why many people visit Gulf Shores, a town of about 12,000 residents; Orange Beach, where about half that number of people live; and the sun-drenched area surrounding them. Sun-seekers find 32 miles of pristine white quartz sand lapped by the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Actually the beachfront consists of several sections that span different locations. Both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have 8 miles of beach. Gulf State Park encompasses 2 miles, and Fort Morgan fronts 14 miles of seashore.
Pentagon-shaped Fort Morgan was completed in 1834. The masonry structure, which occupies a strategic location where Mobile Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, was built to strengthen the coastal defense of the United States following the War of 1812. The expansive site contains historic military buildings, artillery batteries that were constructed between 1895 and 1904, and a museum with exhibits of uniforms, weapons, photographs and letters written by soldiers who served there. A living history program interprets the various military periods in the fort's active life. To top it off, the setting fronts the same kind of broad, gentle snow-hued beach characteristic of the area.
While Gulf State Park is home to the shortest stretch of beach in the area, its other assets help account for its popularity. The nine distinct ecosystems nestled in its 6,000-plus acres include pine forests, coastal hardwood swamps and freshwater marshes. Boggy streams and three spring-fed lakes are among the water features.
A backcountry trail complex stretches for 28 miles. Hikers may spot white-tailed deer, an alligator basking in the sun and even a bobcat looking for its dinner. Boating and fishing are available and, for those seeking modest accommodations, there are cabins, cottages and campsites.
Visitors seeking an even more extensive selection of activities also are in luck. Kayaking and paddle-boarding attract people of all ages. Dinner, sunset and dolphin-watching cruises appeal to those who prefer to take to the sea in a more relaxing manner.