Much of Alabama's Gulf Coast consists of long sweeps of salt marsh that have folded around the contours of Mobile Bay. In other places, the coast boasts long, low beaches, similar to those found on the Florida Panhandle. From the Gulf Shores which caters more toward tourists to the more quiet, laid back vibe of Dauphin Island, Alabama's beach options offer a little something for everyone.
Best beach for tourists
There are several gorgeous white sand beaches in the city of Gulf Shores. The most commercial among them is the Gulf Shores Main Public Beach. You'll find open-air pavilions, picnic areas, volleyball nets, and during the summer, a lot of tourists. From March to November, parking is $5 for 4 hours, or $10 for the day. During summer, come early for a parking space.
Visit The Hangout, a restaurant and live music venue nearby. Go in late May and catch the Hangout Music festival, a three-day celebration featuring an eclectic lineup (you'll get everyone from Tom Petty to Vampire Weekend).
If you're looking for a more natural beach experience in Gulf Shores, consider Gulf State Park. There are 2 miles of beach here, as well as a nature center (9 am to 4 pm Monday to Friday), a dog park and roughly 25 miles of hiking and cycling trails – keep an eye peeled for gators.
You might also like: Pure shores: visiting Alabama's restored Gulf State Park
Best beach for variety
Orange Beach is the easternmost city in Alabama, located between Gulf Shores and Perdido Key, Florida. The beaches stretch for nearly eight miles, with several public access areas. Typically, these beaches are less crowded than those at Gulf Shores. Consider Cotton Bayou, a small, beach area in Gulf State Park. You'll find free parking and easy beach access.
Want to be in two states at once? Head down Beach Boulevard to the Flora-Bama, a legendary beach bar and roadhouse located on the Orange Beach/Perdido Key, Florida line. While you're there, catch a bite to eat and some live music. The bar is also the host of the annual mullet toss and Polar Bear Dip (a New Year's dip in the cold sea – comes with a free drink). Flora-Bama has tried to get mullet tossing into the Guinness Book of World Records, but its time hasn't come, yet.
Take a day and travel by boat to Robinson Island which was purchased by the city of Orange Beach in 2003. While the island is a sanctuary for birds and wildlife, it's also a popular site for boaters looking for a good time – expect large crowds for Memorial Day and 4th of July.
Best beach for bird watching
On the west side of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island is a sandy escape beloved by generations of Southerners. The low, windswept barrier island has a population of about 1240 residents and roughly 10 times that number of vacation rentals (just kidding, but only just). The island is rife with raised homes and coastal condos. Its also dotted with shell middens, hills of shells and other detritus left from Indigenous cultures.
Beyond its public beaches, which are uniformly flat and sandy, Dauphin Island's main natural attractions are the Audubon Bird Sanctuary and the Estuarium. The bird sanctuary is a site of vital wildlife importance, marking the first stop for avian life migrating north from Central and South America; for more information on birding on Dauphin Island, check out www.coastalbirding.org. The Estuarium is a family-friendly aquarium complex that highlights fauna in four key coastal Alabama habitats, and acts as the public education space for the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Alabama's primary marine research facility. History buffs will want to check out the ruins of Fort Gaines, which played an important role in the Civil War naval Battle of Mobile Bay.
Best beach for exploring
From Dauphin Island, you can take the Mobile Bay Ferry on a 40-minute trip to Fort Morgan. Not only can you explore the grounds which include a beach and nature paths, but you'll also discover a bit of American history, too. Fort Morgan is a fortress built as Fort Bowyer during the War of 1812 to protect against potential British invasion of Mobile Bay. Later, the fort saw use during the Civil War, Spanish American War and both World Wars. Today, the crumbling remains of the fortifications have been bleached by sun and sand, giving this site a lonely, elegant atmosphere. Costumed re-enactors and historical interpretation exhibits can be found onsite.
Fairhope Municipal Pier and Park
Best beach for a walk
While not ideal for swimming the Fairhope Municipal Park and Pier is a great place for a family stroll. Take a walk down the more than 1400 foot pier and sit on a bench to watch the birds or go fishing. The park features a rose garden and fountain, picnic tables, duck pond and a sandy beach with playground. There is no cost to walk down the pier, however nonresidents are charged park admission during the summer season.
While you're there, head on over to the city's center. Consistently a top contender on best small towns lists, Fairhope's walkable downtown is full of small businesses and art galleries. In point of fact, the town's local arts walk is a much beloved event that draws in visitors from across South Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. Other reasons to stay? Proximity to Mobile Bay and Gulf Coast beaches, and sidewalks lined with azaleas and other local flowering plants, which give off a sweet scent as the moon descends on a warm spring or summer night.