Gulf Shores is one of the most easily seductive seaside retreats in the American South. With its warm, light blue waters, white sand beaches and endless horizons stretching over the Gulf of Mexico, the town represents a particular breed of oceanside fantasy.
But there is more to this area than the easy amenities and high-rise condos of the waterfront. Dig a little under the sandy surface and you can find vestiges of the old wild beauty that once existed across the region.
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge / Image courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge
Besides Gulf Islands National Seashore, few entities protect as much pristine littoral environment as Bon Secour. And whereas Gulf Islands mainly consists of actual beachfront and sand dunes, Bon Secour, administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, includes both beach and additional layers of coastal barrier habitat: oak woodlands, coastal prairie, salt marshes and scrub forest. It’s the sort of landscape that deepens the experience of visiting the seascape, and given the development that hugs so much of the Gulf Coast, it’s a rarity as well.
‘Bon Secour’ means safe harbor in French, and the name is appropriate when one considers the deep variety of wildlife and ecosystem encompassed by the refuge’s 29 square kilometers. Sea turtles nest on the white sand, while some 360 species of birds nest and rest amidst the marsh grass and swamps. During the winter nesting season, there are abundant sightings of loons, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Red-breasted Merganser and Yellowthroat; rarer, but still spottable, are ospreys, doves and sandpipers.
The local bayous and lakes are prowled by grinning alligators, while snakes can be found curled across paths. Inland, red foxes and bobcats keep their dens tended and their predatory instincts on edge. But the most important protected species within Bon Secour is the Alabama Beach Mouse. Tiny natives of the sand dunes of the Gulf Coast, this species has been pushed to endangered status due to loss of habitat and unconstrained development. The beach mouse may be tiny, but it fills out a crucial link in the area’s connected coastline. Healthy populations of beach mouse support a food chain of animals that preserves sea oats and the structural integrity of dune ecosystems – and without said dunes, hurricanes and similar storms are incredibly more harmful.
It’s understanding these sorts of complex interplays between species and habitat that makes Bon Secour so special. The refuge is best experienced both via its beach and one of four trails that cut their way across the land. These include the pine beach trail, which takes in intact coastal dunes, or the Gator Lake Trail, which traverses the space between maritime forests and the coastline. On any trail in the refuge, you’ll get a sense of the way the sky touches down on the flat wilderness that once blanketed the entirety of the Gulf South. None of the trails here exceeds a 4 mile round trip, and the elevation gain is basically nil, so these are walks that hikers of any skill level can appreciate. Kids will have plenty of room to run off energy.
Because this is a national wildlife refuge, you need to be extra conscientious about throwing out trash, and you should accept that the only wildlife you may see is other park visitors. The wildlife in Bon Secour is notoriously shy and nocturnal, but hey – they’re here for their sake, not ours.
Keep an eye out for gators as you meander the trails / Image courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism
Weeks Bay, Wade Ward & Splinter Hill
This non-profit works to protect the wetlands that form between the Alabama mainland and Mobile and Weeks Bay, a series of marshes, swamps and estuaries that form one of the most important ecological niche zones in the state. While you won’t find traditional ‘beach’ here, the Ottilie Holstead visitors center includes boardwalk trails that meander over the wetland environment. Keep an eye peeled for crabs, estuarine fish, waterfowl and alligators. Children in particular will enjoy local live animal displays.
The Wade Ward Nature park, located near some of the main access points for Gulf Shores public beach, serves much the same function and also includes a boardwalk trail that extends into the swamp. The wetlands here connect Lake Shelby to Little Lagoon, and are home to a slew of wildlife, including pelicans and otters.
If you have some time on your hands, you may also consider driving 90 miles north to Splinter Hill, a Nature Conservancy-managed parcel of land that includes some of the largest carnivorous plant bogs in the country. Fields of pitcher plants, which trap and drown insects before digesting them, blanket the area, which includes some of North America’s highest concentrations of biodiversity.
Pelicans join beachgoers at Gulf State Park / Image courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism
Gulf State Park
Families that want a beach break, but also an escape from seaside development and volleyball-and-beach-bar vibe, should head to this state park, which includes two miles of rustic beach front. You’ll be confronted by the wind, waves, a scattering of campsites, cabins and picnic grounds, and little else to distract from the beauty of the coast. The beaches include some pristine sea oat vistas, and the warm, generally calm waters of the Gulf are great for kids.
The state park also provides access to kayaking and boating opportunities, and is a jumping off point for exploring the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, which constitutes some 25 miles of paved hiking and biking trails that traverse coastal Alabama. A $6 parking fee helps maintain the park, and gives you access to all of its amenities throughout the day. The lot has plenty of space, which is a boon in and of itself.