Exploring the Backcountry Trails
Leaving the beach, we took a short drive inland, up state route 161 to the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. From the trailheads along the road, 15 miles of wide interconnecting paths run through six different ecosystems, ranging from freshwater marshes and coastal hardwood swamps to tall dunes and longleaf sand ridges.
It was still mid-morning when we started our hike down Catman Road Trail. We found ourselves surrounded by nature on the hike to the butterfly garden, greeted by a cacophony of chirping birds, rustling trees and whistling ocean breezes. Out on the Rosemary Dunes Trail, Miles was the first to spot a blue heron feeding along the shore of the lake, searching for fish, shrimp or crabs. It was incredible how quickly he memorized the birds’ names.
Rabbits scurried through the shrubs as we passed, and Julia decided to count the alligators sunning themselves in small ponds.
“Four, five, six! There are six alligators here!” Julia squealed, with a big smile on her face. She is an animal lover, and Gina and I could see that she was excited about seeing so many creatures—from sea to sky—in person today.
Both Miles and Julia were having a great time, both because birding is a bit of a hunt and because they were taking part in one of their parents’ favorite hobbies—Gina and I feel so lucky to have kids who share our interests. We could easily have spent a couple of days exploring these trails; it was hard to believe we were just minutes from the hustle and bustle of state route 182. The only reminder was the sight of towering condos off in the distance and the occasional helicopter or plane flying along the beach.
Trails along the Backcountry Trail are well-marked with signs at quarter-mile intervals, allowing visitors to know how far they’ve gone and how far to the next destination. There are plenty of rest stops with benches and shaded areas. On the last day of our trip to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, the kids asked to rent bicycles and we took a 10-mile leisurely ride.
Alabama Coastal Birding Trail
We planned our excursion with the 56-page Alabama Coastal Birding Trail Guide Book, which features everything we needed to know about the trails in the area, including maps, GPS coordinates, descriptions and bird species commonly found at the sites. Miles picked up his own bird checklist and proudly checked off more than 13 species he spotted along the trails.
Beyond Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, there are other trail systems, from the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta Loop in Mobile to the Dauphin Island—Bayou La Batre Loop. The Fort Morgan/Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge contains critical birding habitat, and there’s a beautifully scenic drive taking the ferry over to the Dauphin Island Loop. Held every October, the annual Alabama Coastal BirdFest features three and a half days of organized bird tours, speakers, dining events and exhibits. This year, there will be more information about nature tourism like kayaking, boat cruises, nature education and wildlife watching, so there’s really something for everyone.
We also found more to the area’s wildlife than birds. In addition to the alligators Julia had spotted earlier, natural areas just minutes from the beach are home to bobcats, red foxes and gopher tortoises. On one of our bird watching journeys, we even spotted the carnivorous white-topped pitcher plant, which traps and eats insects not unlike a Venus flytrap.
Back at the beach, we took a walk at sunset. We gazed out from the sand as different types of gulls flocked in the distance, a pod of pelicans coasted along the water and sandpipers hunted for crustaceans in the surf. Miles and Julia identified each of the birds, smiling and laughing as they raced to see who could guess the species before the other. When I saw the joy in our kids’ eyes, I knew they had discovered the natural beauty of the beach, and that they would embrace birding and wildlife as their own hobby, just as Gina and I had hoped.