When you go to the beach, walking barefoot in the sand is a given. Sand between the toes . . . ahhhh! But did you know there are lots of other places to explore on foot in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach? (Though I recommend shoes for most of them!)
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge – Located at the western edge of Alabama’s beaches, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge was established by the federal government to protect the natural habitat of migrating songbirds. Every spring and fall, vacationers come to watch these colorful songbirds on their journey. The area is also home to the endangered Alabama beach mouse and sea turtles. Pretty cool, eh?
Visitors can see wildlife by hiking the trails. Volunteers and staff also offer guided bird walks, dune hikes and night prowls throughout the year. Photographers, birders and hiking enthusiasts will enjoy hoofing it through this pristine area. If you prefer to explore by boat, kayaking is also an option here.
Plan your visit: The refuge is located on State Highway 180 on the Fort Morgan Peninsula in Gulf Shores, Alabama. You can reach the refuge by the ferry from the west side of Mobile Bay or driving through Mobile and heading south to Gulf Shores. It’s open during daylight hours year-round. Admission is free, even for the guided walks. Pets are not allowed. (Service animals are permitted.)
Fort Morgan State Historic Site – Nearby, Fort Morgan offers trekkers lots of places to explore. This fort was used during the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II to protect Mobile Bay. Today, the site showcases the evolution of coastal fortifications used by the U.S. military. Visitors are welcome to explore the area and learn some military history while they’re at it.
Besides the fort, the Fort Morgan area offers beaches (one of them dog friendly), hiking trails, a snack bar and a museum. Birders will also enjoy watching the migratory songbirds that stop in each spring and fall to fatten up for their long journeys.
Plan your visit: Fort Morgan is located 23 miles west of Gulf Shores on State Highway 180. You can also reach it via the ferry from Dauphin Island. Fort Morgan is open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission fees start at just $4.
Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail – The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail was established in 2003 for the enjoyment of residents and visitors. Passing through Gulf State Park, the trail system – as well as the number of people using it – has grown through the years.
Offering wide, mostly paved, pathways, it’s easy to bike or hike this trail system. Depending on the route you choose, you might encounter the butterfly garden or get a chance to “meet” a local celebrity: Lefty the Alligator. Geocaching is also popular along the trail, with many caches located throughout.
New boardwalk trails have been added over marshy areas, providing views of areas not easily reached before. Pergolas and benches built along the boardwalk provide great spots to watch the wildlife from shade — very important, especially on hot summer days when that Alabama sun is brightest. The boardwalk trails now include two pedestrian bridges to make it easier to cross State Highway 182 to and from the beach.
Plan your visit: The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail has a number of easy access points along the beach. It’s open every day and is free.
Gulf State Park Pier – When I think of places to explore on foot, a fishing pier wouldn’t normally make the list. But the Gulf State Park pier isn’t any old pier – it’s the second longest fishing pier on the Gulf Coast, offering incredible views of the beach and the Gulf waters. Of course, it includes all the fishing things you’d need, including electricity, fish-cleaning stations and bait.
But there’s a lot more to see and do at the fishing pier!
I visited for the first time on a recent trip to Gulf Shores and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Besides the views and watching people fish, it’s a great place to see water birds up close. These birds are smart, and they know they’ll find an easy dinner if they wait patiently. It’s the bird version of carryout!
Along the pier, visitors can learn about the dunes, sea turtles and other local wildlife, and how to be a good steward when you “Leave Only Footprints.” A snack bar, restrooms and a small gift shop round out the offerings at the pier.
Plan your visit: The pier is located at 20800 E. Beach Blvd. in Gulf Shores. Parking is free, as is access to the restrooms, bar, snack area and gift shop. A daily fishing permit costs $8 ($4 for 12 and under) and an all-day sightseeing pass is $3 (free for 12 and under).
The Wharf at Orange Beach – Technically, The Wharf isn’t exactly a hiking or walking trail. But it is a shopping and entertainment venue that will get you up and on your feet! Stroll along the sidewalks of this complex to do some window shopping — or real shopping if you’re so inclined. Grab a bite to eat, indoors or out, at one of the many restaurants. And take some time to play miniature golf, hop on the zipline, or ride the giant Ferris wheel.
Stop in at Burris Farm Market at The Wharf for some local, fresh-made goodies like strawberry shortcake, blueberry preserves, or salsa (to name just a few).
Stick around for the SPECTRA Light Show in the evening. The choreographed light show is partnered with surround sound music to turn Main Street into a magical stage. The show changes seasonally.
Plan your visit: The Wharf is located at 23101 Canal Road in Orange Beach. Two parking garages offer ample parking. Limited on-street parking is also available in front of the shops and restaurants. Window shopping is free! Prices vary for other activities.
Whatever you plan, enjoy exploring this beautiful area on foot. Take time to look for birds, turtles and Lefty the Alligator. Listen to the sounds of the sea. And stick those toes in the sand, too. After all, you’re at the Alabama beaches, so sandy toes are a must!