While its two miles of oceanfront on the Gulf of Mexico are an undeniable draw, it’s what’s behind the dunes that makes Gulf State Park a compelling outdoor destination.
We’ve visited many state parks along the Gulf Coast, and this is the largest we know of, protecting 6,150 acres in an area that has otherwise become a set of bustling beach towns.
We found five named trailheads, along with many additional access points, that tap into the 28-mile network of trails across this immense state park, one of Alabama’s largest. Extensive paved bike paths and boardwalks open up a world of gentle outdoor exploration on two or three wheels.
If you prefer to just settle onto a porch swing and watch the birds flutter by, you can do that too, either in a cabin in the pines or along the shores of Lake Shelby.
Campers have an array of waterfront and wooded sites to choose from. For those used to a more upscale experience, an oceanfront lodge and the well-appointed Cottages at Eagle Bend offer those options.
Once you park your car at Gulf State Park, you won’t need to get in it again. Use free rideshare bikes or the tram system to get around, or simply walk the trails.
Location: Gulf Shores, Alabama
Address: 20115 State Highway 135 (main gate)
Fees: Free access. Parking fees apply at beach.
Land manager: Alabama State Parks
Open daily. Park roads remain open 24 hours. Trails are open dawn to dusk.
For camping reservations, call 251-948-7275
For cabin and cottage reservations, call 251-923-3900
For Lodge reservations, call 251-540-4000
From Pensacola, follow SR 292 west around Pensacola Naval Air Station. After crossing Gulf Beach Highway, continue across the bridge to Perdido Key. Within 5 miles you’ll cross the Alabama state line at Florabama, where SR 292 (Perdido Key Dr) changes to Alabama SR 182 (Perdido Beach Blvd).
Once you’re in Alabama, a large public parking area is on the oceanfront within a mile. Look for a turnoff just after that on the left to enter the Perdido Point tract of Gulf State Park. The Beach Pavilion is another 6 miles along SR 182, marking two miles of oceanfront with multiple access points, including one for the lodge and convention center.
On the north side of SR 182, traffic lights are at Park Road 2, with access to the campground and the outfitter at Lake Shelby, and SR 135, which circles around to park headquarters, Woodside Restaurant, the cabins, and trailheads for the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail.
SR 135 through the park was closed during our visit but will reopen by December 23, 2019. Follow the Detour signs up to SR 59 to reach the park’s main entrance off Fort Morgan Blvd.
Starting as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project in what was then rural coastal Alabama in 1934, Gulf State Park opened to the public in 1939.
As they did to establish so many state parks in the Southeast, the CCC built hiking trails, cabins, and administrative buildings, as well as a campground near Lake Shelby.
After World War II, residents of Mobile could take a bus to Gulf Shores to enjoy the beach, the fishing, and the park’s amenities, making it a natural getaway for city folks looking for some fresh air.
Being in a spot vulnerable to hurricanes means a constant cycle of change. Very little of the original CCC infrastructure remains within the park.
Hurricanes have brought both destruction and opportunity. While the beloved original lodge, pier, and some of the cabins have been destroyed over the decades, each rethink of the park’s facilities has brought major improvements.
In the latest round of re-imagining the park, one of the old roads that circled Lake Shelby was converted into part of the extensive bike path system in a creative, if not unusual, way.
Two pedestrian bridges enable cyclists and hikers to cross CR 182 from the main part of the park to the beach without ever having to worry about traffic.
The original oceanfront lodge and convention center has been replaced with a leaner, greener set of buildings, and boardwalks carry park trails over the most sensitive habitats.
Gulf of Mexico
Five distinct access points enable visitors to enjoy Gulf beaches. The easternmost one is Perdido Point [30.276898, -87.550468], which protects natural habitats at the tip of Perdido Key, the barrier island shared by Alabama and Florida.
Two small beach access points that are part of the park are squeezed between hotels and condos along Perdido Beach Blvd: Romar Beach Access [30.264670, -87.607059] and Cotton Bayou [30.270158, -87.582524] in Orange Beach.
While you must drive to Romar Beach, Cotton Bayou can be reached from the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail system via the Cotton Bayou Trail. You must cross both SR 161 and SR 182 to reach the beach by bike, however.
What’s delightful about the main part of the oceanfront at Gulf State Park is you can cycle or walk across elevated pedestrian bridges to reach it, so you don’t have to deal with traffic.
Easily reached from the campground via the Canal Trail and a long boardwalk on the south side of Middle Lake, the East Pedestrian Bridge leads to the new Interpretive Center and the very large Beach Pavilion [30.254801, -87.644195].
From the Lake Shelby Picnic Area, the West Pedestrian Bridge crosses to the beach to reach the Gulf State Park Fishing Pier [30.250219, -87.667824] and the Lodge complex. You’ll find the beaches at the Beach Pavilion and the Pier generally very busy on weekends.
While we are not big on beach time, we couldn’t resist biking out to the beach from our cabin just because it was a unique thing to do.
Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail
At the Forest Pavilion, we noticed a “National Recreational Trail” sign. For the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, this is a fitting designation. Never before have we seen such habitat and geologic diversity on a single bike trail network on a single piece of public land.
Established in 2003, it is made up of a collection of more than 15 miles of paved trails and long boardwalks that traverse the surprising variety of habitats found in Gulf State Park. It is located east and north of most of the park’s other features, with no roads to cross as you enjoy biking through the woods.
In addition to natural features and regular wildlife sightings, the trail is home to several distinctive stops that blend into the landscape. These include a parkour course, a bouldering park for youngsters, and the Forest Pavilion with its butterfly garden.
When on foot, it’s easier to notice the side trails that lead to overlooks on the lakes and along the ridges. Take the time to hop off your bike and explore these!
Along the north shore of Lake Shelby, the Lakeside Cabins provide a great place to set up base camp while exploring the park.
As invited guests, we stayed three nights in Cabin 6 and appreciated not just the screened porch to relax on but the ease of access to the trail system for biking and hiking.
While the park offers many places to stay, being on the shoreline of Lake Shelby was magical. We could watch the birds at dawn and dusk, and enjoyed a commanding view of sunrise.
Gulf State Park offers two separate sets of cabins as well as their more upscale Eagle Cottages, along with a state park lodge and campground. Learn more about each below under Where to Stay.
On a narrow strip between the south shore of Lake Shelby and Perdido Beach Blvd, Lake Shelby Picnic Area is the primary day use area for the lake.
The eastern side of the lake has two marshy islands – South Island and Alligator Island – where you are likely to see wildlife.
From the bike path, two different boardwalks ending in observation decks provide views across the lake. One is on the north side just west of Lakeside Cabins, while the other is on the east side just west of the campground.
Set on the shores of Middle Lake in the very middle of the campground, the Gulf State Park Nature Center is the place to visit to learn about the park’s habitats and wildlife.
Raptors occupy a space beneath the building, while the center itself is full of aquariums and terrariums with reptiles and amphibians found in the area.
Pop in to visit with the park naturalist on duty and ask your questions! Naturalist-led programs are sometimes offered at the ampetheater, along with guided hikes.
What to Do
Biking was the main reason we’d been enticed to Gulf State Park. For years, our friends in the local tourism bureau had tried to get us over here – so close to Pensacola, yet so far from our home – to explore their bike trails.
Since we were on the last leg of a 6,000-mile road trip across the Southern states and had our bikes with us, we had no excuse not to stop and visit. And we are glad we did.
Friends who’d biked the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail suggest we do it clockwise from the cabin area, and we found out quickly why that was good advice. The northernmost segment of the trail system, Gulf Oak Ridge, is indeed a significant ridge. It surprised us with its views and fast downhills.
There are many different ways to ride the trail system, but we did our best to make a long loop of it. Most of it is paved, but portions are on broad boardwalks over wetlands.
Our loop included not just the official Backcountry Trail but a series of connector trails to it. We did an out-and-back ride to the beach over the bridge, too, and clocked in at a little over 13 miles.
Once the trails on the west side of the lake reopen, that outer loop can easily be expanded to a 19 mile ride. In all, there are more than 28 miles of trails through the park, open dawn to dusk.
One of the more visually unusual segments was the Gopher Tortoise Trail. It appeared to be cut out of a former highway through the park. And sure enough, it was! That highway now ends at the campground at the south end, and at the Backcountry Trail trailhead at its north end.
If you didn’t bring a bike, no worries! At several spots throughout the park, we discovered fleets of rideshare bikes available. Each had a sign with instructions for how to download an app to unlock the bike for an hour’s free use.
You can also rent a bike for the day at the camp store or from the outfitter at the Lake Shelby Picnic Area.
Park naturalists lead birding and nature hikes on a regular basis. If you’re staying at the park, check with the folks at check-in regards any planned hikes departing from where you are staying.
We joined a hike along the north shore of Lake Shelby to walk out to an eagle’s nest along the Eagle Loop. The eagles have returned here year after year.
We saw many rafts of coots along Lake Shelby at all hours of the day. It was the first week of November, and they’d just come in for the season. From a kayak, an osprey nest was easy to spot on South Island.
With boardwalks looping through the marshes along both Lake Shelby and Middle Lake, there are plenty of opportunities for birding. Songbirds are best found along Gulf Oak Ridge.
For a full rundown of birds found at the park – and information on planned hikes – contact the Nature Center for details. Overlooks and likely spots to see birds are marked with binoculars symbols on the park maps.
The scale of the landscape at Gulf State Park definitely made it more appealing for biking than hiking, so we were grateful to be able to bike the paved trails.
From the Lakeside trailhead [30.2659, -87.6717] or the Lakeside Cabins, a walk along the loop of boardwalks and paved trails out to Lake Shelby and past the eagle’s nest makes a pleasant short hike. When it isn’t nesting season, use the Eagle Connector footpath for a return trip, and it makes a hike of a little more than a mile.
Hikers will also appreciate the scenery and elevation changes along Gulf Oak Ridge. Park at the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail trailhead [30.271662, -87.655094] and follow Gulf Oak Ridge west. Loop back via Cross Park Trail, Campground Trail, Alligator Marsh, Bear Creek Trail, and the Gopher Tortoise Trail for a 5.3-mile hike.
We also discovered a footpath off the bike path at Twin Bridges in a very pretty oak hammock. It is part of the Orange Beach Sportsplex and can be reached from the parking area of that park (see Directions map). From that loop, use the Catman and Cotton Bayou Trails to walk down to the Forest Pavilion and Butterfly Garden for a 3.1-mile loop and round-trip.
From the Nature Center you can piece together boardwalks, paved trails, and a footpath to make a 3.5-mile loop around the eastern end of the campground, with a side path to an overlook on Middle Lake.
On the south shore of Lake Shelby at the Lake Shelby Picnic Area, Coastal Segway Adventures rents kayaks and paddleboards. A fleet sits outside their building along the lakeshore.
They provided John with a rental so he could explore the lake. He mainly stuck to the east side of the lake, where the islands do a good job of blocking the wind.
If you bring your own canoe or kayak, you can launch into Lake Shelby from the day use area, or from the Lakeshore Cabins and Eagle Cottages, if you are staying there.
Coastal Segway Adventures offers both guided kayak tours at $30 per hour and rentals at $20 per hour.
Segway Eco Tours
While we didn’t participate in a Segway tour, we did see Coastal Segway Adventures leading a group up the Gopher Tortoise Trail to the Gulf Oak Ridge to delight them with the scenic views.
Guided Segway Eco Tours include instruction as well as a trip leader who takes you along a route on the boardwalks and paved paths of the park. Each tour makes many stops and lasts two hours.
Advance reservations are required for Eco Tours. Tours are weather-dependent and offered either two or three times a day.
Where to Stay
Gulf State Park Campground
The campground at Gulf State Park is one of its oldest features. It sits on the north shore of Middle Lake. With nearly 500 full-hookup sites and another 11 primitive campsites, it is one of the largest campgrounds on the Gulf Coast.
While it is not directly on the beach, you can hear the waves in the distance. The network of paved trails and boardwalks provides easy access to the beach, only 1.5 miles away.
In the middle of the campground is the Nature Center along with an aquatic complex with a seasonally-open swimming pool and splash pad.
Add in sports facilities, equipment rentals, a broad open waterfront for fishing on the lake, and a camp store, and you won’t need to leave here once you settle in.
Bathhouses and dump stations are provided. Monthly reservations are available November through March. Primitive sites start from $26, full hookups from $55, with rates varying by day or week and season.
While we saw leashed pets everywhere, be aware that alligators are common in the lakes at Gulf State Park. Look after your children AND your pets carefully, as most campsites edge either water or marshes.
The Lakeside Cabins occupy the north shore of Lake Selby. Each of the Lakeside Cabins has either two or three bedrooms and a bath or two along with a compact kitchen, four-seat dining room, living room, and screened porch with a second four-seat table.
A couple of the cabins are wheelchair accessible with long ramps. Otherwise, plan to haul your gear up and down the staircase. We locked our bikes to the stilts under the cabin and left them there for easy access.
Every cabin has its own shoreline access for fishing or launching a kayak, as well as a porch swing hanging under it overlooking the lake. Groupings of cabins share a pier with a covered gazebo. A playground is in the middle of the cabin area.
The road that connects all the cabins (as well as the adjacent Eagle Cottages) also connects to the trail system at both ends, so we were able to jump on our bikes and go.
Along with pots and pans, utensils, and cutlery, kitchens are outfitted with all the usual appliances. Bed linens and towels are provided.
WiFi is limited and there are no phones. We never turned on the television. Why bother when you can enjoy nature’s show outdoors?
Rates start around $130 per night. Multi-day stays are required on some weekends.
Check in is at 1 Newberry Rd, Gulf Shores, which is the Eagles Roost (Cabin 1) sitting between the Lakeside Cabins and Eagle Cottages.
With a big nod from National Geographic with a designation of Unique Lodges of the World, the Eagle Cottages at Gulf State Park aren’t your traditional state park cabin.
Since our Lakeside Cabin was along the same road (and the same lakeshore), we asked to take a peek inside one of the Eagle Cottages to see what made it so special.
Stepping inside, we could tell it was not a cabin. The Sycamore Cottage felt like a modern coastal home. Although it was a cloudy day, big windows brought the light in.
Hardwood floors, a large living room, and a full-size kitchen made this feel like a space for entertaining. We could tell from the new arrivals the next day that weddings and family reunions were the top reasons to book these large cottages.
What wasn’t obvious on first glance but underlies the purpose of these cabins is going green while attracting a different audience to the outdoors. Care was taken to incorporate recycled and repurposed materials, and both lighting and amenities minimize waste.
While each cabin comes with its own set of bikes to encourage exploration of the park, we saw families gathering on the lawn, on the porches, and on the piers, enjoying grilling dinner and savoring outdoor time.
The kitchen and bedrooms are outfitted like they would be in an upscale home. WiFi is standard.
Ideal for adult family getaways, each cottage has two or three bedrooms and one or two baths. Rentals start at $275 per night, with special packages available that include meals and tours.
With a feel and amenities similar to the Lakeside Cabins, the Woodside Cabins are tucked into the pine woods along the Coyote Crossing Trail bike path.
There are both one-bedroom studios and a two-bedroom cabin (with an additional sleeper sofa in the living room), set right at ground level. No stairs.
Like the cabin we stayed in, these come with all the basics for kitchen, bedroom, and bath. Rates start at $99 for one bedroom.
A new addition to the park are the glamping tents at Cotton Bayou. Set a 1.5-mile walk or ride from the trailhead, these large tents are set on a wooden platform and feature a porch with seating. Cots are provided for sleeping.
There is no electricity or drinking water, but campers share an outdoor sink, bathrooms, and a shower. There is no air conditioning or heatm but firewood and a fire ring are provided. $63 per night. Tents can be reserved up to a week at a time.
The Lodge at Gulf State Park
We inquired about staying at the Lodge – since we’d already stayed at two state park lodges on our trip – but being at the Lakeview Cabins was a far better location for the outdoor activities we’d planned.
The Lodge is oceanfront, which is ideal for beachgoers. While it is on state park land, it feels apart from the rest of the park, although it is connected via the trail system.
When we visited after dark, it was tricky to find our way around since the lighting is so low for the sake of the sea turtles.
Managed by Hilton Hotels, the Lodge has a small convention space attached to it and several onsite eateries.
Room configurations include family-friendly king rooms with an adjacent bunk bed for the kids. Both rooms and suites are available. Rooms start around $106, with a $5 parking fee added. Pets are not permitted.
Where to Eat
One of the biggest surprises at Gulf State Park is its three restaurants overseen by an executive chef. Each sources food locally and builds a menu for a healthy diet.
Closest to the cabins, Woodside Restaurant has a woodsy, quiet vibe, with plenty of outdoor seating as well as indoor space for those cooler days. Their creative breakfasts didn’t quite fit our low carb constraints, but the array of salads and sandwiches for lunch and dinner were tempting.
At the Lodge, Perch is the upscale, pricey offering on park grounds. We met friends here who suggested it for dinner and sampled an array of small plates while enjoying the strum of the ocean outside. It’s definitely the spot for sunset and for savoring drinks and small talk. The wine list is extensive.
One floor below Perch, Foodcraft offers great views as well, with creative dishes at a lower price point. Artfully arranged salads, flat breads, and street tacos are among the best choices, along with small plates to share.
Outside the Park
Thanks to the paved bike trail system extending outside the park itself, it’s easy to leave the park grounds via Coyote Crossing to get to nearby restaurants along Fort Morgan Blvd, Canal Rd, and Gulf Shores Parkway.
Being big fans of diners for a hearty breakfast to start the day, we hit The Diner for breakfast basics, and tried Hazel’s Nook, which was jam-packed with locals for the breakfast buffet. Definitely get the buffet, which includes made-to-order omelets.
Our hands-down favorite was the Sunliner Diner. The classic cars out front drew us in, but we were afraid it was all show, the 50s theme dominating the place. They surprised us with an excellent breakfast. Everything was perfect, even the coffee, and they substituted berries for potatoes when we asked.
Ambitious cyclists can use the Gulf Oak Ridge and Rattlesnake Ridge trails to reach restaurants in Orange Beach off Canal Rd and Orange Blvd. Tops among the offerings in that area is Doc’s Seafood Shack, a fabled seafood house that the locals pointed us to. Fried oysters and shrimp are the mainstays. Just up the street, we slipped into BuzzCatz for strong coffee and tasty cookies.
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
At Big Lagoon State Park, enjoy exploring the sweep of coastal forest and wetlands along one of Florida’s largest lagoons
With sand as white as fresh fallen snow, Perdido Key State Park offers Florida’s westernmost public beach