Alabama's Gulf Coast isn't exactly a well-kept secret (keeping white sand shores that gorgeous under wraps wasn't gonna happen), but the area’s unique combination of down-home Southern fun and sunny island vibe is pure magic. Since the best way to experience any new destination is to hit the road, cruise Alabama's Coastal Connection Scenic Byway for the ultimate vacation. You'll be treated to seemingly endless white sand beaches, warm water from the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay, and stops that range from silly and strange, to insightful and informative, to scenic and stunning. Turn up the Jimmy Buffet, roll down the windows, and get ready for the perfect beach road trip!
Your first stop is an enchanting secret garden. The Bellingrath Home and Gardens was the estate of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath; Walter made a fortune franchising the right to bottle and sell Coca-Cola in Southern Alabama. The couple didn't have children, but Bessie's passion was the garden. Even after Bessie passed away, Walter made it his mission to keep working the lovely grounds in her honor. The home and gardens are open to the public for tours, and one of the unique things about visiting is that there's almost always something in bloom. Winter is the perfect time to see camellias, which are the state flower of Alabama and were a favorite of Walter’s; spring brings azalea blooms and roses; summer is a great time to see most flowers, from magnolias to hibiscus; and fall is when cascades of brightly-colored chrysanthemums line the grounds' bridges.
One of the area’s can't-miss attractions is Fort Morgan Historic Site. Built in 1834, the fort was active in four major wars: the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II. It's best known for its role in the Civil War-era Battle of Mobile Bay. The Union won the two-week siege under Admiral David Farragut, who is best known for telling his men during the battle, "Damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead!" There's a museum/gift shop onsite, and you can tour the batteries and magazines. The site also hosts re-enactments from time to time. In addition to being full of rich history, the fort is also quite beautiful. Enslaved skilled masons built it using some 40 million bricks. The grounds protect some scenic natural areas, and the park has a boat launch and beach as well.
Learn all about the wildlife in this part of Alabama at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, an institution that fosters marine science education, research, and public engagement. While a lot of it is actually research facility operated by Auburn University, the Lab also has an Estuarium. That’s an aquarium that features the four main habitats of Southern Alabama: the Mobile Tensaw River Delta, Mobile Bay, the Barrier Islands, and the Northern Gulf of Mexico. With 31 aquariums totaling over 30,000 gallons featuring more than 100 species, there's a lot of Alabama aquatic life to see! Be sure to stop by the stingray touch tank and the Living Marsh Boardwalk. Expect to meet jellyfish, turtles, alligators, and loads of other creatures!
Now that you’ve learned all about Alabama’s sea creatures, observe them in their natural habitat at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge’s name means “safe harbor” in French, which is fitting, as the shore is a safe harbor for all kinds of plants and animals, including some endangered species. Lots of migratory birds (almost 360 species) use the beach as a stopover in the spring and fall, and it’s an important habitat for the Alabama beach mouse, along with the loggerhead, green, and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles that nest here. It’s also an interesting landscape with varying habitats-- including dunes, beach, wetlands, and oak-pine forests. These make the trails here incredibly interesting to hike. Just remember sunscreen and plenty of water!
You can’t take a trip to the beach without stopping to enjoy fresh seafood! Gulf Shores is home to an Acme Oyster House, a New Orleans-based eatery that serves delicious fare with a Cajun twist. Of course, the restaurant specializes in Louisiana oysters, served raw with cocktail sauce; chargrilled with cheese and swimming in luscious oyster butter; or as a shooter with vodka and cocktail sauce. After your oyster appetizers, enjoy N’awlins specialties like seafood etoufee, remoulade, gumbo, crawfish tail po’ boys, crab cakes and more. There are plenty of non-seafood options, and you’ll definitely want to save room for bread pudding and bananas foster cheesecake for dessert!
Just blocks off the beach is one of the country’s most impressive little zoos. The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo may be known as “The Little Zoo That Could,” but it’s home to more than 500 exotic animals. Tigers, monkeys, lions, toucans, bears, snakes, turtles, and more call the zoo home, and the zoo itself does a lot of work on wildlife conservation and education. For a truly special experience, check out the schedule of sloth, lemur, and kangaroo encounters, among others. You can feel the passion that the zoo’s employees have for the animals here, which make a visit extra memorable.
Road trips can be pretty hectic, with trying to see and do as much as possible along the way, so take a moment to enjoy the white sand and warm water at the Gulf Shores Public Beach. It’s free to visit, and there’s a good amount of parking available around (which you will have to pay for), but either way, visiting is pretty easy. You’ll find loads of amenities here as well, including beach attendants; pavilions and picnic areas; restrooms and showers; and, of course, loads of bars, restaurants, and shops. There’s room to spread out on the clean powder-white sand, and the swimming and shelling are top-notch. Rent a chair and stay for the sunset… it’s a beauty!
You can also find beach beauty at Gulf State Park. With several miles of shore for swimming and shelling, the second largest fishing pier on the Gulf of Mexico, the 27-mile Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail featuring plenty of gorgeous landscapes, a great nature center, and activities ranging from kayak and paddleboard rentals to Segway and parasailing tours, the park is a great one-stop destination for outdoor adventure in Gulf Shores. Add in a huge campground, cozy cabin and cottage rentals, and the pool, and you could easily spend a weekend enjoying yourself here.
Take a moment to enjoy the history and culture of Alabama's Gulf Coast at the Indian & Sea Museum in Orange Beach. Located in a historic schoolhouse (the building is seriously adorable), the museum displays artifacts from the region’s Native American and fishing history. Exhibits on the schoolhouse, boating, farming, and more also provide insight. The fog bell and Native American feathers are especially interesting. It’s free to visit and is located right down the road from lots of restaurants and other attractions in Orange Beach.
You won’t find a more classic attraction than The Wharf's Ferris Wheel in Orange Beach. It’s the tallest on the Gulf Coast, and is the icon for the town’s wharf. The Wheel has that awesome vintage vibe and rides are only $5 for adults. Ride it at sunset to make the most of the view! The Wharf offers tons of other stuff to see and do, like mini golf, ziplining, a free nightly sound-and-light show called Spectra, a farm market, and plenty of bars and restaurants. The Wharf has everything you want from a beach vacation, and you could easily spend a day enjoying the fun here.
Your trip ends at the Alabama-Florida border, so once you reach your destination, it’s time to celebrate! Head to the Pleasure Island Tiki Bar to enjoy a pina colada, rum-runner, or Bushwacker, a local treat that’s like a frozen, boozy milkshake. Sip your drink with fish tacos, popcorn shrimp, or Hawaiian pizza while you enjoy live music and views of the water. It’s the perfect spot to toast your adventure and relax in a chill environment for one last taste of what makes Orange Beach on Alabama's Gulf Coast so special.
Driving along Alabama's Coastal Connection Scenic Byway will take you into a paradise of white sand shores, past islands rich in history, and through scenic landscapes filled with incredible wildlife. Classic road trip stops, delicious seafood, and unique attractions abound, making this the perfect getaway!
Think spring. Think warm days in the sun on the white sand beaches of the Alabama Gulf Coast. Plan now for a family beach break in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Visit our website for special rates on accommodations, things to see and do, and where to dine during your visit.