Alabama’s sister cities of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are a natural playground with 32 miles of public beaches with white sugar sand and warm blue gulf water. Between them sits Gulf State Park, with extensive trails through all nine coastal ecosystems. All of this fun and beauty is complemented by delicious restaurants, exciting nightlife, and unique places to stay.
As Alabamians, we’ve visited the state’s southern coast many times and have compiled this list of our top tips and tricks so you can have the best Orange Beach / Gulf Shores vacation ever! We’ll give you the inside scoop on what to do, where to eat, where to stay, and when to visit so you can explore like a local.
Plan Your Beach
Going to the beach only counts once your toes hit the sand, so we’ll start there. We wrote an entire article about the 13 Best Beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. It’s a good read with bunches of information layered into interactive maps, but here’s the skinny.
Fort Morgan Peninsula has 15 miles of pristine beaches with plenty of privacy. Gulf Shores has 3.5 miles of beach with many access points with showers and restrooms, along with a selection of restaurants just off the sand. Gulf State Park has a few well-developed parking and access areas with unique attractions like the Gulf State Park Pier and Gulf State Park Pavilion. Orange Beach has 4.5 miles of sand that perfectly complements staying in beach condos. Finally, from Perdido Pass to the Florida Line is a self-contained beach experience with “one of everything,” including a snorkeling area and Alabama’s widest swath of sand.
Pro Tip – A beach vacation starts with choosing your beach. Can’t decide? Try a few 😉
Enjoy Gulf State Park
We believe Gulf State Park separates Gulf Shores and Orange Beach from other Gulf Coast destinations. It has 6,150 acres of natural areas encompassing all the coastal ecosystems, including two miles of beaches. The fact that a nature preserve of this magnitude is so close to beach cities is remarkable, but the well-developed multi-use trail system is phenomenal.
USA Today named the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail the best recreational trail in the country for 2023. It’s a 28+ mile paved trail system for recreational riders (or hikers or wheelchairs) with multiple exit points that can accommodate even the most serious cyclist.
Pro Tip – Gulf State Park has a complimentary (yes, free!!!) bike share program.
Explore Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge
Congress established Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge to protect neotropical migratory songbird habitat and threatened and endangered species. It’s an important stopover and staging habitat for migratory songbirds during the fall and spring migration, making it a world-class bird location. The refuge also protects the last remaining undisturbed beach mouse habitat in Alabama.
Visitors of Bon Secour NWR can enjoy the 2-mile Pine Beach Trail as it winds through the coastal ecosystem, past a birding tower between Little Lagoon and Gator Lake, and through the dunes to reach the secluded Pine Beach. It’s not only a journey through nature but a trip back in time before Alabama’s coast was developed.
Pro Tip – Pine Beach is the most secluded beach on the Alabama Coast.
See the Dunes at Johnson Beach National Seashore
Technically in Florida, the Johnson Beach National Seashore offers visitors a chance to get lost in dunes of pure white sugar sand. It’s a seven-mile beach on the far east end of Perdido Key. A park road accesses the first three miles; the final four can only be accessed by foot or water.
The farther east you walk, the more “natural” the environment becomes. You might even realize that “Johnson Beach” could be a double entendre 😉. Even without a walk on the wild side, the National Seashore contains the most beautiful dunes west of Santa Rosa Island.
Pro Tip – Combine a trip to Johnson Beach around the Blue Angels practice schedule for added excitement and fly-bys.
Take the Ferry to Dauphin Island
The Mobile Bay Ferry to Dauphin Island is more than a convenient way to link Alabama’s beaches to Mississippi’s coast and the city of Mobile.. It’s often considered “the Gulf Coast’s Most Scenic Drive” and saves travelers hours of driving time by providing a travel link across the mouth of Mobile Bay.
The 40-minute trip between Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan at Mobile Point provides fabulous views of the two historic forts that once guarded the entrance of Mobile Bay. You may see birds, dolphins, or other sea life along the way.
Pro Tip – Visit the Alabama Aquarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to “justify” the trip.
Visit the Past at Fort Morgan
Mobile Bay is one of the most valuable waterways in America. Mobile was founded as the first capital of French Louisiana years before New Orleans was established. It’s also the seaport for the Tenn-Tom Waterway, a 234-mile man-made waterway that linked the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico that required 1/3 more earth moved than building the Panama Canal! Guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay are the once-vaunted Fort Morgan and Fort Bowyer.
Fort Bowyer prevented the British from taking Mobile during the War of 1812, and its upgrade, Fort Morgan, kept the Confederate port of Mobile open as the South’s last port until the final months of the Civil War. During the Battle of Mobile Bay, Union Admiral David Farragut shouted his famous quote -“Damn the Torpedoes – Full Speed Ahead!” While the exact text might have changed with history, running through a torpedo field (tethered mines) was a better option than facing the withering fire from Fort Morgan, leading to a Union victory. Today, the site is a living history museum that showcases the evolution of American seacoast fortifications.
Pro Tip – Admission to Fort Morgan is free for active, reserve, or retired military with ID.
Try a Paddle Trail
Did you know that Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have not one but two paddling trails? The Orange Beach Canoe Trail has 12 designated canoe trail sites posted along Wolf Bay, Bay La Launch, Arnica Bay, Bayou St. John, and Cotton Bayou. In August of 2019, the Back Bay Blueway was launched, which takes visitors through Coastal Alabama’s unique waterways with a total of 21 launch sites on four distinct trails: Fort Morgan Trail, Little Lagoon Trail, Gulf State Park Trail, and Orange Beach/Wolf Bay Trail.
These trails give you access to the back bays, where you’ll find dolphins, eagles, osprey, and more as you paddle on flat water. You can rent kayaks from several local companies or even book a guided naturalist tour.
Pro Tip – Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have over 100 miles of premier paddling adventures.
Book a Boat Tour
Orange Beach is one of the premier recreational boating areas along the Gulf Coast. It’s perfectly sized for excursion boats to tour Wolf Bay on sunset dolphin tours that range from romantic elegance to kid-friendly playful. You’ll also find marinas close to Perdido Pass with a short sail to the Gulf of Mexico, where you can go scuba diving, deep sea fishing, or just enjoy the wind and the waves.
We love Orange Beach for boating because you’re on an island that separates the back bays from the Gulf of Mexico, and these distinctly different experiences are only a couple of miles from each other.
Pro Tip – Plan a “add on” activity to a boat tour like scuba diving paired with kayaking or Wolf Bay paired with the Wharf.
Eat Early and Look for Paper Coupons
We hope you’re hungry after all those fun things to do because this next section of trick and tips is all about Dining in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Our first tip might sound like something your grandparents would suggest, but maybe they’ve learned something in their trips around the sun.
First off, Alabama’s beaches have a happening happy hour. It’s not just drinking, either. You can get delicious appetizers and small plates at some of the coast’s best restaurants at kicking prices. If you want to save even more money, you’ll find old-school coupon books in locations all around town, but the most comprehensive collection is at Welcome Centers.
Pro Tip – Check in at the Welcome Center for discounts on activities too!
Look for Hidden Restaurants
There is no shortage of Orange Beach and Gulf Shore restaurants, but some of the best ones are hidden in plain sight. For example, Alabama’s first certified green restaurant is the Safari Club outside of Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. You can eat a green and clean dinner while listening to the animals settle down to bed, but you might never know it because the zoo closes at 4:00.
Another hidden gem is hotel restaurants like the Lodge at Gulf State Park signature restaurants Foodcraft and Perch or Voyagers in the Perdido Beach Resort. You get delicious food, often at a waterfront table, and maybe even with live music too. The closest dining to the water isn’t even in a restaurant at all, but a catered beach picnic from the Beach Moms.
Pro Tip – Hidden restaurants make fantastic date ideas.
Cook Your Catch
Orange Beach is known as the “Red Snapper Capital of the World!” and a host of fishing charters are waiting to take you offshore to test your luck. Add in surf fishing, fishing piers, and the region’s extensive back bays, and you just might get hooked.
Fishing is fun, but trying to keep your catch fresh until you get home isn’t. Plus, there’s nothing like freshly caught seafood. That’s where Gulf Shores and Orange Beach “Cook Your Catch” restaurants come in. They do all the work. All you have to do is eat and enjoy.
Pro Tip – Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism has an extensive list of “Cook Your Catch” establishments.
Experience Nightlife at the Wharf
The Wharf is coastal Alabama’s premier entertainment district, with plenty of entertainment & attractions, restaurants & eateries, bars & tasting rooms, and shopping to go around. However, the fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down.
From live music to laser light shows, you’ll find something to stimulate your senses with a “to-go” plastic cup in your hand. Come for a boat tour or a bite to eat, but be sure to stay for the fun. If you’re planning on “too much fun,” Springhill Suites is just around the corner 😉.
Pro Tip – The Wharf has a 10,000-seat amphitheater with a seriously good lineup.
Stay at The Lodge at Gulf State Park
On the subject of places to stay in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, have you heard of the Lodge at Gulf State Park? They strive to be “A Unique Destination On The Alabama Gulf Coast Where Nature Is At Your Doorstep” and hit the mark ten-fold. It’s on the beach, next to Gulf Park Pier, with a pedestrian bridge leading across Beach Blvd to Lake Shelby. The hotel is embedded in Gulf State Park but only 2-miles from the main Gulf Shores Beach.
With unique locations comes unique responsibility, and the Lodge at Gulf State Park works in concert with the park’s naturalists to be the premier stewards of the land. In fact, they have a mission statement to “be an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability, demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education, and hospitable accommodations.” They start with extensive recycling programs, solar power, turtle-safe lighting, and storm water-safe parking, but it continues beyond there. Landscaping using native species that can thrive without irrigation, chemical pesticides, or fertilizers comprises 75% of the site, and a dune rehabilitation program offsets all the land displaced during construction.
Pro Tip – The Lodge is a Hilton Property, so earn and use your Hilton Points.
Rent a Penthouse
The Emerald Coast from Gulf County, Florida, to Gulf Shores, Alabama, has long been regarded as a driving destination for the entire family. There are many condos to choose from in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, but why not go big? Live out your own Real Housewives of Florabama fantasy in a luxury rooftop condo at Turquoise Place.
Imagine watching the sunset from your private, wrap-around balcony with a hot tub included. Wake up to a panoramic sunrise from the master bedroom, then freshen up with a soak in your jetted jacuzzi tub with a Gulf view or double rain shower. Maybe send the kids down to play in the 450′ lazy river and really take advantage of the amenities. It’s not every day you get a double shower! Speaking of kids, they’ll love the direct beach access, and you’ll love the endless supply of beach towels that never need to come upstairs.
Pro Tip – Rent directly from Spectrum for complimentary breakfast, lounge access, and more!
Beat the Crowds With Fall Shoulder Season
This might seem paradoxical, but the best time to visit Alabama’s Beaches, according to Weather Spark, isn’t the busy summer season. It’s the fall shoulder season when the skies clear and the heat and humidity abate, but the ocean is still warm enough to play in. When you include hotel specials, uncrowded beaches, and shorter dinner lines, it’s a no-brainer!
Unless you have kids who are out of school, you’ll want to come in the spring or fall shoulder season. Who knows, maybe you’ll have so much fun you’ll come down for both. It seems like we always find a reason to head down to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
Pro Tip – Even if it’s “rainy” at the beach, it usually doesn’t rain all day
See the Blue Angels
The Blue Angels are a flight demonstration squadron of the United States Navy and the second-oldest formal aerobatic team in the world. The “Blues” return to their home base in Pensacola, Florida, in March and continue practicing throughout the show season, which ends in November. Then, they return to their winter roost in El Centro, California, until the next season.
You can see the Blue Angels in Pensacola’s two annual airshows, the Pensacola Beach Airshow in July and the Blue Angels Homecoming Airshow in November. There are even more viewing opportunities as they take to the skies over Pensacola for about 40 practices throughout the show season. Since Naval Air Station Pensacola is only about 20 miles from Orange Beach, it’s easy to bike Perdido Key, kayak Big Lagoon, take a beach day at Johnson Beach, or book a boat tour down the coast to see the show.
Pro Tip – Check the Blue Angels practice schedule for more details.
Fuel up in Foley
It’s about a 45-minute drive from I-10 down to the Alabama coast or an hour and a half out and back. Which, in car terms, is a half tank of gas. You’ll most likely need to get gas somewhere, so why not plan ahead? It just makes cents. Plus, you can get the potty breaks and snacks out of the way, so you’re ready to rock and roll when you get to town.
There are many apps you can use. We like GasBuddy or just searching for “gas” on Google Maps. If you don’t need gas, the Gulf Shores Welcome Center has clean bathrooms and lots of good information for visitors.
Pro Tip – Use the GasBuddy Trip Cost Calculator to save money along your route
Making the Most Out of Your Orange Beach / Gulf Shores Vacation
There you have it, 17 tips and tricks to visit Alabama’s Beaches from professional travelers who happen to live in Alabama. You don’t need to follow every one of them, but we hope you’ll have seen at least one that will make your trip to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach just a little less expensive, a little more fun, or both‼️
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