Seven hours south of Memphis, balmy Gulf Shores, Alabama beckons. Long a favorite beach getaway for Memphians, the shoreline boasts the usual assemblage of condos and high rises, looking like colorful children’s blocks lining the water’s edge. But beach time isn’t the only form of relaxation this getaway has to offer. You’ll find extravagant wildlife and outdoor fun just steps away from its sandy shores.
Pedal Past Wildlife
One thing you can’t overlook is the abundance of birds that flocks to this region. To see them up close (or at least hear them), take a bike ride through the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. This broad, paved network of trails winds through longleaf pine forests and along lakes and marshland. Though just steps away from the ocean, it feels like another world.
During my visit in November, we counted 35 different species of birds, including yellow-rumped warblers, catbirds, red-shouldered hawks, and an Eastern bluebird (spoiler alert: I’m with an avid birder, Ted Floyd, the editor of the American Birding Association magazine). Hearing a shrill caw, we looked skyward just in time to catch an astonishing sight: a Bald Eagle soaring directly over our heads.
Another treat is spotting the Queen butterfly, notable for its orange and white markings that make it similar in appearance to the Monarch. A host of animals also call this park home, including bobcat, alligator, and gopher tortoises. You can spend several hours exploring here — there are 15 miles of trails — and the cool breeze makes it a relaxing spin.
beachbikerentals.net (251) 968-1770. Located just outside the trail.
Daily/weekly rentals, helmet & lock included. Prices vary.
Kayak on the River
Put in at Billy’s Seafood on River Road and you’ll encounter the working side of Bon Secour, a long-established fishing village on the Bon Secour River. Shrimp boats still motor from this safe harbor to fish in the vast gulf waters. At day’s end, fleets returns home loaded with the local favorite “Royal Red” shrimp. Seagulls wheel overhead while holds are emptied at one of several small seafood processing plants that border the river.
We glide past tidy boats moored along the river’s edge, as well as a few squalid hulks, their dreams long since dashed. Gradually, the summer cottages and industry give way to lush marshland riddled with channels. I nose up one narrow passage that winds through the towering reeds, eventually finding my way to the base of a private pier and cabin nestled in the woods, a picturesque retreat.
The river is placid, and an easy paddle. Better, it teams with wildlife. We encounter several pods of bottle-nosed dolphins, and I’m told river otter and the occasional gator are common here, too.
If you’d rather sit back while someone else takes the helm, eco tours are the way to go. I sample WildNative Tours and enjoy a relaxing, 90-minute cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway that also includes bird watching and dolphin sightings. Our guides are knowledgeable, describing the region’s history and ecology. The company offers a variety of boat tours but also a guided kayak paddle.
Gogokayaks.com • Rent a kayak for a day or a week. They pick up & deliver. Single rider: $60/daily. Ocean duo kayak: $75/daily.
Wildnativetours.com • Coastal eco tour: $19.99/adults. $14.99/kids.
roam a Refuge
For a glimpse of what the Gulf Coast once looked like, make a point to hike at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established this beautiful, 7,000-acre refuge in 1980 to protect and preserve rapidly vanishing coastal lands, including the barrier dunes and rolling pine-oak woodlands that were once so abundant.
The ranger tells us it is the endangered Alabama beach mouse that helps keep the dune ecosystem healthy here, since this tiny burrower collects and distributes seeds, including sea oats, its principal food source. Though we don’t encounter one (they’re nocturnal), we do spy delicate footprints lacing the dunes, mingled with tracings left behind by their neighbors, the ghost crab. Other threatened species the refuge protects include loggerhead sea turtles, the piping plover, and American alligators.
Hiking along the Pine Beach trail, we’re shaded by a maritime forest of slash pine and sand live oak dotted with saw-toothed palmetto and evergreen shrubs. The refuge even boasts several native species of blueberries. This airy canopy offers welcome respite for hundreds of native and migratory birds. We hike past a coastal marsh and brackish Gator Lake before winding our way through several series of dunes to reach the beach. What a payoff. Stretching several miles in either direction, it is wonderfully deserted except for a few lucky sandpipers and a Great blue heron.
The trails are soft sand and while some shade exists, the majority are open to the sun, so dress accordingly. Don’t forget water and bug repellent. The refuge is best suited for children ages 7 and up, since restrooms and facilities are limited. The park is free.
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge • fws.gov/refuge/Bon_Secour
Take in a Festival
Gulf Shores is working hard to make their town a destination by offering a variety of festivals throughout the year. During my stay, I dip into the Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bar for the 32nd Annual Frank Brown International Songwriter’s Festival (Nov. 3-13) and hear some great folk music. This raucous roadhouse is dedicated to live music and good times, judging from the one room they keep loaded (pardon the pun) with an astonishing array of liquor. It has several listening rooms and for live music, can’t be beat.
I also taste my way through a host of oyster offerings at the Oyster Cook-off and Craft Beer Weekend (Nov. 6-7). Sweet and meaty, Gulf Coast oysters aren’t to be missed. For that matter, there’s lots of delicious seafood in Gulf Shores. Treat yourself to crab cakes at Doc’s Seafood Shack or grilled shrimp po-boy at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club. You won’t be disappointed.