With its full schedule of activities and playground-like camping area, Alabama's Gulf State Park has a resort feel. A long stretch of white-sand beach accounts for part of this popular park's appeal, but a freshwater lake, golf course, hiking trails, fishing pier and plenty of watersports make up the rest.
Facts and figures
- The park offers more than three miles of beach
- It covers approximately 6,500 acres, or 10 square miles
- Birds at the park’s nature center include an owl, a hawk, ospreys and woodpeckers
- Most of the facilities were built or renovated in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004
- Gulf State is dog friendly and has a dog park
Gulf State Park began with federal and donated land in the 1930s. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed its original facilities, including lake cabins and residences. As Alabama began building its park system, the area became state land in 1939.
The park gained popularity through the 1940s, and eventually the manager began letting people camp because there weren't enough cabins for overnight stays. The park was built out further in the late '60s and early '70s.
Things to do and see
Relaxing on the beach is a perfectly good way to enjoy Gulf State Park, and chairs are available to rent. If your group prefers more activity, a stand at the beach's main pavilion offers parasailing excursions and rents kayaks, paddleboards and volleyballs.
Visit the Nature Center to see turtles, snakes and owls, and grab a schedule—the staff there lead a full calendar of educational talks, nature walks and games.
At Lake Shelby, pack a picnic and take the group swimming or fishing. Here, too, you can rent kayaks, paddleboards or bikes. If you're more interested in saltwater fishing, set up at the Gulf State Park Pier, which is also a great place to simply take in the views. Golfers head to the Refuge Golf Club, which has an 18-hole course.
To get an even better sense of the nature surrounding the park, hike or rent bikes to explore the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, which covers more than 25 miles and features a butterfly garden. Keep your eyes peeled—you may even spot an alligator.
A mile and a half from the beach, the park's sizeable campground has nearly 500 full-hookup sites that welcome tents, available for a fee.
There are modern bathhouses, a large swimming pool with a sprinkler-filled "splash pad" for younger kids, tennis courts, volleyball and the nature center. Be sure to make a reservation in advance, as the park tends to fill up.
Best time to go
Gulf State is open and busy year-round. Late spring through summer, the park is full of families on getaways; in the winter, people often stay for weeks or months at a time. Aim to go in September or October, when the summer crowds and heat will be gone, but still early enough to miss winter visitors.