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Your Basic Guide To Vacationing In Gulf Shores

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

Alabama might not be the first place people think of when planning a vacation, but perhaps it should be. If you’re looking for a beautiful beach destination, consider Gulf Shores/Orange Beach. Not only are there fewer crowds there than in Florida or California, but there are also a variety of experiences for your itinerary.

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What To Know Before You Go

Before you begin making plans to go to Gulf Shores, let's talk some logistics. This section won't be super specific — for instance, I won't tell you exactly which resort to stay at — but I will tell you the big must-knows as well as some advice for each.

Where To Stay

Although it won't be cheap, your best accommodation option is a resort or condo right on the beach. This allows you to make the most of your time at the ocean and will likely give you other amenities: pools, sport courts, a gym, parking, rentable beach equipment, close food options, etc. You can find a hotel or Airbnb, but if it's not right on the beach, you'll have to drive somewhere and find a spot where you can walk to one, which could be difficult since some of the beaches are private or "closed off" to resort guests.

How To Get There

Flying and driving are both good options. If you drive, it will take longer to get there, but you'll already have a car on hand. If you fly, it will likely be faster but more expensive, and you'll need to rent a car once you arrive. In Gulf Shores, a vehicle is a must so that you can get groceries, go to restaurants, do anything that's not at the beach, and even get to your condo from the airport. The closest airports that have the typical airlines are an hour and a half away depending on traffic (Pensacola, FL, or Mobile, AL), and that would be an expensive ride service.

My advice? If you live a few states away, are on a stricter budget and have the time, drive. It will save you the cost of buying two forms of transportation. However, if it's too long of a drive, find some cheap flights and rent a vehicle in advance if it's the busy summer season.

Best Time To Go

If you have kids, then the obvious best time to vacation in Gulf Shores would be in the summer. They'll be out of school and it will be nice and hot, perfect for enjoying the beach. However, if you don't have children, it's best to go late August and September. The crowd will have thinned considerably, the weather is still summer-like and the water isn't freezing cold like it typically is in the spring. If you want even fewer people at the beach, go during the week. Many locals stay at their condos over the weekend but head back to work throughout the rest of the week.

What You'll Need

Some of the rentable condos or beach houses could have beach paraphernalia that you can use for free, but most of them likely won't. This means that you'll have to buy some chairs, umbrellas, towels, etc. at the store, OR you can rent beach chairs and umbrellas at your resort. These aren't super expensive, but the cost could add up throughout the week, so add it to your budget. And check in with the rental company about if there's a discount halfway through the day. (At the resort we stay in every year, the price drops at 2 p.m. since the service closes at 5 p.m. Condo owners also get an overall discount when they rent.)

Where To Eat

When it comes to food, you can eat in or out. There are kitchens and outdoor grills at the resorts and condos and also a few restaurants or food trucks that you can walk to, depending on where you stay. If you want to drive to restaurants, check out this post for the best food options in the area. Some even include ocean views or live music.

What To Do

Keep reading to learn about some fun things you can do on your vacation!

8 Things To Do In The Area

Around Gulf Shores, there are activities for animal lovers, outdoor adventurers, history buffs and more. This list will only scratch the surface of the opportunities in the area, but I'll continue adding to it with each visit to this coast.

1. Spend a day at the beach.

There’s nothing like the sound of waves and the feel of soft white sand to make you want to wake up early, put on your swimsuit and sunscreen, carry down towels, chairs and umbrellas to the shore only to fall asleep again in the warmth of the sun’s rays.

Gulf Shores is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to some of Hawaii’s beaches, though they were touristy). The white sand gets warm but rarely too hot (and never as hot as regular sand), and there aren't a bunch of rocks in the water, so you can enjoy the waves or play catch without cutting your feet up. Bring some seating or towels with you, food and drinks, a fishing pole, outdoor games and enjoy some time at the beach. And in the early mornings, be on the lookout for Fred, the local crane that walks the beach and not afraid of people!

*I haven't done either of these yet, but you can go boat tubing or parasailing at some beach locations.

2. Learn about the history of Fort Morgan.

Drive down to the end of the peninsula, and you’ll run into Fort Morgan. It’s open 7 days a week at 8 a.m. and costs $8 for adults and $5 for children/students/seniors for a day pass. At this historic site, you’ll be able to learn about the fort at a small indoor museum and by walking around the grounds. In my opinion, Fort Morgan is fascinating, as it’s been through many wars since being built in the early 1800s.

You can also take advantage of the outdoor activities while you’re there. You’re encouraged to go fishing on the property, picnic or collect shells.

3. Buy some souvenirs at Souvenir City.

I'm usually not into the kitchy souvenir shops, but Souvenir City is kind of fun — the building's entrance is a shark's mouth! — and it has a lot of products to choose from. So even if you're not a shopper, take a look inside to see if anything piques your interest as a souvenir from your trip or consider buying a gift for someone else.

4. Feed the gators at Alligator Alley.

This attraction was definitely a surprise, as I expected to walk away feeling like the experience was overpriced. That was not the case! Alligator Alley is a rescue farm for, yup, those dinosaurs we call alligators. They have hundreds of them, from hatchlings to 50-year-olds, to feed. AND, if you feel brave enough, you can hold a baby alligator.

If you’re worried that Alligator Alley is too much like a zoo in which the animals are crammed into a small area, think again. They’ve allotted the needed space for young alligators, and the older ones live in acres of marsh. The founders have created boardwalks that seem to stretch on and on over these marshes for visitors. There is also a viewing section for other animals, including turtles, lizards and snakes. Alligator Alley is open every day (except Wednesday) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults cost $15, children and seniors cost $13, and the alligator chow is $5. It’s definitely worth it if you have kids or enjoy animals, even if they are as ferocious looking as alligators.

5. Take a walk or bike ride in Gulf State Park.

Gulf State Park has what you need to camp, fish, picnic and exercise in nature. The website boasts 28 miles of hiking/biking paved or boardwalk trails and nine distinct ecosystems, which include areas of marshes, dunes, live oaks and more. We went on the hunt for alligators but were unsuccessful (probably a good thing).

I would encourage you to download/take a picture of the park map when visiting. It will help you figure out your current location and also get you to a specific destination since it might be difficult in such a big park. It’s a beautiful area that’s well taken care of and the perfect place to get your body moving after you’ve been lying on the beach all week.

6. Eat a meal at a restaurant overlooking the ocean.

A beach vacation means that you can have meals with an ocean view. So take advantage of this benefit and hit up a restaurant that's on the water. I've been to The Gulf for lunch and Perch and Cobalt (which has live music) for dinner. And while you can't go wrong enjoying a meal overlooking the ocean in the afternoon, I usually prefer going in the evenings, sitting on a patio and watching the sun set over the water as I eat.

Check out this running list of the best food stops in Gulf Shores here.

7. Go ghost crabbing at night.

Children and adults alike will enjoy this activity. When it gets dark, ghost crabs begin to scuttle about the beach popping in and out of their holes, and it's a lot of fun to try to catch them. All you need is a bucket (the same one you used to build a sand castle earlier will do just fine), some small nets for scooping them up and some flashlights (either actual flashlights or the one on your phone).

When you get one, put it in your bucket. It's catch and release, but it's fun to make a game of it and see how many each person can scoop. Additionally, it could be a great learning opportunity for kids, so let them watch the ghost crabs in the bucket for a bit and look up some fun facts about them.

Once you're done for the night, turn the bucket over and watch the ghost crabs disappear into the darkness — or, rather, into their holes.

8. Play a round of pirate-themed mini golf.

If you're looking for a fun (overall cheap) outdoor group activity, try your hand at mini golf at Pirate's Island Adventure Golf. As you play, you'll "board" the ship Queen Anne's Revenge and putt in some caves, over waterfalls and streams, up a mountain and through a pirate's village.

The course is open every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and it's $14 for adults, $10 for children (4-12) and children 3 and under play for free. (I still have a play-for-free token from the last time I was there because I got a hole in one on the final hole!)

Best Photo Ops Near Gulf Shores

With the beautiful beaches at Gulf Shores and other exciting activities nearby, it's a great place to take photos on vacation, whether you want some of your family, a proposal, an engagement or even if you're just looking for some cool photos to post on your social media. Here are a few of my favorite photo op locations:

The Beach

This photo location likely seems obvious, but I had to add it and explain particularly why it's such a good spot. The secret is the beautiful white sand! It really does create great contrast with the ocean and can make your pictures look crisp and clean and like you're in paradise.

Alligator Alley

Sure, you'll get some great photos of your family peering down at the alligators from the boardwalks and throwing food at them, but there's a photo op that's even better ... You can actually hold a baby alligator at Alligator Alley! Don't worry, its mouth is taped shut. But if you're brave enough, you can get in line and hold it and stroke it as someone else in your party snaps a photo. Trust me, it will be a post that gets a lot of likes!

*The baby alligator I held was named Gatorade, and he was wearing a bandana. It was so cute!

Fort Morgan

If you're a photographer, you'll love the tunnels at Fort Morgan. They look like the perfect place to take senior photos or to practice your skills. The browns, oranges and reds create a stunning color combination; the brick and other materials are wearing down giving photos a more vintage look; and the shot of a tunnel within a tunnel within a tunnel gives off Inception vibes.

Souvenir City

This is the perfect place to take silly photos because there are several backgrounds and props you can use. The entrance to Souvenir City is the mouth of a giant shark, so get your group together and take a picture in its mouth. On the backside of the building, you'll find a pirate scene with head cutouts to stick your face in. And inside Souvenir City is a shark head with a hole it that you can stand behind. Have fun with each shot

Sunset Spots

You won't be able to watch the full sunset on a southern beach because it will get covered up by the resorts and houses. Instead, head to the northern beaches where the sun sets directly over the water. That said, these beach spots seem to be few and far between. So, here are a few off-the-beaten-path spots to take pictures with the sunset.

Beach near the Fort Morgan Public Boat Launch: There's a little slice of paradise near the Fort Morgan entrance that seems to only be populated by fishermen and people watching the sunset. It's especially perfect for family photos!

Directions: Drive to Fort Morgan, and upon arriving at the end of the peninsula (just before you get to the Fort Morgan entrance gate), you'll see a parking lot and some piers and docks on the right. Park there and walk through the grass on the left side of the long pier on the far left side. Here, you'll find the small, skinny beach.

The Pines Park Public Boat Launch: This small wooden ramp gets a gorgeous background in the evenings from the sunset. Just be careful wherever you decide to take pictures there!

Directions: Drive toward the direction of Fort Morgan and be on the lookout for Plantation Road (or input it into your GPS). Just across from this road is the boat launch. You'll be able to see it from the road, and there are usually about four "parking spots" available on the side of the road there.


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