15 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Gulf Shores, AL
We may earn a commission from affiliate links ()
Gulf Shores, along with neighboring Orange Beach, is an unforgettable place to visit that offers one of the most well-rounded vacation experiences in the United States. With its culinary diversity, tourist attractions, and extensive options for things to do both on water and land, this resort community appeals to couples, families, and solo travelers equally.
Toss your flip-flops into the sand on your way to the beach to enjoy the pristine white sands that the area is known for. While the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico are the centerpiece of Gulf Shores, you can do many outdoor activities, from golfing and biking to birding, with the emerald waters and perfectly blue skies as your backdrop.
Take advantage of the diversity of marine life on a dolphin watching tour or fishing charter and see the local wildlife in Gulf State Park. Customizing your vacation and finding the best places to visit is easy with our list of the top attractions in Gulf Shores.
See also: Where to Stay in Alabama's Gulf Shores
1. The Beach
The Gulf Shores beaches are distinctive, with sand the color and consistency of sugar, and spending a day in the surf or just enjoying the salt breeze beneath a canopy are popular things to do. Though Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are beach communities, with 32 miles of beach, you will have no problem finding the perfect spot, even during peak times of the day.
If you enjoy beachcombing at sunrise, take a bag to collect some of the sand dollars that wash up on shore. You can pick up a free shelling bag from the Gulf Shores or Orange Beach Welcome Centers. Photographers will delight in the angles of the sun at sunrise and sunset that offer perfect light for family photos or capturing pelicans settling in on the pier.
Most condominiums along the beach offer lounge chair and umbrella rentals. If you plan to spend a day at the beach, a packed lunch and snacks is recommended, as you will not find many eating options on the beach side of the condos where most tourists stay.
2. Gulf State Park
It's easy to plan a full day at Gulf State Park, where the main draw is outdoor recreation. The park maintains a weekly activities calendar, which you can review before your visit to find out about organized activities, or you can explore on your own.
The well-maintained park offers hiking trails, a pier, and beaches. For added outdoor adventure, you can rent kayaks, Segways, and paddleboards to use in the park.
There is a free bike-share program within the park where you can take advantage of a variety of biking options, like tandem bikes, kids' bikes, and pull-behind kiddie trailers. Guided Segway tours are also available. Keep your eyes open as you Segway, walk or ride on the trails, as you may see an alligator or two among the abundance of wildlife.
The Gulf State Park Pier is also a popular attraction, whether you want to sit on the beach below, or try your hand at fishing. If you don't know how to fish, you can sign up for the Angler Academy in the summer months. Guided Pier Walks are offered year-round and are a great way to learn about the natural surroundings in Gulf Shores.
The Gulf State Park Nature Center has hands-on activities, including live animal demonstrations, guided beach walks, telescope viewing, and educational programs for kids.
Campsites are available, as well as a popular RV park, but RV owners are advised to make reservations as far in advance as possible. Pet owners can bring Fido to Lake Shelby, which has a dedicated dog park.
Address: 20115 State Highway 135, Gulf Shores, Alabama
Official site: http://alapark.com/gulf-state-park
3. Gulf State Park Pier
It's easy to spend several hours at the Gulf State Park Pier, which is popular for fishing and people watching. For a few dollars you can come and go from the 1,540-foot-long public pier all day. On the two miles of beaches, you can watch surfers and swimmers and relax in the Gulf breeze.
The pier restaurant makes it easy to stay for several hours. You can grab a bite to go or enjoy the above-beach perspective, with seating that faces the water.
Local and out-of-town anglers flock to the pier daily. Fishing equipment is available for rent if you do not want to bring your own. Some of the best Gulf Shores entertainment is watching other fisherman and the pelicans that compete for the catch.
It is not uncommon to see sharks in the water below the pier prowling for the leftovers of fish that are cleaned on-site. Keep your eyes peeled, as you might just see a shark breach the water.
Address: 20115 State Highway 135, Gulf Shores, Alabama
4. Sailaway Charters Eco-Tours
Join Captain Skip at Sailaway Charters to navigate the backwaters of Longs Bayou and Wolf Bay. This small-group adventure provides intimate insight into the ecosystem of the region, waters, and wildlife.
Find out why Alabama produces more than 1.5 million bushels of blue crabs annually and learn about the life cycle of oysters that come from these waters.
During your educational trip, watch for dolphins that like to swim alongside the small boat and the herons and other animals that call the estuaries home.
Address: 24231 Gulf Bay Road, Orange Beach, Alabama
Official site: http://www.sailorskip.com/
5. Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo
The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is a growing attraction with popular exhibits that include giraffes, primates, lions, bears, leopards, a petting zoo, and an aviary. Educational talks and animal encounters are also on the schedule. You can pack a picnic lunch or grab a bite at the on-site restaurant, the Safari Club, or from one of the food trucks on the zoo grounds.
For an additional fee, you can enjoy one of the zoo's new animal encounters with kangaroos, lemurs, sloths, or giraffes. The Animal Enrichment Program lets you go along with a zookeeper to learn how to care for some of the animals.
Official site: http://www.alabamagulfcoastzoo.com/
6. Coastal Segway Adventures
Guided Segway tours through the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail in Gulf State Park are one of the most enjoyable ways to explore Gulf Shores nature and wildlife. The two-hour tour takes you through much of the 28-mile trail as your guide explains the varied ecosystems that exist in the park.
Tours start with a brief lesson on how to use the Segway and practice in the parking lot, so even first-timers can feel comfortable booking this excursion. Once on the trails, keep your eyes peeled for impressive wildlife, like eagles, alligators, and bobcats.
Address: 20115 State Highway 135, Orange Beach, Alabama
Official site: http://www.coastalsegwayadventures.com/
From deep sea fishing and inshore fishing to bow fishing and everything in between, the options for anglers are second to none in this area. Experienced anglers like the challenge of full-day fishing, targeting species like marlin, while first-timers can cast a line inshore or on a shorter offshore trip.
You can always book private charters. A relatively affordable option that is great for families and first-timers is deep-sea fishing with Reel Surprise Charters. More people are on the boat, but professional guides are on hand to help you hook species like triggerfish and red snapper. Nighttime fishing is an exciting way to explore all the bay waters have to offer. Fishin' Dixie Inshore Fishing offers several types of trips, but targeting speckled trout under the moonlight with an experienced guide is a unique fishing experience.
True outdoor enthusiasts can kick things up a notch with Intercoastal Safaris. They can customize trips for inshore fishing, saltwater bow fishing, and even trips that combine duck or wild hog hunting and fishing.
If you fish in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, you must take advantage of the Hook & Cook experience supported by many local restaurants. You pay a small fee to have your captain fillet your catch and take it to a participating local restaurant, which will prepare it any way you like, from Mediterranean-style to fried.
8. Sunset Cruises
One of the best ways to wind down from a busy day is with a Sail Wild Hearts' Sunset Cruise. This is a great leisure evening activity to do with a small group as you coast the Gulf waters on an open-ocean catamaran. Complimentary refreshments and snacks are onboard (such as water, soft drinks, and hors d'oeuvres), as well as restrooms.
The open cabin and comfortable front deck give you plenty of space to stretch out and enjoy your company while taking in the warm breeze. Sunset cruises average one-and-a-half to two hours and offer wonderful views of the white-sand shoreline.
Address: 27200 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach, Alabama
Official site: http://sailwildhearts.com/
9. Dolphin Watching
The playful dolphins in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are a big draw for visitors looking for a different kind of recreational water activity. Several companies in the area offer traditional dolphin watching tours.
Some of the best ways to take part in dolphin watching experiences is from a glass-bottom boat with Dolphins Down Under or with a WaveRunner tour, where you can see the dolphins swimming next to you. There is also a Dolphins and Wildlife Kayak Experience with Wild Native Tours, which enables novice and experienced kayakers to take a three-hour paddle along the coastline.
While these close-up experiences are memorable, it is important to note that it is against federal law to feed or swim with dolphins, and watercraft of any type must stay at least 50 yards away from them.
Gulf Shores, Alabama is famous for its pristine white beaches, but hiking trails give landlubbers plenty of flora and fauna to find in the area. The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail in Gulf State Park covers more than 28 miles that take you through nine different ecosystems.
Your options range from freshwater marshes to butterfly gardens, with plenty of wildlife roaming as you hike. Due to the expansive trails, it is recommended to plot out where you want to hike before you arrive. Maps are easy to find online and at the state park.
If you are a nature photographer or birding enthusiast, you will be impressed by the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, where you can observe regional species like the blue heron in its natural environment.
Signage along the trail makes it easy to navigate, and provides educational information about the area and birds that you might see on your hike. You can pick up a birding trail brochure at the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Welcome Centers.
11. Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge
If you want to see some of the rich wildlife along the Alabama Gulf Coast, it is worth a visit to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established to protect threatened species in the area, so you will have exposure to wildlife that you may not otherwise encounter.
The refuge has a thriving turtle nesting program, where you can learn about the importance of nesting sea turtle populations. The tiny Alabama beach mouse is under watch at an undisturbed area of the refuge, where you can observe its natural habitat in the shrubs of the shoreline.
If you visit in the spring or fall, you will have the chance to see many species of migratory songbirds that stop here to enjoy this protected habitat.
Address: 12295 AL-180, Gulf Shores, Alabama
Official site: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Bon_Secour/
12. Alabama Coastal Birding Trail
The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail is one of the best natural resources in the Gulf Shores because it enables visitors to get in the top locations to see native and migrating species. People who love birding make their way to the Gulf Shores because of the abundance of habitats that protect bird species and its location on a popular migration route.
The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail is extensive, with more than 200 miles of birding trail loops that are connected between Baldwin County and Mobile County in Alabama. Two of the most accessible trail loops in Gulf Shores are the Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Loop and the Fort Morgan Loop.
The Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Loop starts at the Perdido Pass bridge, where you can look for nesting snowy plovers and common loons that are often wading in the tides. On this loop, you might spot egrets or northern gannets that migrate through the area.
The Fort Morgan Loop starts at the intersection of AL Highway 59 and AL Highway 180 near the Fort Morgan Peninsula. You can keep watch for many types of waterbirds in the marshes on this loop and often see raptors coming through in the fall migration.
Plan to spend about a half day on each loop as you follow the suggestions guides provided along the way. You can even base yourself in Gulf Shores and plan day trips to additional nearby birding trail loops during your stay, as the opportunities for species change throughout the year and in each type of habitat.
13. Fort Morgan
The Fort Morgan State Historic Site is an impressive attraction located 22 miles west of Gulf Shores. The masonry fort was built between 1819 and 1833 on Mobile Point between Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The fort has a deep history tied to the Battle of Mobile Bay, Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II. Today, the site belongs to the State of Alabama and is a preserved piece of American history.
You can take a self-guided tour of the fort and grounds by downloading a map that highlights the points of interest on the site. You can see where naval minefields once guarded the bay, and learn about the importance of this fortification as you walk the grounds and viewing deck.
There is more to do at the site beyond visiting the fort. Fort Morgan also has a beach area, bird-watching areas, and nature trails. There are protected marshes in the area with pristine habitat for endangered bird species that inhabit the area or migrate through in the fall. Fort Morgan is open seven days a week.
Address: 110 Hwy. 180 W., Gulf Shores, Alabama
Official site: http://www.fort-morgan.org/
The best way to experience the Gulf Shores is through the outdoors, and the vast number of bike trails in the town give you plenty of ways to do that. One of the easiest bike trails to access is at Gulf State Park. It has paved trails for bicyclists that connect to picnic areas and beaches within the park.
There is a loop around Lake Shelby in Gulf State Park that is good for biking for all skill levels. The flat surface is great, especially for visitors to the area that can find nearby bike rentals.
Some of the trails in Gulf State Park make up sections of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail system, which extends for 15 miles through Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. These trails take you through various ecosystems, where you get the added bonus of enjoying the scenic views of the local wildlife, marshes, and coastal swamps.
The Fort Morgan Road Trail is an 11-mile paved surface that takes bikers along Highway 180 and through the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. You can extend the route through Gulf State Park for a longer ride.
For those looking for a round of golf with the Gulf Coast as a backdrop, the Gulf Shores has quite a few world-class courses. There are five golf courses in Gulf Shores and 14 in the area that you can easily access. Take your pick from courses, like the Arnold Palmer Championship public golf course at Cypress Bend at Craft Farms, or the nationally recognized Kiva Dunes public golf course.
Gulf Shores golf is an unforgettable experience, especially when you can combine the emerald waters and sunshine with premier golfing opportunities. Some golf resorts offer stay-and-play packages combining golf and lodging. You can also choose to base yourself by the beach and head out to a different course each day. Most golf courses also offer club rentals in case you left yours at home.
Where to Stay in Alabama's Gulf Shores for Sightseeing
Most of the lodging options in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are vacation rentals like condos, cottages, and beach houses. Other lodging options include resort hotels, national chain hotels, RV campgrounds, and even lakeside cottages in Gulf State Park. Here are a few great-value hotels a short stroll or drive from the fabulous beaches of Alabama's Gulf Shores:
- Best Western on the Beach: This mid-range beachfront hotel is just steps to the sand, and features indoor and outdoor pools, along with bright beachy rooms.
- Staybridge Suites Gulf Shores: Also popular with families, this three-star hotel provides suites with kitchens, complimentary hot breakfast, social hour Mon-Weds, and an outdoor pool. This hotel is located a few miles north of the beach.
- Hampton Inn Gulf Shores: For budget-conscious travelers, this property is perfect. It's a five-minute drive to the beach and offers comfortable beds and an outdoor pool.
More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com
Explore Alabama: As you plan your beach vacation in Alabama be sure to explore some of the regions beyond Gulf Shores for more of the best beaches in the state. If you want to supplement your beach vacation with some historical excursions plan time to visit Montgomery, Mobile, or Birmingham during your stay.
Where to Stay in Alabama: If golf, spa services, and relaxation are on the agenda, you may want to book your trip at one of the top resorts in Alabama that provide a more luxurious kind of getaway and can even put you on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.