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27 best things to do in Gulf State Park, Alabama

Explore miles of white sand beaches, hiking and biking trails, birding opportunities, and luxury lodging at Gulf State Park (GSP) on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. The 6,150-acre park is the boundary between the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and it’s the perfect place to relax any time of year. The Perdido Beach Blvd. divides the park into two sections, the beach side and the park side. The beach side faces the Gulf of Mexico, while the park side includes three freshwater lakes, the Gulf State Park Nature Center, and those miles of trails. 

Admission is free, but the park has daily parking rates (PDF), including parking to walk on the pier. Orange Beach residents can obtain free parking, and other Gulf State Park visitors can purchase annual parking decal rates.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Please use the two pedestrian bridges connecting the park side with the beach instead of attempting to cross the busy four-lane road. Alternatively, ride the free tram around the park.

If you use our affiliate links, including Amazon Associates and Stay22, to make a purchase, we might earn a small commission for our time and website costs (at no additional cost to you).  These links are always disclosed. 

The park is an hour southeast of Mobile, Alabama, and an hour southwest of Pensacola, Florida. Both have available commercial flights from major hubs, and you can book your flights on (ad).  

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Table of contents: Beach side things to do | Park side things to do | Stay | Eat | History | Book your trip

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Eight things to do at Gulf State Park’s beach side

Obviously, the number-one thing to do on the beach side is — the beach! Those miles of beaches beckon you for some Vitamin Sea. If you forgot some essential beach gear, Ike’s Beach Service will set you up. All rentals must be paid in advance.

1. Know before you go swimming

  • The beautiful Gulf water is enticing, and you’ll want to take a swim. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer these tips:
  • Swim in full daylight for better visibility and to lessen encounters with marine predators.
  • Always swim with someone else. It’s safer and more fun.
  • Check daily surf forecasts and heed the flags when you arrive.
  • For Gulf Shores beach conditions, call 251-968-SURF (7873). For Orange Beach’s conditions, call 251-981-SURF (7873).
  • Text ALBEACHES to 888777 for daily beach conditions and warning flag status.
  • Know how to react to dangerous rip currents. Learn more here.
  • Leave the water every 60-90 minutes to drink water and apply more fresh sunscreen.
Beachside Southern Travelers Explore-themed sand castle sculpture at Gulf State Park
Sand Castle University created this beautiful artwork for the Southern Travelers Explore Conference.

2. Build sand castles

Collect some buckets, plastic cups, or even sand castle molds. Select a sandy place away from the water and fill your bucket with half sand and half water to keep the sand moist. Then, create your masterpiece. For professional results, take a lesson from Sand Castle University.

3. Exchange beach toys

Look for the leave-a-toy or take-a-toy bins at GSP. The boxes are at the beach closest to The Lodge and at the Beach Pavilion. It’s a great way to reuse any beach toys you can’t take home.

Sunrise reflected in the Gulf of Mexico as boardwalks cross white-sand beaches at Gulf State Park.
Protect the dunes by using the boardwalks.

4. Help restore the dunes

Dunes protect communities from high winds and storm surges. They also provide habitat for plants and animals, like the Alabama beach mouse. Please keep the dunes clean when you visit. Always use the boardwalks instead of walking across the dunes to preserve the dunes.

GSP collects live Christmas trees because they combat erosion when placed in front of the dunes. The sand eventually covers the trees, creating more dunes.

5. Share the beach with sea turtles

Sea turtle nesting season lasts from May until October. Share the Beach volunteers mark and monitor endangered nests during that period. You can help by keeping the beaches clean, dark, and flat. Don’t disturb sea turtle tracks and remove everything from the beach before you leave. If you see a sea turtle, stay at least 30 feet away and be quiet. Do not shine lights at the turtle or use a flash. 

Roadie inspects a pair of small shells at Gulf State Park's beach.
Roadie inspects a pair of shells by the seashore.

6. Collect shells

Going shelling is a delightful treasure hunt. Remember to leave inhabited shells on the beach, and avoid collecting spiral shells because hermit crabs need them for homes.

Know before you go shelling

  • Check the beach’s tide tables, arriving an hour before and after low tide. Low tide exposes more of the beach.
  • A full moon or new moon produces the most extreme tides, therefore stranding the most shells.
  • If the wind blows from the water to the shore, the wind and waves will push shells onto the beach.
  • Read more tips at

7. Go birding at Gulf State Park

GSP is on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. Beach birds include least turns, snowy plovers, killdeer, and black skimmers. These species nest atop the sand and are well camouflaged. Sometimes, a mother plover or killdeer will pretend to be injured to draw intruders away from her nest. Willet, sanderling, and ruddy turnstones feed along the shoreline while loons, pelicans, terns, and diving ducks like mergansers and scoters feed just off the beach. Download an Alapark checklist to track the species you’ve spotted. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Watch for pelicans flying in formation before diving for fish.

8. Fish from Gulf State Park Fishing Pier

The fishing pier is the state’s largest. It even has air-conditioned restrooms. Catch sheepshead, red drum, Spanish mackerel, flounder, Florida pompano, king mackerel, whiting, and more! Beginners will benefit from Angler Academy, and experienced anglers will learn new tips.

Roxie’s reliable report: The pier will be repaired until the summer of 2024. Until then, try your luck at Gulf State Park’s Alabama Point on Perdido Key’s western tip.

Know before you go fishing

  • Read and obey the pier’s rules.
  • Pay for parking at the kiosks.
  • Those who pay to park receive a daily fishing permit.
  • Purchase a state saltwater fishing permit before you arrive.
  • Don’t have fishing gear? Rods and reels are for rent.
  • Follow wildlife safety rules.

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9. Hang out at Gulf State Park Beach Pavilion

The concession stand at the pavilion will serve you. Afterward, enjoy a beachside meal at one of the many picnic tables. The fireplace is inviting during the evenings, and restrooms are available. Stroll the nearby boardwalk onto the beach. A wheelchair mat provides accessibility.

Roxie’s reliable report: Parking pay station kiosks accept cash and cards but do not give change. RV parking is available.

10. Learn more about the environment at the Interpretive Center

The open-air Interpretive Center near the pavilion is the state’s most environmentally-friendly building. It meets the rigorous Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum building certifications. It produces its own electricity and water. Learn more about the park’s nine ecosystems in the family-friendly interactive exhibits. Interpretive tours are offered at variable times. 

Roxie's bare feet in Gulf State Park's white sand
Wiggling your toes in the firm white sand is a piece of paradise.

11. Walk on the beach

Need to relax? The doctor says to wiggle your bare toes in the squishy sand. Walking on the beach in the morning or evening is the perfect way to get your daily steps. 

Sunset, the pier, and part of the Lodge at Gulf State Park
Sunset from The Lodge at Gulf State Park

12. Watch the sunrise and sunset

Sneak out of your room for an early morning or evening walk as the sun paints the sea to begin or end the day.

Save money when you buy a multi-attraction pass or tour using the widget above.

Sand dunes and The Lodge at Gulf State Park
The park side view of The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

Five things to do at Gulf State Park’s park side

Explore the freshwater side of Gulf State Park on the beach boulevard’s north side. Hike or bike the trails, fish, kayak, or canoe.

Cyclist crossing a wooden bridge
Enjoy a trail ride at Gulf State Park.

1. Ride or walk Gulf State Park’s trails

The 28-mile Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail leads visitors throughout the park. The accessible trails are suitable for hikers and cyclists, and trailheads surround the park’s perimeter. Gulf Oak Ridge trail sends you beneath live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Look for bobcats at Rosemary Dunes and alligators on the Gopher Tortoise Trail beside Lake Shelby.

Ride your own bike from dawn to dusk daily. If you left your bike at home, download the Bloom Bike Share app to ride one of the 50 free bicycles in the park for up to three hours. If you want to ride longer, several places offer bike rentals for all-day rides. QR codes for the free bike share app and bike pickup are on signs throughout the park.

Roxie’s reliable report: Don’t wear headphones while hiking in the park. Many of the cyclists did not warn me when they were about to pass on the narrow trails. We would have collided if I hadn’t moved aside when I heard them approach.

A pair of live oak limbs encircle an angler on a Lake Shelby picnic table
Fish from a picnic table beside Lake Shelby. The Eagle Cottages are on the opposite shore.

2. Explore the park’s freshwater lakes

Lake Shelby is the park’s largest lake at 592 acres. Middle Lake is 193 acres and Little Lake is 39 acres. Lake Shelby and Middle Lake have boat ramps, and the park charges a fee to use them. Purchase a freshwater fishing license to catch bass, bream, catfish, speckled trout, redfish, and blue crab. Saltwater and freshwater blend at Lake Shelby’s weir, so the area attracts extra fish and bird species.

A canal connects the three lakes, providing 900 acres to paddle in. Rent kayaks and paddleboards from Coastal Segway Adventures. The company also conducts Segway tours.

3. Paws in the park at Lake Shelby

Let your dog run beneath the shade and beside Lake Shelby at the dog pond. Hours are 8 a.m. to sunset. Follow the park rules.

4. Watch butterflies at the Butterfly Garden

The butterfly garden is east of Little Lake. Nectar-producing and nurturing plants provide for each stage of butterfly and moth development. Enjoy the view from benches and tables.

The pedestrian crossing's stairs with the nature center and Lake Shelby behind it.
The nature center stands between the pedestrian crossing and Lake Shelby.

5. Expand your Coastal Alabama flora and fauna knowledge at the nature center

Gulf State Park’s Nature Center is a living museum of plants and animals native to the Gulf Coast region.  Its goal is to inspire people to care for the local environment. Weekly programs include guided nature walks, beach walks, pier walks, and a nature time. Most programs are free and open to the public.

The center is in the Gulf State Park Campground. Those who are not staying in park lodging owe a small admission fee; otherwise, the park is free.

Two people in Adirondack chairs looking at the beach
Relaxing on the terrace at The Lodge at Gulf State Park

Five ways to stay at Gulf State Park

Disaster resurrected The Lodge at Gulf State Park. It died when Hurricane Ivan destroyed the original lodge. A different kind of disaster, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, provided the funding for its reconstruction. However, the Hilton property is not the only park lodging option.

You may also stay at the historic Eagle Cottages, military-style tents at Outpost Campsites, a primitive and RV campground with laundry, a camp store, a swimming pool with a splash pad, volleyball, horseshoe, tennis, and pickleball courts.

Glass door open to a balcony with a beach view
Imagine you enjoying this view every day.

The Lodge at Gulf State Park

I requested a high floor on the Gulf side of the Lodge at Gulf State Park (ad) and made the right choice. Every night, I opened my balcony door and fell asleep to the sound of the breakers. Every morning, I watched the sun rise over the beach to the balcony’s left, and at night, I watched it leave a fiery trail in the gulf to the right. If you’re on the other side, no worries — you’ll see Lake Shelby.

Two blue overstuffed chairs, wooden end and coffee tables in front of a concrete mural of sea turtle tracks on the beach.
Sea turtle tracks on the beach mural in the lodge lobby.

The Hilton hotel relishes sustainability, and signs explaining its sustainable features are fascinating to read. Hang out in the lobby, which opens onto a beachside patio. The east wall is covered with turtle tracks in concrete. 

The infinity pool below my room seemed to blend seamlessly into the ocean, but those glorious white sand beaches separated it from the gulf.

Check additional Gulf Shores/Orange Beach lodging options

Five places to eat at Gulf State Park

GSP hosts several restaurants,o or enjoy a picnic at the Lake Shelby Picnic Area on the shores of Lake Shelby. Three of the restaurants are at the Lodge, while Woodside Restaurant is on GSP’s park side.

Woodside Restaurant

Woodside Restaurant is near the park headquarters. The family-friendly, farm-to-table restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating, live music, a full bar, and giant games to entertain the kids. For breakfast, try the Cotton Bayou Croissant with fried eggs, bacon, cheddar cheese, hash browns, or grits. Otherwise, try the Low Country Boil with Gulf shrimp, Conecuh sausage, red potato, country corn, cocktail sauce, and drawn butter.

Perch Restaurant

Reserve a table at Perch inside the Lodge for food with a side of sunsets. Split the Gulf Seafood Tower, including Champagne-poached Gulf shrimp, lobster tail, oysters, smoked Gulf fish salad, crab ceviche, green apple mignonette, spicy cocktail sauce, lemon, horseradish, and lavash. Drink the caramel whip cocktail, vanilla vodka, caramel, half and half, with coconut on the rim. Finish with a blueberry apricot crisp topped with cinnamon basil ice cream. 

Ice tea with lemon and water glasses on a picnic table with the Gulf in the background
Dine al fresco at Foodcraft.


Dine inside or outside at Foodcraft. Listening to the birds and breakers will accent your meal. The restaurant offers a delicious breakfast buffet and is often very busy. Please arrive well before you need to leave. Start the day with coffee and a Sunrise Mimosa, made with cava, grenadine, orange, and pineapple juice.

For lunch, try the garlicky shrimp and grits, and for dinner, choose the oyster bar. Drink seasonal craft beer selections.

Roxie's feet on a table overlooking the beach and the Gulf of Mexico
This is the way to enjoy your morning coffee or afternoon wine from the Roasted Oak.

Roasted Oak

Roasted Oak (PDF) in the lobby flips from a coffee bar by day to a wine bar by night. Drink the Sea Turtle Latte, with chocolate, caramel, and praline.

History of Gulf State Park

People and natural disasters have shaped GSP’s landscape throughout time. The Alabama Indigenous Mounds Trail highlights the GSP Sand and Shell Mounds. Sand mounds are cultural markers honoring the dead and preserving living culture. The shell mounds are usually trash heaps called middens. In addition to the mounds, the Woodland and Mississippian cultures built communal housing and cut a 0.6-mile canal from Oyster Bay to Little Lagoon west of GSP.

European powers quarreled over the Gulf Coast for centuries until the United States obtained possession, but even then control remained unsettled. In 1864, the Union defeated Forts Morgan and Gaines in the Battle of Mobile Bay. A year later, the Battle of Fort Blakely returned the Alabama coast to the Union. Mobile’s fort fell six hours after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia.

Related: Fort Morgan played significant roles in the War of 1812 and the American Civil War, and lesser roles in three more conflicts.

The Civilian Conservation Corps builds the park

From 1933 to 1939, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the park during the Great Depression. The CCC aimed to conserve natural resources and create jobs. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program avoided heavy machinery to provide more manual labor jobs. The corps members earned $1 daily, most of which went home to support their families. Some CCC camp remnants are still visible near the park’s Learning Campus. Learn more at the small museum at GSP’s west entrance. Their projects included a beachside casino, including a dance hall and concession stand, a bunkhouse for summer lifeguards, and trails.

CCC built the park’s initial lakeside cabins, Nos. 1-16, on stilts, but they skipped number 13. The lucky-numbered Cabins 3, 7, and 11 face east. Alabama still enforced segregation at the time. Because of Jim Crow laws, the guests’ Black maids could not stay overnight in the cabins. Instead, the CCC built their quarters near the CCC camp barracks. GSP opened on Saturday, May 20, 1939, as one of the first five Alabama state parks.

Related: The CCC also constructed Crawford State Park in Kansas.

Satellite image of the Gulf Coast during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, showing the oil spills extent
A satellite image of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Gulf State Park faces the Gulf of Mexico east of Mobile Bay’s entrance. (SkyTruth/Flickr)

Disasters affect Gulf State Park

GSP opened its 825-foot saltwater fishing pier in 1968. Unfortunately, the Gulf State Park Pier soon became a hurricane target. Hurricane Frederic destroyed it on September 12, 1979. Hurricane Ivan damaged it again on September 16, 2004. Shortly before another reopening, Hurricane Sally attacked it once more on September 16, 2020. Sally tore off its end and destroyed its stairs. Salvage crews eventually found some pier panels 4 miles away. After numerous delays, the park hopes to reopen the pier in 2024.

Ironically, Frederic’s horrific destruction attracted attention to Alabama’s beaches. When devastated homeowners opted to leave, new people moved in.

Not all the park’s disasters were natural. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the largest in US history, came ashore in June 2010. The disaster killed 11 BP workers, and countless marine animals and birds while leaking 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. BP estimated the incident cost to be $61.6 billion. The park received $85.5 million to rebuild. The project included the lodge that Ivan had destroyed in 2004.

Coastal Alabama is resilient and presses on despite the disasters. You’ll love Gulf State Park.

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