Very few state parks are as cool as the Gulf State Park in Alabama. With hiking and biking, fishing and camping, it has what you’re looking for. Oh, and part of it is right on the Gulf Coast, so it’s home to the famous white-sand beaches of Alabama, too. Pretty cool, right?
This guide covers things to do and everything you’ll want to know to plan a day trip – or longer – at the Gulf State Park.
This post may contain affiliate links. For more info, see my disclosures.
Nestled between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, this recreation area is everything you want it to be: beautiful, fun and full of adventure! Whether you’re spending an afternoon in the park or planning to stay for a long weekend, there’s plenty of things to see and do at Gulf State Park.
Let’s dive into the guide.
Gulf State Park Map
If you’re a visual person like I am, this map will be helpful in planning your trip to the park. This is the park as you’ll see it on Google. Except I’ve placed a few icons on the map to be way more helpful. 😉
Yellow icons are things to do in the park. Purple icons are entrance points, orange icons are restaurants and blue icons are places to stay.
Zoom in and out as needed to get familiar with the park. Of course, each icon is described throughout this guide below. 😊
Gulf State Park entrance, hours and fees
Gulf State Park in Alabama is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Entrance to Gulf State Park is free! There are fees for a few of the areas within the park, as stated below.
Because of it’s central location and the area of the Gulf Coast it covers, there’s a few ways to access the park. Driving from along Highway 182 from Gulf Shores to Orange Beach (or vice versa), you’ll actually drive through the park! Turn north on Highway 135 to go away from the beach and towards more of the park’s natural beauty.
You can also enter the park off Highway 59: take E Fort Morgan Road towards Alabama’s Coastal Connection.
You’ll see park signs as you enter the park, but no real entrance station since the main areas of the park are free to see.
While most of the park is free to visit, there are some spots with fees:
- $2 per vehicle for the Gulf State Park Campground (plus camping fees)
- $3 per person to walk on the Gulf State Park Pier (not including fishing fees)
- $5 – $10 for parking at the Gulf State Park Beach Pavilion
Okay, before we get to the things to do, cabins, trails, etc., let’s have a little fun…
Fun facts about Gulf State Park
- There’s 6,150 acres in the park, including 2 miles of white sandy beaches.
- The park opened in 1939.
- Gulf State Park (and the broader region) originally belonged to the Creek Indigenous Americans, dating back 10,000+ years, prior to being taken over by white settlers. More info is available at the Orange Beach Indian & Sea Museum.
- There are 6 unique ecosystems within the park and it’s extremely biodiverse. They include wet pine flatwoods, freshwater marshes, coastal hardwood swamps, live oak maritime forests and coastal dunes. The abundance of wildlife that live in these habitats are amazing!
- As you’re driving, biking, boating or walking, watch out for nature! An estimated 2.1 billion birds migrate through the park per year. It’s a sea turtle nesting ground and spending any time in the park, you’re bound to see Monarch butterflies fueling up before heading across the Gulf of Mexico. (It’s a really cool sight! 🦋)
- The Gulf State Park Interpretive Center is Living Building Challenge Certified – meaning it creates more water and energy than it uses. Really cool!
- The Gulf State Park Pier was severely damaged in 2020 during Hurricane Sally – right when it was set to open! Watch a video of the damage. A large section towards the end of the pier is gone. Visitors can go almost to the end at the time of article publication.
Okay, enough chatting already! Let’s get to the best things to do in the park!
Things to do at Gulf State Park, Alabama
Every time I travel to the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area, I find more and more things to do at Gulf State Park. Here are some of the very best activities!
1. Hang out on the beach
Of course we’re talking about the beach! With 2 full miles of pristine, white-sand beaches included in the Gulf State Park, it’s one of the best ways to spend an afternoon.
Grab your beach chairs, beach towels and eco-friendly sunscreen (this brand is my favorite and works great while protecting the ocean) and hit the beach!
The best way to access the beach through the state park is to park at the Gulf State Park Pavilion. All-day parking is $10 and it’s $5 for 4 hours. You’ll see a boardwalk trail that will take you straight to the sand!
Location: 22250 E Beach Blvd, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
2. Go kayaking
Kayaking is one of my favorite ways to explore an area! Kayaking on Lake Shelby reminds me of the time I went kayaking on Lake Erie at Put-in-Bay, Ohio or renting kayaks in Monterey Bay, California during an epic road trip from San Francisco to San Diego.
Anyway, this area is just as fabulous for kayaking! Rent kayaks for Lake Shelby on a first-come, first-serve basis. It’s located right at the southern entrance to Lake Shelby, by the dog park.
Location: 21101 State Hwy 135, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
3. Go for a hike
Fun fact: the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trails is a set of 28 miles of interconnected trails all throughout the park.
So lace up your shoes and get on a trail! Walk through the palmetto forest with tall pine trees, see beautiful reflective lakes or catch a glimpse of an alligator along the lakeshore. There’s so much to see on the trails.
And if you’re worried about a serious workout, these trails are not too challenging (unless you want them to be!)
All the trails are paved and relatively flat. You won’t get the elevation gains like you’ll see in Big Sur, California or even Loess Hills, Iowa. The good news is you won’t need any extravagant hiking gear, either. Regular athletic shoes and some drinking water will do!
Location: anywhere throughout the park! My favorite starting points are the Lake Shelby Picnic Area and Woodside Restaurant
4. Go fishing
One of the coolest things about Gulf State Park is the diversity in scenery and activities. You can actually do saltwater or freshwater fishing within a short distance from each other!
Lake Shelby is one of the best freshwater fishing spots. I personally don’t fish, but witnessed many people fishing from boats or along the shore – including this exact spot right here!
Within the park but to the east of Lake Shelby are Middle Lake and Little Lake. Both of those are great fishing lakes as well. You’ll often find Bass, Catfish, Speckled Trout, Redfish, Blue Crab and more in the freshwater lakes.
If you’re looking to do some saltwater fishing, the Gulf State Park Pier is a great spot for it. You can even purchase bait and tackle right on the pier, and rent equipment. How convenient is that?
Note: you’ll need freshwater or saltwater fishing licenses to fish these waters. You can find them at the park’s main office (next to Lake Shelby) or online here.
Note #2: There are many types of wildlife that live in the Gulf State Park. On the lakes side, alligators can often be seen. Although there have been no reported people-related alligator incidents. They mainly stick to themselves in the less-used areas of the park. Nevertheless, keep an eye out at all times.
Location: Lake Shelby or the Gulf State Park Pier
5. Hit the water on a boat
If you own a boat, Lake Shelby is one of the best in the areas for boating and water-skiing! Calmer than the channels near the Orange Beach Wharf and certainly way more pleasant than the bumpy ocean.
Note: there is a $5 fee to launch your boat from the Lake Shelby and Middle Lake ramps.
Location: Lake Shelby
6. Segway Tours
Looking to explore the area by staying on land a bit more? Well taking a Segway Tour is one of my favorite ways to explore a new area!
Ride the Segway on the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trails during a 2 hour tour. I personally haven’t done one of these tours here, but the last time I did a Segway tour in Sandusky, Ohio, I absolutely loved it!
Note: participants must be 12 years old. Also, be sure to bring water and wear comfortable athletic shoes (not sandals). Your arches will thank you later!
Location: Gulf State Park Rec Center, 21101 State Hwy 135 Gulf Shores, AL 36542
7. Interpretive Center
Located at the beach pavilion, the Gulf State Park Interpretive Center is an absolute gem within the park. As mentioned earlier, it’s one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the state, creating more power and water than it uses!
The Interpretive Center is an interactive exhibit and is one of the most fun things to do at Gulf State Park with kids! And to be honest, it’s cool for adults, too. Focusing on education, it’s a showcase for some of the wildlife in the area.
Outside is a fun, natural playground for kids too. A giant sandbox with rinse station and several climbing structures create a great space for kids to run off some energy. Grab a seat on a bench in the shade and take a rest!
Location: 22250-A E Beach Blvd, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
More things to do at Gulf State Park
Can you believe this list? It’s a gorgeous park nestled along the coast with tons to offer visitors. Let’s keep going!
8. Visit the Nature Center
Speaking of education within the park, the Nature Center is another fun spot to learn about the local ecosystem.
You’ll see displays of living animals and plants, as well as information about things that live within the park and aren’t on display. One of the highlights for kids and adults alike is the animal interactions. See snakes – or hold them if you’re brave enough!
Turtles, alligators and so much more can be seen at the Gulf State Park Nature Center!
Note: the Nature Center is located in the Campground, which requires a $2 fee per vehicle. Be sure to check hours before you go!
Location: navigate to the Gulf State Park Nature Center
9. Bike rentals
A fun way to see the sights of Alabama’s Gulf State Park is by biking. The free bike-sharing program is perfect for this! Rid the same trails as you would hiking (#3 above or on the Segway tour #6 above).
There are several locations to pick up the free bikes. I recommend near the Woodside Restaurant or the Interpretive Center.
Basically, you download the app and scan the QR code on the bike. The app unlocks it for you to use. When you return the bike to a drop-off location, just lock it via the app again.
There’s a basket on the front of the bike for holding your essentials – like a reusable water bottle!
Using the Gulf State Park’s biking program is a free activity you’ll love. Biking is great year-round, and it’s one of the things that helps to make Gulf Shores one of the best warm winter getaways in the US!
Location: various throughout the park
10. Hunt sand crabs at night
It’s no surprise the beach is home to all kinds of sea life. One of the most fun things to do at the beach is to hunt sand crabs at night.
These tan crabs come out at night and scurry quickly along the sand. They pop in and out of their little holes, avoiding waves and looking for food.
Look up the beach from the water to find them. If you pack a net, you can catch and release them!
Pro tip: wear water shoes to walk the sand at night. Another not-so-fun creature lurking in the night water is the jelly fish, and you don’t want to get stung. These are my absolute favorite water shoes. I’ve worn them to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach multiple times, and they travel the world with me.
Location: 22250 E Beach Blvd, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
11. Picnic at the beach pavilion
While you’re at the beach (and because you’ve paid for parking already), grab a picnic table, some shade and have a nice picnic. Still within earshot of the waves, feel the salty breeze as you devour your favorite beach food.
Better yet, get delivery from Rotolo’s Pizzeria Orange Beach for some amazing pizza without even cleaning the sand from your toes!
Location: 22250 E Beach Blvd, Gulf Shores, AL 36542 (pavilion address, not pizza (winky face))
12. See the bald eagle nest
Located on the trail system in Eagle Loop just off Lakeview Trail is a bald eagle nest. You can see the action within the nest from a safe distance.
One of the coolest additions to the park by an individual is the nest viewing platform. There’s a wooden platform with a couple benches built in 2019 as part of an Eagle Scout Project. Sounds fitting, right?
Anyway, walk to the nest and look through the finder to see if there’s any activity.
Location: just off Lakeview Drive as you head south from the Woodside Restaurant, take the Woodside Connector part of the trail
13. Forest pavilion and butterfly garden
Remember those thousands of butterflies that make their way through Gulf State Park? Well, you can see a lot of them at the Butterfly Garden and Pavilion.
Located in the far northeastern side of the park, past the Rosemary Dunes and Little Lake is a Forest Pavilion and Butterfly Garden. The pavilion is popular for reunions, small weddings and corporate events. With a screened in building, restrooms and other amenities, it’s ideal for a group gathering.
Nearby the pavilion is the butterfly garden. With plants specifically designed to feed and attract butterflies, it’s a little piece of magic within the park. 🤩
Grab a blanket and set out for a picnic with the gardens surrounding you, or plan to make a stop here while exploring the local trails.
To reserve the pavilion for a group event, visit this website.
Location: navigate to the Gulf State Park Forest Pavilion and Butterfly Garden
14. Check out the Gulf State Park Pier
It’s the largest pier in the Gulf of Mexico, and one worth visiting for some of the best views of the Gulf Coast!
It was just set to open the week that Hurricane Sally came through. Her direct force washed away part of the pier, towards the end. The stable sections are still available to enjoy.
There’s a retail store and even concessions. You can also buy your fishing license and rent gear directly on the pier.
Note: as previously mentioned, there’s a $3 per person fee to enter the pier.
Location: 20800 E. Beach Blvd.Gulf Shores, AL 36542
Additional park amenities in Gulf State Park, Alabama
Can you believe this list?! There’s so many things to do at Gulf State Park!
Learning Campus at Gulf State Park
If you’re local, you can check out programs at the learning campus. For those visiting the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area, you can actually volunteer to help at the park. This option would be perfect for those who are camping at Gulf State Park for an extended period of time.
If you’re local, there’s plenty of opportunities to organize or attend a group event. You’ll often find scout, school and youth groups here. It’s an incredible building for education nestled right in the park!
Check out the events calendar here.
Location: 20249A State Park Rd, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
Gulf State Park Dog Pond
If you’re local or traveling with a dog, a visit to the dog park is a must. There’s two areas for your dog to run around – one for large dogs, the other for small dogs. It’s right on the water too, which is a bonus!
Here are the hours and rules of the park.
Location: navigate to the Lake Shelby Picnic Area (adjacent to the park)
There are a variety of accommodations for every vacation style at the Gulf State Park!
Gulf State Park cabins
The Gulf State Park cabins are a popular rental in the area. These affordable, basic accommodations allow you to truly submerge yourself into nature, while providing life’s basic amenities such as running water.
When renting cabins in Gulf State Park, be sure to book them far in advance (6+ months!). There are cabins located in the more wooded areas, and lakeside cabins. I personally feel the lakeside cabins have better views, but the wooded areas are more private.
At the time of article publication, some of the cabins are still being renovated from the destruction of Hurricane Sally, so cabin space is extremely limited. Check rates and availability here.
Gulf State Park campground
If you prefer to camp, there’s plenty of opportunity to do that here, too! This is one of the most extensive campgrounds in the state park system, and it’s one worth staying at if you like tent or RV camping.
Complete with a pool, laundry facilities, tennis courts, bath houses and of course, all the amenities of the park, it’s an awesome spot for camping. The RV sites have full hook-ups, too, which is certainly nice!
With 496 campsites for RVs and tents, there will likely be room for you to camp if you wish to do so during your time at Gulf State Park.
The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel
If you’re looking for a little more comfort (and luxury) with ocean-front views, then The Lodge at Gulf State Park might be the right spot for you. It’s a Hilton Hotel, so you know it’s nice.
From a typical guest room to full suites, you can find comfortable accommodations at the Lodge. The property includes a pool, restaurant (more on that in a bit) and of course, meeting spaces for weddings, corporate events and large groups.
Fun fact: the original lodge, built in 1974 was actually closer to the beach than the current property. In fact, it was built right on the sand dunes, which act as a natural protective barrier against storms.
It was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The new property was built with the environment in mind, not only in a location that’s further from the water where the dunes can be restored, but also in it’s design and function.
For example, condensation from air conditioners are collected, filtered and used for the swimming pool, saving 14,000 gallons of water per month. Instead of small shampoo and conditioner bottles for each guest, the rooms have large, refillable bottles. These are just 2 of the many examples of how The Lodge at Gulf State Park was built with the environment-first.
Location: 21196 E Beach Blvd, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
Where to eat near Gulf State Park
After a day of exploring beaches, trails and lakes, you’re bound to be starving. There’s a few options to eat right within the park! It’s a great way to support the park, too.
Each of the tables has classic games, like oversized checkers. Outdoors you’ll find a stage that often has live music. Other outdoor games like ping pong are a fun break from hiking, biking or beaching, too.
Woodside Restaurant is especially kid-friendly. The natural playground was a hit when my kids were younger!
Location: 20249 State Park Rd, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
If you’re looking for beachfront dining, then Foodcraft is the perfect spot for you. Enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner with a vew.
Located at The Lodge at Gulf State Park – Hilton, this waterfront dining option is just as delicious as the views are scenic. It’s located right across from the pedestrian bridge connecting the trails from the Lake Shelby Picnic Area to the pier. So grab some food before or after exploring the area.
Pro tip: make reservations if you intend to go to dinner at Foodcraft. And if you go for breakfast, try the Banana Bread French Toast – it’s delicious!
Location: 21196 E Beach Blvd, Gulf Shores, AL 36542
Gulf State Park – that’s a wrap!
Woah – can you even believe this park? With an incredible amount of things to see and do within the park boundaries, it’s no wonder the Gulf State Park is one of the top things to do in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
It’s truly one of the best state parks in the region, and maybe even the US! Offering great sights, activities and plenty of options for accommodations and food you won’t get bored at Gulf State Park!
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