Posted March 17, 2021 – Narrated by Carmen
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“It takes a little talent to see clearly what lies under one’s nose, a good deal of it to know in which direction to point that organ.”– W. H. Auden
We should get out more.
In five years we have stayed in 325 places and only three campgrounds have percolated to the top of our 5-Bambi rating system: Chula Vista RV and Marina in San Diego County, which is closing soon; Maumee Bay State Park in Ohio; and Fort Wilderness at Disney World in Orlando, Florida …
Until now … Drum roll, please.
It is cause for celebration to learn of a resort-style campground with every facility and all of the elements we desire for comfort, cleanliness, convenience, service and activities – such as cycling, kayaking, swimming – and more.
We arrived on the first day of December when the coast was still nursing Hurricane Sally wounds. Even so, every moment of our 30-day stay over the Christmas Holiday felt too good to be true.
Gulf Shores is a sweet and quiet American beach town which travel writers tend to place on those “best kept secret” lists.
Even for me – a born Alabaman who dropped her accent somewhere along the Spaccanapoli – Gulf Shores was hiding in plain sight. Like Daddy says, “If it was a snake it would’a bit ‘ya.”
I mean Gulf State Park was Mom and Dad’s favorite campground. That’s quite a case of “it’s right under your nose” syndrome.
Yet, it remained veiled to me until Daddy suggested he join us in LA (Lower Alabama) for a stroll on that pretty sugar-white sand.
So, after the Thanksgiving holiday, we pulled out of my sister’s Smoky Mountain hide-away in Tennessee and drove about eighty miles to the Top of Georgia Airstream Park where we waited out the first winter storm in silvery splendor. Three days later we settled into our winter holiday home on The Gulf of Mexico.
Gulf State Park is a shining example of a publicly funded campground run by a professional staff and a legion of dedicated volunteers. Like Maumee Bay in Ohio, this park is a model for eco-tourism and sustainability.
Retired couples from the northern regions stay here four-to-six months of the year. Many seasonal campers call this park their second home, and some have formed long-term friendships and clubs with other campers.
Gulf State Park merges almost seamlessly into the Gulf Shores neighborhood. Locals and visitors form into a mutually beneficial community, sharing in the splendor of this healthy and natural environment.
Gulf Shores‘ official motto, “Small Town, Big Beach” is a charming understatement. What you don’t see here is the major attraction … no shoreline dominated by high-rise condos, no decaying roller coasters or one-way streets and sprawling parking lots beside stained boardwalks with loud amusements and over-priced junk food.
What you do see is a mostly natural shoreline, protected by grassy white sand dunes and a pristine beach – all supported by small-town hospitality.
Simple. Natural. Friendly. Clean. Gorgeous.
So, let’s take the tour. Here is our campsite on the first day of our stay at the start of December 2020.
And here are evening sunset views of Middle Lake from our site …
This campground is a wetland, but you don’t need a pair of waders to get around.
Gulf State Park is fully navigable on foot, bicycle, Segway or wheelchair, but golf carts are only permitted on campground roads. In 2020, the park received the Phoenix Award for environmental and economic sustainability.
From our campsite we went for morning beach walks, took daily fitness swims, cycled for hours, went kayaking on the lake, and even dined out in the park. Aside from a couple of drives to Foley, The Beast (our Ram truck) was officially off duty.
The 6,150 acre recreational park is located right on the Gulf of Mexico with twenty-eight miles of trails and nine different ecosystems. Two-and-a-half miles of uninterrupted white sand beach frames the marshland with boggy tea-colored streams, spongy pine forests and three spring-fed, fresh-water recreational lakes.
496 campsites, 20 cabins and 11 cottages are all beautifully and privately situated near Middle Lake.
Thirty-three of the campsites sites back right up to the shore.
And fifteen water-front sites along the Boat Canal are pull-throughs.
The remaining sites are arranged in suburban neighborhood fashion with plenty of privacy and well-trimmed lawn space.
All campsites offer full-hookups with 30 and 50 amp service, water and sewer.
The fully paved pad is long enough for Beauty and The Beast with parking space to spare. A picnic table is provided and a paved pad for our Clam Shelter.
Eleven bathhouses are situated throughout the campground. Six bathhouses, closed due to storm damage, were being renovated. But the open bathhouses were barely used, as most campers at Gulf Shores were retirees following pandemic precautions.
The hikes are enchanting and the trails beautifully maintained.
Photographers with lenses the size of megaphones stroll these paths because all of this soppy, grassy, buggy goodness is birdie num-num …
Interpretive signage, maps and trail markers are located prominently to assist visitor’s knowledge of the paths, ecology, and history of the park.
The extensive network of paved and bridged paths guide observers through a variety of delicate ecosystems.
The view is constantly changing.
The three lakes are connected by canals.
Lake Shelby is 900 acres, Middle Lake is 400 acres and Little Lake is 100 acres.
Locals say that Shelby, a stocked lake, is a fine location to make a fresh catch. Jet skis are not allowed in Gulf State Park for safety reasons.
The signage in the photo below gave us pause. The risk of gator attack is low but we take posted warnings seriously. Six years ago, while on our maiden voyage back to San Diego, a young man was devoured by a gator near our Texas campground. That’s when we began researching gator attack records. In the last 50 years, a reported 32 people have been killed, and all were either swimming or walking along the waters edge. None were kayakers. So, we enjoyed the lake, but only used the designated boat launch. Again, it is rare, but dogs have been killed by gators in this park. Yet, this does not deter us, because by taking common-sense precautions we can enjoy this beautiful, non-sanitized natural environment.
Rates vary from $55 to $72 per night, and as low as $916 per month. Reservations can be made online.
The hub of the park.
All camping activities are centrally located in the boat launch area.
The store stocks essential dry-goods, last-minute camping gear, beach toys, snacks, clothing, and souvenirs.
Beach cruisers and child bike trailers are available for rent, but …
Free Bike Rentals are in several locations throughout the park.
Kayak rentals are also available at the Middle Lake launch.
The informative Segway tour led by a local tour guide is a wonderful way to connect with the culture and learn about this diverse environment.
The spotless laundry room with super-hot water is located on the lake …
Gulf State Park has the best pool of any campground, public or private, that we’ve seen. The facility has a community pool vibe. Jamie, a staff member, welcomes swimmers and provides maintenance and oversight of the swim-at-your-own-risk and adult supervision policies.
This beautifully maintained resort-style Swimming pool with splash pad has bathrooms and outdoor showers.
When we arrived, the heater was not working, so the temperature ranged between 62-69 depending on the previous nights temperature. Fortunately, the pool remained open and most days I seized the opportunity. By the time we left, the heater was fixed.
Tennis and pickle ball courts, horseshoes and volleyball – this park has it all.
Fishing, is a way of life for the locals.
From the campground, it’s only about a ten minute bike ride to the beach.
The Beach Pavilion is a magnificent structure.
Designed for meetings, reunions, lectures and classes …
and for a star-gazing event hosted by the Nature Center staff.
On a warm and sunny day (and I think we had five or six of those during that chilly December) the pavilion is the place. There are bathrooms and showers and the snack bar is open seasonally.
The Woodside Restaurant – just inside the entrance to the park – has healthy delicious farm-to-table Gulf specialties.
Lunch stops for hot soup and sandwiches, chowder and gumbo made our day.
The outdoor dining area under the trees featured fire rings crackling with fuel from an abundance of storm-felled trees …
while sweet music flowed from the stage where fabulously talented musicians (who would be playing in larger venues in non-pandemic times) performed on the stage.
This was our hangout.
Gulf State Park is a locally-treasured venue for big family reunions, and a wide selection of lodging is provided. Woodside and Lakeside cabins and Eagle Cottages are ideal for family housing with easy access to all park amenities.
Shelby Lake has small studios for singles and couples. Larger families may prefer a two, or three-bedroom house. Guests can choose a woodsy location or bask on the sunny shoreline with fully screened decks. Each cabin is furnished with bed linens, towels, microwave, coffee maker, toaster, pots, pans, utensils, flatware, and glasses.
The lakeside cabins also have outdoor fire pits, BBQ grills, porch swing, piers, and fish cleaning stations. The cabins were closed for repairs while we there.
The Lodge, on the beach overlooking the dunes and the pier is an up-town option.
FORT MORGAN ROAD TRAIL
The park’s bike trail joins with the 5.6 mile Fort Morgan Road Trail, just outside the park boundary.
Most of this eleven-mile trail is secluded from traffic behind a barrier of trees. This freshly paved bike-path features hundreds of memory benches dedicated to locals and snowbirds who have passed on. Safe cycling is encouraged.
So, yeah, the place was pretty beat up. Also, Winter of 2020-21 was unusually cold, rainy, and windy. But don’t feel sorry for us. We had a a great holiday with Dad…
took the Dolphins to view holiday-lights …
ate fudge …
hung out with Jacquie and Larry Cook, our first, best and always Airstream friends …
dined on the best Alabama cuisine …
and locally sourced seafood …
and enjoyed some fine trailer-cooked meals by candlelight.
And, miraculously, Santa found us in the big, big world. FedEx and UPS delivers directly to individual campsites, but the U.S. Mail does not deliver at all to Gulf State Park. So, thanks to the Cooks (who accepted our packages) Pico got a new fireplace, Jim got a new Blackstone griddle, Daddy got a new John Wayne vest …
and I got a Corn Hole game which we can play come rain or shine.
Corn hole was even more fun with a growler full of liquid refreshment from Big Beach Brewing Company up the street.
On the rare non-rainy night we’d stop by Big Beach to enjoy their selection of IPAs, eat tacos and listen to crazy-good live music.
Twas’ also the season for egg nog lattes and chocolate coated espresso beans.
We already miss those morning rides over the river and through the marsh to Southern Grind Coffee.
And, on those long, cold winter nights, old holiday films brought us good cheer. WiFi is free. Towers are located throughout the campground. When we used the park’s WiFi, we average 6 Mbps with bursts up to 32 Mbps. That’s some of the best campground internet service we’ve ever experienced. Our Verizon cell service worked most of the time with our WeBoost Cell booster.
Spring is a choice season to take in the splendors of this “hidden” jewel of Alabama. Redbud‘s in bloom. The Deep South is raring up to bust out in color. With all this rain, it’s sure to be a show. If I had the sense God gave a last-years bird’s nest, I’d pull this rig over, turn it around and head straight back down there.
Go ahead. Just try’n stop me.
If you want to see our exact route, click here.
*photos in this post (unless otherwise noted) were taken and copyrighted by Living In Beauty.
|Our “BAMBI” rating system explained:
– One Bambi: Should’a boondocked.
– Two Bambi’s: Better than a Cracker Barrel or Walmart.
– Three Bambi’s: Adequate for a short stay.
– Four Bambi’s: Great place! Met our expectations for an extended stay. Needs minor improvements or is not ideally situated for all our preferred recreation (hiking, cycling, swimming, kayaking) without driving.
– Five Bambi’s: Destination Camping at it’s best! Critical as we are, there’s nothing we’d improve, and you can bet your sweet Bambi we’re going back!
Click here to see some of our other campground reviews