Campground Review: Gulf State Park – Gulf Shores, Alabama

Posted March 17, 2021 – Narrated by Carmen

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bambi-5    See our 5-Bambi rating legend at the end of this review.

“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.

We are thrilled to announce that Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores , Alabama, is the 4th LIB 5-Bambi Park.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park
Carmen Perry Beaubeaux, born in Bessemer, Alabama

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 State Park
White quarts crystals from the Appalachian Mountains have blessed this delicate coastal region with the sand of the Gods … silky, sparkling, luxurious and powdery white

Gulf Shores is a sweet and quiet American beach town which travel writers tend to place on those “best kept secret” lists.

Gulf State Park

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.”

Gulf State Park
Tortoise at Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

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.

My Dad, Allen Perry, born in a log house in Clay County, Alabama

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

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.

Gulf State Park

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

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 State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

Simple. Natural. Friendly. Clean. Gorgeous.

Gulf State Park

So, let’s take the tour. Here is our campsite on the first day of our stay at the start of December 2020.

Gulf State Park

And here are evening sunset views of Middle Lake from our site …

Gulf State Park
Gulf State Park

This campground is a wetland, but you don’t need a pair of waders to get around.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park Map

Thirty-three of the campsites sites back right up to the shore.

Gulf State Park

And fifteen water-front sites along the Boat Canal are pull-throughs.

Gulf State Park

The remaining sites are arranged in suburban neighborhood fashion with plenty of privacy and well-trimmed lawn space.

Gulf State Park

All campsites offer full-hookups with 30 and 50 amp service, water and sewer.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

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.

Getting Around

The hikes are enchanting and the trails beautifully maintained.

Gulf State Park

Photographers with lenses the size of megaphones stroll these paths because all of this soppy, grassy, buggy goodness is birdie num-num

Gulf State Park

… a paradise for migratory birds. Many of the poor creatures appeared to be a bit stunned and confused. We deduced that Sally had rearranged their usual nesting places.

Gulf State Park

Interpretive signage, maps and trail markers are located prominently to assist visitor’s knowledge of the paths, ecology, and history of the park.

Gulf State Park

The extensive network of paved and bridged paths guide observers through a variety of delicate ecosystems.

The view is constantly changing.

Gulf State Park

The three lakes are connected by canals.

Gulf State Park

Lake Shelby is 900 acres, Middle Lake is 400 acres and Little Lake is 100 acres.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

Gators

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.

Gulf State Park

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 …

Gulf State Park

Free Bike Rentals are in several locations throughout the park.

Gulf State Park

Kayak rentals are also available at the Middle Lake launch.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

More education opportunities can be found at the Nature Center near the store where park naturalists foster learning with ongoing weekly activities

Gulf State Park

The spotless laundry room with super-hot water is located on the lake …

Gulf State Park
The laundry overlooks the lake, so bring a book and a chair.

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.

Gulf State Park

This beautifully maintained resort-style Swimming pool with splash pad has bathrooms and outdoor showers.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park
Carmen burning brown fat in her “private” pool

Tennis and pickle ball courts, horseshoes and volleyball – this park has it all.

Gulf State Park

Fishing, is a way of life for the locals.

The Beach

From the campground, it’s only about a ten minute bike ride to the beach.

Gulf State Park

The Beach Pavilion is a magnificent structure.

Gulf State Park

Designed for meetings, reunions, lectures and classes …

Gulf State Park
This is less than half of the pavilion – at night with with the fireplaces lit it must look like a medieval palace – great performance and wedding space.

and for a star-gazing event hosted by the Nature Center staff.

Gulf State Park
Bill, a Nature Center staff member, explained The Great Conjunction
but, for us, the moon was enough
moon

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.

Gulf State Park

The Woodside

The Woodside Restaurant – just inside the entrance to the park – has healthy delicious farm-to-table Gulf specialties.

Gulf State Park

Lunch stops for hot soup and sandwiches, chowder and gumbo made our day.

Gulf State Park
Dad and a fellow Southeastern Conference Champion football fan pow-wow over hot soup.

The outdoor dining area under the trees featured fire rings crackling with fuel from an abundance of storm-felled trees …

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

This was our hangout.

Gulf State Park

The Cottages

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.

Gulf State Park
Small wood framed cabins, or Cracker Shacks – a romantic cultural get-away

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. 

Gulf State Park

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

The Lodge, on the beach overlooking the dunes and the pier is an up-town option.

Gulf State Park

Hilton manages this impressive hotel, restaurant and convention center.

FORT MORGAN ROAD TRAIL

The park’s bike trail joins with the 5.6 mile Fort Morgan Road Trail, just outside the park boundary.

Gulf State Park

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.

Gulf State Park

Evidence of Hurricane Sally damage will linger for years. Every day, workers were busy with clean-up. The pier, under a $2.4 million renovation was damaged days before its reopenng.

Gulf State Park

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 …

Boullibaise at Sunset Pointe

and locally sourced seafood

“Did you say, ‘5 pounds of Shrimp for $15!!!?'”

and enjoyed some fine trailer-cooked meals by candlelight.

blackstone
Jim practices on his new griddle

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.

World’s Best Brewery Dog

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.

southern grind

We already miss those morning rides over the river and through the marsh to Southern Grind Coffee.

southern grind

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.

Gulf State Park

So, thank you Gulf State Park and Gulf Shores for a lovely Christmas. We hope to return someday, if you’ll have us.

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:

bambi-1 – One Bambi: Should’a boondocked.

bambi-2Two Bambi’s: Better than a Cracker Barrel or Walmart.

bambi-3Three Bambi’s: Adequate for a short stay.

bambi-4Four 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