A Trip to the Gulf: Seeing A Side Other Than the Beach

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Well, I don’t normally do this sort of thing, but I’ve been reviewing
applications for National Scenic Byway Designation over the past week +
and just really wanted to share the itinerary that my friend Colette
Boehm at the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has put
together to highlight the great experiences someone can have on a trip
to Alabama’s Coastal Connection.

There are many ways to enjoy
Alabama’s Coastal Connection, but none offers more scenic views than
our Connecting with Nature itinerary. Take two days and experience the
beauty and variety of the natural assets of Alabama’s Gulf Coast and
the interpretive facilities that help visitors understand their
connection. Spring and fall are the best times of year to enjoy this
itinerary, and completion times will vary depending upon the degree of
interest in hiking and/or biking along the variety of trails.

Start: Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary

After
beginning your drive along the rural farmlands of Mobile County and by
the scenic docks of Bayou La Batre, continue across the Dauphin Island
bridge onto the island. Arriving at the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird
Sanctuary, you’ll find parking and picnic areas and interpretive
signage describing the habitats and birds to be found here, and along
the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, on which the sanctuary is a stop.
Explore the 1000-foot handicap accessible boardwalk from the parking
lot to “Gaillard Lake” or the raised walkway through the Tupelo swamp.
The sanctuary encompasses more than a mile of trails through a variety
of intact habitats including preserved maritime forest.


Stop 1: Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium
Upon leaving the sanctuary, turn right onto Bienville Boulevard and travel approximately one-half mile to the Estuarium.

The
Estuarium is an exciting educational facility highlighting the four key
habitats of coastal Alabama: the Mobile Tensaw River Delta, Mobile Bay,
the Barrier Islands and the Northern Gulf of Mexico. It includes the
10,000 square foot Exhibit Hall and Living Marsh Boardwalk. This
facility is a showcase of the plants, animals, and other natural
resources found in the Estuary and its surrounding marine habitats.
Through beautiful visuals and engaging interactive exhibits, the
Estuarium will leave you with a comprehensive understanding of the
crucial link between the land and the sea; how watersheds, rivers and
estuaries interact with Mobile Bay, the fourth largest estuary system
in the United States. Enjoy lunch at the cafe while you’re here.

Thumbnail image for dauphinisland-1.jpgStop 2: Mobile Bay Ferry
Depart from the Estuarium and turn right onto Bienville Boulevard. Then enter the boarding area for the Mobile Bay Ferry.

The
Mobile Bay Ferry connects the Mobile and Baldwin County segments of the
byway and also offers travelers a unique connection with the waters of
Mobile Bay. The 30-minute trip across the bay gives an up close look at
the waters and a chance to view the recreational and commercial
maritime endeavors ever-active in these waters.

Stop 3: Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge
Upon
disembarking the ferry, turn to the left, exiting Fort Morgan Historic
Site and continuing approximately 12 miles to the Pine Beach Trail
entrance to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the right.

Habitats
of the refuge include beaches and sand dunes, scrub forest, fresh and
salt water marshes, fresh water swamps, and uplands. All these can be
explored along the three-mile Pine Beach Trail, which leads travelers
to the sugar-white sands of the area’s spectacular beaches.

Stop 4: Scenic Waterfront Views
Continue
on Highway 180 to the east (right) from the refuge and follow the route
into Gulf State Park and onto State Route 135, which intersects Highway
182. A variety of accommodation choices are available in either
direction from this intersection.

After a full day of hiking the
trails and exploring the waters, take time out to relax and let nature
come to you. A refreshing night’s stay at any of a variety of gulf
front accommodations in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach allows you to sit
back and enjoy the sounds of the surf, the smell of the salt air and
the view of the sunset overlooking the Gulf waters. For the more rustic
types, camping and cabin accommodations are available with lake or
lagoon views.

Stop 5: Orange Beach Marinas
From your
beach front accommodations travel east on Highway 182, or north on
Highway 161 and then east on Highway 180, to the marina from which your
charter departs.

From one of the many marinas in Orange Beach
visitors can enjoy a scenic back bay excursion aboard a charter cruise
boat. Most have regularly scheduled morning and evening sightseeing
trips and will schedule private trips upon reservations. This trip will
offer an intimate view of the hundreds of acres of back bays along the
byway and an interpretive overview of the birds and marine life you’ll
see there. Resident wild bottlenose dolphin are a favorite site on
these tours.

weeksbay.jpgStop 6: Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
After
the cruise, depart Orange Beach traveling west on Highway 180 (Canal
Road) to the Foley Beach Express. Travel across the toll bridge and
continue to County Road 20, where you’ll take a right. Continue on
County Road 20 until it takes a ninety degree left turn and becomes
County Road 83. When you reach U.S. Highway 98 in Elberta, turn left
and continue through the towns of Foley and Magnolia Springs. Just
beyond Fish River, the entrance to the Weeks Bay Estuarine Research
Reserve’s interpretive center is on the left.

Weeks Bay is one
of only 27 National Estuarine Research Reserves in the country and
offers an exceptional opportunity for travelers to enjoy the
educational materials of the interpretive center or take to the
boardwalks and enjoy the environment first hand. Estuaries represent
some of the most sensitive and ecologically important habitats on
earth. They provide sanctuary for many species of waterfowl, store
nutrients for larval and juvenile marine life, and serve as breeding
grounds for many desirable species of ocean fish. As one of the largest
estuaries in the country, the Mobile Bay system is the foundation for
the environmental beauty and diversity of Alabama’s Coastal
Connection’s setting.

Stop 7: Downtown Fairhope
Turn
left (west) from the interpretive center and travel on Highway 98 to
Scenic Route 98. Follow that route into downtown Fairhope.

Enjoy
lunch overlooking Mobile Bay at one of Fairhope’s local restaurants.
Seafood is a specialty here, so savor the flavor of the bounty of the
waters that are such an integral part of life here and all along the
byway. Walks on Fairhope’s famous municipal pier provide spectacular
views. Since Fairhope is known as an artists’ colony, the art lover
could take a leisurely visit to the Eastern Shore Art Gallery or the
many local stores.

End: Eastern Shore Trail
The trail can be accessed all along the byway on Scenic Route 98 through the Eastern Shore area.

Work
off your lunch by taking in the beautiful Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay.
On the multi-use Eastern Shore Trail, take your choice of hiking or
biking and you can enjoy beautiful bay views and oak canopied roadway.

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