29 Epic Things to do at Gulf State Park  

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This definitive guide of the many things to do in Gulf State Park – where to stay, what to do, and where will eat will help you plan the most epic visit to the only state park on Alabama’s Gulf Coast!

If you’re looking for fun things to do in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach with teens, you can read more ideas here.

things to do at gulf state park - beautiful beach sunrise

This post is sponsored by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism – Visit Alabama Beaches. All opinions are mine.

Learn even more about taking an Alabama Beach Vacation at my sponsor, GSOB Tourism.

29 Family-Friendly Things to do at Gulf State Park (+where to eat, where to stay!)

If you’re planning a family trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama, you won’t want to miss out on Gulf State Park. With so much to do and see, it’s the perfect spot for families looking for adventure and relaxation both. 

Gulf State Park (GSP) is located between the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. It features nine distinct ecosystems on more than 6,000 acres including beaches, swamps, marshes, forests, and more. 

Within GSP boundaries, you’ll find 3 1/2 miles of beaches, three freshwater lakes, 28 miles of trails, and so much more. Having enough time to explore will be your biggest challenge!! 

On our recent trip to the area, we enjoyed hiking and biking on the park’s award winning trails as well as stand up paddling at Shelby Lake. We found great dining options both in the park and in the surrounding area. And of course, we loved the beach. It was the perfect spot for a barefoot walk, birdwatching, sunrise and sunset views, and so much more!

Whether you’re looking for a luxurious room, a cozy cabin, a rustic campsite, or a place to park your RV, there are plenty of lodging options available at Gulf State Park too! 

If you’re looking for the perfect family getaway, look no further than Gulf State Park! Of the many reasons to visit Gulf Shores Al, Gulf State Park should be at the forefront.

History of Gulf State Park

Gulf State Park was originally built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Interestingly, the CCC built a casino on the beach, a dance hall, and bunkhouses. 

However, long before it was Gulf State Park, many different Native American tribes called this area home. The Native American tribe of the Mississippian Indians dug canals through what is now Gulf State Park to connect Mobile Bay to Pensacola. This enabled them to trade more easily and safely.

Other Native Americans frequented the area too, including Creek, Alibama, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Seminole tribes. Gulf State Park encourages you to learn more about these tribes and their ways of life by visiting their informative Nature Center.

Gulf State Park officially opened on May 20, 1939 as one of the first five state parks built in Alabama. The buildings look a lot different now, but you can still learn about some of the original CCC projects at the Nature Center as well.

Natural Disasters and their Role Shaping Gulf State Park

Gulf State Park has seen a lot of destruction from natural disasters and they have really shaped the park into what it is today.

On September 16,  2004, Hurricane Ivan hit Gulf Shores and destroyed the original lodge and the fishing pier. Hurricane Ivan was a large category 3 hurricane and it was very destructive to the Gulf Shores area. In addition to destroying a lot of the park, it also necessitated the evacuation of the entire Gulf Coast Zoo.

It’s not just hurricanes that have hurt the area though. In 2010, the largest oil spill in US history, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, occurred. This deadly and costly environmental disaster wreaked havoc on the Alabama Gulf Coast, killing 11 BP workers, countless marine animals and birds, and leaking 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

After the massive oil spill, BP committed $100 million to a multi-state restoration program to help mitigate the damage and rebuild the area. $85 ½ million went to rebuild Gulf State Park and it is because of that money that the park looks the way it does today. 

Unfortunately, hurricanes continue to batter Gulf State Park. In September 2020, Hurricane Sally hit the area on the exact day that Ivan had struck years before. After a $2.4 million renovation project, Gulf State Park Pier was finally set to celebrate the grand reopening of the 1,542-foot pier (still damaged from Hurricane Ivan) on September 16.

Sadly, Hurricane Sally took out a portion of the pier before it could ever be opened to the public! That portion of the pier is still missing today, and that is why the Gulf State Pier looks the way it does.

I have it on the best authority that Gulf Shores natives don’t think too highly of the date September 16! Woe to you if September 16th is your birthday or anniversary!

The Lodge Gulf State Park

Where to Stay at Gulf State Park

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offers a lot of different types of accommodations. There are several family-friendly accommodation options within Gulf State Park, including camping sites, RV sites, Lakeside Cabins and Eagle Cottages, and the impressive Hilton Hotel, The Lodge at Gulf State Park. I think some of the best options are actually staying within the park boundaries.

Infinity Pool at The Lodge Gulf State Park

Why We Highly Recommend Staying at The Lodge at Gulf State Park

Not only is The Lodge by Hilton luxurious, but this hotel is also a leader in sustainable tourism – making a real and measurable effort to reduce its impact on the earth. Some of the sustainability initiatives we love about The Lodge include:

  • LEED Gold Certification (this means it has an energy efficient design that reduces its energy usage and impact on the earth)
  • Beautiful swimming pool that’s connected to the HVAC system so it can reuse condensation water
  • EV charging stations
  • Anti-bird strike glass
  • Water bottle refilling stations
  • AC units that shut off when occupants leave doors or windows open
  • Passive cooling techniques like screens and shading to reduce energy usage
  • Dune restoration project for storm surge and habitat protection
  • Use of native plants only in their landscaping

For comfortable, eco-friendly accommodations, we highly recommend The Lodge by Hilton. You’ll find great rooms with beach or park side balconies, a beautiful infinity pool, and lots of dining options.

We also love their family rooms – perfect for a family of four with a large bed for the parents and a bunk bed for kids! 

the lodge hilton hotel

We think you’ll be really happy to call The Lodge your vacation home during your Alabama Beach Vacation.

RV camping at Gulf State Park

Camping at Gulf State Park Campground

If a hotel stay isn’t for you, camping in Gulf State Park can be a great way to enjoy the outdoors and get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Gulf State Park Campground has 496 campsites with full hookups and water.

The campground also has 11 modern bath houses and lots of guided activities including horseshoes, yoga, pickle ball, educational programs, and more! 

Whichever type of accommodation you choose, we recommend booking early, especially during high season. 

breakfast at Foodcraft

Where to Eat at Gulf State Park

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer plenty of delicious dining options. Wherever you eat, be sure to try some of the fresh seafood for which the area is known. 

For a casual, family-friendly atmosphere, check out The Hangout, Lulu’s, or Tacky Jack’s. There are also lots of places to eat inside the state park. Here’s a list of some of our favorite places to enjoy good food inside Gulf State Park:

Woodside Restaurant

Located near the Park Headquarters, Woodside Restaurant is a very family-friendly (and farm to table) eatery. With indoor and outdoor seating, live music, a full bar, and lots of giant games for the kids to enjoy, you’ll have a lot of fun at Woodside Restaurant.

Foodcraft Restaurant

This beach side restaurant is located at The Lodge. It has a gorgeous outdoor patio where you can sit and watch the ocean which my family loved! We enjoyed breakfast at Foodcraft and I’d definitely return for an evening meal!

Concession Stands at the Beach Pavilion

Gulf State Park Beach Pavilion has a concession stand with a lot of options during peak travel time. Grab your snack and enjoy it on the beach or at one of the many picnic tables you’ll find at the pavilion.

Lake Shelby Picnic Area

Bring a picnic and eat at one of the many picnic areas, like the one near Lake Shelby. Your kids will enjoy this too because there’s a fun playground right there for them to enjoy!

Other places to eat at The Lodge include Perch, the Dragonfly, and Rusted Oak Cafe Bar. You can find lots of great things to eat right at The Lodge.

gulf shores orange beach tourism office

Your First Stop in Gulf Shores!

Before you start exploring Gulf State Park, make sure to stop in at the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism Office to pick up a few things to help you explore. They’ll give you items to help you leave only footprints, protect the marine life, and more!

You definitely want to pick up stickers for lights you may use at night. These stickers will give you lights red hue and help keep the sea turtles safe. The normal yellow light that comes out of our flashlights confuses turtles and can disorient them. So make sure to use the red lights you can get for free from the Tourism Office to help keep the sea turtles safe!

While you’re in the office, you can also pick up a shelling bag and find lots of helpful brochures, maps, and money saving coupons too! It’s definitely worth stopping in at the Tourism Office when you first get to town.

Things to do at Gulf State Park – Beach Side

Now, on to the park! The main thing to keep in mind about Gulf State Park is that it is divided into two main areas – the beach side and the park side. Perdido Beach Blvd (four lanes) runs through the park, making it tricky to get from one side to the other. To make it easier to access both sides of the park, there are two pedestrian bridges you can walk or ride bikes over.

You can also take a free tram around the park, 8 am – 5 pm daily. It runs between The Lodge, out to Woodside, the Beach Pavilion, Lake Shelby, and the Nature Center.

Relax on White Sand Beaches – 

What’s not to love about a little Vitamin Sea? Relaxing on the beaches and catching some sun is a favorite way to pass a little time in Gulf Shores. 

Ike’s Beach Service will set up two beach chairs and an umbrella for you to use! The rate is $45 per day, with discounts available for consecutive day rentals.

Swim in the Gulf of Mexico

You can also swim in the Gulf of Mexico. Watch the flags flying around the beaches which indicate whether it’s safe. Red means stay out!

Play Games on the Beaches

You’ll find volleyball nets just waiting for a game along the beach. Make sure to bring a volleyball if you’d like to get in a little sand action!

sand castle university

Build Sandcastles

Who doesn’t like building sandcastles? You can even take a sand castle university building class if you’re feeling really adventurous! 

Leave a Beach Toy / Take a Beach Toy

We loved seeing the leave a toy / take a toy bins at Gulf State Park. What a great way to give any beach toys you may not want to take home with you a new life! We found these boxes at the beach closest to The Lodge and also at the Beach Pavilion.

Learn About Dune Restoration

One big environmental initiative at Gulf State Park is to restore the dunes. The dunes provide habitat for the Beach Mouse and protect the area from storm surge. 

Every year residents are invited to participate in the Christmas Tree Recycling program and then to help place the dead trees on the beach so they can be the start of new dunes! 

I was excited to see the Christmas trees in action in several spots along the beaches.

Learn About and Help Protect Sea Turtles

Gulf State Park beaches are homes to many nesting Loggerhead Sea Turtles. These turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act so it’s important not only to leave them alone, but also to do things to help keep them safe – like using a red light at night. 

During nesting season, which is every year from May to October, you can be a proactive part in helping protect sea turtles when you visit Gulf State Park! Make sure to pick up a brochure on the Share the Beach program at the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism Office. 

Go Shelling

Alabama beaches are a great place to go shelling! Early morning is the best time to find beach treasures like sand dollars and various shells. If you go shelling, make sure to only take empty shells that are not occupied by living creatures.

Go Fishing on the Gulf State Park Pier

If you like fishing, you’ll want to go to Gulf State Park Pier, the largest pier in the state of Alabama. You can rent fishing gear there and buy bait too, so need to bring your own. You will need a fishing license, which you can also buy there.

Go for a Walk

Get your steps in on the beach with a barefoot walk in the sand! Lots of people head out to the beach for some exercise each morning and evening. It’s a great place to get in some steps.

Watch the Sunrise &/ or Sunset

If you’re staying at The Lodge in a Gulf-side room, it is so easy to sneak out of your room in the early morning for a quick sunrise walk.

birding gulf state park
Photo by Chantal Wilford, Meander with Us

Go Birding 

The beach is a great place to watch the birds. You’ll find bird checklists along the Pier, but common birds to see on the beach include plovers, seagulls, pelicans, and Northern Gannet particularly during the winter months when the birds are migrating. 

Watching pelicans fly by in formation and dive bomb for fish is particularly entertaining. We really enjoyed watching them fly by from the balcony on our gulf-side room at The Lodge.

_Gulf State Park

Learn about GSPs Eco-Friendly Initiatives at the Interpretive Center

The Interpretive Center is an amazing building. Located in the same area as the Beach Pavilion, it’s an open area learning area. Stop by to learn about the sustainability efforts of this building. It’s Alabama’s most environmentally friendly building, designated one of only 30 Living Buildings in the country.

Learn about solar power, how water is collected and turned into safe drinking water, the ecosystems, and more!

Visit Gulf State Park Beach Pavilion

With many picnic tables, a concession stand, beautiful fireplace, restrooms and more, the Beach Pavilion is a great stop at GSP. Take a stroll on the nearby boardwalk out to the beach. There’s even a wheelchair accessible beach mat out here for accessibility.

Things to do at Gulf State Park – Park Side

Gulf State Park is committed to environmental initiatives, so don’t miss the chance to experience some of those firsthand! Take a guided nature walk or birdwatching tour, or even sign up to volunteer with beach cleanup or restoration projects.

Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail

The award winning Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail features 15 miles of trails and six of the nine ecosystems you can explore at Gulf State Park. Hike or bike on the boardwalk trails, look for wildlife – whatever you do here you will really enjoy this area!

Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail was jut voted as the top recreational trail in the country in the 2023 USA TODAY 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards! It is not to be missed.

Butterfly Garden & Forest Pavilion

Do you like flowers and butterflies? If so, you’ll want to go out to the Butterfly Garden. The perfect spot for families and more, you can access the Butterfly Garden via hike or bike on the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. Parking at the lots off Orange Blvd or Rosemary Dunes will enable the shortest route.

sup at shelby lake
Photo by Chantal Wilford, Meander with Us, SUP Courtesy of Coastal Segway Adventures

Enjoy Lake Shelby, Middle Lake, and Little Lake too

Lake Shelby is the largest of the three freshwater lakes you can find at Gulf State Park. You can rent paddle boats, kayaks, or stand-up paddle boards from Coastal Segway Adventures, or simply go fishing at Lake Shelby.

You might also want to check out Lake Shelby’s weir which is a good place to fish and watch for migratory birds. The weir connects with the Gulf so the water at this location is often brackish so you might find both saltwater and freshwater here, including largemouth bass, bream, crappie, redfish and speckled trout.

biking at Gulf State Park

Go for a Bike Ride

You can bring your own bike, rent an e-bike, or get a bike rental for free using the Bloom Bike Share app free bike share program! You’ll find QR codes for the app and bike pick up spots all around Gulf State Park. We saw them near Lake Shelby, at The Lodge, Woodside Restaurant, the Beach Pavilion and the Rosemary Dunes parking lot too.

The great thing about biking at Gulf State Park is that the bike paths are pretty flat, and many of them are on boardwalk trails over wetland areas. You can access the beach and the park side easily by going over one of two pedestrian bridges that connect the park to the beach. 

Note: Bikes are free for three hours, after which there is a small charge.

Take a Segway Tour

If you’re feeling adventurous, rent segways from Coastal Segway Adventures. They’ll take you on a two hour guided tour along the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail! It’s a great way to see the trail if you’re short on time.

Dog Pond at Lake Shelby Dog Park 

If you’re traveling with dogs, you will love the dog pond dog park at Gulf State Park with waterfront access to Lake Shelby! Your dogs will enjoy playing in this large park where they can swim, run ,and hang out with other dogs too!

Gulf State Park Nature Center & Learning Campus

For a bit of history, visit the Nature Center where you’ll learn about the area’s Indigenous communities and the importance of conservation. This living museum features native plant and animal species too.

Don’t forget to also visit the state-of-the-art Learning Campus and enrichment centers to learn all about the Gulf Coast’s flora and fauna.


If you enjoy geocaching, you will definitely want to give it a go at Gulf State Park. If you’ve never tried this fun family activity before, it’s easy and free! Set up an account at geocaching.com, then enter the coordinates and get searching!

Make sure to always adhere to Alabama’s Wildlife Policy whenever exploring at Gulf State Park. Remember, leave only footprints. Don’t feed and don’t disturb.

If you liked this post on Gulf State Park, make sure to check out these posts too:

Find All the Best Things to Do on a Day Trip to Fort Morgan

Amazing, Adventurous Things to Do with Teens in Gulf Shores, Alabama

3 Day Teen Approved Itinerary – Orange Beach & Gulf Shores (Family Activities)

Our Favorite Family-Friendly Orange Beach & Gulf Shores Restaurants 

Official Tourism Website for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

Ready to travel? Use these helpful links to book your stay!

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About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long-time green-living enthusiast, and rural Iowa mom of four. She empowers families to grow and eat seasonal, local foods; to reduce their ecological footprint; and to come together through impactful travel.

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