Outdoors and wellness in Gulf Shores Alabama

I love it when a destination surprises me. Before visiting Gulf Shores Alabama, I pictured pretty white sand beaches, a party scene of high rises and beach bars, and plenty of greasy fried seafood in paper-lined plastic baskets. And I’m told that up until about ten years ago, my impression would have been correct. The Gulf Shores and adjacent Orange Beach of today, however, offers so much more. Thanks to the preservation of natural land through state parks, wildlife refuges, and coastal preserves, the Alabama coast boasts plenty of undeveloped forests and coastline waiting to be explored by foot or bike, and a burgeoning culinary scene is elevating the dining opportunities. Whereas a decade ago, I would not have thought of Gulf Shores Alabama as a wellness or outdoors destination, I stand corrected today. Here’s what not to miss:

gulf shores

Paddle boarding:

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach lie on the Alabama coast, situated with the gulf on one side and the bay (and intercostal) on the other. This means families looking for an active vacation have a variety of water conditions to choose from. We paddle boarded on the bay, since it’s calmer and less crowded than the ocean, which is known for some currents. Rent a paddle board for the week, or for an hour…or even get a lesson or guided tour with Gulf Coast Paddle. Their ‘office’ is mobile (it’s their board trailer) and the owners are experts in waterspouts and water safety. They’ll bring a board to you to your condo or vacation rental for longer rentals, or meet you on the bay for some calm paddle boarding near the intercostal. Their primary location is at the dock built for their use at GT’s restaurant in Orange Beach.

kayaking: GoGo Kayks takes paddlers to Little Lagoon to kayak on the coastal waterways.  www.gogokayaks.com

Hiking and biking:

The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge both offer pedestrian and cycle-friendly trails in an undisturbed coastal barrier habitat. What does this mean? Birding! Sand dunes! Pristine, empty beaches! If you decide to rent bikes, Beach Bike Rentals is a good bet; get hybrid bikes if you plan to bike the dirt and sand roads of the refuge and trail, or road bikes if you want to ride along the flat paved roads along the beach (but note that while there are bike lanes, there are not dedicated bike trails along the main roads).

bon secour

For hikers and bikers, there are several entry points for Bon Secour, but whichever parking lot you arrive to, you’ll find a posted map of the various hiking and biking trails. We took Pine Beach Trail past Little Lagoon to end up at a beautiful beach (bring a picnic and swimsuit!). It was only 2+ miles, but absolutely empty. On a busy weekend during peak season in the gulf, this is the way to escape other people. Get to Bon Secour by taking Highway 180 six miles and following the signs.

Yoga, running, and cross-fit on the beach:

Alabama’s sugar sand beaches stretch wide and flat along the gulf, which make them ideal for long-distance running, yoga (try a beach-side class with Glow Yoga), and any other exercise you may want to pursue. I recommend an early morning workout, to watch the sun rise and avoid the heat of the day. Later in the day, beach umbrellas and chairs will dot the white sand beaches, making it harder to get your workout in. Note that dogs are not allowed on the public beaches in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach (but are permitted in nearby Fort Morgan). While this is a bummer for dog owners, the upside is that Alabama’s water is rated as some of the cleanest in the U.S.


Wondering where to eat? We have healthy options here!

Where to stay: Turquoise Place

Run by Spectrum Resorts, Turquoise Place rises in four sleek, tubular towers to overlook the gulf. It sits directly on the beach, so you’re steps from the sand, but many Gulf Shore accommodations will put you near the water. Turquoise Place shines in its recreational and wellness amenities: families get multiple pools (indoor and outdoor), hot tubs, a lazy river and tennis courts sitting on the roof of the fourth floor, and well-equipped exercise rooms, with cardio and weight training equipment, steam rooms, and saunas.

Share a Turquoise Place condo with another family, or make it a multi-generational affair: their 3-5 bedroom condos are huge, and ideal for large family units. You get a full kitchen, which, after poking around, I noticed came with just about all the pots and pans and utensils you’d need (but not spices or pantry staples), plus a wine fridge and large ice machine. As an added bonus, during our stay at Turquoise Place, a complimentary continental breakfast was offered most mornings in the spacious lobby (this amenity was inconsistent, however, so ask when booking). Each condo as a huge balcony with an outdoor kitchen of a built-in BBQ, outdoor sink and counter space, and outdoor table that seats six, and a hot tub.

If your family would prefer more of a resort feel than a cond0-vacation house feel, consider Beach Club, another Spectrum Resorts property located near Fort Morgan. It’s also directly on the water, but in a more rural location with more dining options and outdoor recreation adjacent.

lazy river

Disclosure: I experienced Gulf Shores and Orange Beach as a guest of the destination, but all opinion remains my own.