Gulf State Park: where luxury, sustainability, and nature meet

by May 23, 2024Alabama

Eagle Cottages Gulf State Park Lake Shelby 9271

Explore Gulf State Park, a beacon of sustainability in Alabama, and a perfect destination for anyone seeking nature, relaxed luxury, pristine beaches, and outdoor adventure.

Coffee in hand, I sat relaxed in an Adirondack chair on the lawn in front of my luxury cottage, watching as sunlight painted the morning sky in shades of orange and purple. Waves created by a gentle breeze gently lapped the shore of Lake Shelby. I watched a river otter swim through the grasses near the shore. Minutes later, an osprey hit the water, pulling breakfast from the lake and flying off toward a distant perch. This is Gulf State Park in Alabama, where luxury, sustainability and nature meet.

Symphony Of Dawn Eagle Cottages Gulf State Park

Sunrise over Lake Shelby from my cottage.

Gulf State Park historic and modernized

Located in Gulf Shores, Gulf State Park offers a natural escape from the beach-town strip malls, neon and garish tourist attractions that clamor for attention along nearby main roads.

Gulf State Park was established in 1939 as part of the New Deal initiatives to create jobs and infrastructure improvements. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the roads, trails and bridges, as well as many of the picnic areas, docks, and campgrounds that are part of the park today. However, many of Gulf State Park’s major improvements were a direct result of the settlement funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Some of these include the construction of The Lodge at Gulf State Park, restoring wildlife habitats, and building boardwalks, restroom facilities, and accessible trails.

Gulf State Park Trail_map

I will admit when I first visited Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, I arrived with modest expectations. It didn’t take me very long during my stay to realize I was experiencing a truly special place. The park is a remarkable natural oasis, spanning 6,500 acres and protecting an extraordinary blend of diverse ecosystems and recreational opportunities. Within its boundaries, and along the 28-miles of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail system, I spent several days hiking through maritime forests, beside freshwater lakes (there are three), past coastal marshes, and along sandy beaches.

Gulf State Park Boardwalk

One of the many boardwalks in Gulf State Park.

I saw families, couples, and individuals walking, running, or on skates, scooters, Segways, bikes, and powered wheelchairs all enjoying the various paved and ADA-accessible trails. Kayakers and yes, powerboats, plied the waters on Lake Shelby. Folks were fishing from docks as I passed, or taking photos of osprey, bald eagles and alligators from various wooden observation decks and platforms. And, of course, I saw others just kicking back on the beach within the park.

Beach Heron People Gulf State Park

Just another evening sitting on the beach outside The Lodge at Gulf State Park. The blue heron is a regular.

Hotel or private cottage … tough choice

There are numerous places to stay in Gulf State Park, including a campground, a hike-in camp dubbed “The Outpost”, and The Cabins, which look to be extremely nice. And there are certainly other hotels near the park’s various entrances. But for the best overall experience, as well as superior comfort, I would recommend either The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton property, or Eagle Cottages at Gulf State Park. Either make a perfect base camp  from which to explore the park. Choose The Lodge if you seek more of a hotel experience with full services. Choose Eagle Cottages if you lean more toward a serene and peaceful escape

The Lodge Gulf State Park Building

Looking at The Lodge from the beach.

Staying at The Lodge

The minute I walked into the lobby and up to the reception desk at The Lodge, I felt it — welcomed and comfortable. The hotel website calls it “elevated comfort and Southern hospitality.” I call it “how every hotel should aspire to be.” As I began discovering, beyond the exceptionally friendly staff, the design of the hotel very intentionally connects interior and exterior space with the natural world. Take the lobby for example. Its high ceiling, wooden beams, and expansive windows fill the space with natural light and provide a wonderful aesthetic that blends seamlessly with the beach, dunes, and Gulf of Mexico just a few hundred feet away.

In my  beach view room (there are also park view rooms), I left the sliding glass door to my balcony open which filled my room with the soothing sounds of waves rolling onto the beach below, day and night — I was on a higher floor and would not recommend doing this on a ground level room for safety reasons. Not that I was in my hotel room very much. I was having too much fun exploring the state park.

The Lodge Gulf State Park Deck

A quiet morning sitting on the deck outside the lobby at The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

Right outside the hotel doors on the ocean side are 2.5 miles of state park beach, which I found perfect for early morning strolls, watching shorebirds, or hanging out and gazing at a sunset. And right outside the hotel doors on the land side lies the rest of Gulf State Park with a pedestrian bridge that ferried me safely over the main road. Though I did not take advantage of this, the hotel and park offer free bike rentals for up to three hours. If you already have the Bloom Bike Share app or, specifically, the Gulf State Park Bike Sharing app by Bloom on your phone, you can rent a bike to cruise around the park. There are designated Gulf State Park Bike Share locations, including at the hotel itself, for returning your bike. Next time I visit, I will absolutely take advantage of this.

Bike Share Station Gulf State Park

One of a number of Bike Share stations located throughout Gulf State Park. This one is outside the Woodside Restaurant.

Aside from all the amenities and welcoming hotel staff at every turn, what really sets The Lodge apart is its leadership in the world of sustainable tourism. And it has been a leader from the very beginning, earning it LEED Gold, SITES Platinum, and FORTIFIED Commercial certifications. It also embraces the three pillars of sustainable tourism: Environmentally friendly operations and facilities; Support for the protection of cultural and natural heritage; and Direct and tangible social and economic benefits to local people.

Eagle Cottages Gulf State Park

Looking across Lake Shelby at the Eagle Cottages lining the shore.

Staying at Eagle Cottages

If you seek peace, relaxation and escape, and are not in need of a full-service hotel like The Lodge, there is no better place than staying in one of the 11 cottages that sit along the water’s edge at Lake Shelby. Fully refurbished and modernized, The Eagle Cottages still offer the same amazing views and array of comforts as the original cottages built here by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The cottages are so incredible that they were named one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World (National Geographic no longer runs this program, a victim of travel industry cutbacks during the pandemic).

After checking in at the main office, a mile or so away, I arrived at Hummingbird Cottage, my home away from home for the next four nights. To say the accommodations are spacious would be an understatement.  There were three bedrooms, three bathrooms, an incredibly comfortable and plush living room, a dining room, a fully furnished kitchen and two screened in porches, one off the back bedroom (which of course I took) and one off the living room. There was also an expansive open deck, and a swing seat under the porch. Outside, there was a private fire pit (which I did not use) and Adirondack chairs for sitting (which were sublime). And, hanging under the house, there were bikes to use should I wish to cruise about. Sadly, no helmets which was the only miss in this amazing place.

Eagle Cottages Bedroom Gulf State Park

My bedroom at Hummingbird Cottage, with a screened porch and very comfy bed.

Each morning, I jumped into the car to eat a delicious breakfast (included) at the Woodside Restaurant. It is possible to walk or bike as it is just under a mile away. When eating at Woodcraft — if the weather allows — sitting outside under the pines and tall oaks at one of the many outdoor seating areas is the way to go. If the Woodside is closed for any reason, which it was for maintenance two of the days I was there, breakfast will be served at Foodcraft located at The Lodge – about 3 miles away so driving is best.

Also included in a stay is access to a private concierge who will arrange any activities you might desire. Each day, there’s a selection of special programs and activities to choose from, such as naturalist-led walking tours and guided education tours to experience history and wildlife. Many of these are available exclusively to cottage guests.

Great Blue Heron Gulf State Park Eagle Cottages

A great blue heron that visited the dock near Hummingbird Cottage every morning I was there.

With trails right outside the cottage doors, and access to a complimentary park shuttle to whisk me around if needed, I was in a very happy place.

Meeting Lefty and other memories of Gulf State Park

Lefty Alligator Gulf State Park Gulf Shores Alabama 9085

The famous Lefty and one of her hatchlings.

Wildlife abounds in Gulf State Park. During my visit, I saw numerous osprey, great blue heron, pelicans, river otter and even an elusive fox. And yes, plenty of turtles and alligators.

I especially remember one alligator. I met Lefty the alligator and one of her hatchlings while I was out for a hike. Lefty is quite the celebrity in Gulf State Park, and the place where visitors can typically see her is even an official stop on a guided Segway tour. What most people don’t realize is Lefty is lucky to be alive. When a newly paved hiking and biking trail in 2008 put her near a significantly increased number of humans visiting the park, some began cluelessly feeding her. Like any alligator that has been fed by humans, she began associating humans with food and as a result, whenever she saw a human, she would begin walking toward them, expecting a hot dog or bag of chips. If you were that human, seeing an alligator walking rather briskly toward you could border on terrifying. Imagine staring at a mouthful of around 80 very sharp teeth and jaws so strong they can crack a turtle shell. And there you stand – if you have’nt already run in the other direction — wondering what, exactly, this alligator had in mind. Fortunately, she was thinking only of chips and hot dogs, not arms and legs.

Lefty kept being relocated to a more secluded part of Gulf State Park, but she kept coming back, looking for those human handouts. Typically, that behavior means the alligator is dispatched. But Lefty was spared, primarily because she had never harmed anyone. Where visitors see her now is where she is in her forever home, protected by a fence that surrounds her gator hole – primarily to keep humans out, not her in.

And perhaps what was done with Lefty is emblematic of what makes Gulf State Park such a special place. It embraces its role in the community to provide educational experiences through an Interpretive Center on the beach that teaches visitors about sustainability. It also has a Learning Campus that provides outdoor education programs to school children and is the current location of the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability, offering workshops and other activities in partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society.

Sunset Eagle Cottages Gulf State Park

Sunset over Lake Shelby, looking toward the hotels and resorts in Gulf Shores.

Sure, most folks come to Gulf Shores for the white sandy beaches, and I get it. They’re really white, really pristine, and really nice. But after having spent some time here in Gulf Shores, I’m convinced that it’s not the beaches that make Gulf Shores so special. It is Gulf State Park. When I visit again, it will be to spend time watching the sun rise over Lake Shelby as a gentle Alabama breeze teases the branches of the pines above and a river otter swims slowly by. That, to me, is pure magic.

Disclosure: Michael Hodgson was hosted for lodging, meals and activities of this trip by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. Any reviews, mentions and opinions here are our own, and are not approved, provided, or otherwise endorsed or influenced by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism or any of the attractions mentioned.​

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