Deep South Adventures

Orange Beach Tuesday (48)

The sand felt warm against my bare feet as I ventured out onto the beach in the predawn light. Today I’d venture west, and I had followed the coast until there was no more road. I found myself only about 10 miles from the cozy confines of my resort, but it seemed like a different world: uninhabited, pure, serene. I set my camera on my tripod and waited for the sun to come up in the cloudless sky.

Orange Beach Tuesday (41)The schedule for today was simple – travel west to land’s end at Fort Morgan, stopping at the wonderfully natural Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge for a brief beach hike, then hop on the ferry to Dauphin Island, a narrow spit of land at the mouth of Mobile Bay that had a channel cut through its sandy shores by the power of hurricane Katrina. From the island, I’d drive north onto route 93 across the Dauphin Island Bridge to Bellingrath Gardens and Home, before traveling around the city of Mobile and completing the nearly 130-mile loop circling the bay. I’d be traveling along Alabama’s Coastal Connection Scenic Byway much of the way, a route designed to highlight culture and beauty of the Gulf Coast.

The photo shoot on the unnamed beach yielded some trademark Gulf shots of seabirds against a white sand backdrop, with nary a soul in sight. This was mid-November and the temperatures were pleasant: in the low 60s at dawn, with a high in the mid-70s and plenty of sunshine. Perfect for the day’s activities. I backtracked up Gulf Shores Parkway toward Bon Secour – translated to “safe harbor” – passing the town’s signature souvenir shops and watering holes before reaching the 7,000-acre wildlife refuge.

Orange Beach Tuesday (37)Towering canopies of Southern live oaks draped with Spanish moss hung overhead as I pulled in. I headed for the Gator Lake Trail, a 1 mile out and back flat sandy trail that passes through maritime forests and ends at a tranquil and secluded beach with crystal clear water and white sand. Halfway there, you’ll pass freshwater Gator Lake, separated by a thin strip of land to the adjacent saltwater Little Lagoon. The wildlife area showcases the region’s transitional, wetland, and frontal dune habitats, as well as dozens of species of migratory birds and other endangered wildlife.

It was clear to me that this was a special place as I climbed the dunes and took in the view of the beach. There was nothing in either direction except a seemingly endless stretch of perfect white sand, the gentle lapping of waves bringing in seashells that dotted the shore. It was a short hike, but laborious in the soft sand, and I deemed it worth it as I soaked in the solitude.

Orange Beach Tuesday (56)Starting the day early has its benefits, as it was only 9:30 a.m. when I pulled up to the guard shack at Fort Morgan. The structure was built by 200 slaves leased to the government in 1819 and took 15 years to complete due to the isolation of the area. Slaves manufactured all 30,000 bricks that comprise the fort, which was built to protect the coast from foreign enemies. Cannons, gun emplacements, and defensive positions characterize the fort, which has a great view into the windy bay.

As I toured the compact yet open site, it just oozed history from the walls. I noticed there were few areas that were off-limits, meaning visitors can explore the claustrophobic catacombs of the ammunition storage bunkers. (Flashlight recommended!) Historic photos showed Civil War era soldiers standing in brick archways that  Orange Beach Tuesday (59)looked exactly as they do today. I could imagine the fort bustling with soldiers and gun emplacements, ready to defend the bay against attackers. (Which it didn’t always accomplish, as the fort was surrendered to Union forces in a siege in 1864.) There was also further tragedy of times past: from March to July, 1837, 3,500 Creek Indians were removed from the interior of Alabama and sent to Fort Morgan to await forced relocation to Arkansas. Ninety-three people perished from disease and exposure while waiting transfer.

Being the off season, there was no need to line up early for the 30-minute long Mobile Bay Ferry service, which will take cars, RVs, motorcycles and bicycle riders to Dauphin Island. ($16 one-way for a single driver car.) In the summer, it gets busier, so plan accordingly. The ride across the bay was open air, breezy and fun. Feel the vibration of the engines, and count the oil rigs and seabirds as they go by in the sunshine in this unique part of the country.

Orange Beach Tuesday (80)Driving off the ferry, Dauphin Island felt like a tight-knit community that managed to preserve all the good things from the past. It had a breezy, very laid back vibe, but the Estuarium definitely injected some serious scientific chops into this beach town. The indoor and outdoor marine educational building is part of the public aquarium of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Alabama’s marine education and research center. Tour the exhibit hall, living marsh, boardwalk exhibits, ray touch tanks, and more to learn about the area’s sensitive marine ecosystems. They also feature an extensive exhibit about the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig operated by BP just south of Dauphin Island that suffered a wellhead blowout in 2010, killing 11 people and dumping five million barrels of oil into the gulf. This was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, and the photos and diagrams detail the effects and cleanup of this environmental disaster.

Lunch on the island was more than satisfied by JT’s Sunset Grill, a local spot right on the water offering fresh, local seafood, outdoor dining, and spectacular Gulf sunsets. I had the blue crab claws as an appetizer (delicious!) and some of the best grouper tacos I’ve ever had.

Keeping to the schedule, I was sad to say goodbye to Dauphin Island, as I could tell it had much more to offer, but I steered onto the long, flat bridge toward Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore, Alabama, 16 miles to the north.

Orange Beach Tuesday (88)The country estate, created by Walter and Bessie Bellingrath in 1927, evolved from a summer fish camp the Coca-Cola bottler had bought on the Fowl River. The 15-room home sits on sprawling garden grounds which house a rose garden, great lawn, live oak plaza, Asian American garden, and mirror lake, among many other attractions. The gardens stay lush year round in the mild Gulf climate, and the well maintained house offers a glimpse into American history, with displays of vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia that would make collectors clamber.

On the way back to Orange Beach, Route 10 will take you right past the city of Mobile, and you can hug the bay and visit the eclectic small towns of Daphne and Fairhope if you choose. Today’s day trip itinerary was certainly packed, but could be adjusted for a more laid-back schedule. It was definitely a great way to see and learn about the remarkable landscape of the area, and an efficient way to see more of Alabama’s storied Gulf Coast.Orange Beach Tuesday (83)

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About the Author

About the Author: Pat Barcas serves as Creative Resources Manager for RTX, based in Asheville, NC. You can find him hiking the mountains of Asheville, gardening, traveling, and hanging with his growing family. His favorite RTX exchange destinations are Rangeley, Maine, Lake Tahoe, Banff, Canada, New Smyrna Beach, Florida, Cape Cod, and Orange Beach, Alabama. .


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