Question of the day: Name a campground that offers large private campsites like a state park, full hook-ups and resort-style amenities like a private park, reasonable monthly rates, direct access to gorgeous white sand beaches, twenty-five miles of trails, enough activities to amuse even the most difficult-to-entertain person, and safe and simple bike access to bars and restaurants.
Yeah, yeah, I know you know the answer – Gulf State Park. But you only know that because I just told you in the title. Cheater.
There are only so many places fulltime RVers can go during the colder months. The most popular options are in Florida, Texas, and Arizona. However, Gulf Shores, Alabama is another fantastic option, and it appears to be one that is somewhat overlooked. We learned from park employees and staff at local establishments (read: bars) that a lot of snowbirds show up in January and February, but prior to that, it can be really slow. Indeed, we were amazed by how many empty campsites there were during much of our November and December stay. We would expect a park this nice, and this reasonably priced, to be a destination for our RVer friends as soon as the mercury starts to drop, but it seems many folks don’t know what they’re missing.
In the eighteen months we’ve been on the road, I’ve never been inclined to write an entire post about a particular campground, but this is no ordinary campground and I think it deserves some attention (and, as a side note, this is also a fantastic destination for Non-RVers to visit – especially during the warmer months). So, what makes this park so special? Read on….
The campsites are spacious, offer full hook-ups, and many are parallel to the road
The campground itself is enormous. I can’t think of anywhere we’ve been that has anything close to the 496 sites Gulf State Park has.
Such an enormous campground means there are sites for every taste – back in sites, pull through sites, lake front sites, sites with direct access to bike trails, sites near activities, sites far from activities… everything. And all sites have full hook-ups, a bit of a rarity in the world of government operated parks.
Most important to us is always space and privacy, and there were plenty of sites that ticked those boxes. While some loops are better than others, even the tightest spot in this park offers more room than your average commercial campground.
We stayed in two different pull through sites in the same section of the campground. One was grassier and surrounded by mature vegetation, while the other was sandier and offered views of recently replanted pine trees and tall grasses. We thoroughly enjoyed sitting outside at both sites.
This was site #451
This was site #467…
Site #467 is the furthest site from the entrance to the park. Upside: It was quiet and we saw minimal traffic. Downside: The place is so huge, it took several minutes just to get to the front of the park.
Here are some back-in sites in other loops to give you an idea of what they are like…
While not every site has this much space, there are none where rigs are parked right on top of one another. It’s freaken dreamy.
The park offers monthly rates (no 14 day limitations) and entirely reasonable prices
Most state and county parks limit reservations to just 14 days. They don’t want people setting up camp and staying forever, so they move you along. But Gulf State Park allows for lengthy rentals during their off-season (November 1 through February 28). And their monthly rates are excellent given all that the park has to offer. 2017 rates for back-in sites were $565 or $595 per month (depending on location) while parallel sites were $715 per month. And there were no additional fees for metered electricity; our $23 per night cost was completely inclusive.
I will say their daily rates can be higher than many state parks, but given the park’s numerous awesome features, in our opinion, the prices are still reasonable. However, if you can swing a month-long visit, it’s a steal.
The park also offers cabins and cottages for rent, so there are excellent options for non-campers as well. Cottages of all sizes, featuring beautiful, modern interiors, are built around Lake Shelby….
There are miles and miles (and miles) of hiking and biking trails
The campground itself is enormous and there are several trails that can be accessed from the loops, and those trails connect to this larger trail system that runs throughout the rest of park and out to the main streets.
If you look at this Trail Map, where it says “Gulf State Park” in the middle, that is where the entire 496 site campground is located.
Beautiful paved paths, raised boardwalks, and viewing platforms allow visitors to travel and observe all kinds of environments in the 6000 acre park…
Additionally, streets that used to run through the park have been closed and turned into bike trails….
And for the roads that remain open to vehicles, there are, oftentimes, dedicated “pedestrian/bike” lanes.
The state is also in the process of opening multiple pedestrian bridges that cross over the busy coastal frontage street that runs between the park and the beach.
The amenities are comparable to, and even better than, many private campgrounds
This pool is at a state park….
We’ve never seen a state park that even had a pool, much less a beautiful resort style one like this…. Plus, there’s a large splash pad behind it (the fountains weren’t turned on when I took the picture, but there are photos on the park’s site here).
There are also tennis courts….
An 18 hole golf course….
and a dog park complete with separate sections for small dogs, some agility equipment, and access to the lake, so your dog can go swimming!
There’s a butterfly garden and a rock climbing area for kids….
and… about a million activities you can take part in… Here’s a link to Gulf State Park’s weekly activities calendar. It changes every week, but I’m sure that whenever you click on it, you will find an impressive list of things to do. From guided nature walks to kayaking tours, to fishing lessons, volleyball tournaments, science workshops, and exercise groups, there’s something for everyone. You can also rent bikes to explore the park on your own and the park contracts with a local vendor to supply other stuff (kayaks, stand up paddle boards, etc). Or you can go parasailing. Or you can go on a Segway tour. Seriously. They have everything.
The beach is gorgeous and the sunsets are killer
Gulf State Park maintains about two miles of beachfront on the Gulf. Recently opened pedestrian bridges lead directly from the campground to the beach. We biked to the beach several times, but you can also just drive over and park at one of the lots.
The sand is very white, sugary soft, and bordered by lovely dunes.
And when we visited, we had the whole place to ourselves….
On a related note, just about every night, whether we were on the beach or exploring the trails, we got to watch a show in the sky.
The other conveniences are seriously convenient
Recycling: When we lived in our house, we used to recycle about 70% of our trash using our county’s curbside pick-up program. When we started traveling, we realized how spoiled we’d been. Most campgrounds offer no recycling at all, while some just offer it for plastic bottles. Gulf State Park offers it for most materials which we really appreciated.
Package Delivery: When you live on the road, getting packages can be a royal pain in the butt. A super nice benefit at Gulf State Park is that UPS and Fedex (but, unfortunately not USPS) can deliver right to your site.
Laundry: The laundry room is huge and open 24/7.
Wifi: The campground has a pretty impressive looking Wifi system with towers located throughout the park. It is new and, while we were there, it was up and down (I think it’s better in certain areas of the park than others), but, hopefully, they’ll eventually get the bugs worked out and it will be another convenient feature (an almost unheard of one for a state park).
The Front Office is staffed 24 hours per day, so there’s always someone available to help you should you need something. On a related note, the employees we interacted with during our visit were extremely helpful and friendly.
Bars and restaurants are within easy biking distance
When you get tired of all that nature and exercise you’ve been doing, you can easily find sustenance….
Flying Harpoon 2 is a little dive bar/restaurant that we could bike to right from our campsite without ever having to go out on the busy public roads that surround the park.
We actually weren’t sure we’d be able to bike there because there’s a (presumably alligator infested) waterway that runs through the park between the campground and the main street, but when we went over to check it out, we found that Gulf State Park had built a bridge over the water.
Big Beach Brewing was about 5 miles from our campsite. In order to bike to it, we had to exit the park, but we were able to stay on residential streets and it was perfectly safe.
If you spend too much time at either of these establishments, you may want some good breakfast food the following morning. GSP has you covered there too. Another Broken Egg, a breakfast/lunch spot featuring delicious food and super friendly service, is only about 3.5 miles from the campground and can be reached almost entirely by bike trails.
These are just a few of the establishments that allow visitors to stay on their bikes and out of their cars while camping at the park.
Restaurants, grocery stores, and other necessities are nearby
The towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are huge warm weather tourist destinations. Starting with spring break and ending in early October, the area is jam packed with beachgoers. In our experience during the offseason, most everything was open, but there were no waits at restaurants and no traffic on the streets. If anything, the whole place felt a bit dead at times. But it was nice to know we could find the necessities, dine at a restaurant, or watch a movie any time we wanted without having to go far.
Pensacola and Mobile are within an hour’s drive
If there’s one downside to the whole beach town thing, it’s that the selection of services, stores, and restaurants can be a bit limited (ie: lots of swimsuit sellers and fried shrimp eateries, not so many neurologists and Indian restaurants). However, with both Pensacola and Mobile being within an hour’s drive, we knew if we couldn’t find something in Gulf Shores, we’d be able to find it one of these more metropolitan areas.
We headed up to Pensacola several times – to see the Blue Angels, to handle a couple doctor’s appointments, and to obtain an emergency serving of Pho.
Sometimes you need pho.
Additionally, Mobile offers the U.S.S. Alabama installation, and the trip up there passes by several civil war era forts and monuments. You can also take a ferry to Dauphin Island which is supposed to be pretty nice and there are several big wildlife preserves all along the Gulf coast. We had more than enough to keep us occupied at the park, but if, somehow, you were to find yourself bored, you could basically drive off in any direction and find something to do.
The winter weather is pretty decent
Our experience with the weather varied over the two months we visited. In November, we saw daytime temperatures in the mid 70’s to low 80’s during the day and the 50’s and 60’s at night. In December, we had several weeks where the highs didn’t make it out of the 40’s and 50’s during the day, and evenings could get get down into the 30’s. However, in talking to some locals, we learned that it was unusually chilly this year (as it’s been everywhere). As a general rule, I would expect the December weather to be pretty nice.
The Park’s priorities are in order
If all the evergreens in this picture appear to be young, that’s because they are….
Unfortunately, Gulf State Park has been through one disaster after another, the worst of which was Hurricane Ivan which absolutely destroyed the park in 2004. The following year brought Hurricane Katrina, and in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast.
However, after each disaster, the local community, staff, and the state rallied to rebuild and improve the park. Monies secured for rebuilding efforts were used not just to restore what was damaged, but to make things even better than before.
While it may seem obvious to fund and appropriately direct money toward rebuilding efforts, incoming cash can be redirected or misdirected to other uses. Just recently, there was a legal dispute about how the state was going to use funds awarded as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The state wanted to direct most of the money into a privately operated beachfront hotel complex to replace a hotel that was destroyed during Hurricane Ivan. An environmental organization filed a lawsuit arguing that the money should be allocated to improving and maintaining public access to the park and addressing environmental concerns (in other words, more money should be spent on things that improve everyone’s experience, rather than just those wealthy enough to stay at a high end beachfront hotel). The two sides settled and now both the hotel and park improvements will be funded.
Decisions about where and how money should be spent are rarely black and white, but it was apparent to us that, however ugly the process may sometimes be, when decisions have been made about the future of Gulf State Park, those who control the purse strings have made every effort to improve the user experience.
Having been to state parks where, years after destructive events, whole sections of the park remained closed off with no indication that they’d ever be reopened, and having been to campgrounds where the facilities hadn’t been renovated in years, GSP was a real gem.
You can see more of this mentality in the Park’s 2016 Master Plan which shows all the ways the park will be improved over the next several years. It’s a really impressive document and goes into much more detail about some of the things I’ve mentioned here.
Gulf State Park was the nicest campground we’ve been to – not just because the campground itself was excellent, but because of the many amenities the park offers. As we continue to make our way around the country, we hope to run into other parks designed and operated by forward thinking decision makers like those at Gulf State Park. In the meantime, we’ll look forward to returning here as soon as we can.