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….
the fishing pier which I mentioned in a previous post…
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.
While we know I’m not an RVer or (gasp) camper, this campground looks lovely! The pool is impressive and I love all the trails and bike paths. You probably wouldn’t be able to get me off that stunning beach! I can attest that package delivery to site #451 worked – and at Christmas time, so yay!! Glad you had such a great experience at Gulf Shores!
This really is a great place for anyone to vacation… and even if you’re not staying in the park, there’s so much there to take advantage of just as a day visitor. The beaches really are fantastic as are the trails. Just think, if you ran all the trails, it would be a marathon!! And yes, we were in the right place at the right time to get awesome cookies delivered right to our door. It doesn’t get any better than that! (though, we’re still trying to burn off all the extra calories…. 🙂 )
Looks like a place we should check out next fall. Great post.
Definitely! By the way, you can book regular reservations online, but if you are looking for month long stays, you have to call them. Happy travels!
This is officially on my list! We’re going to be staying at the Naval Base in Pensacola early next month, but the next time we pass through the area, I’m going to book here. I bet it was great R&R time for you two after your busy year. Safe travels on your journey west.
I could not imagine a better place for us to hang out. While we had somewhat itchy feet by the end, that was as much due to the weather going south on us as anything. Had it stayed warm, we could have happily kept ourselves occupied for another month. It was the perfect combination of busy and relaxing. I think you guys will love it.
What a great review! We love Gulf Shores State Park and have stayed there several times in our journeys back and forth across the country. You’re right, it’s much more like a resort than a state park. We especially enjoy the biking trails and the birdlife (and the music festival in November). How relaxing it must have been to stay there for two months! Dauphin Island is definitely worth the trip — we took our bikes on the ferry (with MonaLiza) and cruised around the island for the day, then ended up going back the next year to stay on the island for a week. Hope you’re enjoying your travels west!
Yeah, we probably should have prioritized Dauphin Island more than we did. I think we just assumed we’d get to it later on in our visit, but then the weather went downhill and we never did. When we go back, we’ll absolutely prioritize that. I’ve heard nothing but good things, and even the ferry trip over there sounds pretty nice. Thanks again for the tip on the music festival. That was a fantastic way to start our visit.
I mean Gulf State Park. I don’t know why I persist in calling it Gulf Shores….it should be Gulf Shores…
I agree… That would make more sense!
WOW…what a gorgeous park. You didnt mention bugs so I have to guess it wasn’t bad that time of year? Mossies love me And I itch to the point of misery so we are reluctant to go to buggy places like Florida. But when ever I see pictures like yours I am “itching” to go!!
We had no issues with bugs at all. I think we hit the sweet spot for that. I can imagine it’s pretty bad in the summer with all the marshland there. Another good reason to go during the cooler months. The only issue we really had were sand spurs… there were a couple areas in the park, especially at the very back where site 467 was, that had a ton of sand spurs. The poor dog kept stepping on them and we’d track them into the house and stab ourselves with them all the time. That was less than ideal… but otherwise, we had no issues!
Wow, I can’t believe we missed GSP when we were in that area! It will definitely be a stop the next time we head out to the east coast. I was amazed at how beautiful the white sand was on Dauphin Island when we were there … sugary is a good description 🙂
Wow, if you were at Dauphin, you were right down the street! Though, we were at GSP and managed to miss Dauphin! Go figure. The beaches in that whole area are just beautiful, and it was so neat to see them deserted. It was incredibly peaceful and serene… and you really can’t beat the sunsets!
Wow! I’ve never seen such a nice state park. I’m afraid since you’ve experienced the best, you’ll be let down with everything following. Going from the lush Gulf Coast to the dry desert can be a shock to some. I love experiencing the diverse extremes, but it’s not for everyone.
Yeah, this is going to be interesting. We’re looking forward to it! After a year and a half on the eastern side of the country, we’re ready for some completely different environments. And who knows? We might just love it. The only way to figure it out is to go experience it for ourselves. We’re excited!
OMG, this is perfect for next winter! Lemme see if I can book a site yet…. Thanks Laura!!
Sweet! I believe they open up reservations one year before, but don’t hold me to it. If you’re looking for a monthly spot, you’ll need to call them. otherwise, you can book online. Good luck!
Huh, you are letting the cat out of the bag! Yes, we love GSP even if we have experienced a historical storm while there and water from the lake came feet to Betsy. You forgot to mention the birds that birders may want to check out there. Just like what Laurel said, a visit to Dauphin Island is worth bringing your bike and car too, if you are still there.
Well I hope you set your expectations low now for any SP that you may camped out here in the west, no one can match up with GSP.
I know, I know…. I thought about keeping a lid on this secret, but I just think an excellent place like this should be celebrated! I’ll probably regret it a year from now when we want to book there and can’t find a spot, but such is life. It’s good to help each other out… I actually think I may have first heard of this park from you! I now absolutely wish we had made a priority of visiting Dauphin Island… but that’s just one more thing to look forward to when we return, and you’re right, there are LOTS of birds there for folks who love finding them! It’s just one more awesome feature of this park!.
Lake Shelby. That’s all I have to say.
Don’t worry…. Once they see this amazing article, they will undoubtedly be renaming it in my honor!! 🙂
Wow! I really wasn’t aware of how beautiful Gulf State Park is, Laura! I fell in love with this place thanks to your pictures. Are there any good hiking trails there?
Hi, thanks for your comment! There are definitely some trails that go through the woods, though we didn’t spend much time on them. We spent most of our time on the various bike paths, but there are definitely some regular trails as well. They really do have just a bit of everything there!
Great review! Very thorough and the photos are lovely and helpful. My family lives in upper Alabama, so we rarely get down to that area, but we must take the plunge, ASAP!
Thank you! I think you guys would really love it. It’s one of those places that allow you to be as relaxed or as busy as you want to be. It’s just a perfect spot for a fulltimer – in season or off season. And yeah, if you’re already in the state on a regular basis, you absolutely should check it out. We also spent a couple days at Joe Wheeler State Park and enjoyed that as well. The Alabama state parks are just great!
Sold! Let’s all go next winter! This was on my list when we passed through in late March, but it was fully booked and we wound up at Big Lagoon SP near Pensacola, which was also lovely, but this place just looks awesome!
It’s so weird how sometimes it’s crammed full of people and other times, it’s basically dead. I guess by March the spring break/school vacationers are hitting the beach, so it probably makes sense, but I still find it so odd that there were so many empty sites during November and December. In any case, we loved all the Florida state parks we visited, so we’ll want to check out Big Lagoon at some point as well, but for monthly stays along the Gulf Coast, this place is tops!
We’ve stayed at GSP on site 461 in April of 2017. Unfortunately we didn’t get to enjoy it as much as Dave was real sick, he ate a bad oyster in MS which curtailed his enjoyment of the park. I did get to do some great bike rides and get some geocaching in, went to FloraBama for bingo a few times.
Ugh – oysters are one of the only foods I will not eat, and you’ve just given me one more reason to avoid them. I can imagine how sick you’d get from eating a bad one. Terrible. Well, if you can ever get back there, I highly recommend giving it another shot. It really is a fantastic park. Just stick with the burgers this time. 🙂