Gulf State Park is Alabama's southernmost state park, located in the city of Gulf Shores, on the Gulf of Mexico. In 1939, the U.S. government deeded the land to the state of Alabama. Gulf State Park was officially dedicated in the summer of that same year.
The park's 6,150 acres encompass dunes, a freshwater lake, marshes, boggy tea-colored streams, and pine forests. The primary attraction is the two-mile long white sand beach that fronts the Gulf of Mexico. Seagulls, seashells, surf, and sun attract visitors who swim and relax on the natural beach and who wish to escape the highly developed surrounding environment. Freshwater fishing in Lake Shelby offers bass and bluegill, and saltwater anglers can fish from the park's newly reconstructed fishing pier or directly in the surf. In 2009, the park and lodge had 2.7 million visitors, annual operating expenses of $5.5 million, and a staff of 113 people.
Gulf State Park offers visitors 10 hiking and biking trails, including the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail System, a network of trails to the more remote areas in the park. The backcountry trails total 7.8 miles and are flat, level, and easily accessible. The park also has eight additional trails that lead hikers through the variety of the park's habitats. These trails lead through marshes, along overlooks, beneath forests of live oaks, and around lakes and range from ¼ mile to two miles in length.
The park's campground has 496 sites ranging from recreational vehicle pads with electricity, water, and sewer hookups to primitive tent campsites. Facilities include bathhouses, a laundry, and a camp store. Visitors also can rent one of 11 lakeside cottages on the shores of Lake Shelby, a 900-acre freshwater lake, or one of 16 cabins located on piers 12 feet above the lake's surface. Fishing, swimming, waterskiing, and boating are all popular activities. Four additional cabins are set a wooded area nearby, as is an 18-hole, 72-par public golf course, driving range, and pro shop.
The Nature Center, located near the campground, features hands-on exhibits that provide an educational look at Alabama's native wildlife and habitats. Live animal exhibits give visitors an up-close look at some of the state's native snakes and other reptiles, including alligators. Park naturalists also offer interpretive programs and guided tours on the park's trails. The park shelters a wide range of native wildlife, including raccoons, bobcats, deer, rabbits, and alligators. From May to October, endangered loggerhead sea turtles come ashore to nest on park beaches. The park is a stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail and is a popular site for birdwatchers during the annual John L. Borom Alabama Coastal BirdFest held each October in the area.
The park is currently undergoing significant renovations after many of the original facilities were destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. A new beach pavilion was completed in 2006 and is available for rental, and a $14.8 million fishing pier, at 1,540 feet the longest in the Gulf of Mexico, opened for use in 2009, replacing one that was destroyed by Ivan. The pier includes an indoor concession-area, a fishing store for tackle and souvenirs, and restrooms. The existing lodge and convention center were completely destroyed by the hurricane, and plans are underway to replace them with new facilities.