Small but mighty. The Alabama Gulf Coast shoreline is tiny – only about 50 miles. But its white sand beaches and stunning Gulf of Mexico views make the region one of the premier beach destinations in the world, attracting over seven million visitors each year.
I’ve visited this paradise for sun-seekers and sandcastle architects many times and love its easy-on-the-feet sand composed of unique white quartz crystal particles originating from the Appalachian Mountains. Here are the best eight Alabama beaches for you to discover, some with crashing surf and others with gentle waters, perfect for littles.
Read More: Complete Beach Packing List for Families
Gulf Shores Public Beach
My husband and I have visited the Gulf Shores beaches more than any of the others and have had children and grandchildren with us for many of those visits. On most of those occasions, we stayed in a condo on the beach. But other times we made use of the popular beach accesses open to the public and stayed across the road from the beach.
Public beach access points are located at 5th, 6th, 10th, 12th and 13th streets, at Lagoon Pass, and at the Gulf Shores Main Public Beach entrance, both east and west. There are parking lots at 6th Street, at Gulf Place, East Gulf Place and West Gulf Place. Parking fee is $5.00 for up to four hours or $15 for all day.
Why Families Should Visit Gulf Shores
Gulf Shores is a bustling beach town with ALL the family beach vacation items on everyone’s checklist: great sand and waves, plenty of putt-putt courses, amusement parks, access to water sports of all kinds, waterparks, Adventure Island, shops from kitschy to posh, fishing charters, dozens of outstanding restaurants, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and the newly completed Gulf Coast Zoo.
You can find beach houses, condos or hotel rooms in all price ranges. Or stay in an RV or a tent at one of the many campgrounds and RV parks. If seafood is not your thing, many Gulf Shores restaurants are ready to fulfill your culinary desires.
Orange Beach is considered by most to be a little more exclusive than Gulf Shores, probably because of the luxury condominiums dotting the shoreline and the number of chef-driven restaurants.
Why Families Should Visit Orange Beach
Luxury properties on Orange Beach, such as The Caribe, Phoenix on the Bay and Turquoise Place, provide plenty of beach or bay access, plus numerous indoor and outdoor pools, water slides or a lazy river. My personal favorite restaurants on Orange Beach are Cobalt, Cosmo’s and Fisher’s for dinner. At Fisher’s, the downstairs is family-friendly, while the upstairs is much more upscale. Buzzcatz Coffee & Sweets or Brick & Spoon, both on Canal Road, are good choices for breakfast.
If you’re not staying on the beach, you and your family can enjoy the area via the Romar Public Beach Access at Signal 11 B or at the Alabama Point East public access. A boardwalk leads to the beach from the parking lot, and you’ll find a toybox full of sand pails and shovels for the kids to borrow. At Romar Beach, there are portable toilets on site but no showers. But at Alabama Point, there are restrooms and outdoor showers.
The powdery sand, aqua waters and fresh seafood will mesmerize you every time and cause you to plan a return trip before you ever leave.
The distance from the center of Gulf Shores to the tip of Fort Morgan is 21 miles. For those who prefer the Fort Morgan peninsula, that means far less crowded beaches while still being within a reasonable drive of many restaurants and attractions. I have been to Fort Morgan and especially like the fact that condominium complexes are much smaller, and the atmosphere is not frantic or frenzied.
Why Families Should Visit Fort Morgan
On the Fort Morgan portion of Alabama beaches, you can fish, play on the beach, go paddle boarding, visit the fort or wander around the remains of a beached ship, The Rachel, when the shifting sands allow it. Fort Morgan has played a significant role in the Civil War, Spanish American War, World War I and World War II, so it is worth a visit.
SheBuysTravel Tip: One of our favorite things to do when taking a beach vacation is to hire a photographer for family photos. This is a special gift and souvenir that we cherish. We use Flytographer to book a local photographer located in the area that we’re traveling to. Use this link and you will get $25 off your photo session.
Tacky Jack’s is a popular restaurant in the area. It’s fun to let the kids pose for photos with the huge swordfish on display. Another highly recommended eatery is Sassy Bass. Or, considering the distance to Gulf Shores restaurants, several friends suggest stopping at S & S Seafood Market on West Beach Boulevard and stocking up for meals in your beach house or condo once you arrive.
Dauphin Island is perfect for families who want a laid-back beach vacation without all the touristy shops and activities. It has both beach and bay access and is enjoyed by beach bums and fishermen. It can be accessed by ferry from Fort Morgan and makes a great day trip.
Why Families Should Visit Dauphin Island
The small-town atmosphere of Dauphin Island means there are no chain restaurants. But you’ll find more than enough eateries available without having to make a long drive if your stay is relatively short. Seasoned Dauphin Island visitors recommend getting your groceries before arriving. I haven’t been myself, but have heard great things from friends with young children and some with teenagers. They all mention how peaceful, quiet, and full of nature it is and say that the walking trails are exceptional.
The island itself is a bird sanctuary. One family loved setting up crab traps in the bay. Another mentioned the heavenly cinnamon rolls produced at the Lighthouse Bakery and gave a ringing endorsement to Pirates Bar Grill for dinner. The Dauphin Island Sea Lab is a must-visit for all ages.
Gulf State Park
I stayed in the original Gulf State Park Lodge built in 1974, but it was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The new lodge with all its ecological and energy-efficient amenities didn’t open until 2018. I can’t wait to experience the Lodge and its amenities for myself.
The property of the Gulf State Park encompasses 6150 acres and provides a wonderful environment for birding, freshwater fishing, hiking on paved trails, biking, kayaking, backcountry trails and swimming.
Why Families Should Visit Gulf State Park
My veterinarian friend says that his family loves seeing the alligators, bobcats, eagles, and osprey on the property. Others mention two of the nice restaurants at the Lodge: The Perch which is upscale, and Foodcraft which is family-oriented and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Gulf State Park Fishing and Education Pier is the longest one in the Gulf of Mexico and stretches for a quarter of a mile. In fact, there are plenty of educational opportunities for children at the nature center and at the interpretive center. Visitors should be especially mindful of the guidelines regarding sea turtles.
The Lodge contains 350 guest rooms and is situated on a beautiful stretch of beach. Cabins and cottages are available for rent beside Shelby Lake, with trails also leading to Middle Lake and Little Lake (really a little lagoon), a campground, a forest pavilion and butterfly garden.
Cotton Bayou Public Beach
Cotton Bayou Beach Access is on the fringes of Gulf State Park, so visitors are likely to encounter some of the wildlife found inside the park. It is important to follow all the Wildlife Safety Guidelines on the Gulf State Park website. In comparison to others, this is a smallish beach and is located at the intersection of Highways 182 and 161.
Why Families Should Visit Cotton Bayou Public Beach
Cotton Bayou has restrooms and showers on site, which is always a plus when you enjoy a day at the beach but aren’t necessarily staying at a beachside accommodation. It is also one of the few beaches in this part of Orange Beach that is handicap accessible. Parking Pay Stations are conveniently located in the parking lot, and the prices are $10 for the entire day.
An added advantage to Cotton Bayou’s location is the presence of a red light with a crosswalk, making it easy to get to a Rite Aid pharmacy, a Publix grocery store, a Starbucks or a Dairy Queen if the need or urge should arise.
Cotton Bayou is known as a great location for a game of beach volleyball.
Perdido Key, a narrow island stretching for 16 miles, is claimed by both Alabama and Florida. On its east end, it is part of the Florida section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Its west end begins at the Perdido Pass Bridge near Orange Beach. It has been years since I was at Perdido Key, but friends who visited recently say it’s their new favorite beach.
Why Families Should Visit Perdido Key
Perdido Key is a very family-oriented beach with a low traffic volume. That leads to far shorter lines at restaurants than you might find at peak mealtimes or seasons in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach. Perdido Beach Resort has an Alabama address, as does the Hilton Garden Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn & Suites, and Fairfield by Marriott.
Flora-Bama, considered by many to be the most famous beach bar in the USA, is located on Perdido Key. Some may argue about whether that makes the list of reasons families should visit, but it does host the Annual Mullet Toss where individuals compete in tossing mullets across the state line into Florida, and Flora-Bama hosts church services on Sundays.
Sunsets are photo-worthy on Perdido Key.
Fairhope North Beach Park
Fairhope, about 30 miles northwest of Gulf Shores, is named by many as one of the most beautiful towns in Alabama. With a premier location on Mobile Bay, Fairhope is filled with restaurants, boutiques, a picturesque downtown and a shoreline clearly indicating the pride of the townspeople. I love both the downtown and the waterfront areas of Fairhope and envy my friends who live there year-round.
Why Families Should Visit Fairhope North Beach Park
If you want the water, seafood, balmy breezes and sultry temperatures of the Gulf Coast without the pounding waves and potentially dangerous undertow, Fairhope is a great option. The North Beach Park has the white sand beach people expect at the Gulf. But it also has a paved walking trail, a pier, a duck pond, shaded picnic areas and mesmerizing views of Mobile Bay. Kids will love the playground equipment when they want a break from the water. And photographers will enjoy discovering the 500 species of trees along the cool, shady trail. The pier is one of the sites along the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail.
The pace is slower. And the setting is relaxed and beautiful. Within a short walk, you’ll find picnic tables, grills, a rose garden and a fountain. Non-residents are charged a small park admission fee in the summer months.
Grand Hotel at Point Clear
As a bonus suggestion, I want to mention the Grand Hotel at Point Clear. This tiny community is a mere five miles from Fairhope, still in Baldwin County and still on Mobile Bay. It encompasses a little over five square miles and is home to slightly more than 2000 residents. Point Clear has an interesting history of developing in the early 1800s when people from Mobile and New Orleans escaped there during yellow fever outbreaks thinking that the breezes off Mobile Bay led to healthier air. Then, during World War II, the Grand Hotel on Point Clear was commandeered into service as a base of operations for the U.S. Army Air Corps during Operation Ivory Soap.
Luxe and Lovely
The Grand Hotel is a luxurious splurge with every amenity you can name. The gorgeous pool, spa, grounds, guestrooms and onsite restaurants are dripping with Deep South charm. Golfers will love the Robert Trent Jones golf course, fishermen will appreciate the fly-fishing and kids will enjoy the waterslide, kayaking, biking, tennis, table tennis and the Fun Camp with a wide variety of kid-oriented games. The sandy beach area offers cabana rentals that include Bluetooth speaker access and a beverage refrigerator. I was there recently for an anniversary getaway with my husband and saw many families taking advantage of the impressive array of amenities and activities. Grandkids would have put our visit over the top.
Alabama Beaches FAQs
What beach has the clearest water in Alabama?
Gulf Shores, Alabama, is known for having some of the clearest water along its beautiful beaches, making it a popular destination for clear, blue waters. It’s also considered by many to be the prettiest beach in Alabama with white sands and Gulf of Mexico views.
Which is better Orange Beach or Gulf Shores?
Choosing between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama depends on personal preferences. Gulf Shores offers a livelier atmosphere with more attractions and events, while Orange Beach provides a quieter, family-oriented setting with beautiful beaches and waterfront dining.
The best time to visit Alabama’s beaches is during the spring and fall when the weather is pleasant, and the crowds are smaller, offering a more enjoyable and relaxed experience.
What is the best beach to take a dog to?
Dogs are not permitted on the Gulf Shores Public Beach. Leashed dogs may be brought to all of the Dauphin Island beaches, except for the West End where critical bird nesting sites are protected.
Alabama Beach Safety
My friends who own vacation rentals and beachfront condos on the Alabama Gulf Coast want to urge all visitors to the Gulf to heed the warning flags posted at the beaches. The Beach Flag Warning System is in place for protection and to prevent tragedy. Double red flags mean that the water is closed to the public, but there are important indications to notice before conditions get to that stage. Yellow and red flags indicate that dangerous surf and currents are likely, and dark blue/purplish flags signify the presence of dangerous marine life. Playing and swimming in the waves is so much fun. But accidents occur quickly if warnings are ignored.
Come to Alabama to enjoy blindingly white sand beaches, the sea oats dotting the ever-changing sand dunes and the clear, turquoise waters. Come for a weekend getaway, a week, or stay for months as the snowbirds do. Let the surf hypnotize you, then sink your teeth into a meal that will cause you to return year after year.