The Gulf of Mexico has been in our faces so long we’ve become myopic. We don’t even focus on other nearby waterways. It’s time to dip a paddle, cast a line, pedal a trail. Behind the dunes, there’s an overlooked world of water waiting for your recreation.
Even without an advertising blitz, water lovers from nearby states are popping up on the Orange Beach Canoe Trail. Soon to be dubbed the “Blueway, ” it’s a great place to wet their trunks.
The City of Orange Beach cobbled together two parks, a pair of boat launches and a six-pack of unused, beachy right-of-ways to create a low-cost tourist magnet. With the basic structure in place, amenities will gradually sprout up – a donated bench here, a grant for a dock there, a gift of strategic drinking fountains.
Each launch site provides an easy 2-mile adventure through scenic protected waters. Beginning just east of The Wharf, the trail runs along the Intracoastal, around the east end of Pleasure Island and down through the glitz of Cotton Bayou’s condo canyon.
Active on the Blueway
Canoeing and Fishing the String of Lakes
Like a strand of black gemstones, a series of lakes stretches from Gulf State Park’s eastern reaches to the historic lagoon where Gulf Shores was born.
During the week, canoes slide into Middle Lake from the park’s nature center. Naturalists Kelly Reitz and CJ Jarmon guide guests along the north shore of the pond, working it for plants and wildlife.
On any trip they might encounter a pair of river otters and their half-dozen kits, a repatriated bald eagle or a perched osprey with her hunting face on. Paddles dip, shutters click, memories freeze in time.
A blackwater canal swallows the adventurers. The brush-lined channel slithers through vegetation as passengers imagine a gator’s gaping maw at every twist. They travel in a cone of silence as marsh birds dart for cover and go mute at their approach. The canal opens into idyllic Little Lake with its dock and lone ranger’s cabin.
Lake Shelby, above, is the largest and most familiar of the interconnected ponds. It was named for Gilbert Shelby, a Florida-born fishing guide. “Gib” ferried sportsmen from the old Henrietta Hotel at Shellbanks to fish the coffee-colored, spring-fed water.
According to Dave Armstrong, of the state’s Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, hurricanes can change the pond’s character because it’s close to the Gulf.
Katrina pushed seawater across the highway and scoured Lake Shelby, flushing out its native fish and depositing saltwater dwellers like striped bass and redfish in their place. As groundwater gradually diluted the salt, the state restocked with channel catfish, sunfish and bass.
Trekking the Backcountry Trails
Just northwest of the Blueway’s terminus lies the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, a system of five byways transecting Gulf State Park’s wilderness.
The trails flow through coastal land and water features whose complexion has changed with every named storm. They pass through a cypress swamp, marshes, wetlands and a large pitcher plant bog.
Greenery shifts with each foot of elevation. Trail segments pass through wet and dry pine savannahs, relic scrub dunes and the towering oaks and magnolias of an old-growth maritime forest.
Phillip West, Orange Beach coastal resources manager, authored grants that eventually pieced the project together. He watched it grow from a spiderweb of local footpaths and two-tracks into a fully paved, wheelchair-accessible wander land.
The Gulf Oak Ridge Trail may be his favorite segment. At 35 feet, it’s the highest point in the park. The trail follows an ancient pathway along its crest.
“It’s where natives came up out of the wetlands and settled, ” says West. “Archaeologists discovered a pretty good-sized village that they estimate was inhabited by several Native American cultures from about 2000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.”
Today’s trail bypasses the village, leaving the site unmarked and undisturbed.
The Rosemary Dunes Trailhead is adjacent to state Highway 182. It’s named for the fragrant beach herb sprinkled generously through the mounds of sand. As on all the trails, its grade gives cyclists the illusion of pedaling slightly uphill in either direction.
A half mile up the byway, a seep swamp oozes beside the pavement. A three-legged gator suns his leathered self nearby. A waterside bench, thoughtfully placed by “Friends of Opportunity, ” looks suspiciously like the amphibian’s snack bar. Tarry cautiously here!
Don Klee and Ray Tucker travel the trails daily. As kids, polio’s grip robbed these snowbirds of their two-wheeled freedom. A half century later, they glide through the park on hand bikes propelled by upper body strength.
Apparently it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. You can almost hear long-suppressed peals of delight as the pair cruise the trails.
After a career creating fine cabinetry, the Backcountry Trails enticed Klee to buy a winter home near the park. He crafted and donated the distance markers that keep users oriented. He also sponsored one of the many benches that dot the park, dedicated to the parents who encouraged his limitless living.
Hiking Around Little Lagoon
The boardwalks at Wade Ward Nature Park, on the west side of U.S. Highway 59, are a great spot to watch otters and pelicans swim and fish in wetlands connecting Lake Shelby to the lagoon.
Bicycles may be the best way to get around on the state park’s paved nature trails, but the pathways on the north side of Little Lagoon are little more than sand tracks. They are easier traveled on foot. There are two access points in the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge.
The trailhead for the one-mile Jeff Friend Trail is across from the Peninsula Golf Club. The trail loops through inland marshes and a maritime forest thick with pines, live oaks, palmetto bushes, scrub brush and wildflowers. Natural beaches, clear water and sandy bottoms here show how the whole lagoon once looked.
Farther west lies the Pine Beach Trail, which stretches from the Fort Morgan Highway to the water. There it passes between the tip of the lagoon and Gator Lake (caution: no swimming!) and through rolling dune fields to the Gulf. The invigorating hike is a mile and three quarters each way through almost every imaginable coastal habitat.
Preserving the Community
Long before anyone imagined Gulf Shores as a destination, immigrant families settled on the north banks of Little Lagoon. Since the mid-1800s, they’ve lived lives in sync with the brackish water’s ebb and flow.
Joy Buskens Robinson descended from these folk. The 70-year-old grandmother has lived most of her life in an area she calls “the community.” Grandfather Lee Callahan owned a fish house, grocery store and a dozen tourist cottages here beside the lagoon. Robinson remembers life here 50 years ago, before electricity or running water reached the peninsula. Local families made a good living fishing the lagoon.
“The men used to catch thousands of pounds of fish a week. Now, you only catch a hundred pounds here, a hundred there. There is less blue crab, and it’s rare to catch a mess of mullet, ” she says.
While condos and beach houses have replaced most working family dwellings around Little Lagoon, large undeveloped tracts still remain.
Exploring the Undiscovered
Gulf waters and sandy beaches are now lower Baldwin’s life flow, drawing guests from around the world. In transit, visitors often bypass the ocean’s backwater cousins. While concerns over Gulf purity linger in the not-so-distant past, these fresh and brackish gems slowly
develop their own luster. Hike them; bike them; canoe them. Just get out in the open air and experience nature in one of its purest forms.