Dauphin Island – a Treasure Island for Nature Lovers
Remember your last trip to the beach? Digging your toes into warm sand, feeling cool splashes of salty water on your skin, relaxing in the calming sounds of the waves, breathing in the ocean air and breathing out pure happiness? My soul has longed for the beach ever since we moved from Maryland to Mississippi a year ago. Finally, after doing a little research and talking to friends here in Jackson, I booked a short 3-day stay at Dauphin Island, AL. It is one of the favorite go-to beach getaways for the locals. And I now understand why. It is a slice of heaven here on earth.
It is only four hours away – a very doable trip, even with young children. There are plenty of housing opportunities available, including inns, hotels and houses or condos for rent. We rented our little house through VRBO.com. It was a smooth process. Well, except for the fact we got into the wrong house first (the address matched and the key worked!) – but that’s another story.
While looking for a place to rent, I tried to find one as close to the beach as possible. Once we were on the island, we realized the beach was pretty much everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I understand an island is, by definition, “land surrounded by water”. But I didn’t know there are four beautiful public beaches, evenly distributed along the sides of the island. And each one is beautiful and unique in its own way. The island is only 14 miles long, and only 1 ¾ miles wide at the widest point! I went for a run one morning and hit the waterline pretty quickly. I ran the opposite direction the next day, and less than 2 miles away ended up on the beach again. Next time we go, I won’t bother looking for a house closer to the beach. Anywhere on the island is as close as it can be.
Things To Do
It is pretty fascinating: we were on such a small piece of land for such a short time, yet it feels like we were exploring this majestic island and were enjoying our adventures for at least a month. There’s so much to do! That is, if you want to do anything at all. Because if you feel like relaxing on the beach all day every day, Dauphin Island is perfect for that, too.
West End Beach
This beach is truly one-of-a-kind. It’s located on the narrowest part of the island, so while on one side of the island strip you’re facing the Gulf of Mexico with its big waves, if you turn 180 degrees you’ll face the peaceful waters of the bay, completely smooth and crystal clear. We started off by playing in the waves. That’s the fun side of the shore, but also the one that requires adult supervision and floatation devices if you have preschoolers. When we got a little tired of being tossed in the waves, we walked over to the bay side where the kids could play in the water, make sand castles and generally be free to enjoy the beach the way they wanted to. Swimming as the sun was setting was a beautiful experience. A movie on the beach was a cherry on top. Everyone gathered around a pavilion by a large screen and enjoyed a family movie together. The children often talk about that night.
Know & Go: The beach is open from June through September (Labor Day). Entrance fees are $3.00 to park plus $3.00 per person over 12 years old. There are restrooms, showers, a food vendor and chair rentals on site. On Sundays when there is a “Sunset Concert”, an hour and a half before the concert begins the fee at the gate will be $5.00 per person (13 years and older).
This is a very large beach with plenty of parking. It has everything one might need for a day in the sun in comfort: showers, bathrooms, changing rooms, pavilions, picnic tables. We chose this one on the day of our trip back home. We were able to spend a few hours soaking in the remains of our mini-vacation, and then rinsed off, changed and had a picnic before our 4-hour drive back home.
Know & Go: The parking fee is $5. The walk from the parking lot with all the facilities to the actual beach takes about 5 minutes. Be prepared. It’s totally worth it though.
East End Beach
This one is lovely. You’ll find the expected white sandy beach here, as well as a few nice piers to fish from, and beautiful rocks that make a great photo op, if you wanted to take some family pictures. The afternoon we spent on East End Beach we saw at least six families dressed in white taking pictures. You don’t have to wear white. But do consider this spot for a beach photoshoot – it is truly beautiful.
Know & Go: The beach is free to enter. But keep in mind: parking is limited. So come early.
Unless you know it’s there, it comes as a BIG surprise. We knew to look for it, but on the way to East End Beach – well, let’s just say it’s hard to miss. The well-preserved ramparts of Fort Gaines have guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay for more than 150 years. Now a historic site, the Fort stands at the eastern tip of Dauphin Island where it commands panoramic views of the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The fort has original cannons, a blacksmith shop, kitchens, a museum, gift shop, and tunnels. Fort Gaines provides guided tours done by a soldier in period uniform. Cannon firing demonstration and blacksmithing really bring history to life.
Know & Go: Admission is $4 for children (ages 5 -12) and $8 for adults.
More information here.
The Estuarium and the Sea Laboratory
This exciting public aquarium highlights the four key habitats of coastal Alabama. There are 31 aquariums with more than 100 species on display. The exhibits are hands-on and rather fascinating. Don’t miss the 7000-gallon stingray touch pool!
Know & Go: Admission is $6 for children or students with ID, $11.00 for adults and $9 for seniors. More details here.
Audubon Bird Sanctuary
The Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary is 164 acres of beautiful woodlands with miles of walking trails through pines, oaks, magnolias and swamps along Gulf beaches. There are hundreds of bird species represented on the island. Dauphin Island is classified as a Globally Import Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy, and is well known as one of the best places in the country to see “neotropical migrants” – a term for those flying south each fall to the tropics, and north each spring.
One of the trails takes you to the beach. This one is the most private and secluded of them all. We thoroughly enjoyed it.
During the three days on the island, we went to Audubon Bird Sanctuary three times. I guess it is safe to say this was our favorite spot on Dauphin Island. Every time we explored the park, we stopped by the swamps to see the turtles, all the different birds fishing, and possibly an alligator. As much as we hoped to, we didn’t see any alligators.
On the morning of our departure, I went for a run and looped into Audubon Bird Sanctuary one last time. I glanced at the swamp and was about to leave, when a tan woman with long gray hair came to feed the turtles. She had some bread – and sure enough, within minutes she had at least 15 turtles of various kinds and sizes swimming all around the pier, catching their breakfast in the water. We started talking. This woman has lived on Dauphin Island for 14 years. She comes to feed the turtles every morning, but often has to stop halfway through the feeding… when the alligator shows up. Because everybody knows feeding alligators is a terrible idea. I thought maybe I should stick around for just a few minutes. I’m glad I did. The alligator was there just as she said. We stayed away from it of course, and remained at a safe distance. My newly befriended local guide shared lots of other stories about the island. And when I told her no one was going to believe that I had seen that alligator, she pulled out her phone and took a picture for me. She sent it to me as a text message, and I’m sharing it with you here. It really was an incredible experience.
Know & Go: There is no bathroom on site. The park is open for the public early morning to sunset. There is no entrance fee.
More details here.
There are a few fishing piers at the beginning of the Dauphin Island bridge. The Dauphin Island Marina and the Cedar Point pier both sell tackle and bait and have fishing gear to rent for a small fee. Both adults and children are welcome here, and it’s a favorite spot for many.
We bought all of our groceries before going to the island (the store options are limited, and everything is slightly more expensive than on the mainland). But we did want to try some of the local foods. I asked a few island residents, and they all recommended Skinner Seafood. Their freshly harvested medium size Gulf Shrimp were only $5 per pound, and huge! The jumbo ones – as long as the palm of my hand. You can buy steamed shrimp or crawfish (when they’re in season), or get a whole meal with your choice of seafood, sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob. The shrimp were so good we brought three pounds back home.
Our time on Dauphin Island was magical. In the short time we were there, we saw pelicans, herons, seagulls, egrets, ospreys, hawks, stingrays, alligators, dolphins, ghost crabs (easiest to see at night, with a flashlight) – these are just a few beautiful creatures we shared the island with. Plenty of room for everyone!
Dauphin Island is only four hours away from Jackson. And the water is warm enough to enjoy the beach through the end of October, sometimes even early November. We are truly blessed to live where summers are long, and the sugar-white beaches are only a few hours away.