Archive for March, 2015

Winding through woods and wetlands

You probably know that you can enjoy long walks on the beach in South Alabama.

But did you know you also could enjoy long walks through woods and wetlands in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach?

There are nature trails teeming with birds, deer and other animals, barely a mile from the beaches. They take you through Gulf State Park, along Fort Morgan Road and through Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail, which offers seven routes and six different ecosystems, each with its own memorable attractions.

The Backcountry Trail is a network of 14 miles of paved trails, with plenty of benches and swings for those who want to sit back and enjoy nature. The paths are 10-12 feet wide and mostly flat. Even most of the inclines are gentle, so it’s not uncommon to see three generations of a family sharing a trail, each member going at his or her own pace.

Decisions, decisions
The only hard part about the Backcountry Trail is deciding which route to take and how to enjoy it: walking, bicycling, jogging, on a Segway or via a two-hour eco-tour in a sheltered golf cart with 2014-2015 Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Annual Vacation Guides © 2014 Courtland William RichardsAll Rights Reserveda guide explaining the flora and fauna. And there are dozens of geocaches to be discovered if you’re in an exploring mood.

On this particular day, I have 75 minutes between business appointments, so I decide to walk along Catman Trail, named for a mythical half-man, half-panther.
It’s 2 o‘clock on a school day, too early for kids to climb the rock wall next to the Butterfly Garden or explore the bluff or look for white-tailed deer in the woods or marvel at “Lefty,” the resident alligator who sometimes suns herself on the banks of a pond.

Hugh Branyon Backcountry TrailMost of the folks on Catman Trail today are adults walking or bicycling.
It’s funny how we change when we’re enjoying nature. In a city or a mall, we might pass each other without a word, but in the woods we exchange friendly greetings with strangers and share tips on what to see. The only exception is a woman who is speed walking along the path while talking loudly into an iPhone, her eyes straight ahead, oblivious to the Southern magnolias, slash pines, frogs and birds all around her.

“Lady,” I want to say, “you’re missing the whole point of a walk in the woods.”

But I’m several hundred yards along on my walk, the sound of travelers on Highway 161 already lost in the gentle breeze. I am now Mellow Mark, living and letting live.
I spot an armadillo on the side of the path. He’s busy snuffling through leaves.
People stop to take photos, but the armadillo keeps foraging, ignoring the paparazzi.
“He’s the same armadillo that was here last year,” a woman says.
Her husband asks, “How can you be sure?”
“He was in the same spot last year,” she declares.
While the husband and wife check out the armadillos, it’s time for me to move on.

Cotton Bayou Trail
The sun is bright but shaded by the trees, ideal for stretching my legs as I proceed along Catman Trail and turn onto Cotton Bayou Trail, the latest addition to the Backcountry Trail.

It’s smart land use: Much of the trail was spliced together from rights of way and existing hunting paths largely abandoned years ago.

Now it’s accessible to anyone who wants to savor nature and the outdoors. The Trailway connects with the Gulf State Park, which has its own trails, fishing and cabins, and it’s very close to the paved 5-mile nature walk along Fort Morgan Road.
While Catman Trail is busy with people, Cotton Bayou Trail is secluded.

I meet only two people and one leashed dog in a 20-minute stretch, giving me plenty of time to Alabama Coastal Birding Trailstudy the cattails and moss-hung trees and peer into the woods in search of foxes and coyotes. The trees draw such a large mix of birds that this is a popular stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail.

There’s more than nature here, too. There’s a humbling history lesson when we realize that American settlers traveled in this same area in the 1700s, and Native Americans came through these woods long before the Europeans.

Now I must head back, which is never a problem on the Backcountry Trail. It has numerous helpful signs, so many that not even a city slicker can get lost. There are more armadillos along the way, plus carnivorous pitcher plants and the rat-a-tat-tat noise of an industrious woodpecker somewhere nearby.

Everyone is friendly and smiling, whether they’re just starting their adventure or heading back to the parking lot. By 3:05 p.m. I’m in my car, refreshed and ready again for the world of work (although I secretly hope that my next appointment is cancelled and I can explore the nature trails some more.)

A few weeks later, I get my opportunity. With a free afternoon ahead of me, I book a spot on the guided eco-tour. For the next few hours, I ride in the covered electric golf cart while the tour guide takes us on an exploration of the Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail. We ventured down the Gulf Oak Ridge Trail, admiring the view from the island’s highest bluff–34 feet above sea level. As we reached the Overlook, we were all astounded by the sight of the lovely valley below. As our tour continued, we spotted alligators sunning themselves along the Middle Lake Trail, and birds aplenty on Bear Creek Trail. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of turtles basking in the afternoon sun along Middle Lake Overlook Trail, and we ended at the Butterfly Garden. Surrounded by butterflies, our small group enjoyed a picnic lunch in that serene atmosphere.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer so many nature trails and tours, it’s impossible to choose a favorite. Each provides an opportunity to view and appreciate the beautiful scenery and wildlife of the area, whether walking, jogging, biking, or taking an eco-tour! No matter what you choose, the nature trails of the Alabama Gulf Coast are easy to appreciate.

For a video preview of each path and ecosystem in the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, see

Guided Segway Tour of nature trails: 1-251-509-TOUR

Golf cart tour of flora and fauna on the Backcountry Trail

Learn more about the nature trails in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and start planning your visit today!

Mark O’Brien (1 Posts)Mark O’Brien lives in nearby Pensacola, Fla. and frequently spends weekends in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. His favorite seasons are spring and fall, when the weather is especially inviting for exploring woods and

March 2015.


Pensacola Bay Area Camping

Pensacola Bay Area Camping

Primitive, standard, or posh, on a lake or on the gulf, Pensacola has it

by Mark O’Brien

What’s your pleasure, campers? Fishing, primitive, traditional, or posh? Pensacola has all four options, and they all offer nature, recreation and relaxation on your terms. The settings: two barrier islands and one inland lake.

Fish the fresh waters of a quiet lake with the breeze wafting through tall pine trees around you. Camp on a Gulf of Mexico beach as pristine as it was when a Spanish explorer found it in 1693. Pitch your tent, or park your RV in the shadow of an historic fort, the gulf on one side, and a placid bay on the other within easy reach of modern conveniences. Or, experience the beauty and culture from the comfort of an upscale RV park in the heart of Pensacola Beach in view of sparkling water, and a short walk from dozens of restaurants, clubs and shops.

Freshwater fishing

Beginning the tour 40 miles north of Pensacola, Lake Stone Campground offers the combination of camping and fishing. The 77 campsites handle everything from tents to big RV rigs. Fishing is the main attraction for many visitors, drawn by a 130-acre manmade lake that is home to largemouth bass, bream, catfish, crappie and more. Boaters are welcome, but to keep the peace, no noisy gasoline motors; only electric trolling motors are allowed. Of course, any savvy angler knows a boat isn’t necessary for a good day of fishing. Even so, “fishing fingers” extend into the lake to put anglers in the middle of the action.

Primitive camping

At Perdido Key on Johnson Beach, you can camp old-school on a pristine beach overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. You can even have a campfire, but you have to earn primitive camping by hiking a half mile. There aren’t any restrooms, showers or convenience stores nearby, so pack accordingly. And, as always, pack it in and pack it out.

Once your eyes catch sight of the moon and stars through the unpolluted, extra dark sky, you’ll be confident your efforts have been more than reimbursed. You’ll actually have two water views, the gulf on one side and a more placid lagoon on the other. If you’ve brought the gear, wake up and go paddle boarding, kayaking, surfing, or just enjoy nature at its most basic.

Perdido Key is one of America’s top beaches, according to “Dr. Beach,” geologist Stephen Leatherman, who praised its clean water and open vistas. The primitive camping area, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, is patrolled by rangers, but otherwise you will see only a few other campers—a great example of how camping gives us rare views and memorable adventures.

Traditional camping

Santa Rosa Island has a wide variety of selections for campers and RVers. Fort Pickens (Gulf Islands National Seashore), at the island’s west end, is packed with history, nature, biking and walking trails. You also may enjoy a front row seat for awe-inspiring air shows and practices by the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s fight demonstration team.

The 200 campsites, for tents, fifth-wheelers and RVs, are on the Santa Rosa Sound (north) side of the island, close to a fishing pier, restrooms, showers and other amenities. The gulf is just a two- minute walk south across the narrow island. Either way, enjoy eye-catching scenery and a nature setting that’s a great playground for kids and adults alike. Explore the shoreline at your own pace; watch fish dart through the clear water, look for special sea shells, or simply enjoy whatever delight you happen to come across.

Birds flock to the mix of trees and waterways. Look high in that tree and you will see an osprey. Out there, over the water, you can see loons, herons and other birds searching for their next meal.

There’s plenty for campers to do indoors as well. A museum tells the story of Fort Pickens, built before the Civil War and later converted into a prison.

Another traditional camping gem is Big Lagoon State Park. This site is a blend of convenience and nature. Complete with facilities such as restrooms, showers, fire rings and picnic tables, it’s known especially for being quiet. With a wide array of trails at Big Lagoon, hiking, biking and bird watching abound. Of course, there’s also easy access to the beach for calm, scenic kayaking, or for just dipping your toes in the water.

Upscale RV resorts

You’ll find the impeccably manicured Perdido Cove RV Resort and Marina just across the bridge from Big Lagoon State Park. Located off of Tranquility Lane, 14 of the 56 RV sites are beachfront. As far as hookups go, this resort has the gamut: 30/50 amp electricity, water, sewer, cable, Wi-Fi, propane, swimming pool, general store, playground and much more. With a laidback feel for guests, this resort is high-class with a friendly staff.

The Pensacola Beach RV Resort is not your father’s campground. Its 72 sites are near the heart of Pensacola Beach’s entertainment area. Amenities include power, water, sewer and cable hookups, plus Wi-Fi. The resort sits on the north side of Santa Rosa Island. Its property extends to the sound beach—an ideal wading depth for small, supervised children.

The RV Resort is a great spot to park your home-away-from-home for Blue Angel air shows, free Tuesday evening concerts and the annual Taste of the Beach culinary festival, which features a celebrity chef. Rental shops provide jet skis, paddle boards and boats. The easily accessible eco-trail takes you close to nature and helps you work up an appetite for the island’s celebrated restaurants. Best of all, Pensacola’s climate makes camping a treat almost any time of year.




Pensacola good then, better now

March is always one of my favorite months. I was born in March. Spring comes in March, daylight lengthens and the sun glows longer and brighter.

And I moved to Pensacola in a March — March 1978, to be precise.

Say, Uncle Mark, what was Pensacola like in those long-ago days?

I’m glad you asked.

Passengers had to walk outdoors to board or disembark aircraft at Pensacola Municipal Airport, its old name long before it became Pensacola Intergalactic Airport. On the plus side, you could double-park outside the terminal and no one would think anything of it.

Our rental car was a yellow Ford Pinto with a CB radio (handy for calling for help since Pintos tended to catch fire in collisions.)

The area around then-Pensacola Junior College flooded at the first hint of rain, and the University of West Florida accepted only juniors and seniors. UWF was so lame in those days that its bookstore sold The National Enquirer, hardly a hefty academic tome.

The Driftwood was the classiest restaurant in town, ideal for celebrating special events like anniversaries. Or the departure of guests who stayed too long.

Palafox Street was fading fast. It was home to old-time establishments like The Child Restaurant, Albert Klein Jewelers, and Trader Jon’s, a bar full of Navy memorabilia, tipsy lawyers and judges, and strippers.

No one could imagine how fabulous downtown Pensacola would become; consumers were all bound for University Mall, then the hottest shopping spot in town, ahead of Cordova and Westwood malls.

The King’s Inn on Gregory Street and the Sheraton Inn, both long-gone, were the places where middle-aged people hung out. McGuire’s was a new place in town, located on Fairfield Drive, trying to make a name for itself with good food and a celebration for something called St. Patrick’s Day.

Lawyers couldn’t advertise then, not the way they can now. Can you imagine today’s media without the drumbeat of LevinKerriganShunnarah advertising?

Cigarette smoke filled the air in every restaurant, workplace and public area. Almost all bosses were white guys and all employers expected outsiders to take a pay cut to move here because “Pensacola is cheaper.” (Some things never change.) They still call it the Bermuda Triangle, but the intersections of Ninth, Tippin and Langley avenues was a major Malfunction Junction in 1978, with no traffic lights. It was every driver for herself.

Gulf Breeze was just a sleepy place you drove through on the way to Pensacola Beach, not the thriving community it is now.

Pensacola Beach had lots of little cottages that would blow away in Hurricane Frederic later in 1978, opening the way for the first round of bigbucks development.

One of the beach’s hot spots was the lounge at the Holiday Inn, which also was home to Sunday Mass for Catholics.

Neither Pensacola Beach nor Perdido Key had yet discovered the value of “shoulder season” — spring and fall — and snowbirds in winter. Their economies rode on summer alone.

Times then were good, but overall they’re much better now, so Uncle Mark plans to stay here another 37 years.