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Upgrades ahead for Gulf State Park

By Emmett Burnett

Nearly 12 years ago, Hurricane Ivan devastated Alabama Gulf State Park, demolishing the convention center, wrecking facilities, and erasing sand dunes. Orange Beach/Gulf Shores’ beachside playground was gone with the wind. But today the winds of change are blowing for the better.

Major upgrades are in store for the state’s wilderness wonder, visited annually by 600,000 people and served by Baldwin EMC. It is part of the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project, administered by the University of Alabama System, and with secured funding of $135 million. The project was launched through an $85.5 million allocation of early restoration dollars from the BP oil spill. In 2016, shovels hit the sand.

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On the beach where the 1970s convention center used to be, a new one is coming. But this one will be a lodge, physically smaller, with approximately 350 rooms, meeting spaces, restaurants, and other features architecturally smarter, and environmentally friendlier.

In addition, more than 50 football fields’ worth of sand dune restoration work is under way to replace the Ivan-ravaged coastline. Dunes are not just pretty, according to project officials, but are vital for wildlife habitat and wind and surf protection. But beach work is just the tip of the sandcastle.

“Everyone recognizes the tremendous asset we have with Gulf State Park,” says Cooper Shattuck, executive director for the University of Alabama System project. But people do not realize how large an area Gulf State Park encompasses. “The beach is just a piece – granted, a two-mile long gorgeous piece – but the park land covers 6,000 acres.”

Even many longtime Baldwin and Mobile County residents do not realize the vastness. Turn off the beach highway to the winding roads of Coyote Crossing, Rattlesnake Ridge, and Cotton Bayou. Adventure awaits, as colorful as the roads leading to it. Whether your interests are a fishing cork bobbing in the surf or a golf ball bobbing on the 9th hole, there is something here for you.

About 10 miles of new walking, cycling and running trails will be built as part of the enhancement project. Photo courtesy of Alabama Gulf Coast CVB
About 10 miles of new walking, cycling and running trails will be built as part of the enhancement project.
Photo courtesy of Alabama Gulf Coast CVB

And for those tiring of the beaches – if that’s possible – the park has three inland lakes: Little, Middle and Shelby. Secluded cabins dot the shorelines. Hiking, bicycle trails, wildlife observation areas, sailing, kayaking, canoeing opportunities are around each corner. And look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane! No, it’s a 30 mph Ohio snowbird, zip-lining across treetops. And you can, too.

For the camping purist, last summer Gulf State Park premiered its newest attraction, the Outpost Campsites: Bonanza, the Duke and the Alamo. Each has tents that sleep four, already set up. Each comes with a bathroom, about 3/10 of a mile away; a public bathhouse is also included, about two miles away.

For less primitive wilderness experiences, more like Daniel Boone with a microwave oven, try one of 20 cabins and 11 cottages, minutes from sandy saltwater shores. Some cabins line the lake in a pristine wilderness community. Others are on individual lots, nestled almost hidden from road view, with exclusive access to guests and occasional free range pelicans.

Much more is coming. “There is nothing like it in the U.S.,” Shattuck notes about what is constantly a top Alabama tourist destination. “It is a unique piece of property. For a state to have such a small piece of coastline, the vision to have a state park is incredible.”

He adds, “Things have changed so much since the convention center was built in the 1970s. Construction materials, designs, and people’s expectations are different, too, and we will meet those expectations. This will not be a tower plopped down on the sand.”

The new lodge is set to open in spring 2018. New sand dunes are set to open this year. Some assembly required.

Dune fencing is used to trap sand from blowing wind, which helps to restore the dunes. Photo by Emmett Burnett
Dune fencing is used to trap sand from blowing wind, which helps to restore the dunes. Photo by Emmett Burnett

Do not think of a dune as a mound of sand. “Think of it as a living organism. It’s like a body,” says Jill Allen Dixon of Sasaki Associates and dune restoration project manager. “The front part is the first line of defense against storms but there are other, secondary layers. Dunes also are wildlife habitats.

“Dunes grow over time,” she adds. “Currents in the gulf pick up sand and redistribute it along the Gulf Coast. The dunes are always changing and restoring” themselves. And they get by with a little help from a friend.

The restoration project teams will be ‘seeding’ dunes with discarded Christmas trees and building ‘dune fences,’ both designed to trap and hold sand in place until the natural structure is established. The project will move relatively fast, possibly within a month, according to workers. But it will be monitored for at least a year, to check progress.

Building a lodge to replace the convention center and dune restoration are two of the park’s five key components. The others include:

  • Enhancing the visitor experience – including about 10 miles of new walking, cycling, and running trails and approximately 3.5 miles of enhancements to existing park trails will be built/implemented throughout the park.
  • Building an environmental information center – An interactive exhibit space is planned for hosting meetings and educational spaces. The new facility will feature indoor and outdoor educational information devoted to the unique coastal environment.
  • Creating a research and education center – the new building’s component will be designed to expand capacity for research and education programs through its educational spaces and laboratories for researchers, including K-12 students.

But for most people, the park’s education system is self-study, on its golf course, pine forest picnic tables, or the Gulf State Pier, extending 1,500 feet offshore. Alabama Gulf State Park is one of America’s only public playgrounds with ocean shores and thick forests in the same park. And much more is coming.

For more information, visit: www.alapark.com/gulf-state-park.com