Editor's note: This post is part of the Eighth Day Escape adventure series and contest by Parks Explorer. Throughout this year, Parks Explorer will share trip ideas, staff stories, activity suggestions, and much more from each Alabama State Park. These monthly posts will be personal accounts of traveling Park Naturalist Emily Vanderford, where she details her park adventures and experiences in the unique natural areas across the state. While reading about park adventures is not nearly as meaningful as experiencing them first-hand, Parks Explorer wants you to know just how many opportunities there are for you to enjoy Alabama the beautiful.

The Eighth Day Escape Contest began January 8, 2016 and will conclude January 8, 2017. Monthly winners will be randomly selected each month and the grand prize winner will be drawn January 8, 2017. Click here for contest entry forms and more information. Be sure to enjoy previous monthly adventures also: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMay (Part I),May (Part II)JuneJulyAugust (Part I), August (Part II)


Escape to Gulf State Park

This is my favorite time of year for going to the beach. There are fewer crowds, pleasant weather, and great rates on park accommodations (cabins, cottages, the Outpost, and campground). I was thrilled that this month’s Escape was scheduled for Gulf State Park, and I hope it will inspire you to enjoy a trip to the Gulf coast this fall. There are so many ways to fill your time at Gulf State Park, and our 4 day stay certainly wasn’t long enough to experience everything the park has to offer. We did our best, though, and made some great memories with an outdoor-loving 15 month old.

One of my favorite moments of the trip was walking into the nature center and watching my toddler immediately run to the white-tailed deer mount. He was completely captivated by the deer along with all the other things to see in the center. Park naturalist Kelly Reetz along with her assistant, CJ Jarmon, have created an amazing atmosphere for learning about the nature that can be seen in and around Gulf State Park. On any given day, you might see live reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, mammals, and insects. There are skins of native mammals, shells once used by sea-dwelling critters, and many other learning exhibits to help connect people with the natural world. I can’t think of a time that I visited with Kelly in the nature center and didn’t learn something new. The same holds true for the nature programs hosted by the park. You can always check the weekly calendar to see what’s planned during your visit. The Pier Walk has always been one of my favorites so we made sure to schedule that into our trip. Pier Walks are hosted by the nature center and showcase amazing facts about the marine resources in the Gulf of Mexico.

  

While we were on the pier walk, our guide CJ shared that this had been a really great year for sea turtles - over 200 nests were laid on the Alabama coastline this year! Sea turtle nesting season lasts from May 1 to October 31, with most turtles laying their eggs on the beach during the months of May through August. The eggs hatch after about 60 days, and the baby turtles then make the journey down the beach back to sea. The Share the Beach program is a volunteer organization tasked with patrolling the beach, educating the public and school groups about the endangered species, late-night nest observation and assisting with supply and equipment preparations during nesting season. As nests near their expected hatching dates, volunteers prepare to assist the hatchlings with their journey to the ocean. There was a nest near the Gulf State Park Pavilion nearing its hatching date and Share the Beach volunteers were assembling nightly to watch the nest and wait for hatching. I joined them a couple of nights in hopes of being able to witness the nest hatching, but my trip came to an end before the turtles hatched. For now, watching sea turtles hatch will have to remain on my bucket list. 

Wildlife watching at the park really is top notch. With so many different ecosystems to explore, the diversity of plant and animal life to see is impressive – bald eagles, osprey, eastern cottontails, loggerhead sea turtles, broad-headed skinks, gopher tortoises, alligators, sea oats, gulf bluestem, white-topped pitcher plants, and longleaf pine, just to name a few. Healthy ecosystems are dependent upon active management of our natural resources. Land managers are tasked with understanding the habitat needs of plants and animals, and making scientifically-sound management decisions which best conserve these resources. I always enjoy seeing habitat improvement projects in action, so I was glad to explore the park with Kelly and see some of the habitat restoration work that is underway. She pointed out some of the areas of longleaf pine that have recently been thinned and mulched to improve gopher tortoise habitat. We also talked about the importance of prescribed burning in the park to maintain the habitat of fire-dependent plant and animal species. Prescribed fire can help ensure ecosystem health & reduce wildfire risk by reducing excessive understory vegetation and encouraging new growth of native vegetation. This new native plant growth provides food for many wildlife species, and the natural disturbance created by fire allows for an increase in the number of plant species in an area. Additionally, prescribed fire and mulching are great tools to help with the reduction of invasive plant species that can crowd out the important native species.

The trails at the park are also great ways to explore, and provide great opportunities to watch wildlife while you walk or bike. As progress continues on the Gulf State Park Project, new trails are being added to enhance your experience at the park. Thanks to rental bikes from the camp store, my family and I took advantage of some of these new trails while we were there. My favorite bike ride of the trip, though, was an early morning ride on our last day in the park. I snuck out of our cozy cabin just as the sun was coming up, and made my way to the campground where I started my ride. I saw more rabbits than I could count, and all kinds of songbirds. I rode out to one of the new overlooks and took in the morning view of Lake Shelby and the Gulf Shores skyline. It was the perfect start to the day. Be sure to check out the Gulf State Park Master Plan to learn more about the trail additions featuring boardwalks, bridges, and beautiful overlooks. 

Each month when I sit down to write about my latest adventure in the Eighth Day Escape series, I struggle to find words that accurately depict the time I spent in the park(s). Truthfully, I'm not sure words are ever adequate when talking about our parks. That was especially true as I wrote about Gulf State Park - there is truly something for everyone. I hope you will make plans to adventure at the park very soon!

Suggestions for your next trip to Gulf State Park:

  

 


ENTER TO WIN THIS MONTH'S GULF STATE PARK PRIZE PACK:

  • Daily fishing permit with rental rod
  • 1 day bike rental from the camp store 
  • 18 holes of golf with cart at the Refuge Golf Club
  • Beach bag and towel

 

Go Explore!

Email Parks.Explorer@dcnr.alabama.gov with any questions about Parks Explorer content.

Thursday, September 8, 2016