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A Long Local History

Nature's been luring people here for a very long time

Alabama may have celebrated its 200th birthday in 2019, but people have been calling the rolling tides of the Gulf Coast home for a whole lot longer.

Gulf State Park opened in 1939, but it took a little longer before the neighbors made it official. The two cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach that bookend the park are much younger. The City of Gulf Shores incorporated as the Town of Gulf Shores in 1956, while the City of Orange Beach incorporated as recently as 1984. But don’t let this apparent youth fool you, these communities have existed for many generations.

Baldwin County where the two communities and the park are located is older still. It’s the largest county in Alabama and was created by the Mississippi Territorial Legislature in December 1809, ten years before Alabama became a state.

Click through a brief history of Gulf State Park via the interactive timeline below.

13,500 BCE

The Paleo-Indians, who lived here as far back as 13,500 years ago come to the region to hunt the American mastodon.

1500 BCE

Native people begin to make pottery and shell mounds.

1250 BCE

Mississippian people begin to build sand mounds and canals.


Woodland Period tribes hunt and gather along the Gulf and the surrounding forests and lakes. They built villages, shell mounds, and long-distance trade routes with other tribes.


Hernando de Soto and his conquistadors land along the Gulf Coast. The Spanish explorers followed native paths–like Gulf Oak Ridge–through the Gulf Coast's forests.


Harvesting pine sap in the 1800s for waterproofing ships and making turpentine devastated the longleaf pine savanna. Today, Longleaf Pine restoration is a priority in the park.


The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) begins constructing the Park’s original buildings and trails. Remnants of the old CCC work camp are still visible near the Learning Campus.


Gulf State Park officially opens on May 20th 1939.


People come from far and wide to Gulf State Park when bus service starts making regular trips from Mobile to Gulf Shores in the late 1940s. By the 1950s, the region has become a popular recreation area.


The first saltwater pier is built. One of the most popular assets of the park, it was destroyed by Hurricane Frederic in 1979, rebuilt and destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and rebuilt again in 2009.


The original Lodge opened in 1974 and quickly became an iconic centerpiece of the community.


When Hurricane Ivan makes landfall on September 16, 2004 it devastates the Park. This Category 3 storm broke the pier into three sections, destroyed the old lodge and adjacent buildings and flooded the majority of the park with saltwater.


The Nature Center opens. This living museum introduces visitors to the region’s native plants and animals. Park naturalists offer a variety of weekly educational programs.


Through the Gulf State Park Enhancement project, trails throughout the Park are improved, expanded, and enhanced. Today there are more than 28 miles of trails to explore during your stay.


The Lodge, Learning Campus and Interpretive Center open. The innovative sustainable construction methods alongside environmental restoration help Gulf State Park become an international benchmark for sustainable tourism.


Eagle Cottages at Gulf State Park becomes a National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World destination.

dunes on the beach at Gulf State Park

Early History

The Gulf of Mexico’s Long Memory

The Paleo-Indians, who lived here as far back as 13,500 years hunting the American mastodon eventually gave way to complex and connected communities of native peoples all along the Gulf Coast.

Thriving and Complex Communities

More than 600 years ago, the Mississippian Indians that lived along the coast also dug the first canals connecting Mobile Bay to the Gulf of Mexico by joining Oyster Bay to Little Lagoon. These canals made it possible to travel from Mobile to Pensacola to borrow, sell, and trade stuff with their neighbors. Connecting the park’s lakes to the back bays kept the native travelers safe from the dangers of open water. You can see the remains of these canals along several trails in the park. Archeological digs are currently underway in Gulf Shores to uncover areas of these canals.

Large burial and shell mounds are not uncommon in coastal Alabama and you can book a guided trip to explore the Bottle Creek mound site deep in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Native Americans, including the tribes of the Creeks, Alibamas, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Seminoles, enjoyed the bountiful oysters, seafood and fish of the area.

European + Early American Impact

Cultures Collide

Early adventurers from Spain, France and England arrived along the Gulf Coast looking food and water during their travels, and shelter from storms and pirates in our back bays. Our region became wrapped up in the European struggle for territory as they battled to expand their empires.

Sitting across from each other at the entrance to Mobile Bay are Fort Morgan (completed in 1834) and Fort Gaines (completed in 1862). Both were constructed as guardians of Mobile Bay and the strategic port of Mobile. The forts played major roles in several conflicts during the Civil War. Among the most notable was the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864.

On April 9, 1865 the Battle of Fort Blakeley – the last major battle of the Civil War – came to an end after 7 days of fighting. Hundreds of miles away in Virginia, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy had surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant six hours earlier.

Nature’s bounty meets the modern world

Early settlers to the area took advantage of the vast forestlands and early businesses included turpentine and naval stores production, as well as a shingle mill. You may still find a tree or two in Gulf State Park bearing the telltale “cat-face” scars from harvesting turpentine, along with the nails that would hold the bucket to collect it.

As the forests were depleted, citrus groves were planted and that’s how Orange Beach got its name. Most of the citrus trees were lost due to several hard freezes in the early 1900s. However more people are planting them again, so be on the lookout for some of our local satsumas. They are in season from mid-November to January.
Back then, land in Baldwin County was cheap and fertile (at least a little further north of the sandy beaches and wetland areas) so agriculture was also important to the economy with crops including tobacco and rice. Raising cattle was also popular.

The region begins reeling in tourists

The first hotel opened in the early 1920s. Around the same time, some locals began offering one-day fishing charters to visitors. These early tourists were more than happy to get the insights and bounty this local fishing knowledge provided.

Speaking of bounty, Baldwin County is home to a phenomenon known as a "jubilee." This occasional event happens when all sorts of marine creatures including crabs, flounder, stingrays and others migrate to shallow waters along Mobile Bay. If you are lucky enough to witness a jubilee, harvesting supper is as easy as walking along the shore and picking it up.

In 1937, the Intracoastal Waterway was completed, allowing easier access to Gulf Shores and an increased awareness of its unique attractions. When Gulf State Park opened two years later, the number of visitors to the area truly began to grow.
group of longleaf pines

A State Park for the Beach

In the early 1930s, local landowners and the United States government donated the land that became Gulf State Park. From 1933 to 1939, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was engaged to create the Park as part of the nationwide public work relief program enacted by President Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide much needed training and employment during the Great Depression.

The young men lived in large tents until more permanent quarters were built and were paid $1 a day, most of which went home to support their families. Some of the remnants of the old CCC work camp, the remains of the barracks, sawmill and old cabin foundations are still visible near the Learning Campus. An excellent archive of stories and photographs is on display in the small museum building at the Park’s west entrance.
The CCC construction projects included a casino built on the beach, featuring a dance hall and concession stand, a bunkhouse for the lifeguards to live in during the summer, trails, and more.

The CCC gave the world this wonderful park, and building the park gave these hardworking young men vital training and employment during the Great Depression
aerial shot of the cottages of on Lake Shelby

During this time, the first cabins were built along the shoreline of Lake Shelby

In 2019, our 11 Eagle Cottages became a proud member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.

However, when the CCC built the first cabins their math was a little funny. When they built cabins 1-16, they skipped the number 13. Cabins 3, 7 and 11 – lucky dice numbers – were built sideways facing east. Maybe whoever was in charge was a seasoned gambler.

Their construction is deliberately reminiscent of the traditional Alabama 'fish camp' – the rustic cabin on stilts that became so popular in the early days of Alabama’s coastal hunting and fishing trips.

These were the days when segregation was still in force and the African American maids traveling with their white employers were not permitted to stay overnight in the guests’ cabins. Special maids’ quarters were built to house them near the CCC camp barracks.

Open for Enjoyment

When Gulf State Park officially opened on Saturday, May 20, 1939, it was one of the first five parks to be created in Alabama.

Its first manager was Mr. Henly, who made the Park facilities available for limited two-week intervals throughout the summer.
In 1942, Mr. Monroe McCloud (“Mac”) started his long tenure as Park superintendent which continued until 1975. As well as building more cabins, he oversaw the construction of an 825-foot saltwater fishing pier, which was completed in 1968. One of the most popular assets of the park, it was destroyed by Hurricane Frederic in 1979, rebuilt and destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and rebuilt again in 2009. Interestingly, in the early days, “Mac” allowed farmers to raise watermelons in the park.

In the 1970s, the state became interested in developing resort-style facilities for Gulf State Park to promote economic development, increase tourism and create jobs. In 1972, a 468-site campground and a beach pavilion were completed. The original lodge opened in 1974 and quickly became an iconic centerpiece of the community, hosting many meetings of local groups, high school proms, and Mardi Gras balls.

Mr. Hugh Branyon – our trails network namesake – took over as Park superintendent in 1976 and he, too, spent well over 30 years managing the Park from 1976-2009. Three years into his tenure, Hurricane Frederic struck on September 12, 1979 with 135 mph winds. The entire area was inundated with 3–5 feet of seawater and the pier and the old lodge were badly damaged.

Regional Growth

Meanwhile in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

As the park grew, so did the community of Gulf Shores. The first hotel on the beach opened in the 1940s and the first post office opened in 1947. Shrimping, which had been primarily providing bait for other fishing segments since the early 1900s, grew with the appearance of deep-sea trawling for the commercial seafood market around 1956.

At the same time, Orange Beach was becoming more modern. While the first hotel in Orange Beach was built in 1923 (on the site where the Coastal Arts Center is located), it was only accessible by water until the first paved road to Orange Beach was finished in 1947. Electricity followed in 1948 and phone service in 1956.

Unfortunately, the original hotel had to be torn down in 2015 due to severe structural damage, but it served as the inspiration for the Coastal Arts Center. Several historical elements, including the columns, wood flooring, doors and windows were salvaged and are featured in the new gallery.

People start coming from far and wide

In 1946, a bus started making regular trips from Mobile to Gulf Shores, with stops along the way in Spanish Fort, Malbis, Loxley, Robertsdale, Summerdale and Foley. This allowed people who lived in more distant parts of Baldwin County, as well as those from Mobile, to have easier access to Gulf State Park. It quickly became a popular recreation area.

The first hotel opened in the early 1920s. Around the same time, some locals began offering one-day fishing charters to visitors. These early tourists were more than happy to get the insights and bounty this local fishing knowledge provided.

As tourism continued to grow, it still remained largely seasonal, with summer being the peak season. In fact, most businesses would close up on Labor Day in September and not reopen until the following year.

In an effort to increase tourism in the fall, the Alabama National Shrimp Festival was first held in Gulf Shores in 1971 and continues to be a popular annual event. Always the second weekend of October, it boasts more than 200,000 attendees every year. In addition to shrimp, a colorful selection of arts and crafts, entertainment and children’s activities give people a lot to see, do and taste!
On August 6, 1984, 1,010 permanent residents of Orange Beach voted to become the City of Orange Beach

The Resiliency of the Gulf Coast & Gulf State Park

Living with Mother Nature's Power

Coastal Alabama has suffered its share of storms over the years, but Hurricane Frederic in 1979 was one of the most transformative. It hit as a Category 4 storm and battered the area for three straight days, killing five people and causing $1.77 billion in damages. Ironically, nationwide news coverage of the storm and its severity marked the first time many Americans became aware of Alabama's coast.

The recovery sparked a building boom that saw many new homes, restaurants, golf courses, marinas and other businesses spring up across the coastal communities and tourism quickly replaced fishing, shrimping and farming as the lead economic driver.
The Park and surrounding coastal Alabama communities suffered another devastating blow from Hurricane Ivan, which made landfall in Gulf Shores on September 16, 2004. This Category 3 storm (one of the top five worst storms to hit the Gulf Coast) broke the pier into three sections, washed out the bottom floors of the old lodge and destroyed adjacent buildings and again flooded the majority of the park with salt water, causing extreme damage and losses to the trees.

In 2005, the communities would again be affected by Hurricane Dennis, and then by Hurricane Katrina.
aerial photo of the Lodge and surrounding beach

Disaster Meets Determination–Making Good Out of the Bad

On April 20th 2010, coastal Alabama’s next big disaster struck, the Deepwater Horizon/British Petroleum (BP) oil well exploded, killing 11 and seriously injuring 17. For the next 87 days a total of nearly 5 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, causing major economic and environmental damage and forever altering communities across the Gulf Coast.

After each disaster, volunteers and park employees rally together and work miracles to rebuild and get Gulf State Park open and operating again–such is the deep affection for the Park in our local community.

The Gulf State Park Enhancement Project

The Gulf State Park Enhancement Project (GSPP) came to life when federal and state trustees charged with overseeing the restoration funds provided by BP elected to invest $85.5 million into the region in an effort to mitigate the damages caused to the local tourism industry and environment.

The GSPP was designed to not only help the local tourist economy recover, but to also offer visitors to the Park a new and unique level of sustainable tourism.

From dune restoration and trail expansion, to the cutting edge sustainable construction of the Lodge, Interpretive Center, and Learning Campus, each part of the project ambitiously strives restore the environment and increase access to this uniquely wonderful park..
Learn more: sustainabilityLearn More About the Project