Along the Alabama Gulf Coast, firmly carved out of the row upon row of high rise condominiums, brightly colored raised beach houses, and mom-and-pop souvenir shops where rows of sunglasses, beach-themed t-shirts, and assorted other trinkets call out to tourists, there is a green space that protects the last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitat along the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Within its borders, hundreds of species of wildlife and native vegetation find refuge from the ever-increasing development of the land around it. It’s called the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (BSNWR), and it’s an incredible oasis for flora and fauna in what is arguably the fastest growing area in the state, Gulf Shores.
I first visited the refuge when I moved to the area just over 40 years ago. Since then, it has become my favorite destination to experience the natural side of the region, a side that would have surely vanished had it not been for the foresight of Congress, which stepped in to protect it in 1980.
Bon Secour has since become my own refuge, a place to get away, lose oneself in the stillness of the maritime forest, to spend time watching and listening to the surf on the last stretch of undisturbed, uncrowded beach on the Alabama coast.
It’s a place to view wildlife, watch the seasonal change of bird species as they make their way into the area, kayak and fish a saltwater lagoon, hike through maritime wetlands and forests, and watch as the dreary winter landscape bursts into vibrant color with the arrival of wildflowers in spring.
I hope you will take the time to visit Bon Secour when visiting Gulf Shores or Orange Beach. It will quickly become your refuge, too.
What’s In A Name?
Bon Secour. Sounds French, right? It is. It’s an appropriate name if ever there was one.
The name pays homage to the early French settlers that arrived in the area around 1702, but more importantly, translated, it means “safe harbor.” And that’s what it is — a safe harbor for hundreds of species of birds, endangered wildlife, and enchanting wildflowers.
Located on Alabama’s barrier island that delineates the Gulf of Mexico from Mobile Bay, the refuge was established by Congress in 1980 for the protection of wildlife habitat for migratory birds, nesting sea turtles, and the endangered Alabama beach mouse.
Today, the refuge comprises five units totaling over 7,000 acres of transitional maritime wetlands, forest, and beaches. Four of the units are located on the island with the fourth on a separate island known as Little Dauphin Island.
Bon Secour: A Bird Watcher’s Paradise
The Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge is a bird watcher’s paradise with over 360 species of birds either permanently calling the refuge home or using it as a migratory stop.
The refuge is part of the Alabama Birding Trail, a series of stops across the state where birders can spy on a wide variety of species. Here at the refuge, birds you may see include osprey, terns, blue heron, warblers, and yellow-billed cuckoos.
The refuge has been deemed a critical migratory stop for American Oystercatchers, Ruddy Turnstone, Yellowlegs, and Willets. It is also a critical habitat for Snowy Piping Plovers. This tiny little gray to sandy brown with white chest bird will be seen busily darting about the surf on the beach from fall through spring. The plover has been listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
An Oasis For Wildlife
Besides birds, the refuge is the home of several rare and endangered species of wildlife, one of those being the Alabama beach mouse.
The beach mouse makes its home in the tall primary dunes, secondary dunes, and scrub dunes that border the Gulf. Hiking to these beaches, you will be well aware that you are in beach mouse territory as signs warn you to stay on the trail so that you don’t disturb their habitat.
The beach is also the nesting ground for several endangered sea turtles including the loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley, who find their way to this spot annually to lay their eggs in the sand in spring. The eggs eventually hatch in late summer with hundreds of hatchlings scurrying to the Gulf.
Turtle nests are marked off with plastic fencing by park rangers and volunteers to keep the public a safe distance away so that the nests will not be disturbed. You can be a volunteer to help monitor the nests. Visit Share the Beach to get all of the details.
And as is the case all across south Alabama, Bon Secour has a population of American alligators. You may see one on your travels lurking beneath the waters in the wetlands or the freshwater Gator Lake. They may even cross your path on one of the refuge’s trails. If you do encounter a gator, give them plenty of distance. They look slow but can reach speeds of up to 30 miles an hour on land for a short distance.
Exploring The Refuge On Foot
The refuge is veined with 6 miles of hiking trail that meander through a transitional environment beginning in a maritime forest to the north, made up of mixed pines and oaks, that gradually slopes down to a maritime wetland brimming with swamps, a freshwater lake, and beautiful wildflowers in season before reaching the tall coastal sand dunes and one of the most stunning and secluded beaches on the Alabama Gulf Coast.
The four trails in the refuge are located in what is called the Purdue Unit, which is located six miles east of the intersection of Alabama Highway 59 and 180 in Gulf Shores.
The first trail is the Jeff Friend Trail, an easy walking 1-mile loop hike through a nice wetland mostly along an ADA accessible boardwalk. The highlight of the hike is the amazing views of Little Lagoon.
The Gator Lake Trail is a fascinating 2-mile moderate out-and-back hike along a fine white sand footpath. The trail takes you through coastal flora like deer moss, scrub oak and pine, wild rosemary, and saw palmetto and ends at the banks of its namesake lake that reflects the dark blue Alabama sky.
The Centennial Trail is a 4-mile moderate out-and-back hike through a gorgeous wetland, especially in the spring when wildflowers line the path and the trail’s boardwalks lead you over wetlands topped with blooming lily pads. The trail is wedged between the Jeff Friend Trail and the Pine Beach Trail so to get to it, you will have to walk either about a mile down the Pine Beach Trail which increases the hike to 6 miles or a half-mile on the Jeff Friend Trail. The latter increases the hike to a 5-mile trek.
The last trail is the most popular in the refuge: the Pine Beach Trail. The trail is a 3.2-mile out-and-back that gives you a good look at the Gulf Coast’s transitional environment from a maritime forest past the saltwater Little Lagoon and freshwater Gator Lake, then crossing the sand dunes to the most beautiful and secluded beach on the Alabama Gulf Coast. The trail is easy walking until you reach the dunes, where the fine beach sand makes it a moderate hike.
About a mile into the hike you will come to a large two-story wildlife viewing platform that overlooks the lagoon and lake, the perfect place to take a break and watch birds and wildlife.
Exploring Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge By Kayak Or Paddle Board
A fabulous kayak trip awaits you when you launch your boat at the Jeff Friend Kayak Launch. The launch is located on the banks of Little Lagoon and provides easy access to the 8-mile wide saltwater lagoon.
If you don’t have a kayak or SUP, you can rent one at one of the nearby outdoor shops. And either way you explore the lagoon, you’re in for a great day exploring the many bayous and inlets.
Wetting A Line
And then there is fishing. If you’re an angler, you’ll find amazing surf fishing on the beach. Vehicles are not allowed in the refuge, so you will have to carry your gear down the Pine Beach Trail. You can also try your hand at saltwater fishing from the banks of Little Lagoon or from a kayak.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget to get that Alabama saltwater fishing license before dropping the hook.
Bon Secour Pro Tips
The refuge is open daily from sunrise to sunset. The visitor center on Alabama Highway 180 is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Jeff Friend and Pine Beach Trailheads are on Alabama Highway 180 while the Gator Lake Trailhead is off the highway on Mobile Street. Turn left at the Pine Beach Trailhead to get there.
The Jeff Friend Trailhead has an automatic gate that locks after sunset. The other trailheads are not gated.
Visit the Bon Secour website for the latest schedule of ranger-led programs that are held throughout the year. They are very informative and will add greatly to your own experience at the refuge.