Only a stone’s throw (if that far) from the major Gulf Coast city of Mobile, there is a true wilderness area that many people outside of Alabama do not know exists. It is one of the largest intact wetland wilderness areas in the country — the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.
He nailed it.
The delta encompasses 260,000 acres of breathtaking cypress and tupelo swamps and is the most diverse river system in the country where alligators — hundreds of them — lurk just below the surface. Hundreds of miles of marshes, wetlands, bayous, and sloughs vein their way to the Gulf of Mexico and play host to more species of fish, turtles, snails, crawfish, and mussels than any other river system in North America.
Countless species of birds find this wet, often humid climate much to their liking as do black bears and wild boar.
And then there is the history. Deep within the wilderness, in the absolute middle of nowhere, there are ancient Native American mounds where a civilization once thrived thousands of years ago, the area where the last major battle of the Civil War was fought, and the wreck of the last slave ship, the Clotilda, to arrive in America.
The delta is a fascinating area and despite the ominous sound of its moniker, it is a wondrous place that everyone can explore. Here are eight adventures where you can experience America’s Amazon for yourself.
1. Five Rivers Delta Resource Center
To really appreciate the uniqueness of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, you need a little perspective before you start exploring. Begin your adventure by paying a visit to the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort.
Known as the “Gateway to the Delta,” this beautiful state-run facility offers panoramic views of the lower delta from the boardwalks that ring its three buildings. Inside, you will find exhibits that introduce you to the delta, its plants and wildlife, and the human history that fostered the growth of Alabama’s port city.
The center also features a comfortable theater where nature-related and historical documentaries run throughout the day, or you can select a title and they will play it for you.
Pro Tips: The center is open daily from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. and admission is free. The third Sunday of each month, Five Rivers hosts the Animal Ambassadors program where you can meet live critters that live in the delta. Check their online schedule for dates and other upcoming events.
2. Mound Island
The Mobile-Tensaw River Delta has seen its share of human history over the centuries. One site is hidden away in the absolute middle of nowhere, an island that was once inhabited by humans over a thousand years ago — Mound Island.
Native Americans arrived on the island around 1000 AD and built towering dirt mounds by hand, one basket of dirt at a time. Some were as tall as 45 feet tall, where the tribal chief would live, and shorter mounds like mound B, where religious leaders lived and held rituals. While the mound was shorter, it was still impressive. It was as long as a football field. In all, 18 mounds were built on the island.
Pro Tip: Visiting the mounds is a fascinating trip back in time with a mile-long walk through the Amazon-like environment. To get there, however, you have to either kayak or take a tour boat. I’ll talk more about these options in a moment, but your best bet is to take a tour boat where historians bring the story of the mounds alive and can better point out what you are seeing.
3. Historic Blakeley State Park
A little south of Mound Island in Spanish Fort is Historic Blakeley State Park. At one time, Blakeley was a bustling port city that was actually bigger than its cross bay rival, Mobile. In the mid-1800s, the town was ravaged by a yellow fever epidemic and it was left to be reclaimed by nature.
In 1865, this same area was the last bastion of hope for the Confederacy to retain their last remaining port city, Mobile, on the Gulf Coast during the Civil War. On April 9th, as General Lee’s army was surrendering to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, the Battle of Blakeley was fought, making it the last major battle of the war.
Today, a myriad of hiking and biking trails weave their way through the battlefield and some of the best preserved breastworks and redoubts with interpretive signage describing the events of that day. Information for a self-guided tour is available online.
Pro Tip: Admission is $4 for adults; $3 for children 6–12, veterans, and active duty military; and kids under 6 are free.
4. The Last Slave Ship
The story of the slave ship, Clotilda, sounds almost improbable. Even though importing slaves had been outlawed in the United States, in 1860, Thomas Meaher made a bet that he could bring new slaves into the country without being detected. He did so on the schooner Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in the country.
Meaher brought 110 captured Africans up the Mobile River into the delta at night where the slaves disembarked as he set the ship on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence.
Over a century later, the wreck of the Clotilda was discovered and efforts from local officials and descendants of those slaves are underway to protect and preserve this incredible piece of American history.
Pro Tips: Special trips to the wreck of the Clotilda are scheduled through Historic Blakeley State Park. Visit their event calendar regularly to catch the next scheduled trip.
5. A Birder’s Paradise
With the vastness of undisturbed wetlands, marshes, and rivers, you could imagine that the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is a birder’s paradise — and you would be right.
The Audubon Society rates the delta as one of the most productive wildlife habitats in the country. Over 300 species of birds have been recorded in the delta
The birding list is impressive. You may spot mottled duck, Baird’s sandpipers, and swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites. The list goes on and on.
Pro Tip: Bird watchers and those interested in wildlife should set aside the last weekend of September to attend the annual Alabama Coastal Birdfest. The event is based at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center which hosts a number of birding and wildlife presentations as well as countless field trips into the delta.
6. Exploring By Tour Boat
As mentioned earlier, most exploration of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is by boat. One of the best ways to experience it is by making a reservation aboard the Delta Explorer.
The cruises are based out of Historic Blakeley State Park and offer a wide variety of excursions to suit everybody’s interests. Try the Delta Adventure Cruise where you may encounter black bear, bald eagles, osprey, and of course, alligators. There are also tours of historic Civil War sites along the delta’s banks, cruises to Mound Island, lunch cruises, and an evening cruise to experience an incredible sunset.
Pro Tips: Local historian and author John Sledge leads fascinating and informative trips into the delta each spring and fall. Visit the Delta Explorer website for his latest historic cruise.
7. Kayaking The Wilderness
A true adventure awaits you as you paddle your kayak through the dark and mysterious bayous of the delta along the Bartram Canoe Trail.
The trail consists of 200 miles of marked routes through groves of Spanish moss-laden oaks and mysterious cypress and tupelo swamps all under the watchful eye of American alligators sunning themselves on logs and along the banks.
Pro Tips: Even though the canoe trail is well marked, it is still easy to get off track and lost in the endless bayous. If you are not an experienced paddler, it is best to sign up for a guided tour with one of the area’s reputable companies like Wild Native.
8. Exploring By Air Boat
Time to get your heart pumping as you zoom across the marshes aboard an air boat into coves that boats can’t get to. A ride in an air boat is plain fun and you can still see the many species of wildlife that call the delta home.
Pro Tip: Make your reservations well in advance of your visit to assure the boats are running and there are seats available.
9. Camping At Meaher State Park
A cozy state park is located on the Mobile Bay Causeway that bridges the eastern shore of Mobile Bay to the city — Meaher State Park.
The park is located on the southernmost end of the delta and sports 61 RV and several camping sites, as well as four fully-outfitted cabins overlooking the bay. The park also offers incredible sunset views over Mobile Bay.
The great thing about Meaher is that it is centrally located, so it’s easy to not only explore the delta but the many attractions in downtown Mobile (including Mardi Gras) and along the eastern shore in the charming towns of Daphne, Spanish Fort, and Fairhope.
Pro Tip: Make your reservations well, and I mean well, in advance of your trip. Campsites are scooped up as fast as they become available.
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