It was an exciting moment as a large crowd gathered in a conference room in Orange Beach, Alabama, and waited for the news about the recreational trail they had built and loved for the past 20 years – the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail – would be voted the best in the country.
A list of contenders for the coveted title of USA Today’s Best Recreational Trail in America award slowly scrolled down a large screen TV. The excitement built as city officials, trail volunteers, and maintenance people watched the countdown of finalists – four, three, two. Finally, the list reached number one: The Hugh S. Backcountry Trail had been voted the best recreational trail in the country!
I have been walking and biking this incredible multi-use trail almost since the first short sections were built over twenty years ago and I can tell you, it is deserving of the title. When you visit Alabama’s stretch of pristine white beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, set aside some time to walk or bike this truly amazing trail system.
What Is The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail?
The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail began innocently twenty years ago as a vision to allow visitors and residents of the Alabama Gulf Coast to experience the backcountry of one of the state’s most popular resort state parks, Gulf State Park.
Today, the web of intertwining paved trails is used for jogging, walking, and biking between the coastal towns of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. But what makes the trail so special is the environment that it weaves through transitional maritime wetlands and forests, ancient sand dunes, and passing tranquil ponds where any number of species of wildlife may be viewed including bobcats, alligators, deer, and more.
Where Is The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail?
Located only minutes from Alabama’s stunning Gulf beaches, the Backcountry Trail system stretches from Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores to the neighboring town of Orange Beach. In all, there are well over 15 miles of a winding paved trail and boardwalk that wind their way through nine distinct ecosystems over gently rolling hills and long stretches of flat terrain making it an easy walk or bike for all ages and is fully ADA accessible.
Named #1 Recreational Trail In America
A recreational trail is defined by the National Park Service as any land or water-based trail that provides recreational activities to rural and urban communities, as well as economic development through tourism to those communities.
In early 2023, the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail was pitted against some stiff competition in a USA Today reader’s poll to determine the best recreational trail in the country. Other contenders included the spectacular scenery of the Great Allegheny Passage trail in Pennsylvania and the panoramic views of Lake Coeur d’Alene along the byway of the same name in northern Idaho.
When all the votes had been tabulated, the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail was voted number one for its ease of access, varied ecosystems, sheer beauty, and the impact economically the trail has had on the two Gulf communities.
Exploring The Backcountry Trail
Any time of year is a great time to visit the Backcountry Trail. Temperatures rarely dip below freezing in winter along the coast and when they do, they are short-lived.
There are 10 trailheads with good parking located around the perimeter of the trail system. A complete trail map with trailhead locations can be found online.
One of the most popular uses of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail is biking. Bring your own or rent one from either Beach Bike Rentals or Infinity Bikes. Both shops are located in Orange Beach.
Walking The Trail
Of course, you can walk the trails. The trail system currently consists of seven different trails that take you to varied environments. The Rosemary Dunes Trail takes you along the banks of marshes where cattails blow in the breeze. The twisting, turning Gulf Oak Ridge Trail meanders through a maritime forest of ancient mossy oaks with exceptional views from the Overlook. That is only for starters.
Wildlife And Wildflowers
A wide range of wildflowers brightens the paths from spring through fall, including native hibiscus and the red-orange tubular blooms of red basil.
Wildlife is abundant most any time of the year as well. In the warmer months, keep an eye out for American alligators sunning themselves on the banks of wetlands and ponds. Don’t be surprised to round a corner and see river otters relaxing on one of the many boardwalks or whitetail deer crossing your path. You may also spot large gopher tortoises building a nest in the sandy soil or see coyotes.
From spring through fall, any number of butterflies and hummingbirds will be seen flittering among the wildflowers while high above, osprey and bald eagles soar in the deep blue Gulf Coast sky.
Add to the natural beauty of the Backcountry Trail its many amenities and you have the perfect outdoor adventure without ever roughing it.
The “hub” of the trail system is the Butterfly Garden and Pavilion where picnic tables give you a chance to take a break, picnic, and walk through the colorful garden with the butterflies. This central location also has a small boulder climbing area, restrooms, and water fountains.
Be sure to download a copy of the trail map or brochure before heading out. It pinpoints areas where you can take some incredible photos of the lakes, ponds, wildlife, sunrises, and sunsets.
Water fountains and benches are conveniently scattered along the trails, as are bicycle repair stations with basic tools and air pumps.
Accommodations Near And On The Trail
One of the most unique features of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail is its primitive camping area called the Outpost.
The Outpost is a series of three safari-type canvas tents supported on hardwood floors complete with cots, a centrally located pump sink, grills, and campfire rings with a good supply of firewood supplied for a fun night around the fire toasting marshmallows and s’mores.
Keep in mind that the Outpost is primitive and as such, you will have to carry (backpack) everything else you might need with you to the campsites via the trail. The closest trailhead to the campsites is a one-mile walk from the Cotton Bayou Trailhead. The night sky is spectacular and makes the trek and spending the night well worth the effort.
Your reservation allows you access to the swimming pool, camp store, bike rentals, bathhouse, and other amenities of Gulf State Park.
Other lodging options at Gulf State Park include RV, tent camping, and the spacious and well-appointed rooms of the Lodge at Gulf State Park by Hilton, which is located right on the Gulf beaches.
Orange Beach and Gulf Shores also have over 30 hotels to choose from with one sure to fit any budget.
Remember that lodging in the area can be hard to come by on short notice. In some cases, you may have to book a year in advance. Make plans and reservations well in advance of your visit.
Dining Options Near The Trail
There is an eclectic array of dining options near the trail. One of the more popular restaurants, and my personal favorite, is the Sunliner Diner, a quintessential shiny chrome 1950s-style diner. It even has one booth that resembles a 1950s convertible.
Sunliner serves breakfast all day and lunch and dinner starting at 11 a.m. with a menu that features classic comforting home cooking favorites like their Sunliner meatloaf wrapped in smokey bacon served up with a side of green beans and mashed potatoes or the classic reuben with tangy sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and corned beef piled high on buttered and grilled marbled rye bread.
Bubba’s Seafood House
Of course, we’re on the Alabama Gulf Coast, so there is no shortage of amazing seafood restaurants. One of my favorites is Bubba’s Seafood House, which serves up incredible shrimp po’ boys and steamed crab legs.
I like to mix and match things up by creating my own seafood platter at Bubba’s. You can choose from a long list of tasty options to add to your platter depending on your taste that day, such as crispy clam strips, mouthwatering crab cakes, boiled or fried shrimp. Pardon the pun, but the world is your oyster. Oh yeah, they have those, too.
Remember to keep hydrated when walking or biking the trail, especially in summer when the Alabama heat and humidity can be oppressive.
Alligators are unpredictable and can be remarkably fast over a short distance. Watch them from a safe distance and never attempt to feed them.
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