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Dauphin Island, Alabama’s sunset capital, offers fun for everyone

Dauphin Island's laid-back charm makes the barrier island an idyllic vacation destination. Photo by Erin Kice

Grassy scruff and smooth twists of driftwood dot the miles-long ribbon of white sand that unfurls along the lapping Gulf of Mexico. Nearly half of Dauphin Island waits out here, past the point where the road ends at the island’s westernmost public beach and the sounds of gulls and sea breezes replace the happy cries of sun-kissed swimmers.

The few families who make it this far typically hire a boat at the small marina to ferry them out for the day. But local David Hay Jones prefers to paddle.

“On the hottest days of summer, it feels like the Caribbean,” he says. “The water’s warm; there are no houses. It’s almost like you’ve discovered your own beach.”

Subtle charms

Audobon Bird Santuary.

The Audubon Bird Sanctuary offers prime bird viewing, a few miles of trails, and dune access. Photo by Erin Kice

This ever-changing barrier island—Alabama’s only one—is packed with treasures that casual vacationers and day-trippers can easily overlook. No neon-lit T-shirt shops or larger-than-life fairway attractions shout for attention. Long-legged beach houses stand in for skyscraping hotels. A tiny cluster of mom-and-pops handle meals, souvenirs, groceries, and necessities—sometimes all under one roof.

But those who take the time to explore this laid-back community’s subtle charms are often rewarded with the types of family vacations that quickly become family traditions. 

The wild side

Painted bunting bird resting on a branch.

Visitors can see the colorful painted bunting at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Photo by David McGowen/

Skirting the island’s northeast corner, vast stretches of sea-washed shallows shelter tiny creatures such as grass shrimp, snails, and scuttling baby crabs.

“It kind of looks like a meadow, quiet and peaceful. But it’s teeming with life,” says Mendel Graeber, who oversees aquarium education at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and leads regular public tours of the salt marsh.

Yellow-rumped warbler bird in flight.

See birds such as the yellow-rumped warbler at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Photo M.Leonard Photography/

From rare intact dune systems standing as tall as 60 feet to microscopic phytoplankton that often sparkle in nighttime waters this time of year, there’s more to the island’s natural wonders than its dazzling white sand. 

That’s never truer than in springtime. After arduous flights across the Gulf, hundreds of bird species find their first rest on the largely undeveloped cay. The epic migration continues through May and brings vibrant varieties such as eye-popping painted buntings and cheeky yellow-rumped warblers. 

Rick James alligator floating in the water.

The 137-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary has a small pond with a massive resident alligator that locals call Rick James. Photo by Erin KIce

The 137-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary offers prime viewing as well as a magnolia- and pine-filled maritime forest, a few miles of trails, dune access, and a small pond with a massive resident alligator that locals call Rick James. 

Out on the beaches, May through October marks the return of other visitors: loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Mamas trudge ashore to lay their eggs, leaving tractor-like trails in their wake.

Child touching a screen showing an interative image of the earth.

Explore interactive technology exhibits, such as Windows to the Sea, at the Alabama Aquarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Photo by Erin Kice

Year-round, the Alabama Aquarium, with its 7,000-gallon touch pool and 100-plus species on display, puts visitors eye-to-eye with local marine life and even provides the chance to trawl for specimens aboard a bona fide research vessel, among other eco-excursions.

As leader of the Dauphin Island Kayak and Adventure Facebook group, Jones points out yet another way to immerse oneself in nature—whether it’s watching the wildlife or the Sunset Capital of Alabama’s signature evening light show. His enthusiast group hosts free public paddles off the island’s less-tousled northern shore, including outings at sunrise and sunset. 

“We see wading birds and lagoons packed with fish. People love to see the dolphins, which can come up very close to the kayaks,” he says. 

You may also like: 6 Alabama science centers that make learning a blast

Built for adventure

Overhead view of Fort Gaines.

Folks can visit the rapidly weathering 1821-built Fort Gaines. Photo by Wanda/

By phone from her home in Nashville, Erin Kice is trying to explain exactly what draws her to Dauphin Island. She began visiting in the early 1990s as a kid and now explores its 165 square miles several times a year with her own family of 4. 

She’s recalling a recent trip to historic Fort Gaines, the rapidly weathering 1821-built fortress that played a role in the Battle of Mobile Bay (where the phrase "Damn the torpedoes was first uttered), when she asks for help. 

“Coen! What did you like about the fort?” she calls to her 11-year-old. “We actually discovered it! It was cool!” he yells from somewhere in the background.

The kid might be wrong in the technical sense, but he’s definitely onto something. “It does kind of feel like you’ve discovered all these things,” Kice says. “Even in the middle of summer, when other places along the coast are jam-packed, you can be on the beach or in the woods and there’s not another person for 100 yards.” 

Whether by accident or by design, Dauphin Island is set up to let vacationers choose their own adventures. The ubiquitous rental homes mean there’s space to lounge together, and schedules revolve less around the “Where do we eat?” question. The island’s long and skinny layout—it’s less than 1.5 miles across at its widest point—means the beach is usually steps away. And 8 flat miles of bike trails link shops, restaurants, and attractions. 

“We come here to practice beach life, which is just getting up, getting outside, and spending a lot of time together,” Kice says. “It feels like a reset.” 

You may also like: A fun family vacation on Alabama’s Gulf Coast

An open invitation

When dusk falls on certain summer nights, a giant inflatable projector screen is set up on the island’s popular West End Beach. Families gather with blankets and chairs for free public movies. Almost all of the 2 dozen films scheduled for the season are kid-centric—with one notable exception. Every July 4, Jaws draws the biggest crowd. 

“We set it up one year so people could watch from in the water,” says Mayor Jeff Collier, who was born and raised here. “We didn’t have a lot of takers.”

Living in a slower-paced town has made the 1,800 or so residents of Dauphin Island masters of dreaming up their own fun. And its hundreds of thousands of annual guests are always invited to the party.

The island first shakes off its winter quiet during the spring bird migration, followed by the Dauphin Island Art Trail and the annual motorcycle show in April. Then it’s spring break. Memorial Day marks the start of movie nights and sunset concerts. And, in July, upwards of 80,000 people flood the island for the Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, the largest tournament of its kind in the world. 

There’s always a weekly farmers market. And Pirate’s Bar & Grill reliably entertains both kids and adults with its huge round swimming pool and frequent live music. Absolutely everything is a family affair, Collier says.

“For a small island, we have a lot going on,” he adds. “Dauphin Island is a place to do as much or as little as you like.”

Beach town basics

Visit any or all of the 3 not-so-inventively named public beaches—East End, Public, and West End—by car with a $10 per day parking pass. Walk or bike in for $3. The shoreline and much of the island’s deserted west side are open to the tidemark. At Pirate’s Bar & Grill, $10 per person grants guests access to both the pool and a sheltered beach.

Where to stay

  • More than half a dozen local property companies rent out vacation homes on the island. 
  • At the small, family-run Gulf Breeze Motel, choose between spacious rooms and 2-bedroom suites with kitchens. Rates start at $94.
  • Positioned across from Public Beach, Pelican Nest RV Resort & Campground offers full hookup sites, a pool, and bike and kayak rentals. Rates start at $55.

What to eat

Lighthouse Bakery cinnamon roll.

Dauphin Island's Lighthouse Bakery offers sweet treats like cherry turnovers and cinnamon rolls. Photo by Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright/Alamy Stock Photo

  • For a fresh catch, drop by Skinner’s Seafood, where you can grab Royal Red shrimp, scallops, and crab—either boiled to-go or to take home and cook yourself.
  • Breakfast and sweet treats like cherry turnovers and cinnamon rolls bring crowds to Lighthouse Bakery each morning.

Award-winning journalist and travel pro Jessica Fender loves finding hidden treasures in Alabama and throughout the region. Follow her adventures at

You may also like: 10 thrilling summer activities you have to try in Alabama

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