The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico surround this 14-mile barrier island about 40 miles south of Mobile, considered one of the best places around to watch the sun sink below the horizon. The island capitalizes on that view, hosting events such as classic car cruise-ins and concerts in the fading light. Pile onto a ferryboat in Mobile for the 40-minute trip across the bay, or drive over the 3-mile bridge to get to the parks, beaches, trails and plenty of spots to commune with nature.
Visitors can explore the native species at the island’s bird sanctuary and the Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (102 Bienville Blvd., 251-861-7500, disl.org/estuarium). Several waterways are ideal for kayaks, canoes and paddle boards. Boat launches, picnic areas, playgrounds and 151 camp sites are available, along with cabins and hotels. The island is home to several restaurants noted for local seafood and the stunning sunsets over the bay. It also has a claim to history as the site of Fort Gaines, where in the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay the intrepid Admiral Farragut proclaimed, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” Tours of the fort pass through a museum, blacksmith’s shop, kitchens, tunnels and original cannons, which are fired during demonstrations. (51 Bienville Blvd. 251-861-6992, dauphinisland.org/fort-gaines). 109 Bienville Blvd., Dauphin Island. 251-861-3607, dauphinisland.org.
2/ Wet and Wild Adventures
If riding the rapids, kayaking calmly or paddle boarding through an undisturbed natural area is high on your to-do list, you’ll find all three along Alabama’s extensive waterways. Discover countless adventures along the Scenic River Trail, billed as the longest of its kind in any state, covering more than 5,000 miles across 43 waterways. Grab a canoe, kayak, raft, powerboat or paddle board and explore the Alabama, Coosa, Tensaw, Tennessee and Cahaba rivers, as well as Terrapin, Hatchett and Weogufka creeks. Along the way, adventurers will find outfitters, campsites, organized tours and events to make the journey memorable. 799 Ashley Drive, Madison. 256-426-0558, alabamascenicrivertrail.com.
The Coosa Outdoor Center in Wetumpka, about 20 miles northeast of Montgomery, rents canoes and kayaks from April through October for leisurely paddling along the Coosa River, a 280-mile stretch that branches off the Alabama. 172 River Rd, Wetumpka. 334-201-5510, coosaoutdoorcenter.com.
Not all of the waterways are calm and serene. The white water along the Chattahoochee River near Phenix City features several difficult and and 10 smaller rapids that are part of one of the longest urban, white-water rafting courses around. The experts at Whitewater Express will get you outfitted, lead a tour and supply insider tips on where to see nature up close. 1400 3rd St., Phenix City. 334-298-9521, whitewaterexpress.com/alabama-outpost.
3/ Dolphins at Sunset Kayak Tour
Pack a snack, wear your comfy clothes and prepare to get close to a porpoise. The dolphin kayak excursion run year-round by Wild Native Tours takes you onto the waters off Gulf Shores for a three-hour trek to meet the critters in their home waters. The $65 cost includes a kayak, life jackets, paddles, water, gear transport and a guide to point out the highlights. The company also offers a 1.5-hour, nature trip along back waterways, a two-hour moonlight paddle and a three-hour spin around the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, home to sea turtles, beach mice and more than 360 varieties of birds. Meet at 4159 County Rd. 6, Gulf Shores. 251-259-8531, wildnativetours.com.
4/ Cathedral Caverns State Park
Opened in 2000, this natural wonder, once dubbed the “bat cave,” boasts one of the biggest openings, 126 feet wide and 25 feet high. It’s also home to “Goliath,” a stalagmite 45 feet high and 243 feet around, among thousands of similar formations in the “stalagmite forest,” an especially cool place to visit in the summer when the cave’s temperature is a steady 60 degrees. Guided, 90-minute tours are offered, and the cave is wheelchair accessible. The 443-acre park about 25 miles east of Huntsville also features back-country camping sites and a gemstone mining, center. 637 Cave Road, Woodville. 256-728-8193, alapark.com/cathedral-caverns-state-park.
5/ Hotel Finial
Like your adventures more on the eerie side? Reserve one of the five suites or 56 guest rooms in the Hotel Finial in Anniston, where a stay might include an unexpected encounter with the supernatural. Built in 1888 as a private home, the ornate Victorian structure was renovated and reopened as a hotel last year. Along with splendid wraparound porches, turrets, high-ceilinged rooms, intricate moldings and original fireplaces, it has a few invisible guests whose footsteps have been heard in the kitchen and dining room. Beyond ghost hunting, the hotel offers an outdoor pool, a full bar and gourmet breakfast buffets. You can arrange to play a few rounds of golf at the nearby Anniston Country or Cider Ridge golf clubs. 1600 Quintard Ave., Anniston. 256-236-0503, hotelfinial.com.
Even if you don’t have a supernatural encounter, a visit to the hotel can provide other adventurous opportunities. Check out the Cheaha State Park in the Talladega National Forest where the state’s highest peak, 2,407 feet, offers majestic views of the area. Hike along the Cheaha and Pinhoti trails that meander through woodlands and by waterfalls. 19644 Hwy. 281, Delta. 256-488-5111, alapark.com/cheaha-state-park.
Anniston is also fewer than 20 miles from the Talladega Superspeedway, formerly the Alabama International Motor Speedway, where NASCAR drivers race. Next up May 7 is the Talladega 500. 3366 Speedway Blvd., Lincoln. 877-462-3342, talladegasuperspeedway.com.