Alabama has a short section on the Gulf Coast and we stayed in 3 different parks. We had great weather in Gulf Shores SP but we had our first Tornado scare when we got to Mobile (Meaher SP)! Gulf SP was a massive park with 496 sites and it seemed like most people were staying for several months. The park had a huge number of Bike trails and they also had guided ranger talks so we attended several of those. On the first afternoon we started exploring the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trails (most trails had asphalt) and the first thing we saw was a juvenile Cottonmouth snake right on the new North Campground trail. The next morning we went to a ranger talk on carnivorous plants in the bogs and marshes like white topped pitcher plants, needle palms and sundews. In the nature centre we saw cool baskets made from pine needles (we could take a class on it if we were still here in February). In the afternoon we went to the pier for a guided beach walk and on the way we saw a Great Blue Heron. The ranger was new at doing the talks but did a good job and looked up all the shells we showed her like Olive, Whelk, Calico Scallops, etc.. She also explained how they were burying used Christmas trees to help the dunes and Sea Oats continue to recover after the Hurricane Ivan from 2004 and the ongoing winds. On the beach we saw a dead moon jellyfish that was the biggest one we’ve ever seen. The turtles (Kemps Ridley and Loggerhead) lay their eggs on the beach in the March/April time frame.
The following morning we went on a guided pier walk and learned how the new pier was built after Hurricane Ivan. The new one is almost twice as long as the one that was destroyed and was designed so they could remove the wooden sections when there is a hurricane risk so the waves can crash up through the concrete sections. We also learned about the fish types the fishermen could catch, Pompano, Whiting, and Red Fish. The juvenile Brown Pelicans hang out on the pier to get scraps when the fishermen are cleaning their catch because they haven’t become skilled enough yet to catch their own fish. Eventually they stop staying at the pier. The brown ones are juvenile and then they are greyer with white/yellow heads as they turn in to an adult. We also saw a flock of American Coots on Lake Shelby. We spent the afternoon doing all our laundry and catching up on blog posts since there was slow internet access in the Activity Building.
We were getting 25 C temperatures each day (well above the daily average for this time of year) and on Wednesday we rode about 32 KMS on the trails through six distinct ecosystems: wet pine flatwoods, live oak marine forest, coastal dunes and swales, longleaf sand ridges, fresh water marshes and coastal hardwood swamps. They are shared trails and there were a lot of people out walking and biking enjoying the great weather. We rode to one trail head where we did a personalized (2 rangers and 3 guests) guided nature walk for 1.5 hours. We saw a bouldering area along one trial, a small American Alligator in Little Lake, a marsh by the golf course and a large beetle when we did the walk, and 3 more Alligators along the Gator Swamp including a baby.
When we left Gulf SP to go to Meaher SP we stopped at the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. This was our second Estuarine Research centre and they are incredibly well presented and they are free to visit. They are trying to promote the importance of Estuaries and Wetlands and how these areas are being lost to development at a dramatic pace. They had an observation tower at the first place we turned in but this wasn’t the actual visitor centre. In front of the centre they had a cool Butterfly statue for Edie;-) Inside they had a skeleton of a Manatee, the average adult Manatee is about 10 feet long, weighs 1200lbs and lives for 60 years. We saw a cool Hurricane Ball formed by the grasses on the beach during high winds. Outside they had walking platforms through the forest, swamp and marsh areas with placards for each plant type including the State Champion tree.
We had booked in to Meaher SP for 2 nights but we drove through the upscale town of Fairhope on the way there. Our main reason to go to Meaher was to visit Battleship Memorial Park where they had the USS Alabama battleship and the USS Drum submarine. We spent 6 hours touring the ships and the planes in the park. I took about 140 photos as I found it totally fascinating but here are just a few interesting ones and I have captioned them so I didn’t need to type full descriptions.
First we toured the USS Alabama which was a 680’ battleship commissioned in 1942 and it earned 9 Battle Stars and shot down 22 enemy airplanes in World War II. Under full battle conditions she weighed over 42,500 tons and had a crew of about 2500 men. The ship had 130,000 HP and had a maximum speed of 28 knots (32 MPH) and had a range of 15,000 nautical miles. It had 9 x 16” guns accurate to 21 miles, 20 x 5” guns, 48 x 40mm guns, and 52 x 20mm guns. They had three separate tour routes to follow in a self-guided manner, Yellow tour for the main and upper decks, Red tour for the below decks stern of the ship, and the Green tour for the below decks front of the ship.
Next we did the USS Drum Submarine tour. It was commissioned in 1941, was 311’ long, and earned 12 Battle Stars in World War II. The crew consisted of 7 officers and 65 enlisted men in an unbelievably small space! For the tour we boarded the back deck and proceeded to the front before descending in to the main body and going all the way through to the aft. In the sub galley was a ranger and submariner (from a Nuclear sub) who had done the restoration of the USS drum so it was really cool to ask them questions about how the sub operated. This vintage of sub would only stay underwater for 24 hours and would surface at night to get air and to run the diesel generators to replenish the batteries and they would stay at sea for a month. The new Nuclear subs can stay underwater for 4 months without surfacing and then return to base for 1 week to restock supplies. It would take each crew member a full year to train as they had to learn about every single valve and function on the submarine. Also they went through 3 days of psychological and stress tests to see if they were cut out for the claustrophobic lifestyle. In the navy submariners made up only 2% of the staff but they had about 57% of the battle results!
There were several other items on display in the park as well as a flight simulator that I rode in. Here are a few unique photos.
The next morning in Meaher SP started off as a very scary one. At 4 am our Weatherband radio alarm went off indicating that we were in a Tornado Warning area. We turned on the TV and watched the weather forecast showing the radar and how close the possible Tornado areas were (the TV shot photo was from the night time). We tried to go back to sleep but we knew the weather would reach us around 7 am. When the Weatherband warning came the next time we had to leave the RV and go the laundry room in the campground to take shelter. There was one other couple who was doing the same thing. The skies got incredibly dark and the winds picked up but the tornado had passed by north of us. When the warning was over we went back to our rig for breakfast and then it started pouring rain. About 2 hours later the sky was clear and blue. Sadly there were people killed that morning in a town north west of us so we really understood how serious you have to take these warnings. Before we left Meaher SP we went for a walk on the boardwalk and saw a Nutria (looks like a beaver with a rats tail – invasive species), a Great Blue Heron, and a beautiful view of Mobile Bay.
Next we headed to Dauphin Island Alabama and checked in at the Dauphin Island Park & Beach. We went to Dauphin Island because Sharon was born in Dauphin MB, didn’t know much about it but turned out to be a great location. The campground sites were very close together but because we asked for just electric and water we got a site with trees on 3 sides so it seemed very secluded. After getting setup we walked over to the Dauphin Sea Lab (and Estuarium) which had a boardwalk along the bay, saw the Natural Gas platforms in Mobile Bay, saw the outside of Fort Gaines, along the beach and then did some of the trails in the Audubon Bird Sanctuary around Gaillard Lake where we saw Red Bellied Turtles before returning to the rig to hunker down for the night of severe thunderstorms (complete with the “air raid” siren to warn about the coming storm!).
The rain continued on Sunday morning so we did some photo editing and blog work. Sunday afternoon we walked over to the Estuarium and on the way saw this well-equipped Bike Repair station so next time we’re on Dauphin Island we’ll have to spend more time and do some biking. At the Estaurium we paid the admission so we could see the inside exhibits and luckily it was feeding time for the Cownose Rays and the other large tanks. We saw a variety of other sea life from the Mobile Bay area and learned about the Deep Horizon Oil spill and its effects on the area. The aquarium technician said we were likely the only people who had ever read all the display boards;-) Dauphin Island would definitely be a place to return to.
We really hope you enjoy this post (even though it is very long) as much as we enjoyed putting it together (almost 9 hours to process photos, write, edit, and upload). Next stop Mississippi.