Morning views in Gulf Shores, Alabama

Admittedly, I underestimated coastal Alabama as an outdoor travel destination. But when the Outdoor Writers Association of America hosted our annual conference at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama, I experienced a small taste of its natural beauty first-hand. Allow me to humble myself and say I stand corrected.

The images below were my submissions to a photo scavenger hunt at the conference. In a 36-hour dash, I made the photos to respond to a series of prompts encouraging attendees to get outside and explore our host area.

Capturing Coastal Alabama

Prompt: “Go Coastal. The 32 miles of sugar white sand beaches between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach draw over 6 million visitors to the Alabama coast a year. Now that you’re one of those visitors, make a scenic, postcard-perfect image that makes the viewer feel the grains of sand between their toes, the refreshing ocean air, and wide-open spaces.”

In my entry, I tried to draw out the gorgeous pinks and purples that emerge at sunrise, while the surf gently bubbles and washes onto the pristine morning sand.

Bubbles in the surf on textured sandy Gulf of Mexico beaches in Gulf Shores, coastal Alabama

Sand and shadow in the dunes

Prompt: “Shadow: The Gulf Coast sees over 200 days of sunshine. Where there’s light, there’s shadow. Make a photograph where a shadow—via natural or artificial light sources—is the main subject.

In my entry, morning sidelight settling into the shadows and ridges on the wind-swept dunes made the entire image come to life with shadows. This scene evokes a feeling of serenity only fresh morning beaches can create.

Wind-swept ridges in the sand and crawling dune plants create shadows in the morning in Gulf Shores, Alabama

Great blue heron in the Gulf of Mexico

Prompt: “Action: Water. Birds. Outdoor adventurers. Gulf Shores is a happening place. Show us something or someone in motion.”

In my favorite entry and image of the trip, a great blue heron waded into the surf on the hunt for its morning meal. To capture the image, I had to wade into the warm Gulf water and steady myself against the piles of the pier. The shorebird watched carefully for fish and crabs being tossed in the surf, and I waited patiently for the perfect lapping wave to roll in.

A great blue heron wades into the Gulf of Mexico on the hunt for small fish to make its breakfast in coastal Gulf Shores, Alabama
Great blue heron

Coastal Alabama is also home to shorebirds like sandpipers and several gull and tern species. In fact, Alabama is the most biodiverse state east of the Mississippi River, and fourth most species-diverse in the country.

A fishing pier fights the forces of nature

Prompt: “Humans vs. nature: This is a conflict many writers explore in their work. It’s time for you, the photographer, to do the same visually. Create an image that shows a distinct relationship of the hand of humans—industry, development, etc.—within a natural setting.”

For this assignment, I turned my landscape photographer’s eye to the octagonal end of the Gulf State Pier. First, the pier at Orange Beach was wiped away by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Then, in 2020, just days from finishing reconstruction on the pier, Hurricane Sally struck and wiped out a 200-foot section.

Severed octagon of Gulf State Park Pier after damage from Hurricane Sally
A fishing boat passes between the gap in Gulf State Park Pier, which was damaged by Hurricane Sally

A boardwalk through the woods near Lake Shelby

Prompt: “Pathways: The Gulf Shores area features many hiking trails, some of which are accessible from our lodge. The Lakeview Trail. The Gulf State Park Pier. The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail system across the street from the lodge consists of 26 trails among nine distinct ecosystems. Pick a pathway and lead us into your picture with lines.”

Boardwalks are an essential byway for coastal travel on foot. I snapped this zig-zagging boardwalk trail, where you may even catch a glimpse of an alligator gliding into the reeds of Shelby Lakes – as I did on the hunt for this photo.