Ravaged by centuries of hurricanes and war, Dauphin Island has emerged as one of the most beautiful and peaceful settings on the Gulf Coast.
Located at the mouth of Mobile Bay, the barrier island on the Alabama coast offers beautiful beaches, pristine environments, coastal amenities, and a rich history. It is truly a jewel of the Gulf Coast.
Long before Spanish and French explorers reached these shores, Dauphin Island was popular with Native Americans who came there to fish, hunt, and gather the oysters and other shellfish found in Mobile Bay. Traces of their presence can still be seen today at Shell Mound Park on the island’s north shore.
Touring Dauphin Island we made brief stops at the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary, Dauphin Island Campground, Historic Fort Gaines, and Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium.
A barrier island located three miles south of the mouth of Mobile bay in the Gulf of Mexico, Dauphin Island is reached by a three-mile-long high-rise bridge.
When the French landed on Dauphin Island in 1699, they found so many skeletons scattered on the beach that they thought a massacre had taken place there. The French named the island “Massacre Island” and established a settlement on the island. The colony was raided by pirates in 1711, but the settlement survived. By 1717, Dauphin Island was the home of the French Governor General of Louisiana. It was the French, in fact, who gave the island its name, after a member of French royalty, “Dauphine.”
The island passed through British and Spanish hands before becoming part of the United States. To defend its new territory of Alabama, the government built Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island between 1819 and 1853. The fort played an important role in the Battle of Mobile Bay and it was within sight of its walls that Union Admiral David G. Farragut issued his immortal command, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” After Farragut and his ships forced their way into the bay, Union soldiers laid siege to Fort Gaines, which surrendered on August 8, 1864.
Located at the eastern end of Dauphin Island, Audubon Bird Sanctuary consists of 137 acres of maritime forests, marshes, and dunes, and includes a lake, swamp, and beach. The trail system within the sanctuary was recently designated as a National Recreational Trail. The sanctuary is the largest segment of protected forest on the island and the first landfall for neo-tropical migrant birds after their long flight across the Gulf from Central and South America each spring.
We walked the 0.6-mile Lake Loop Trail through the maritime forest where the dominant plants are loblolly and slash pines, live oak, southern magnolia, and Tupelo gum. It leads by slightly elevated boardwalk from the parking lot to Gaillard Lake. Other trails include the 0.3-mile Dune Edge Trail, 0.8-mile Swamp Overlook Trail, 1.7-mile Upper Woodlands Trail, a 0.4-mile trail that leads to Dauphin Island Campground, 0.5-mile trail that leads to Fort Gaines
The well-preserved ramparts of Fort Gaines have guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay for more than 150 years. Now an historic site, the Fort stands at the eastern tip of Dauphin Island where it commands panoramic views of the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The Fort has been designated as one of the Eleven Most Endangered Historic Sites in America due to on-going shoreline erosion. The fort has original cannons, a blacksmith shop, kitchens, a museum, gift shop, and tunnels. Guided tours are done in period uniform which will bring history to life including cannon firing demonstration and blacksmithing.
The Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium highlights the four key habitats of coastal Alabama: the Mobile Tensaw River Delta, Mobile Bay, the Barrier Islands, and the Northern Gulf of Mexico. It includes the 10,000 square foot Exhibit Hall, a 7,000 gallon sting ray touch pool, and the Living Marsh Boardwalk. This facility has 31 aquariums totaling over 30,000 gallons with more than 100 species on display.
Through visual exhibits and interactive exhibits, the Estuarium leaves the visitor with a broader understanding of the interactions that take place in Mobile Bay, the fourth largest estuary system in the United States.
The island today is a resort area, famed for its beaches and fishing. Dauphin Island is dotted with historic sites and old Fort Gaines is a major landmark of the Civil War.
For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.
—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us