Updated Facilities Draw Crowd to Gulf State Park
By DAVID RAINER
Other than a sparkling new beach pavilion, the majority of activity at Gulf State Park south of the beach road consists of destruction. Fortunately, the focus on the north side of the road is all about construction and rebirth.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Hurricane Ivan devastated the Alabama Gulf Coast, including one of the state’s premier parks.
Although the razing of the park’s hotel and convention center continues along the beach, people are celebrating and enjoying the areas of the park away from the Gulf of Mexico that have been restored and enhanced.
“We’ve gone in and completely redone the campground,” said Hugh Branyon, who has been the park superintendent for the past 32 years. “We went from 468 sites with less than 100 with sewage to 496 sites, all with water, sewer and electrical hook-ups. And the electrical system at each site has 50-amp breakers to accommodate the large campers. But you can still tent-camp on those sites.
“We’re still renovating the bathhouses. We’ve finished with over half of the 11 bathhouses. We should be finished with those in the next few months. We’re going to add one more bathhouse, which will be handicap accessible. And we have renovated the activities center, which is very, very popular with our campers, especially in the winter with the snowbird population of campers. They have potlucks, dances, singings, crafts, church services."
For the first time since Ivan, the campground was booked solid in February and it has filled up several times since with the influx of visitors on spring break.
Branyon said there are several reasons why people flock to the park’s campground, other than the inexpensive rates that vary from $23 to $35 per night.
“It’s so popular because of the close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “Second, it’s designed where it’s conducive to families with kids in the summertime and snowbirds in the winters. It’s just a nice, clean, safe campground. We have people on duty and on patrol 24 hours a day.
“We’ve surveyed people over the past 30 years about what they want. The top two are always security and cleanliness, but they also wanted some degree of privacy. We afforded that until Ivan, but we’re putting those trees and bushes back where they will have privacy. We’re replanting trees just as fast as we can. We’ll be planting a half-million trees in the next three years.”
Branyon said there are also plans to build a big swimming pool in the campground.
Although Ivan completely destroyed one of the 21 cabins on Lake Shelby, that area of the park has rebounded in splendor, of course, without losing the rustic charm.
Construction on 11 new three-bedroom, three-bath cottages were completed last fall and Branyon said those facilities are rapidly being booked.
“The cottages are absolutely beautiful,” he said. “They have central air and three porches with a view of the lake from the living room. You couldn’t find anything nicer.”
A park enhancement that is rapidly headed to completion also bears the superintendent’s name. The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trails offers a view of the park that is often overlooked. Two of the four trails have been completed.
“Several years ago, we teamed up with the City of Orange Beach to start a backcountry trail system to go through the wilderness part of the park,” Branyon said. “These are areas that people have no idea are even here. We have beautiful oak hammocks that people are going to just be in awe of when they first see it. The trails run along marshes, secondary sand dunes, swamps, over creeks."
The trails are Catman Trail, which runs to Orange Beach, an extension that runs alongside the Orange Beach Sportsplex, the Gulf Park Oak Ridge Trail that runs to the back of the golf course, and the Rosemary Trail, which runs south of Middle Lake and Little Lake and comes out on the beach road. The total distance is 7.8 miles on the trails, which visitors who walk and bike are already enjoying.
“And they named it after me,” Branyon said. “That was a surprise.”
Branyon also said the park’s nature program is up and running in a different facility.
“Our nature center was destroyed by Ivan, but we’ve moved it to a building at the Lake Shelby picnic area,” he said. “It’s a wonderful program. They do events for clubs and schools all over Mobile and Baldwin counties. They do environmental programs for the school kids. They bring them down in buses and we take them out on trails and over to the beach. They identify creatures over there and plants on the trails. We teach according to grade levels.
“We figure if we can train the young’uns to protect the environment, it’ll rub off on their mommas and daddies.”
For Branyon, the satisfaction he gets after 42 years in the State Parks Division is still centered on the youngsters.
“Seeing kids fishing and swimming, chasing crabs on the beach, picking up seashells and watching birds, to me it’s always been about the kids,” he said. “When I see kids fishing in the lakes and on the pier, they’re having a good, wholesome time and aren’t out on the streets.”
PHOTOS: Top - Park Superintendent Hugh Branyon points out the start of the Catman Trail on the new trail system that bears his name in Gulf State Park. Bottom - Bicyclists and walkers are already taking advantage of the new trail system.