First week this month was the first of two seven-day stretches I get this year with my kids; this is the first year we've had the 'vacation' weeks so we were excited to go someplace we all like.
Grandnan came with us this time. She had never gotten to go the beach with her grandchildren so she was excited, too. My original plan had been to camp at Gulf State Park Campground, like the kids and I did last April right after the Gulf Oil Spill.
Grandnan wavered when I told her the arrangements I had in mind, even though I was planning on taking one of those portable air conditioners for the tent so we could sleep at night.
A few days after that she was talking to a friend and next thing you know the woman ended up saying something about her condo in Orange Beach. Grandnan offered the upgrade from camping the condo and when she said the place was on the first floor by the pool I said OK. ;)
I drove the whole way down, we stopped at Burris Farms Market on Highway 59. I had never been and was amazed at the variety, and much if not most of what they had was from their own farm fields. We bought some Chilton County peaches, not without a sense of irony since we'd passed through Chilton County like, 160 or so miles ago. Grabbed a few other things to stick in the fridge at the condo and it was back on the road to Orange Beach.
Found the place, got the key and I toted all our stuff by hand or on my back the 20 or so yards to 'our' place. We went to the beach and played, came back, went out to eat and hit the beds not too long after getting back.
Next day was our trip the best beach I know about.
The kids remembered that there was going to be a 2-mile walk to get to the beach from the Pine Beach trailhead so they were ready. They also remembered what it very likely the most humongous live oak tree most people will ever see. Grandnan had never been, so as with every time I have had a first-timer along, I was proud to show them the best beach hardly anybody knows about.
It was about 93 degrees when we got there late morning. The hike was exactly as I remembered, and this time I had my 'big badass' Kelty backpack with me to hump just about all of the stuff we were bringing. I would guess it weighed 30? 40? pounds and had 10 liters of water, a bunch of our peaches and other fruit, a soft cooler packed with ice, a few can drinks, a folding umbrella, a few beach toys, my camera and miscellanea. I'd strapped it all on and instantly remembered why I had been so proud to get it as a gift 21 years ago.
There's a nice covered two-story covered viewpoint-pavilion-rest spot where the trail emerges from the scrubby freshwater marsh section, into the saltwater lagoon section. It was probably 98 or 99 degrees by then so we were proud to stop, drink some water, snack on produce, and rest. The big photo I posted here is of the nice new (to me) signage posted there telling about the refuge.
I think they built it in 2005 after Hurricane Ivan. (?) That part of the refuge got thumped hard by the storm then and you can still plenty of smacked-and-smashed timber along through there, although a bunch seemed well on its way to thorough rotting and disintegration.
Past Little Lagoon the trail--which is also used as access to one of the two pieces of private land inside the refuge--splits right, and the final stretch encounters its only 'hill'...which is also when you get to see what a sand dune must have looked like when the Spaniards came though there.
I can't imagine saying I would ever dislike climbing that dune. It was 30 feet high with a slight cut in it for the trail the first time I hiked it in 1996. This time it was more like 20 and the cut was about four times as wide as it was back then, courtesy of Ivan.
I could tell the wind had filled in it some more since I was there in 2010. But given the near-extreme heat and the fact we were carrying our stuff, I was more than happy to have less of a climb! haha
Once over the top, we saw another, considerably shorter dune another 50 or so yards ahead. It was placed there by Ivan's storm surge and has built up, been eroded and shifted a bit in the years since. I saw more vegetation on it than I remember seeing last year. It took just a few steps to get up and over it.
Then...was the massive, seemingly endless expanse of surf and sand for which we came. The kids dropped their stuff and took off and did everything kids do at the beach. Most of the people who read this will have to use imagination--or just take my word it--to really know the kind of beach of which I speak.
The kids took off, with nothing in their way: no one to step over, no other people playing in the surf, no beach furniture, no one to bother in the course of being kids, no one fishing, no one playing ball, no one partying, no one for us to have to watch around our kids, nothing for them to see in either direction but more beach; with waves, surf, wind, and their own yelling and laughing as the only noise.
I think we ended up staying there more than six hours.
Three of the seven trips I've taken to that beach I saw no one who did not come there with me. This was not one of those trips. But we only saw other humans twice the whole time.
Once, we spotted a cluster of contractors and their tractors there to continue the cleanup and remediation of the BP oil spill from last year. The tractors had rakes and bins which scooped and sifted through the sand about 30 yards from the surf. The rake rigs had wheeled bins which collected whatever they were sifting for--tarballs and other spill detritus, I guess. They took two breaks while we were out there.
The other time was when a park police officer rode by on his four-wheeler. It was around what I know to be quitting time for most federal employees who work dayshift and he seemed to have been putting along the surf line until it was time to get off. He stopped and talked to us, and seemed impressed we'd been willing to hike and bring all our stuff. I told him I liked it that most people won't come out there because it was the best beach in the world that I knew about.
I told him I'd found some tarballs but I'd had to look for them and they were little. He said most of what was left was quarter-to-half-dollar size and said the contractors were not finding that many of them any more. When he left he stopped down the beach where the contractors were and stopped and talked to them, too.
Awhile later we decided to pack up and leave, too. We took full advantage of each shaded bench along the trail, and were once again glad for the existence of the viewpoint/pavilion and its wonderfully effective roof complete with seating.
Back to Orange Beach and we rested...then made the most of our week at the beach.
What else...Oh there's three ways to get to this beach, all of them along Alabama Highway 180 (a.k.a. Fort Morgan Road) off Alabama Highway 59. Once you are driving west (toward Fort Morgan and the Dauphin Island Ferry)
Turn left when you see the sign for the Jeff Friend trail. It's not a far walk from the parking area to Little Lagoon. When you get there you will see houses to the east and the scrubby pine forest to the west. The Jeff Friend Trail takes visitors about a mile into the forest, where it becomes The Centennial Trail for more than a mile and links up with the Pine Beach trail. From there you can turn left and it's another 1.5 miles to Pine Beach.
Turn left when you see the sign for the Pine Beach Trailhead. If you miss it, there is also a conventional little green street sign for Pine Beach Road. In a few seconds you will see what is likely the largest live oak you will ever see and it will be time to park. There has never been more than two other cars parked there, the times I have been.
Turn left when you see another park sign at Mobile St. The road goes briefly through a swamp and there are signs warning people not to stop and mess with alligators. When you get the end of Mobile St. you can just park and pretty much step right onto the beach. To the west commercial and residential properties are visible; to the east is the beach I wrote about here. It's good for a 3 or 4 mile walk on empty beach if you and your party are game.
One of these years I might luck out and get to meet/befriend the people who own the house at the end of Pine Beach Road and have them unlock the gate for me...but until then, I have no problem with the hike. ;)