Years ago, I remember reading one of the major travel magazines that did a piece every month called “Dream Drives.” It featured a beautiful place to take a road trip, and what to do, see, and eat along the way. Hwy 180 is a dream drive that can be done in a day and is hidden from the hustle and bustle of Gulf Shores.
Hwy 180, or Fort Morgan Peninsula, is a 22 mile stretch of land with Mobile Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other side. I can’t tell you the countless people I run into who have visited Gulf Shores, some several times, and have never driven down this road to see what Fort Morgan has to offer.
Why should you go? Fort Morgan’s remote location makes it seem worlds away from the busy condo buildings, souvenir stores, and restaurants. It is natural, beautiful, and since building has been restricted to a minimum, it is sparsely populated and untouched in many areas. There are also some very special spots along the way you must see.
Cycling and Biking: If you are an avid cyclist, you need to bring your bike. There’s a bike lane that stretches from one end to the other, and with the small amount of traffic driving this road, you can feel totally safe. Not to mention, down and back is a flat 44 miles, so getting several miles in is easy. For those who like to bike, but aren’t as comfortable riding on the road with cars, or prefer the more relaxed beach cruiser way of getting around, there is a winding bike path adjacent to the road on the right side of the highway that extends part of the way down the peninsula, about five miles. Riding along the golf course, under the Spanish moss, is a great way to stay active while enjoying a leisurely ride. If you have a large group going and can’t fit all your bikes on your rack, you can rent from a local company that will deliver them to you. To pick up the path, park your car at the grocery store at the corner of Hwy 180 and 59.
Bird Watching: If you are into bird watching, the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail Fort Morgan Loop, offers several opportunities, since much of the Fort Morgan Peninsula is in the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The birding trail and sites are well marked with signs along Hwy 180, and here is a site that lists the locations and species most often in occurrence at that location.
Little Lagoon: Little Lagoon is situated between the land that is West Beach and a 10 mile portion of Fort Morgan. It is about ½ mile wide and consists of brackish water from Lake Shelby and the water that comes in at the pass from the Gulf of Mexico. There are three opportunities to see the lagoon up close on Fort Morgan: Lagoon Park (pictured below), Pine Beach Trail or Jeff Friend Trail, with the last two also being on the birding trail. The day I took this photo, it was overcast and the lagoon was perfectly still, like glass, mirroring every object.
Shipwreck: Continuing down Fort Morgan, turn left at mile marker 6, make a right at the end of the road, and you’ll find the Rachel, aka The Mystery Ship. The Rachel is a 155’ Schooner believed to have been built around 1923. As you can imagine with any old relic, there are so many stories surrounding it. Many say the ship was a Civil War era ship called the Monticello that left Mobile Bay in the 1860s. Other legends say it was a rum runner and call it the “Whiskey Wreck” trying to smuggle liquor during Prohibition. Depending on shifting sand and weather conditions, the ship may or may not be exposed, but it is definitely a sight to see. It’s lying flat on the beach in someone’s backyard. Literally, it’s almost right under their deck. There isn’t any parking, and it’s located in a residential area, so remember to be respectful when walking through the area. You can park a few lots away, and you’ll see signs posted in the areas where you cannot park. Currently, there is a vacant lot of open sand you can walk in without walking under a private house. Again, just be respectful, and remember, this isn’t a tourist destination, it’s a residential neighborhood.
Eat: You must try Tacky Jacks 2 at the Gulf Shores Yacht Club and Marina at Fort Morgan. This two story structure, which looks like it was once a house, sits right on Mobile Bay. In the summer months, the sun sets in Mobile Bay. In the winter it sets in the Gulf of Mexico, and both are equally beautiful. Tacky Jacks is a chain around Gulf Shores, but we love this off-the-beaten path location. Upstairs is the restaurant, downstairs is the bar, and from either level you can see the water. They have some of the best bushwhackers on the Gulf Coast, and if you’re brave (and you must be) order one with a floater. If you go in the summer, as I mentioned above, you will be treated with this breathtaking view from the deck.
And while this isn’t a tourist destination, one of the most recognizable houses on Fort Morgan is the very last house on the left as you head down where the fort property begins. In different light and weather conditions, it reminds me of the perfect setting for a romantic movie or a scary, psychological thriller. The location, the isolation, and the size all come together to make a perfect setting. As you drive towards the fort, the house is concealed until you are past it, so once you make it to the clearing as you enter the fort property, look back over your left shoulder and out towards the water. And by the way, that really was the sky that night. This was taken with my iPhone and no special editing or filter.
Fort Morgan: This is the main reason you drove down this road and will be the highlight of the drive. Fort Morgan State Historic Site is a Civil War fort. It is not to be missed and neither are the views. The fort is located at the very end of Fort Morgan Peninsula, and don’t be fooled when you drive up to the parking lot. You can’t see a bit of it from the outside. It’s protected by a sloping grass wall, a common engineering feature of many forts. After walking through the arched tunnel, you’ll see the entrance. At the top of Fort Morgan, you have the best view of the mouth of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island and the Gulf of Mexico. You can do a self-guided tour and spend as much, or as little time as you like, but exploring the rooms and grounds is fascinating for all ages. The entrance and grounds are all protected areas, and from the parking lot, you can walk out onto the beach where the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay meet. The museum is free and houses many relics and past lenses from the lighthouses around the area.
Now you’ve come this far and you have an option to extend your day by chartering a small boat for a couple of hours to explore Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
If you decide to charter a boat at Gulf Shores Yacht Club and Marina at Fort Morgan (back at Tacky Jacks), be sure you plan in advance by calling the marina, as boats aren’t always available on a walk up basis. It is a small marina with only a few boats there at certain times. I recommend allowing yourself the morning to drive and get out and explore all the locations and schedule a boat ride in the afternoon. You could even do the fort before heading to Tacky Jacks for lunch, and then catch a boat after lunch. The picture taken below is the marina in off-season. You can see now why you need to plan ahead. As you can see below, even if you are there in off-season when the sun sets on the gulf side, the sky on Mobile Bay is still stunning at sunset.
Sand Island Light House: On a clear day you can see Sand Island Light, and it’s so hard to believe by looking at how far away it is, at one time, it was connected to land. You must see this lighthouse while you can. It is currently on Lighthouse Digest Magazine’s Doomsday List, a list naming the most endangered lighthouses in the country. You can’t go inside of it, but it is regarded as one of the last great masonry lighthouses on the Gulf Coast. Massive granite rocks have been placed at the base to prevent further erosion. When it was originally constructed in 1838, it was the tallest lighthouse ever built. The lighthouse also has so many stories to tell. It has been hit by several hurricanes and was even blown up when Confederate soldiers found Union soldiers in the lighthouse spying on Fort Morgan. The structure you see today was built in 1873 and is 125 feet tall. If you don’t make this portion of the trip, when you are standing on top of Fort Morgan, imagine if you can, walking from Dauphin Island to Sand Island Light. Dauphin Island residents currently own Sand Island Light and that was the lighthouse’s connection point.
Dolphin Watching: Well, if you haven’t seen a dolphin at some point on your trip while sitting on the beach, I’m very surprised. They are all over this part of the Gulf of Mexico and in Mobile Bay, so you are just about guaranteed to see at least one during your trip. If not, there’s an even better chance you’ll see them on a boat. They are everywhere. The lighthouse is about 3 miles off shore, so keep your eyes open for dolphin when heading out there.
Many of us go on vacation to park our butts in the sand and do nothing. We rush around at home, why would we want to do anything on vacation, right? I hear you. I promise you, even if none of the other stops along the way interest you, at least drive down to the end and see the fort. It is a remarkable place, and you don’t need to be into history to enjoy it. I guarantee it will be one of the most memorable parts of your trip. Relax and enjoy the drive!
All information and photographs were provided by our guest blogger Cassandra Buckalew.
Entrepreneur and designer, Cassandra Buckalew, is an Atlanta native. She and her husband own a home on Fort Morgan and fell in love with the area after their first visit in 2006. She graduated from the Art Institute of Atlanta and owns a trolley company, a pedicab company and a ghost tour in the metro Atlanta area. She has traveled all over the world but spends her down town rejuvenating on Alabama’s beautiful coast. She enjoys the Gulf Coast lifestyle and friendly laid-back attitude. A lover of photography, travel, design, food and fashion, you can follow her images and adventures on her instagram account at: cassbuckalew or her Facebook design page: Cassandra Buckalew Interiors. She can be reached at: email@example.com.