My Awesome Accessible Beach Trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama By Sarah R Werner
Beaches are favorite vacation spots for many people. The relaxed atmosphere, warm sand and abundant sunshine all draw millions of people to the US Gulf Coast each year. For those with mobility impairments however, the beach can be a daunting and inaccessible place. Crutches, walkers and wheelchair wheels all sink miserably into sand, making just getting out to the shoreline almost impossible. Many coastal communities are trying to make their beaches more accessible with access mats, close parking and ramped boardwalks over sand dunes, and Gulf Shores, Alabama is one town that has made a commitment to accessibility. During my trip there in October I experienced first-hand how much more fun the beach can be when you can actually reach it.
Gulf Shores has made an effort in the recent renovation of their main beach area to become an accessible destination. The first thing I noticed was the ample amount of disabled parking available close to the beach access, and the wide paved sidewalks from the parking area to the sand. Between the parking area and beach there is a large bathhouse with a gently sloping ramp and accessible toilets and showers. Outside is a paved boardwalk and an open space with shade structures for picnicking and hanging out with an outstanding view of the water. To get out onto the sand, the city has installed a 350 foot-long access mat. Access mats are made out of a woven plastic that sits on top of the sand and provides a firm surface for rolling or navigating with crutches and is a lifesaver for getting across the soft sand.
Most of the other beach accesses at Gulf Shores do not have any steps, making them accessible if you have a beach wheelchair, but only the downtown access has the access mat, which stretches almost all the way to the high tide line.
Another main draw from an accessibility standpoint is that Gulf Shores is one of the less than a dozen beaches in the Eastern US where you can rent a power beach wheelchair. Beach Power Rentals (https://www.beachpowerrentals.com/) offers both motorized and non-motorized beach wheelchairs at a reasonable rate. If you have ever used a traditional beach wheelchair, you know that they are cumbersome and require someone to push you around. With a motorized chair you can ride next to your friends and family and go wherever you please. Because I have an all-terrain wheelchair, I chose not to rent a power chair, but regretted it after struggling on the sloped surface of the beach for a few days.
An important difference between Gulf Coast beaches and Atlantic beaches is the degree of tidal variation and the amount of fairly level sand that this variation creates. On the Atlantic coast the low tide can expose a very wide swath of sand that is easy to roll on. The tidal variation in the Gulf Coast is much smaller, so the amount of hard sand at low tide is much narrower and more sloped. This is where having a power beach wheelchair comes in handy, because you aren’t limited to hard flat sand for exploring the shoreline.
Gulf Shores also seems to have a fair amount of wheelchair-accessible accommodations. I was able to find an accessible condo with an elevator without much difficulty, even though it was the weekend of the annual Shrimp Festival, a big draw in early October. Unlike Panama City and Destin, the skyline of Gulf Shores is not dominated by super tall high-rise condos and has retained some of its quaint beach town charm. I found it to have a more relaxed atmosphere and lower prices than nearby Panama City Beach. Much of the area in central Gulf Shores is pedestrian-friendly, with wide paved sidewalks leading to the shops and restaurants in the downtown area. Our condo was about a mile from the main shopping area and we were able to take the sidewalk the entire way to it, which is also a recent improvement the city has made.
There are a variety of things to do in Gulf Shores that are accessible, including dolphin cruises, a hiking path and fishing at Gulf State Park, and tours of Fort Morgan Historic Site. By far the best place we ate from an accessibility standpoint was Lulu’s, owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister, Lucy Buffet (https://lulubuffett.com/gulf-shores/). It is a destination unto itself, with a ropes course, volleyball, and shopping to occupy you while you wait for a table. I was impressed by the array of accommodations they offer, including tables designed specifically for wheelchair users and six different allergy-specific menus. Folks who aren’t wheelchair users may not realize what a difference the right table can make for a dining experience. I have grown weary of going out to eat with friends and family only to have to bend over the table to eat because my knees don’t fit under or my footrest hits the center post and ending up with food on my lap. We visited on a less-busy night and only had to wait a few minutes to be seated. The wait staff were excellent, the food was superb and reasonably priced for a tourist destination.
In the past the beach hasn’t been my favorite vacation spot, mostly because I felt stuck in one place after an enormous effort to get down to the sand, or because I was reliant on friends and family to push me around in a bulky uncomfortable beach wheelchair. The accessibility features at Gulf Shores have given me a reason to be hopeful about a trip to the beach and enjoy some time in the sun and sand. October was the perfect time to go, with fewer people, milder weather and an abundance of seashells to be found. Before this trip I wasn’t aware of the beauty of Alabama’s coast, but I found Gulf Shores to be the perfect vacation spot as a wheelchair user and someone who enjoys the uncrowded beach experience.