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Dauphin Island sits on the southern coast of Alabama, just at the entrance of Mobile Bay. It’s a favorite beach getaway for Southerners, but it also has so much more to offer than just the beach! It’s also the site of several historic sites plus is home to the Dauphin Island Estuarium at the Sea Lab. If you’re planning on visiting, we hope this list of things to do in Dauphin Island will give you some great ideas!
We went to Dauphin Island for a spring break trip, and we mostly chose it because it was in the middle of COVID and we wanted to get out of the house in a safe way and go somewhere that a) was within driving distance and b) had plenty of outdoor activity options. And we made a great choice. I’ll be honest: I’ve always been a Florida beach girl, having grown up going to St. George Island. But we loved our trip to Dauphin Island and had so much fun exploring this corner of Alabama!
Where Is Dauphin Island?
Dauphin Island is a barrier island located off the Southern tip of Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico. It is at the entrance of Mobile Bay, and it located three miles south of the coast.
How to Get to Dauphin Island
If you are driving, the best way to get to Dauphin Island is through Mobile, AL. Here are a few driving times from nearby cities:
- 45 minute drive from Mobile, Alabama
- 1 hour, 15 minute drive from Biloxi, Mississippi
- 2.5 hour drive from New Orleans, Louisiana
- 1.5 hour drive from Pensacola, Florida
If you are coming to Dauphin Island from the east (like from Pensacola) you can also bypass going through Mobile by taking the Mobile Bay Ferry. Although the driving distance is shorter, it doesn’t actually save you much time. But it is a fun experience!
If you are flying to Dauphin Island, the closest airports are Mobile (MOB) and Pensacola (PNS). You’ll then need to rent a car to drive to Dauphin Island.
Best Time of Year to Visit Dauphin Island
Dauphin Island is a great destination all year round! The most popular times to go are during the summer and Spring Break, but there is something special about each season on a Gulf Coast Beach!
- Summer is the most popular time, as families head down for beach vacations. It will be hot, but that’s kind of the point of summer at the beach, right?
- Fall can be a nice time to visit, as the water will still likely be warm enough to swim in and the days will be more pleasant than during the peak of summer heat.
- Winter at the beach can by chilly, but not usually cold. (The average high for January is 58 degrees F.) But walking along the beach can still be nice, and there are plenty of other activities on Dauphin Island you can do if the weather isn’t great.
- Spring starts to seem warmer temperatures, but you still have the potential for chilly days and the water often hasn’t quite warmed up enough for swimming.
Best Things To Do on Dauphin Island
Here are the best things to do in Dauphin Island! They are not in a ranked order (although I have numbered them). But I tried to group the attractions based on location.
1. Enjoy the Beach
Of course, the most popular thing to do on Dauphin Island is to enjoy the beach! Take your beach gear out for the day and enjoy the sand and waves. If you stay long enough, there are gorgeous sunsets, too.
If you are staying in a house of condo near the beach, you’ll be able to walk there. But there are also several public beach access areas. Be sure to familiarize yourself with here the public beaches are — you might see parking lots on other areas of the beach but many of these are by permit only.
Dauphin Island Public Beach
The main public beach on Dauphin Island is located in the center of the island, near Dauphin Island Elementary School. There is plenty of parking here and it is the perfect beach for families, and leashed dogs are allowed.
Dauphin Island East End Beach
This smaller beach is located near Fort Gaines. This isn’t as great of a beach for swimming, but it is near a lot of the other best things to do on Dauphin Island (not that anything is particularly far away). There is parking for this beach next to Fort Gaines.
Dauphin Island West End Beach
At the very west end of the island is West End Beach. This beach is a bit more removed from everything else. However, it is only open during the summer season (May/June through September) and you must pay to park here. This beach also does not allow dogs.
2. Stop By The Little Red School House
The Dauphin Island Little Red School House Community Complex is a great first stop to make when you arrive in Dauphin Island. This historical school building was built in the 1930s, and after locals protested the idea of it being demolished, it was moved to a new location on the island and turned into a community center.
Here you’ll find a welcome center with information about Dauphin Island, a small museum, a gift shop, and community resources like a lending library and Wi-Fi access.
Even if the Little Red School House is closed when you visit, it’s still worth stopping by — they often have resources available on the porch that you can pick up!
The Little Red School House is located at 1016 Bienville Boulevard.
3. Visit the Alabama Aquarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab
The Alabama Aquarium at The Dauphin Island Sea Lab is an absolute gem on the island, and I think one of the best things to do on Dauphin Island! Note that this used to be called the Dauphin Island Estuarium, and has now been renamed to the Alabama Aquarium.
The Dauphin Island Sea Lab was founded in 1971 for marine science programs for Alabama colleges and universities, and they also provide environmental education opportunities for kids across the state.
Luckily, for the public, they also have an aquarium you can visit as well as publicly available educational opportunities!
The aquarium walks visitors through the various ecosystems surrounding Mobile Bay and into the Gulf of Mexico, and includes tanks with manta rays, a nurse shark, and an octopus —plus a huge variety of fish!
The Alabama Aquarium also offers boardwalk talks on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 11:15 a.m. covering all kinds of marine science topics. You can also sign up for one of their excursions, where you get out in the field with hands-on marine science experiences. (This is something I would love to do one day!)
The Alabama Aquarium is located almost at the end of the island at 101 Bienville Boulevard.
4.Tour Fort Gaines
Fort Gaines is a Civil War era fort that played a key part in the Battle of Mobile Bay. And despite the fact that I have very little interest in such things, I found it absolutely fascinating!
Fort Gaines is extremely well-preserved, and you can walk around both the upper and lower sections of the fort. You can see canons, the bakery, the latrines, the blacksmith’s shop, both soldier and officer quarters, and so much more. They also have a small gift shop and a museum with some fascinating historical notes. (I especially found the information about life on Dauphin Island in the early 1900s and the display about the Sand Island Lighthouse interesting!)
The views from Fort Gaines are spectacular too! Since it sits right on the end of the island, you can see out into the Gulf of Mexico and into Mobile Bay. It really is so nice to stand on the top of the fort and listen to the waves.
And definitely make your way into the tunnels! These were a favorite for us and felt like fun secret passageways.
Fort Gaines is located at 51 Bienville Boulevard.
5. Explore the Audubon Bird Sanctuary
Dauphin Island’s Audubon Bird Sanctuary is huge section of woodlands, swamp, and beach that is home to an abundance of wildlife. There are 137 acres and they have 3 miles of trails you can walk. The trails are flat and easy, making this a great family-friendly activity and a way to change up your typical beach views.
The Audubon Bird Sanctuary is an important stop for migrating birds, who, coming from Central and South America, find a place to rest on Dauphin Island. But beyond birds, you can often spot other wildlife. We saw tons of turtles at the lake in the Bird Sanctuary, plus you should be on the lookout for alligators (and definitely be sure not to stand too close to the water or let your kids venture too close!).
We recommend wearing comfortable hiking clothes and shoes, and bringing bug spray, sunscreen, water, and binoculars.
The Audubon Bird Sanctuary is free to visitors and is located at 211 Bienville Boulevard.
6. Watch for Birds at Indian Shell Mound Park
If you are really into bird watching, you’ll also want to check out Indian Shell Mound Park. This small park on Dauphin Island is located on top of Native American shell mounds — basically the product of hundreds of years of Native Americans shucking oysters and piling the shells in one spot on the island to create these small hills.
Naturalists will love Shell Mound Park, because there is a huge variety of subtropical plant life here. Plus, bird watching is the big activity. There are benches to sit and observe birds, plus at the entrance there is a little whiteboard where visitors can write down the birds they saw on their visit!
Indian Shell Mound Park is located at 830 DeSoto Drive.
7. Have a Picnic in Cadillac Square
Cadillac Square is a large park area on Dauphin Island. It was once the capital of the Louisiana Territory and the location of Governor Cadillac’s home (hence, the name). Now, the home is gone, but the park remains and is covered is beautiful live oak trees.
There are plenty of picnic tables here, so grab lunch and sit under the shade.
Cadillac Square is located at 661 Bienville Blvd.
8. Visit the Goat Tree Reserve
Near Cadillac Square is the Goat Tree Reserve. This small patch of land is home to sprawling live oak trees and is another great place to bird watch. The local legend is that goats used to live near the trees, and at night they would climb up into the trees to hide from alligators.
Now, the main things to see here are the giant oak trees and the birds.
Goat Tree Reserve is located at 701 Cadillac Avenue.
9. Visit the Dauphin Island Heritage and Arts Council Gallery
If you want to see even more of Dauphin Island’s local treasures in a small museum, visit the Dauphin Island Heritage and Arts Council. This non-profit exists to promote art in the community, including providing educational opportunities for kids and adults.
If you are visiting the island, they have a small art gallery featuring local artists that you can visit Thursday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 12:30 – 4:30 p.m.
The gallery is located at 918 Bienville Boulevard, and you’ll recognize it by the small red and white lighthouse attached to the building.
10. Take a Boat Tour
If you’re interesting in a taking a boat trip, try out Action Outdoors. They offer “educational encounters with the sea,” taking passengers out into the Gulf of Mexico and teaching them about sea life. They also offer dolphin tours, sunset cruises, private charters, and fishing trips.
Action Outdoors can also take you on a lighthouse tour to Sand Island Lighthouse, which has a fascinating history (spoiler alert: hurricanes and missing lighthouse keepers!).
Action Outdoors is located at 650 LeMoyne Drive.
11. Take a Sand Island Lighthouse Tour
One popular boat tour to take from Dauphin Island is a tour to see the Sand Island Lighthouse. Sand Island has had numerous lighthouses. The first was built in 1839.
The current Sand Island Lighthouse has fought for survival. Sand Island is prone to erosion, especially when hurricanes come through. Today, there is only a tiny piece of land that the lighthouse stands on.
You can take a boat out to see the Sand Island Lighthouse, however you will only be able to view it from the boat. It has such an interesting history though, and this is definitely a must-see if you are a lighthouse lover.
12. Go Deep Sea Fishing
If you’re interested in fishing, you can charter a fishing boat in Dauphin Island. The Dauphin Island Marina has a fleet of boats available for charter for either deep sea fishing or in-shore/bay fishing. You can also see a lot of the boat charter options here.
The Dauphin Island Marina are located at 650 LeMoyne Drive.
13. Take a Bike Ride
Dauphin Island has miles of bike trails you can use to cycle across the island. You can bring your own bike or rent one from one of the many rental options on the island.
There is a 16.5 mile bike trail that runs the length of the island along Bienville Boulevard. If you want to make a day of it, you could pack a picnic and stop at Cadillac Square.
Be sure to follow safety guidelines for bike riding (wear a helmet!), obey local traffic laws, and stick to the bike path!
14. Play Golf
Where else can you play golf while overlooking the Gulf of Mexico? No where, actually.
If you love golf, head to the Isle Dauphine Golf Course for a round of golf. It is only $20 for a round of golf (including the golf cart!). This is also where the popular restaurant Pirates Bar & Grill is located.
And if you have younger kids who want to get in on the game, Dauphin Island also has a mini-golf course. This is located right at the entrance to the island after you cross the bridge.
For more beach fun check out these things to do in Cape San Blas, FL!
15. Ride the Mobile Bay Ferry
For a short day trip, take a ride on the Mobile Bay Ferry! This was one of our favorite activities because, I mean, having your car on a boat is pretty cool. If you don’t want to take your car, you can also ride the ferry as a pedestrian.
Check the Mobile Bay Ferry Facebook page for regular updates if you are planning on riding. They keep it frequently updated with closures and when boats fill up. Definitely plan on getting in line for the ferry early.
The ferry will take you over to Fort Morgan, where you can do a bit of exploring (see below) or just hop back on the ferry to return.
16. Visit Fort Morgan
The Mobile Bay Ferry will take you to Fort Morgan across the bay, where you can find…you guessed it, another fort. When you drive off the very, you can turn right and enter Fort Morgan down the road just a bit. (You could also walk if you came across as a pedestrian, but it is a bit of a way, especially on a hot day.)
Fort Morgan has a completely different architecture than Fort Gaines, which is really fascinating. It’s not quite as well preserved, but it still makes for a fun visit and has spectacular views of the bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
And if you want to visit Fort Morgan, definitely ride the ferry! The car trip would take hours!
17. Eat Some Great Food
Dauphin Island is a small island with a small selection of restaurants, but there are some good options:
- The Islanders Restaurant and Bar— Our meal here was fine, but the desserts blew our minds!
- Pirates Bar and Grill — A popular restaurant where you can eat by the beach.
- Dority’s — Lots of area to eat outside, but they are only open select nights (usually Friday and Saturday).
- Capt’n Snapper’s Marina Bar & Grill — A popular seafood place.
- Foxy’s Waffle Bar and Sugar Den — These waffle creations are delicious and so much fun!
- Lighthouse Bakery — A bakery housed in a historic home.
Where to Stay on Dauphin Island
The most popular place to stay in Dauphin Island is in a vacation rental. There are beachfront and beach access houses all along the island that you can rent throughout the year. I definitely recommend getting on VRBO or another vacation rental site to find your perfect accommodation. There are houses and condos of all sizes and price points across the island.
There are just a few hotels on the island, and none of them are large chains. The most popular hotel is the Inn at Dauphin Island, which features one bedroom and two bedroom beachfront units.
What to Pack for a Beach Trip
Planning a beach trip and wondering what to pack? We have a whole beach packing list here, including beach gear you might need, clothes you should bring, and other beach essentials.
Dauphin Island is an absolute gem in Alabama, and if you’re planning on visiting we hope you’ll check out some of these fun things to do in Dauphin Island!