By Terry Ward | BudgetTravel.com
On a recent road trip with my family from Pensacola, Florida, west along Interstate-10 through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, I got a taste of all I’ve been missing out on in the Gulf Coast. I’m pretty sure this stretch of Interstate-10 and the backroads branching off make for the most underrated road trip in the South. Read on for a six great stops to make during a road trip along the surprising Gulf Coast.
Meet sloths and lemurs at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo
There is so much to love at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores, Alabama, it’s hard to know where to start. Dubbed “The little zoo that could” for how it’s survived three major hurricanes (and now the pandemic, too), this beautiful and largely open-air facility offers phenomenal animal encounters you hardly find everywhere, including the chance to hand-feed sloths for just $19.95 per person (in addition to zoo admission, which is $19.95 for adults and $14.95 for kids ages 3 to 12).
Whatever you do, don’t miss the zoo’s butterfly exhibit, featuring a jaw-dropping collection donated by a local resident that’s housed inside a room designed to look like a field research tent. Hundreds of incredible butterflies and moths (some with patterns on their wings that look just like snake heads, to scare off predators) are the stuff of pure wonder.
Even if you’re not visiting the zoo itself, you can still have lunch on a spacious deck overlooking the grounds at The Safari Club (no zoo admission required), where a menu of delicious wood-fired pizzas, Gulf Coast seafood and more awaits.
For a bike ride through Gulf State Park, Alabama
Home to bobcats, bald eagles, alligators, owls and many more animals, Gulf State Park (free admission) has 28 miles of paved trails and boardwalks that are a blast to explore by bicycle.
The park even has a free bike share program you can access with your smartphone. And you can rent tandem bikes and trailers for pulling kids along the trails, too, through Beach Bike Rentals in Orange Beach, Alabama (all rentals come with helmet and locks, starting from $25 for the day).
When you’re not paddling through the coastal habitats, make time to relax at Gulf State Park’s two miles of white sand beaches and check out the Gulf State Park Campground, one of the best places to put up a tent or pull in with an RV in the state.
Hang out in the adorable town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Continuing west along Interstate-10 into Mississippi, plan to spend a night or longer in the adorable coastal town of Ocean Springs, where a stay at the new-in-2020 Beatnik hotel (rooms from $157 per night) is nothing short of revelatory.
The property has just four cabins decorated in mid-century boho style, each with a private patio complete an outdoor shower and hammock. There’s a communal plunge pool and fire pit, too, where guess gather for socially-distanced drinks at sunset.
Stroll along Front Beach, the town’s small sandy beach, or visit the many outdoor galleries and cafes in Ocean Springs’ compact downtown. The best spot for a delicious and budget-minded breakfast is undoubtedly The Greenhouse on Porter, right next to the Beatnik, with heavenly housemade biscuits slathered with honey butter.
Brand new in August 2020, the Mississippi Aquarium (admission $29.95 per person, $24.95 for kids ages 3 to 12) in Gulfport houses over 200 species of animals and native plants within indoor and outdoor exhibition areas overlooking the Mississippi Sound in downtown Gulfport.
Among the many interesting animals you can see here are bottlenose dolphins, cow nose rays, American crocodiles and green-winged doves.
Visitors age 10 and older can even get into the water with SeaTREK ($79.95 per person), a two-hour experience during which you don a helmet and enter one of the aquarium’s habitats to see fish, sharks and rays upclose from a perspective that’s similar to a scuba diver’s vantage point.
Go deep into Honey Island Swamp on a bayou tour with Cajun Encounters in Slidell, Louisiana
This Florida girl got an education on the difference between the Everglades and freshwater bayou habitats during a fascinating tour by boat into Honey Island Swamp in Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish with Cajun Encounters (from $57.50 per person, $37.50 for kids ages 3 to 12).
We spotted wild boars sloshing around the bald cypress tree-filled bayou (essentially a flooded forest, as the guide explained it), learned all about the mythical bayou swamp monster called Letiche and even visited a floating village that looked like something straight from a Swamp People episode.
Private and group tours are available.
Take a family-friendly hike with Canoe and Trail Adventures in Covington, Louisiana
Prefer to stay on dry land when exploring the bayou? A Louisiana Master Naturalist is your guide during hikes that can be as easy or adventurous as you like with Canoe and Trail Adventures in Covington, Louisiana (the company also offers paddling tours and canoe and kayak rentals).
I loved exploring trails maintained by local Boy Scouts troops at Northlake Nature Center with our guide, Chad Almquist, who showed my kids how to scoop up crawfish and tiny minnows using nets in the shallow bayou waters. Our hike led us along boardwalks and trails through wetlands and hardwood forests where we scouted for salamanders under rocks and spotted native birds (private tours from $49 per person).