When I’m opting for a non-work beach vacation that’s drivable for us from Tennessee, it’s hard for me to go anywhere but South Walton, Florida. But sometimes I just want to be as far away from people as possible, and that’s just, well, impossible along 30A. So I Googled my little heart out one night and that’s how I came across Dauphin Island in Mobile County, and thus found the perfect pet-friendly beach vacation in Alabama, situated right along the Gulf.
This post was last updated in March 2023.
I still love Florida, but sometimes it’s both cost-prohibitive and just too crowded. So let’s talk about alternatives, shall we?
A beach vacation in Alabama devoid of crowds
We go to Alabama regularly; my dad is from Birmingham so we have family down there, and we’re huge fans of Huntsville, visiting as frequently as we can. However, as a die-hard 30A girl, I’ve spent very little time on the Alabama coast and knew absolutely nothing about Dauphin Island prior to visiting; in fact, I’d never even heard the name, and I consider myself an expert on Southern travel.
It truly was an Internet rabbit hole that took me there. And when I saw that I could rent a house right on the beach—because, well, the entire island is essentially a beach—and take Ella along for the ride, I was sold.
Dauphin Island is a 14-mile-long barrier island, that is less than two miles wide at the widest point. It’s also at risk of disappearing over the coming years as climate change raises sea levels.
What to expect from Dauphin Island
First of all: Dauphin Island is tiny. You cross over Mobile Bay via a long, winding bridge, and once on the other side, don’t blink or you’ll miss the town itself entirely. I can’t tell you about the restaurant and bar options, as other than popping into Lighthouse Bakery to grab breakfast for the road on our way out of town, we went nowhere but our beach house. And that’s exactly what we aimed to do.
In Tennessee, we loaded up my Jeep full of coolers and bins of nonperishable food and alcohol (duh) and brought everything in with us. It wound up being the cheapest vacation I’ve ever taken! Other than the lodging, which ran us $1285 for the length of our stay, we spent $40 on gas on the way down, $40 on the way back up and $2 for ice at an outdoor dispenser. It’s funny how much money you save not eating out for every meal on vacation.
Where to stay on Dauphin Island
The three-mile bridge over the Mobile Bay deposits you right in the heart of the town. There’s also the option to take a scenic boat ride over via the Mobile Bay Ferry, which travels between Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan at Mobile Point.
Once on Dauphin, there’s just one main road—Bienville Boulevard—that bisects the island for seven miles, as well as a dedicated bike lane on the south side of the road. We saw many runners and cyclists passing our house all day, every day. And while Dauphin Island may be 14 miles long, the inhabitable part of it is only half that. The rest of the barrier island is undeveloped coastline.
Our beach vacations tend to be a mix of resorts, condos and house rentals, but Dauphin Island is devoid of chains. There are a few roadside motels, but the island mostly comprises vacation rentals—and as we wanted a kitchen and to be able to seclude ourselves on our own slice of sand while taking Ella along for the ride—this was ideal for us. We found a great pet-friendly house in Dauphin Island and quickly booked it for four days.
There are about 1,300 residents on Dauphin Island, though pretty much every house we saw was a vacation rental, so I imagine that less than half of those live there year-round. Most of them seem to rent their places out on Airbnb, which was how we found our cozy A-frame. The decor was dated, sure, but the house was three bedrooms and two bathrooms, pet-friendly and would be perfect for a family with kids. It was also right across the street from beach access, which was key.
Our Dauphin Island rental ran about $202 a night before fees; however, there are a ton of Airbnb rentals on Dauphin Island, so I’d suggest customizing your search by number of travelers, date range, and price point and seeing what you find.
The beaches of Dauphin Island
Is the water surrounding Dauphin Island as pretty as the Florida Panhandle? Definitely not. Though the south side flanks the Gulf of Mexico, the bay empties into it on the northern border; therefore, it’s got all the murkiness of the Atlantic Ocean and lacks the sparkle of the Emerald Coast, though some of the drone shots we got make it look prettier a bit further out. Did that affect our time there? Not at all.
We didn’t even make it to the east side of the island once—I’m serious when I say we barely left the rental house, other than to access the vacant beach directly across from our rental—but Dauphin Island East End Public Beach looks nice. They do charge $2 for admission per walk-in. I can’t speak to how crowded it was, but nowhere on the island seemed to have many people. We flew the drone, so were able to glimpse parts of the island we didn’t visit, and hardly saw a soul out, even with the weather a perfectly balmy and sunny 80 degrees.
There’s another public beach at the west end of the park that was manned by a family. They charge $3 per person and have no amenities (it’s basically a parking lot). We tried to go one day, but they didn’t allow Ella, so we turned around and went back to our beach instead.
The one thing that Dauphin Island does share with the Florida Panhandle, though, is epic sunsets. We were not disappointed there.
Would I go back to Dauphin Island?
Absolutely. It’s a sweet, sleepy little inlet, and when it’s safer to be out in public, I’d love to explore more of the wildlife and check out the beach restaurants and bars and also the 137-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary. The island is one of the top spots in the country to witness bird migrations during the spring.
And while a fisherman I am not, Dauphin Island apparently is a hotspot for fishing, and the one place we did see several people was lining Dauphin Island Beach and Pier, though there’s plenty of space with benches and tables situated along the 850-foot structure.
This was a pure vacation, so our main goal was just to chill, but the Dauphin Island Park & Beach Board has a helpful website full of outdoor activity ideas throughout the small barrier island. Do you have any plans to go to the beach this summer?
For other outdoor trips to take this summer, I recommend these Southern road trips:
- Opt Outside: Fun Summer Things to Do in Franklin + Leiper’s Fork
- Tennessee Travel: Planning a Day Trip to Burgess Falls State Park
- Exploring the Natchez Trace Parkway in North Alabama
- Dismals Canyon: Alabama’s Most Unexpected Natural Treasure
- Summer Fun in the Smoky Mountains
We have a pet friendly house just East of where you were! And our view from the deck is not blocked by houses as we are situated across from the open dunes!
Google “Sea Dog Dauphin Island Boardwalk” for that option! 🙂 We are not on AirBnB-Boardwalk Realty is our management and we are also on VRBO-there are several more pet friendly options not on AirBnB… We have 3 dogs ourselves, one our houses “mascot”. 🤣
And there are actually several houses close to we’re you rented that have full time owners/residents. I would not say “most” (rent (on AirBnB)). Many a homeowner resides where we can see the water! We plan on being 1/2 time residents in 3 years and full time in about 5! It’s laidback ways and small town feel is why we chose it. Living in the Midwest, it is an easy transition, without the crowds.
Aloe Bay across from the first gas station (and the row of tall skinny houses) is being tastefully developed.
Also so you do not have to only purchase processed food (not great for immune boosting! 🙃) Walmart at Tillman Corners you can schedule a pick up of familiar items and fresh food and produce. Just schedule about 48 hours out for time options. Or there is a delivery service, a business offered by residents of the island!
Skinner’s seafood market was a HUGE miss for you!! You can order “plates” steamed (shrimp, grouper, scallops, etc) with potatoes and corn, or just buy off the ice by the pound. I am SURE they would have delivered to your car!!
A 1/2 pound peel and eat steamed shrimp meal is $8!!
The view from Pirate’s Bar and Grill at that gulf side bay is a nice change and calm water… it’s where the walk to the east of the house you rented, it’s beach, leads-to the outer part of what the sand created.
And if you want to understand more fully the biggest threat to the island, more of a threat than climate change, check out Sierra Clubs movie about Dauohin Island! It’s the Corp of Engineers unwillingness to spend the bit extra to fortify the island correctly (When dredging the hat regularly for ships) that is the biggest threat. Several residents spent much of their time informing people this way, but with such a small population, it’s an uphill battle. (Though the population is quite a bit higher than the 2010 census since that is was during the recovery of Katrina…)
So glad you enjoyed! 😁
Thanks, Penny! Helpful information to have for next time, for sure.
We brought in all meat, cheese, fresh produce, etc. in coolers so that we didn’t have to worry about going in public as we were traveling in May at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. On most years, we travel full time for work (150-200 days a year), so this was merely a “get out of the house and have some quiet time on the beach” kind of trip.
I definitely want to come back when we can get out and explore more! Funny enough, the only place we stopped by was the bakery on the way out of town and we ran into a friend from my hometown who moved there about a decade ago. So next time, we need to explore the east end where he lives!
I hope you don’t mind me sharing your article on my dog-friendly dauphin island Alabama rental!!
Sharing this with wife.
We started our venture to Dauphin Island last year and went back as soon as covid laws let us. The island feels like home to us. First I will say to others if your looking for anything other than relaxing in the beach for your vacation go somewhere else. We rent a ocean front home (cost more but when you aren’t doing other activities you can afford it) the whole family comes and we just chill. Oh and don’t go without using dauphin island hospitality. We made a Walmart order (next time I’ll use Greers) hospitality picked it up and put it away in our house before we go there for 30 bucks! No partying that I have ever seen but we do go in off season just to avoid any crowds. I think we may have seen a max of 8 people walk through our beach area. Not staying just walking so mostly privacy. By the way off season is cheaper, which also gives you the best beach area right in front of your house. No need to go to public beach. For those who want to stay a longer time many homes offer snowbird rates for a monthly rental that is half the cost. We went in feb once and while it was chilly it wasn’t cold. Still had 60-75 degree days. Not saying you want to swim a lot though. I have never been peek season but they are fairly famous for the month the sand dollars arrive tons if them and they are a primary spot that many sea turtles come to lay their eggs. So nature is abundant. The goat trees are famous and huge humorist history after a very bad storm many years ago the islanders had to evacuate. At that time their were goat farmers who just knew they had lost their goats but when they returned they found them in the tops of the trees. That’s why they are called goat trees. Still around for all to see. Their is the Estuarium public aquarium, where you can go and learn about the ocean and common things in the area. There is also a sea lab. On the island. From 1821 the battle of mobile Bay is fort Gaines a entire military site you can go into and see. It is under ground in all sides except the one face the ocean where battles where. In 1699 r. D’Iberville mistakenly named it Île du Massacre (Massacre Island) because of a large pile of human skeletons discovered there. In reality, the site was a Mississippian burial mound which had been broken open by a hurricane, not a massacre site; however, the dramatic misnomer stuck.
I absolutely love the island and it’s people. More rich history can be found there. There are fb pages if some are interested in pictures and info.
Hubs and I go every spring, dummer, fall and winter. We stay at Holiday Isle, and the Fish camps. Alabama Realty and another realty office on the island books those for us. We love the island’s laid back atmosphere. Love buying seafood at Skinners and the Pirates Bar to go….red rock shrimp steamed is awesome. Plan to go back every year but now that my Granddaughter is in school we are just limited to spring, summer and Thanksgiving week trips.
We love Tennessee, too. Can’t wait to go back to the cabin with the hot tub.
I enjoyed your article! Readers need to know that Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island is a wonderful historic attraction. … We live here full time, and moved here mostly to enjoy the seasonal migratory birds, occasional fishing, low human population density, and quiet Southern small town atmosphere. Our house is secluded on the east end at the southernmost road beside the golf course behind the dunes from which I fly a single seat turbine manned helicopter, and produce videos on my youtube channel sharing the natural beauty of Dauphin Island and Gulf Coast Alabama while soliciting contributions for land acquisition by the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries 501(c)(3), as well as provide aerial search for Share the Beach 501(c)(3) sea turtle conservation group searching for sea turtle nests, and Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network 501(c)(3) searching for beached cetaceans and sirenians.
We went there 2 years ago and fell in love! We camp at campground which has private beach access and bird sanctuary there also! Loved touring Ft Gaines as well. We call it heaven on earth and the folks are friendly and food superb!
As a Dauphin Island resident- the descriptions fit perfectly – we fell in love with it on our first visit and 6 years later moved here permaently witour pets– I do want to make everyone aware however that there IS a LEASH law – the island is pet friendly but ONLY to dogs on leashes – even on the beach , and dogs are ot allowed on the West End public beach at all because it is a designated wildlife sanctuary. so come, enjoy, and bring your pet,but please while here ALWAYS keep your pet on a leash !The law requires it!-and —a forewarning- once you visit, you will never want to leave–
That’s a good point, and thank you, Joy! We always keep Ella on a leash, we just unhooked it from her harness in front of our house when we were alone one night for a few minutes to take photos. But yes, abide by leash laws!
Can’t wait to come back. Hope you guys didn’t get much damage from the fall storms.
The Campground on Dauphin Island has access to bird sanctuary and private beach!! You are literally steps away from Fort Gaines and the Estuary. Due to covid some restaurants closed. Found a good one on the road to Mobile. It is the best place ever. I dont know when the waters are safe and beach drops off steeply. Not the best for swimming but for peace and pets, its perfect!! Price at campground starts at 48$ a night…
Our story sounds just like yours. Except we had paid for our vacation to oak island in 2020 and it got hit with a hurricane so we had to cancel. We will never stay anywhere else again. Every year we talk about how we’re getting back the day we get here. We’re currently on Gulf Shores almost to Ft. Morgan. If I could afford it I would live here. It’s got me considering how it’s possible.
No, no, no!!! Folks keep writing about how great Dauphin Island is. My family and I want it to be a secret 😉
Been there 5 of the last 6 years and absolutely love it! Of course, the puppies always go.
Ha! Fine, I won’t write about it anymore 😉
I’m so happy you guys and your pups love it, too!
Ida’s powerful storm surge pushed sand and water onto Bienville Boulevard. Power poles were toppled, and the west end of the island became impassable.
Collier said the recovery would take time.
“I think it’s going to take multiple weeks at least before we can get things back to where you can get back down there without too much trouble so it’s going to take us quite a bit of time,” said Collier.
“Even if the house is pretty much rentable, minus the driveway and boarding up the stairs so those are not getting used, it’s always nice to just not have people down there so that the workers can actually work,” Sims said.
Collier said the checkpoint will be in place likely for the next few weeks so that workers can continue uninterrupted. You’ll need a hurricane pass or documents from your rental company to access the west-end.
The west end beach is still closed and will likely be one of the last things restored. 😭😭😭😭😭😭
I’m so sorry to hear that, Stephanie! I hope the island is able to be rebuilt and everything restored soon. ❤️❤️❤️
Fantastic stuff! Your photos make Dauphin Island appear really gorgeous!