Welcome to your new favorite vacation destination, the best little beach town you’ve never heard of — Dauphin Island, Alabama! Our family lived here for a month during our full-time travels, and we recently returned for a long weekend of biking, kayaking, parades, seafood, and lots of r&r. If you’re planning a trip, or just curious, here’s what to do in Dauphin Island!
We stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb on the island in January and February 2020. There were bikes and kayaks available for our use, so we spent lots of time biking around the island and kayaking in Dauphin Island Bay.
Dauphin Island is a barrier island off the gulf coast of Alabama, accessible by the Dauphin Island Bridge. It’s a little over a mile wide at its widest point and about 15 miles long, but half of that length is the west end beach, so only about 7 miles of the length is driveable.
The island may be small, but it has the perfect balance of small town comfort and beach town energy.
You’ll find lots to do on the island, from pristine white sand beaches to historic forts, and all of the freshest seafood you can eat!
The best surprise of our stay was how the town came alive for the Mardi Gras parades! More on that below. Let’s get into it!
What to do in Dauphin Island
Dauphin Island Beaches
It is an island, after all, so I think we have to talk about the beaches first. Dauphin Island has several beautiful beaches to choose from.
East End Public Beach
At the east end of the island, you’ll find the most peaceful cove right by Fort Gaines. This is a great area for families, because the water is calm and the sand is perfect for playing!
But don’t only head here during the day. In the evening, you can witness the most breathtaking sunsets. After all, Dauphin Island is known as the “sunset capital of Alabama!” It’s a perfect spot for family photos or a peaceful end to an adventurous day.
Dauphin Beach / Pelican Cove
To find another beautiful beach spot, head toward Pirate’s Bar and Grill and park in the public parking lot nearby. Walk down the steps next to the restaurant and out to the beach. You can relax and sunbathe in the warm sand while the kids play in the calm waters of Pelican Cove.
Dauphin Island Public Beach / Pelican Peninsula
Located centrally on the island is a long stretch of beach that extends down the Pelican Peninsula. You’ll find a large public parking lot here (paid in the summer), but be prepared for a bit of a walk down to the water.
When you make it to the beach, you’ll be rewarded with lots of space to play and relax in the sand and water, but it can be a little tricky to maneuver the pathways through the dunes.
My suggestion is to head to the east end of the parking lot and take the wide path that’s just to the right of the pier. You can also try walking to the end of the pier and down the stairs, but when I was there recently, the pier was under construction and the stairs were unavailable.
West End Public Beach
Another good option is the beach at the west end of the island. There’s a good sized parking lot here, and the beach extends for miles. The only potential problem is that the parking is only at one end of the beach, so on a busier day, you might have to walk a ways out on the beach to find a spot to call your own.
Despite their differences, it’s hard to go wrong with any of your beach options on Dauphin Island. No matter which one you pick, you’ll be rewarded with sparkling white sand, the calming sounds of the ocean, and the prospect of a perfect beach day!
Dauphin Island Top Activities for Families
We like following up a day at the beach with a day full of activities! On Dauphin Island, you have your pick of both water and land adventures. You can go fishing, boating, biking, or kayaking.
Golfers should check out the Isle Dauphine Golf Club, while families might like to spend half a day exploring the aquarium or historic Fort Gaines.
Alabama Aquarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab
The Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Aquarium is a must-visit for marine enthusiasts. We visited during our stay and enjoyed exploring the exhibits that showcase the various habitats of coastal Alabama.
Outside, visitors can walk the Living Marsh Boardwalk and learn more about the ecological work being done at the Sea Lab.
The hands-on exhibits make this a great place to visit with kids, especially if you’re roadschooling! Our kids especially loved the invitation to “please touch” the ocean artifacts, including the stingray touch pool.
Historic Fort Gaines
History buffs will love to step back in time at Historic Fort Gaines, a pivotal site in the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Walk through the historic tunnels, visit the blacksmith shop and kitchens, and get up close with the many cannons.
Exploring the fort is one history lesson the kids are sure to remember! In addition to learning about history, you can enjoy beautiful views of the bay and the Gulf of Mexico from your vantage point.
Mardi Gras Magic
If you think “New Orleans” when you think of Mardi Gras, you wouldn’t be alone. But, did you know that Mardi Gras is huge in southern Alabama? Well it is!
Unaware of the festivities that were about to occur, we were enjoying a quiet, peaceful stay on Dauphin Island, when one Saturday morning we woke up to find the town had transformed into a party hub overnight!
We quickly learned that several Mardi Gras parades happen down Bienville Blvd on Dauphin Island on certain Saturdays in January and February. We joined the crowds and were treated to some of the best parades we’ve ever experienced!
The floats were fun and colorful, and they threw so many goodies! We had piles of Moon Pies, stuffed animals, toys, cups, and of course beads!
It was so fun to be part of the party on Dauphin Island on parade days. People start to make their way onto the island from nearby cities from early in the morning, to claim a spot alongside the parade route. We had fun riding our bikes down the street and seeing all the people tailgating and having a great time while waiting for the parade to start.
We made sure to time our more recent visit in 2024 with one of the parades, to get the full Dauphin Island Mardi Gras experience again!
Dauphin Island Parks
You’ll find a bunch of great parks to explore on Dauphin Island, perfect for a morning hike or an active afternoon.
Audubon Bird Sanctuary
One of the best places for a nature walk on Dauphin Island is the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Choose your path for a shorter or longer hike, depending on your mood, and then enjoy an easy walk among the trees, plants, and birds!
Many of the trails here have boardwalks, and those that don’t are well-worn. You’ll find signs with information on the various species of trees, plants, and animals, and plenty of maps to keep you going in the right direction.
For a treat, follow the path through to the beach and enjoy a peaceful rest on the sand!
Indian Shell Mounds
Indian Shell Mound Park on the island is a unique site, offering a glimpse into the lives of the Native Americans who once inhabited the area. These shell mounds, some over a thousand years old, tell a story of a time long gone.
Goat Tree Reserve
Our kids loved the story behind the Goat Tree Reserve — that wild goats on the island used to climb up into the big trees to sleep at night, to keep themselves safe from the roaming alligators!
Although we didn’t see any goats (or alligators), the trees are a majestic sight, and we had some fun playing hide-and-seek among the trails.
You’ll find Green Park near the Dauphin Island bridge, and on the weekends you’ll often find it transformed into a farmer’s market where you can browse the local goods!
Cadillac Square is the primo spot for tailgating during the Mardi Gras parades, and at other times it’s a peaceful place for a picnic!
Dauphin Island Restaurants
You’ll find lots of fantastic places to eat on Dauphin Island — no going hungry here! These are some of our favorite local restaurants.
Of all the places we’ve traveled to, Dauphin Island was one of our absolute favorite destinations. Years after our month on the island, we still reminisce about biking around the island, and usually that memory includes a stop in at Dinner’s Ready to pick up a take-and-bake meal!
Talk about your local gems! Dinner’s Ready is run by two ladies, Jan and Teresa, who love to cook. Each week, they publish their custom menu on their Facebook page, and then each day they cook up a different delicious dish.
You can preorder or just stop by and see what they have on hand. They package up their meals in fridge and freezer-ready style, with reheating instructions, so you can enjoy when you’re ready!
You’ll always find yummy baked goods, special menu items for holidays (like king cake and muffuletta sliders for Mardi Gras!), and lots of smiles!
My idea of a perfect morning on Dauphin Island would be to hop on the bikes and pedal right on over to the Lighthouse Bakery for a morning coffee and pastry. You can also enjoy a breakfast or lunch sandwich along with a variety of hot and cold drinks.
Now for my husband’s favorite place on the island! Skinner’s Seafood is the place to be for the freshest catch of the day. You’ll find salmon, shrimp, and lots more, and you can either take the food home to cook it yourself, or have them cook it for you right there in the store to take away a hot meal.
On our recent visit to Dauphin Island, Daniel and I snuck away to treat ourselves to a lunch out sans kids. We headed to Dockside Seafood and had some of the best food of our trip!
Daniel got a fried fish po’boy, and I got a cheeseburger, and both were absolutely delish!
Pirate’s Bar and Grill
If your idea of a perfect meal out includes a spectacular view, run, don’t walk to Pirate’s Bar and Grill. Their unique building is perched on a hill just above the beach, and the panoramic windows facing the bay provide a gorgeous view of the sand and waves.
We enjoyed brunch at Pirate’s on a day when my parents were visiting us on the island. Great food, great view, great memories!
You’ll get a great meal and great service at Islanders Restaurant, centrally located across the public beach on Dauphin Island. Enjoy seafood and other classic southern dishes in a family-friendly environment. The big open dining area has a classy yet homey feel.
Next door to Islanders, you can visit Island Rainbow for a big ice cream or snow cone of just about any flavor under the sun! Seriously, their menu of snow cone flavors includes all the usuals, plus banana, cherry cola, red velvet, spearmint, and more.
Dauphin Island Shopping
While Dauphin Island isn’t exactly a shopper’s paradise, you can likely find whatever you need right on the island. A big part of the island’s charm is the small town vibe, unlike the big beach towns that have surf shops on every corner.
There are no nearby big box stores, so if you need to stock up on cheap supplies, stop in at Walmart in Tillmans Corner before heading to the island. There’s also a Dollar General in Coden, Alabama, just a few miles north of the bridge (which was a lifesaver when I realized I hadn’t packed enough socks!).
Once on the island, you can find most things at Ship & Shore Supplies. Imagine a hybrid grocery store, hardware store, and souvenir shop, and that’s what you’ve got here!
For art lovers, there’s the Dauphin Island Heritage and Arts Council, where you can view and/or purchase pieces by local artists.
You can find your typical souvenir items and beach necessities at Beach Planet or The Sand Box, and visit The Hippie Fish boutique for clothing, gifts, art, and jewelry.
Dauphin Island Map
Use the map below to explore Dauphin Island. We’ve marked all of our favorite places on the island to help you plan your visit!
FAQs about Dauphin Island
The easiest way to Dauphin Island is take the Dauphin Island Parkway and drive across the bridge. You can also take the Mobile Bay Ferry which connects Dauphin Island with Fort Morgan and Gulf Shores.
Visit in January or February for the awesome Mardi Gras parades (but know that it might be a bit chilly)! You’ll get the best weather during the spring or fall. Or head to Dauphin Island in the summer for prime beach-going weather!
Dauphin Island is quieter and less commercialized compared to Gulf Shores, making it a matter of personal preference. We also love Gulf Shores!
While there’s no extensive boardwalk, there are walkable areas and paths along the beaches and parks.
The name “Massacre Island” came from the discovery of human bones by early explorers.
‘Dauphin’ is pronounced similar to “dolphin” but excluding the “L” sound.
After reading this post, I’m sure you have no doubt that we’d enthusiastically recommend Dauphin Island as a great travel destination for families, couples, and individuals.
If you’re looking to have a relaxed beach vacation with a variety of activities to keep you active and entertained, you can’t do better than a stay on Dauphin Island. See you there!