We recently discovered that the Alabama Gulf Coast is an ideal vacation spot for Hendricks County families. One of the factors that makes it an ideal area is how easy it is to get there from here.
The Alabama Gulf Coast, which includes the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, is about 781 miles south of Hendricks County, with the vast majority of the route taking place on Interstate 65. Families can expect 12 hours of driving time, plus time for eating, using the restroom, and stretching.
We learned a few things on our recent trip to the Alabama Gulf Coast, so I thought I'd share those pearls of wisdom with you.
Your Friend, I-65
Of the approximate 781 miles between Hendricks County and the Alabama Gulf Coast, over 700 miles will be spent on Interstate 65.
Pick up I-65 on the southeast side of Indianapolis, and you'll stay on it until you're in Baldwin County, Alabama -- home of the Alabama Gulf Coast. Along the way, you'll travel through the cities of Louisville, Nashville, Huntsville (you'll actually go more next to Huntsville than through it), Birmingham and Montgomery, with plenty of other smaller towns along the way that provide all sorts of opportunities for food, restrooms, gasoline, shelter and stretching.
(Tip: Somewhere in the middle of Kentucky, you'll cross into the Central Time Zone and remain in it for the rest of your vacation. The Alabama Gulf Coast is on Central Time. So you'll pick up an hour on your way there and lose an hour on your way home.)
For the most part, the speed limit on I-65 is 70 mph. Be aware that as you cross into Alabama from Tennessee, the speed limit drops to 65 mph for a few miles. I have no idea why. It jumps back up to 70 mph pretty quickly, though.
We hit some traffic in Birmingham on the way down (on a Saturday afternoon), and we hit some traffic in Nashville on the way home (on a Thursday afternoon), but other than that, things moved along pretty nicely on I-65.
(Tip: We stopped just south of Birmingham for lunch in a little town called Alabaster. Take Exit 238 and eat at Whataburger. It's a fast food burger chain that's only located in the Southern states, and I love it! It was my favorite fast food place to frequent when I lived in Texas for 10 years. To find other Whataburgers in Alabama, click here.)
Alabama Welcome Center
My daughters had never been to Alabama before, so it was on our agenda to stop as soon as possible in Alabama and get the obligatory cheesy photo in front of the "Welcome to..." sign that we take in every new state that they visit.
With that in mind, we stopped at the Alabama Welcome Center right after we crossed into Sweet Home Alabama on I-65. As it turns out, it's a really neat rest stop!
You can't miss the Welcome Center because there's a gigantic rocket right next to it. Yes, a rocket. Like the kind that goes into space. You can see the Welcome Center coming for miles.
As it turns out, the Huntsville, Alabama area has quite the history with the U.S. space program, and it's nicknamed the Rocket City.
That giant rocket that you see from I-65 is a Saturn IB Launch Vehicle, and you can check it out up close at the Welcome Center.
They also have a few really nice war memorials there that commemorate Alabamans' ultimate sacrifices in U.S. wars.
Go inside the Welcome Center and get yourself a free road map. They ask you to sign their registry with your home zip code and where you're traveling to in Alabama. When I wrote down that we were heading to Orange Beach, the friendly employee there gave us a visitors' guide to the Alabama Gulf Coast area, too.
It's a very nice Welcome Center. Stop there.
Halfway Point: Huntsville, Alabama
Hard-core travelers can make the 12-hour trip from Hendricks County to the Alabama Gulf Coast in one day, but our family chose to break it up into two more reasonable days of driving.
If you're looking for a midpoint on your trip, Huntsville, Alabama is a smidge over six hours away, leaving you a tad less than six hours to go on Day Two. Huntsville is a city of over 180,000 people, so it's not difficult to find a place there to rest your weary eyes.
Use the Baldwin and Foley Beach Expressways
What if I told you that after nearly 12 hours on the interstate at speeds of around 70 mph, the last several miles of your trip will be on a state road that goes through a number of small towns and includes 35 traffic signals?
Now, what if I told you that there's a way to avoid those 35 traffic signals and hit only five signals, while traveling on a four-lane divided highway, instead?
Just a little bit northeast of Mobile, Alabama, you'll exit I-65 and travel down Alabama 59 for a few miles through a few towns. It's quaint at first, but then the kids start asking "When are we going to be there?!" every five seconds and the ol' blood pressure starts going through the roof.
It's time to pick up the pace.
When you reach the interchange for Interstate 10, head east on it. Go past Exit 44. Instead, use Exit 49. Then travel down the Baldwin Beach Express and the Foley Beach Express into Orange Beach.
There is a toll bridge near the end of the Foley Beach Express. The toll is $3.50. After crossing the intercoastal bridge, the Foley Beach Express will spit you out right in the heart of Orange Beach.
If you're staying in Gulf Shores and you have an issue with paying tolls, there is a way to avoid the toll.
If you're staying in Orange Beach, however, just pay the toll. By the time you avoid the toll booth, sit in traffic on Alabama 59 in Gulf Shores, and backtrack to Orange Beach, you'll have spent more than $3.50 in gas and probably completely lost your sanity.
Pay the toll. It's not going to break your vacation budget.
Getting Around in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores
In Orange Beach, the main drag is Perdido Beach Boulevard. Condos and beach houses line the south side of Perdido Beach Boulevard, and all of said condos and beach houses have direct access to the beach without having to cross traffic.
Perdido Beach Boulevard runs all the way through Orange Beach, through Gulf Shores, and ultimately dead-ends near the end of the Little Lagoon. The speed limit is usually 45 mph, dropping to 30 mph in congested areas, and the road is two lanes each way with a turn lane in the middle.
We very rarely encountered any significant traffic on Perdido Beach Boulevard in Orange Beach, and it was routinely quite easy to turn left out of our condo without a traffic signal.
Take Perdido Beach Boulevard east of Orange Beach for a few miles, and you can get an obligatory cheesy photograph at the "Welcome to Florida" sign if your kids have never been to Florida before.
In Gulf Shores, Perdido Beach Boulevard is a major east-west thoroughfare, while Gulf Shores Parkway (Alabama 59) is a major north-south corridor. Gulf Shores Parkway is often pretty congested.
(Tip: Roads in the area can flood during heavy rainstorms. It happens often enough that there are permanent warning signs along the roads. Water recedes quickly, but just be aware and drive carefully if it's raining. A local told us that the rainy season at the Alabama Gulf Coast is during the winter months and early spring, but the summer months are mostly dry.)
For the most part, drivers in the area are courteous, recognizing that we're all a bunch of out-of-towners who have no idea where we're going, and giving everyone space to perform the usual stupid-tourist driving maneuvers. Every now and then, some young drivers in sports cars with out-of-state plates weave through traffic at ridiculous speeds, but the locals seem to be pretty much used to us and tolerant of us visitors.
(Tip: If you want to go from Orange Beach to Gulf Shores and avoid some of the traffic, use Alabama's Coastal Connection (Routes 161 and 180). It will lead you to Gulf Shores Parkway right at Portage Creek.)
In general, a GPS system on your smartphone or in your vehicle will get you around the area just fine.
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