Are you on the hunt for a unique beach vacation idea? Discover the sights, sounds, and tastes along the Gulf of Mexico with a Gulf Coast Road Trip.
Our ultimate itinerary will take you from the secret coast of Mississippi to the scenic shores of Florida, with plenty of palm trees along the way.
Miles of ocean stretch in one direction while the open road lays ahead during your scenic drive along the coast. Planning is key when crafting the ideal itinerary as the beach towns that line the coast each have their own unique story to tell, local cuisine to sample, and diverse attractions and activities.
This article will go through the planning process of creating the perfect itinerary for your gulf coast adventure and give a sample itinerary.
We want to thank our friends at Coastal Mississippi and Visit Alabama Beaches for sponsoring this post. This post contains affiliate links.
About The Gulf Coast
The United States Gulf Coast is the coastline along the southern portion that borders the Gulf of Mexico. The coastal states that have a shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico are Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and these are known as the Gulf States.
How long you have allocated for your trip will be the determining factor on where to start. Many choose to start in a major city like New Orleans or Biloxi, then make their way through the Florida panhandle.
Exploring the beach towns along the coast of Texas is a road trip in itself. Starting in South Padre Island, road trippers can creep up the coast to Corpus Christi, ending in Galveston while stopping in small beachside communities along the way.
Planning Your Gulf Coast Road Trip
Determine the Length of Your Trip
The amount of time you spend will drastically alter how much of the Gulf Coast you will see on your road trip. Here are some tips to keep in mind while determining how many states and cities you would like to see.
- Consider the driving distance between the cities you want to visit. For example, it is roughly 90 minutes from New Orleans to Gulfport, MS. At the same time, it is 2 hours to get from Biloxi to Gulf Shores, AL.
- Give enough time to enjoy and explore each area. We can often not allocate the proper amount of time and have to rush to the next stop without having time to relax.
- Plan a beach day or two or three.
- Research potential stops, attractions, and where to stay ahead of time.
- I would not spend longer than 5 hours driving between destinations.
- Break up long stretches of driving with a fun roadside stop or point of interest.
- Don’t plan out every second. Part of the fun of a road trip to making impromptu stops and living in the moment.
Create A Budget
One essential part of any road trip is developing a budget. The budget will also play a role in determining the length of your trip. Plan out your expenses such as food, gas, lodging, attractions, transportation costs such as flights, rental car, etc.
Road Trip Budget Tips
- Make your own meals if you choose to camp or have accommodations with a kitchen.
- Travel during the shoulder season or low tourist season. For the Gulf Coast, this is October-February.
- Find free activities to help balance out expensive days.
- Check to see if there are City Passes offered through the tourism board. City Passes often let you see the top attractions for a lower price. It is a good value if you are planning on doing those activities.
Consider Your Vehicle
The type of vehicle you take on your road trip will depend on how many people are going, the condition of your vehicle, and if you are traveling via campervan or RV. Suppose your car is not in shape to add any more wear and tear, then consider renting a vehicle upon arrival.
Many places now rent campervans and RVs. If this is something you are considering, be sure to consider campsites that will meet the vehicle’s needs and the people. For example, a campervan may not have a shower or toilet.
Vehicle Road Trip Tips
- If you take your car, ensure that scheduled maintenance has been done before leaving on your trip. This includes a tune-up, oil change, tire rotation, etc.
- Keep a roadside emergency kit in the car in case of a breakdown.
- Don’t forget your atlas! While we still use google maps, I love to keep an atlas in the car if the service doesn’t work.
Where Do I Start My Gulf Coast Road Trip
Choosing where to start your trip will depend on how many states you wish to cover and the duration of the trip. A good starting point is New Orleans, Louisana, Pensacola, Florida, or Destin, Florida. These towns have major airports that visitors can fly into and rental cars if needed.
We will be starting in Gulfport, Mississippi, and making our way down the Florida panhandle for this article.
A great place to start your coastal road trip is along the coast of Mississippi. After the devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the coastal towns, they have bounced back and are welcoming tourists with open arms.
The unique coast of Mississippi consists of many small seaside communities, each with its own distinct vibe. Each coastal community offers vacation rentals, boutique hotels, local restaurants, and plenty of fun things to do.
There are 11 distinct Coastal Communities; Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, D’Iberville, Ocean Springs, Gautier, Pascagoula, and Moss Point. Many of the towns offer walking city tours and ghost tours.
My personal preference for a home base during your stop in Mississippi is Gulfport. Gulfport is strategically centered along the coast, making it easy to get to the different beach towns. A charming downtown area is home to local coffee shops, restaurants, and small museums.
Kids will love visiting the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, seeing the sights at the Mississippi Aquarium, and not far is the INFINITY Science Center.
The Oasis Resort is a great place for families as it offers tons of family-friendly amenities. Splish, splash, and laugh at the Oasis’s premier water park reserved only for Oasis Resort and Centennial Hotel guestsFloat leisurely around the 950-ft lazy river, race on water slides, or let the kids splash to their heart’s content in their splash zone.
Check out our Top Things To Do Along The Mississippi Gulf Coast!
Discover the enchanting town of Ocean Springs, a historic coastal town with a delightful main street full of trendy boutiques, eateries, and galleries. The city is known for its arts and festivals, hosting the largest fine arts festival in the state, Peter Anderson Arts & Craft Festival.
Sip on a cold beer at the Lost Spring Brewery, dine alfresco at the Lady May, then stroll to the nearby beach! Ocean Springs does have three districts that allow patrons to leave bars and restaurants with “to-go cups.”
Another great place to stay along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is Biloxi. In addition to the beautiful beaches, visitors come to try their luck at one of Biloxi’s many casinos.
The fishing harbors draw tourists with a multitude of attractions. Hop a boat ride out to the barrier islands, go on a famous Biloxi shrimping trip, then spend time browsing the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum.
Don’t forget to see the Biloxi Lighthouse, tour the Ohr-O-Keefe Museum of Art, and the Mardi Gras Museum.
Mardi Gras On The Coast
Mardi Gras season is a time of celebration, with well-known festivities happening throughout Louisiana. However, there is another spot to celebrate Mardi Gras other than New Orleans; consider visiting downtown Biloxi.
With family-friendly parades, exciting Mardi Gras events, and plenty of Cajun cuisine, a visit to Coastal Mississippi during Carnival season should be on every family’s bucket list.
There are tons of family-centered Mardi Gras parades happening throughout the Mississippi coast. These parades are kid-focused, with tons of floats throwing stuffed animals, candy, toys, crafts, and playing upbeat music. Get our complete list of Top Things To Do During Mardi Gras In Coastal Mississippi
The next stop on your Gulf Coast Road Trip is the white sandy beaches of the Alabama coast.
TIP: It is a short drive from Ocean Springs, MS, to Mobile, Alabama, a little under an hour long. It is an additional hour from Mobile to Gulf Shores.
For a city rich in history, culture, and attractions, plan a stop in Mobile, AL. Historic homes, nature trails, a battleship, and a wide variety of museums attract visitors from all over the world. Kids will love the Exploreum Science Center and hop aboard the USS Alabama, while adults learn how Mobile became the birthplace of Mardi Gras.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
The sugar-white sand beaches and plenty of entertainment options make Gulf Shores a perfect spot for your next stop on your gulf coast road trip.
We dipped our toes in the silky smooth sand and instantly fell in love with this darling beach town. Enjoy live music, a round of mini-golf, or create your own exciting adventure as you explore Alabama’s coast.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are only twenty minutes apart, making either a great place to come home for the next few days.
Where To Stay In Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
A perfect place to rent if you are traveling with a family or group is the Blue Parrot #7. This newly remodeled 5 BR beach home is only steps from the ocean, ideal for those looking for a complete luxury escape.
Various hotels are available along the coast. Campers can hook up RVs, rent cabins, or tent camp at the scenic Gulf State Park.
Top Things To Do While In Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
Gulf Shores offers something for everyone, from exploring historic Fort Morgan to hitting the water on a fishing charter. Get up close with lemurs at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, take a class from Sand Castle University then enjoy an evening of family fun at The Wharf.
The outdoors are calling with popular outdoor activities such as paddleboarding through the backwaters, kayaking, and biking along the Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail. Families will enjoy grabbing dinner at the Hangout, then hopping aboard a sunset dolphin cruise.
Get our complete list of top family activities in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
Where to Eat in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
A vibrant food scene is a foodies dream with fresh seafood, classic diners, and plenty of tasty ice cream spots. The best spots to grab a bite to eat with the family are Lulu’s and the Hangout, each offering family activities to do along with plenty of meal options. Then top the evening off with an epic milkshake from The Yard Milkshake Bar.
Get our complete list of the best kid-friendly restaurants in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
Seafood lovers will enjoy waterfront restaurants like the Gulf or create their own by picking up fresh seafood at one of the many seafood markets. Relax at low-key beach bars like Beach House Kitchen and Cocktails, or dine upscale at the Voyagers Restaurant.
I would allocate a minimum of two days in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach during your road trip. It is easy to spend an entire week here and still leave with a mile-long bucket list!
Tip: A must-see place on your way to Florida from Alabama is the Flora-Bama honky-tonk bar in Perdido Key, Florida. It is adjacent to the Alabama-Florida state line.
The drive from Gulf Shores to Pensacola, Florida, is roughly 50 minutes long. Many opt to end their gulf coast road trip here as Pensacola is home to a major airport, while others will continue to Destin and down the gulf coast of Florida.
Note: For those looking to make a Florida gulf coast road trip, I would recommend starting in Destin, FL, and heading down southwest Florida towards Everglades National Park.
Miles of white-sand beaches await you along Florida’s gulf coast. Pensacola is a beautiful place to stop, a city rich with history, unique shopping, and the famous Blue Angels.
Step back in time with a visit to the Historic Pensacola Village. Their “One Ticket, Seven Days to Explore” ticketing enables you to leisurely visit all of the museums, participate in guided and self-guided tours of historic homes, and interact with period-dressed living history interpreters.
That is only the beginning of all that Pensacola has to offer.
Endless family attractions include a visit to Fort Pickens (which I hear is one of the best spots to catch a Blue Angels practice), go-karts, and adventure parks.
Located an hour away from Pensacola along Florida’s panhandle, the emerald coast of Destin awaits. With popular Fort Walton Beach, Crab Island, and Harborwalk Village, Destin is the perfect place for a family vacation or a few nights’ stay during your road trip.
We opted to stay on Okaloosa Island, which was serene and slower-paced than Destin. We booked a beautiful beachfront condo by Southern Vacation Rentals. While there are not many bars and restaurants within walking distance, we enjoyed the quieter side of this popular destination.
A vacation rental allowed us to cook meals and save money by not eating out as much.
Budget Tip: We found the same condo we rented on Airbnb for a couple hundred dollars more. Look around and save money by booking directly through the rental company’s site; you are not paying the Airbnb fee.
Visit Crab Island in Destin, FL
First, let me define what exactly Crab Island is. Crab Island is not an island but a wholly submerged sandbar that allows guests to walk around in 1-4ft of water. No land whatsoever. It is the ideal location to pull up a boat and drop anchor.
Many folks rent boats or take a shuttle to the “island .” Bring cash to partake in the food boats, floating restaurants, and other fun activities, such as a floating obstacle course. Booze is allowed. However, vendors can’t sell it at Crab Island, so pack a cooler.
Destin is full of family fun, from underwater bowling at Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl, enjoying the local wildlife at a state park, to taking a pirate cruise out on the open sea. Grab out the complete list of things to do in Destin, Florida!
Depending on your budget and the time you have to get away, I would recommend ending your gulf coast road trip in Destin, Florida. Depending on where you started, you may have had the opportunity to visit four states in one road trip!
However, if you choose to continue down the west coast of Florida, there are plenty more beautiful cities and small towns to visit.
Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip Stops
- Plan a night in Mexico Beach, Florida. It is near Panama City Beach but is more secluded, offering a quieter escape.
- Crystal River is a popular spot to stop because it’s home to Kings Bay. Kings Bay, which is fed by natural springs, is home to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, sheltering manatees year-round.
- Bask in old Florida charm with a stop in St. Petersburg. Don’t forget to visit the classic roadside attraction, The Sunken Gardens.
- Relax on Siesta Key Beach, which is frequently voted the top beach in the US.
- Check out all the unique things to do in Ft. Myers, Florida.
- Stop in Marco Island before venturing to the Everglades!
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