Gulf State Park’s Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail named best trail in nation

GCM Staff Report
Posted 2/17/23

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach – If you live in or are visiting Baldwin County’s Gulf Coast island, take the time to hike the nation’s best recreational trail.

USA Today’s …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Subscribe to continue reading. Already a subscriber? Sign in

Get the gift of local news. All subscriptions 50% off for a limited time!

You can cancel anytime.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Gulf State Park’s Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail named best trail in nation


GULF SHORES and ORANGE BEACH – Take the time this spring to hike the nation's best recreational trail, located right here in Baldwin County.

USA Today's 10Best announced the winner of its Readers' Choice Awards for "Best Recreational Trail" today after four weeks of voting.

The 28-mile Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, which stretches across six distinct eco systems in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, landed on top after competing against an impressive list of trail systems. The Backcountry Trail bested the 240-mile Katy Trail in Missouri, which placed second, and the 7-mile Chessie Trail in Virginia, which placed third.

Nominees for all categories in the 10Best Readers' Choice Awards are chosen by a panel of experts, which include a combination of editors from "USA TODAY"; editors from; expert contributors; and sources for both these media and other Gannett properties. The nomination panel for each award category is displayed on its associated contest page. All voting is digital, and the 10Best Readers' Choice Award contest is accessible on the website

"We are excited that USA Today's readers have chosen the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail inside Gulf State Park as the number one recreational trail in the U.S.," said Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "Alabama has a wide diversity of natural landscapes, and our recreational trails are the best way to explore the state from its mountainous northeast to its coastal habitats. We encourage everyone to visit Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Gulf State Park to check out the Backcountry Trail for themselves."

This is not the first time the Alabama Gulf Coast has made the top 10 list for a 10Best Readers' Choice Award. Beth Gendler, president and CEO of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, said the area has also placed in the top 10 for Best Small Beach Town and Best Small Town Food Scene.

"Having our trail nominated by the experts and then chosen as the top recreational trail in the United States further confirms that Alabama's Gulf Coast is truly more than just a beach," Gendler said. "This award is a testament to the vision and partnerships of our two cities, Gulf State Park, and our state conservation and natural resources team."

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon echoed Gendler's sentiment.

"The public investments in our Backcountry Trail here on the Alabama Gulf Coast have paid off for nearly two decades," Kennon said. "We started with one section less than 2 miles long and now have a trail system reaching nearly 30 miles, connecting the City of Orange Beach to our 6,150-acre Gulf State Park and to our sister city, Gulf Shores.

"People clearly come to our destination seeking the beautiful beaches, but the trail system now attracts people who love to experience our coastal wilderness just minutes from the beach. Once on the trails, you experience a whole new world away from the busyness of the main highways and we see the positive feedback from our visitors and residents.

"We have nearly 8 million visitors to Baldwin County annually, and the number of bikers, walkers, runners and wildlife enthusiasts is remarkable as they choose our destination because of the trails and their offerings. We are so pleased to be recognized for the decades of hard work made by our staff and community into this special amenity."

For Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft, the Backcountry Trail provides a vital balance between development and nature.

"The Backcountry Trail provides the opportunity to experience the way the Gulf Coast was prior to the development of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach," Craft said. "Gulf State Park and the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail system are an amazing buffer to the developed coast and creates a vital balance between the natural environment and our developed communities."

For an Orange Beach city employee, the development of the trail and its new recognition is personal.

"When we were first developing the trail system and only had six trail spurs open, we were worried about advertising the trail to the public because we didn't want them to be 'underwhelmed'," explained Phillip West, coastal resources director for the City of Orange Beach. "Fast forward 15 years, and now we have the honor of being named best recreational trail in the country by USA Today's readers. We would not have won this award without our maintenance supervisor Brad Johnson and his team and their dedication, hard work and passion they bring each and every day to keep the Orange Beach-maintained portion of the trail safe, beautiful and accessible year-round."

"It seems fitting that Mr. Branyon's legacy lives on with a project that is so popular and appreciated by so many. This has been an outstanding project for our community, and we now know the significance the trail has as a tourism asset. The Backcountry Trail project is a great example of how collaboration, teamwork and partnerships can create meaningful and impactful projects that improve the quality of life for residents and visitors alike."

For more information on the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, visit or