Just a few miles west of Pensacola and Florida's Emerald Coast, the beaches of Alabama enjoy the same Gulf of Mexico beauty but are perhaps less familiar to many people. Let's put an end to that by looking at some of Alabama's best beaches for families.

Let's start with the most popular destinations of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores where the pure white sands and turquoise waters sparkle and a host of family-friendly attractions are right on the doorstep.

Take your pick of adventurous or relaxing activities on, in, under and above the water, or play a round of golf at one of the area's superb golf courses. Team the tempting Alabama beaches with warm Southern hospitality and great seafood restaurants serving your favorite fish, crab, shrimp, and oyster dishes, and what's not to like?

Gulf Shores

The soft white sands of the Gulf Shores beaches invites the young (and young at heart) to dig in their toes and start building a sandcastle! With 8 miles of beachfront and warm, gentle waters, Gulf Shores has plenty of space for everyone.

Many outdoor recreation options and family-friendly attractions add to the appeal. Parasailing, jet skiing, or riding a banana boat are great ways to enjoy the scenery, or gasp at an even bigger sky-high view when you 'fly the trike' with BeachFlight Aviation. There is no shortage of things for sporty types to do in Gulf Shores from fishing trips to championship golf courses including Peninsula Golf and Racquet ClubGulf Shores Golf Club, and Cypress Bend at Craft Farms, designed by Arnold Palmer and awarded 4.5 stars by Golf Digest.

Kids will be keen to jump along to the kangaroo encounters at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, or dive in to the 20-acre Waterville USA waterpark and amusement park where thrills include the Screamin' Demon 60-foot high speed body slide and the Cannonball Run wooden roller coaster.

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Orange Beach

With 8 miles of sugar-white sandy beaches and plenty of attractions, Orange Beach is a favorite destination for families seeking a classic Gulf of Mexico vacation. Everyone in the family can find a way to play on or by the water, or even fly over it when they go flyboarding – propelled by water jets into the air. Other sports include sailing or diving down to explore Alabama’s first purpose-sunk ship wreck, The Lulu, on an artificial reef. Or just go on a cruise to spot dolphin or enjoy a picturesque sunset over the Gulf.

The anglers in the family can take advantage of Orange Beach's great reputation as a fishing destination by chartering a deep sea fishing boat at Zeke's Landing Marina to catch marlin, tuna or red snapper. Back on dry land, golfers can tee off at the 9-hole par 3 Orange Beach Golf Center or head to one of the other local golf courses. To learn more local history, visit the Orange Beach Indian & Sea Museum in an old 1910 schoolhouse.

For entertainment, watch the 5-story volcano erupt at the Adventure Island amusement park and arcade, with activities including go karts and mini golf. The landmark 112-foot-high Ferris wheel at The Wharf is one of the tallest on the Gulf Coast, giving riders a bird's eye views over the top of the palm trees. Visitors also stop by The Wharf for live music concerts, a light and sound show and plenty of shopping and restaurants.

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Gulf State Park

Gulf State Park is tucked between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach with easy access from each, as well as from nearby Foley, Fairhope and Mobile. This gorgeous park of more than 6,000 acres of preserved land offers more than two miles of pristine beaches to enjoy. The beach pavilion area is popular for its shaded picnic area and restrooms amidst the natural sand dunes and sea oats. Surf fishing is also enjoyed here.  Take the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail on foot or by bike to explore the park and spot wildlife including deer and alligators. Or go ziplining, kayaking, or paddle boarding at the Gulf Adventure Center. At 1,540 feet long, the Gulf State Park Pier is the second longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico and it's a fisherman's delight with 2,448 feet of fishing space, although you might be fighting the pelicans for the fish!

To shake things up, try the lakefront beach at the 900-acre freshwater Lake Shelby. It's the place for a picnic, swimming, water skiing or boating. Every member of the family can play at Lake Shelby – even the pooch! The dog pond and park at Lake Shelby is open daily.

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Fort Morgan & Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

Nature lovers will enjoy roaming the trails and beaches at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the on the Fort Morgan Peninsula. Bon Secour means 'safe harbor' in French and this 7,000 acres of undisturbed coastal habitat is certainly a safe harbor for ospreys, herons, sea turtles, deer, armadillos and the endangered Alabama beach mouse! Go fishing here, or sign up for a free guided nature walk including a Dynamic Dunes Beach tour. Or just explore the Gator Lake Trail or Pine Beach Trail, but check out the Bon Secour beach and trail maps first as the hikes might be too much for young children. Take time to explore historic Fort Morgan, which was active from 1834 to World War II. 

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Dauphin Island

Drive aboard the Mobile Bay Ferry for the 40-minute crossing from Fort Morgan to Dauphin Island and your vacation has begun! Or take the 3-mile long high-rise bridge instead. However visitors reach Dauphin Island, they can expect a friendly welcome. Scenic beaches and beachfront parks make the most of the natural beauty of this serene 14-mile-long barrier island. Attractions include the 137-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary and the Estuarium aquarium with a stingray touch pool. At historic Fort Gaines, tour guides in period uniform fire cannons and explain the fort's role in the Battle of Mobile Bay.

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The pier at Fairhope is the perfect place to watch the spectacular sunsets across Mobile Bay. Next to the fishing pier you'll find a bayfront beach, as well a park with a well-known rose garden, a duck pond, and picnic tables. Visitors stroll the boardwalk, watch the pelicans around the pier, and listen to the fishermen's tales! The pleasant town of Fairhope offers plenty of restaurants and boutiques to browse for a relaxed family vacation or a girlfriends' getaway.

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Discover other top things to do on a family vacation in Alabama >