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Posted on: February 17, 2023

Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail receives national accolade

Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail Receives National Accolade

Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism Press Release

Alabama Beaches’ Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail received national recognition on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023 when USA Today’s 10Best announced their Readers’ Choice Award winners for “Best Recreational Trail.” 

Winning the nationwide competition, the 28+ mile trail – spanning nine ecosystems through Gulf Shores, Gulf State Park and Orange Beach – beat out a lengthy list of national competitors, including the Great Allegheny Passage (Cumberland, Md. to Pittsburgh, Penn.) and Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes in Idaho, to earn the coveted title. 

“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.” 

Established in 2003 as a multi-use recreational trail connecting Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Gulf State Park, the trail is a system of paved and unpaved paths and boardwalks providing trail users with access to several distinct ecosystems and outdoor recreational opportunities. Named in honor of Hugh Branyon, who served as superintendent of Gulf State Park for more than 30 years, the Backcountry Trail system features 29 miles of trails that are located within the park.

Nominees for all categories in the 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards are chosen by a panel of relevant experts which include a combination of editors from USA TODAY; editors from; relevant 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

“Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have made the top ten list for several 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards in the past, including Best Small Beach Town and Best Small Town Food Scene,” explained Beth Gendler, President & CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “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. 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.” 

Gendler added, “I remember when the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail program started, and to watch as it has grown in mileage and popularity shows the value of and interest in outdoor recreation activities among our residents and visitors. It is such a tremendous asset to our community.” 

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,” said Mayor Kennon. “We started with one section less than two 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,” said Craft. “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 one 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.” 

West continued, “We appreciate everyone voting for the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, and 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."

Here is the full Top Ten list of Best Recreational Trails, which can also be found online at

  1. Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail (Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala.) 
  2. Katy Trail (Missouri) 
  3. Chessie Trail (Lexington, Va.) 
  4. B-Line Trail (Bloomington, Ind.) 
  5. George S. Mickelson Trail (Black Hills, S.D.) 
  6. Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail (Austin, Texas) 
  7. Little Miami Scenic Trail (Cincinnati, Ohio) 
  8. Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail System (Greenville, S.C.) 
  9. Great Allegheny Passage (Maryland and Pennsylvania) 
  10. Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes (Idaho) 

On Friday, the Coastal Resources Department held a "watch party" for city staff in the Council Chambers as the “Best Recreational Trail" award was officially announced at 11 a.m.

Brad Johnson, on left, and Phillip West stand in front of an screen that shows the Backcountry Trail

Backcountry Trail photo shown on a cake

Coastal Resources employees pose for a photo in front of a celebratory cake for Backcountry Trail

Orange Beach City Council member Jerry Johnson and Annette Mitchell celebrate the trail award

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