Unique and cool activities on the US Gulf Coast include paddling and soaring adventures, wildlife sightings, beach camping, and more.
From swimming with manatees to watching alligators hatch to seeing overwater sunrises and sunsets in the same places to one spot where you can camp on the beach, we are happy to present these US Gulf Coast hidden gems and off the beaten path activities.
11 Unique and Cool Activities on the US Gulf Coast
The following cool activities are adventures that are unique to the US Gulf Coast. Some of these activities can be done nowhere else in the world.
Swim With Manatees
Swimming with manatees is one of the most unique and cool activities on the US Gulf Coast and in the entire world. Crystal River Florida is the Manatee Capital of the World featuring the only federally protected manatee habitat. Warm underwater springs keep the waters here at a constant 72º and in the cold winter months, up to 1,000 manatees migrate here. Even in the summer, 100 manatees call Crystal River home.
We have done a swim with manatees experience with Explorida and it was thrilling. On a day when a dozen other boats were looking for manatees for an hour, our guide found one first. It was an experience of a lifetime to spend a few minutes alone with a manatee in its natural environment.
Learn more about a manatee tour with Explorida.
See also our article Fun Things to Do in Crystal River
Hold a Newborn Alligator
There are many US Gulf Coast places where you can see and touch alligators but there is only one place where you can hold an egg as a gator hatches. Book your once-in-a-lifetime experience of alligator hatching at Insta-Gator in Covington on the Louisiana Northshore (Tammany Parish) for Aug 13 to Sept 1. Those are the best historical days for the gators to be born.
But Insta-Gator does tours all year round and I gotta say it is one of the two most entertaining and educational gator shows I have seen. The other is at Gator Country in Beaumont Texas. And that comes from someone who grew up in South Florida surrounded by the Everglades gator shows.
McCool Travel note: the largest gator I was able to touch was a 14 footer named Big Al in Bayou Des Allemandes with Airboat Tours by Arthur Matherne. That is one of our favorite Gulf Coast Photo Locations.
Ride on a Working Shrimp Boat
One of the coolest family-friendly activities on the US Gulf Coast is the Biloxi Shrimping Trip. For 90 minutes, transport yourself into life on a working shrimping boat, without the pressures and hard labor. I appreciate the shrimpers here in the Seafood Capital of the World and this intimate look at how they operate is enlightening.
But the first mate Dave is an entertainer as well as a professional shrimper so you will laugh while learning. A highlight, especially for children, is the opportunity to touch and handle freshly caught sea wildlife.
See also Things to Do in Biloxi
Find Prehistoric Shark Teeth
The US Gulf Coast has the world’s most beautiful beaches, clearest water, freshest seafood, and most spectacular sunsets. But did you know that one beach in particular has a plethora of prehistoric shark teeth waiting to be discovered?
In the southern end of Sarasota County, just south of Venice Beach, Caspersen Beach is perhaps the most unique US Gulf Coast beach. The beach sand here is not the typical white sugar sand found on every other US Gulf Coast beach. It is darker, stickier, and thicker, more like North Carolina’s Outer Banks beaches. Caspersen Beach is also a throwback to Old Florida, with the trees encroaching on the beach (the way they should be!).
When you visit, make sure to walk the nature trails but at the beach you will see people scooping up sand looking for shark teeth. Maybe you will join them. Let me know if you find any!
See also Things to Do in Sarasota.
McCool Travel note: search for petrified wood in Wolf River when Kayaking in Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Camp Overnight on a Remote Beach
With 1,900 miles of coastline, US Gulf Coast should have countless places to sleep on the beach. But it does not, at least legally.
But Padre Island National Seashore does allow beach camping and it is a magnificent place to do so. Even better, overnight camping on the sand is FREE with a required backcountry permit. After the first five miles from the South Beach entrance, four wheel drive vehicle is REQUIRED and there are no services. Bring everything you need and take everything back with you. Leave no trace, no litter, no mess.
The further south you go (60 miles total), the more remote it will be. Find your spot and enjoy the solitude, clear skies for exceptional star watching, and serenity. Your reward will be unbeatable scenes like shown above. For more information, see Padre Island Camping or hire a guide from Padre Island Expeditions.
McCool Travel note: Two places for camping within steps of the US Gulf Coast sand are Bahia Honda State Park in Florida Keys and Grand Isle State Park in Louisiana—which is unavailable until September 2022 due to hurricane damage.
Soar Above the US Gulf Coast
So far we have stuck to the water and land along the US Gulf Coast. To see our phenomenal Gulf Coast from the air, there is no more unique and cooler activity than flying in a gyroplane with Gary at BeachFlight Aviation in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
See the gorgeous Alabama Beaches and a peek into Florida from 1000 feet above in an open cockpit aircraft. Interestingly, even on a hot day, you will likely need a jacket or sweatshirt while up in the air. Very refreshing though as well as exhilarating.
Click below and watch a video of me flying above Gulf Shores with BeachFlight Aviation.
Kayak the Florida Everglades
The entire US Gulf Coast is ideal for kayak, SUP, and other liquid road trip lovers. One of our favorite unique adventures is the boat-assisted kayak eco tour with Everglades Boat Tours on Chokoloskee Island, Florida. The powerboat gets you to the outer portion of the Ten Thousand Islands in 30-45 minutes, while it would take several days under your own paddling power.
Once you arrive in the outer islands, you can kayak and explore for an hour or so before the boat heads back to Chokoloskee. This may be the closest experience in the US to being in the Galapagos. You will see tropical birds, friendly marine life (playful manatees and dolphins are almost a given!), and much more.
The longtime Everglades-fanatic captains know secret spots to see Calusa mounds, for fishing, and other hidden gems. Before or after your Ten Thousand Islands tour, stop at Havana Cafe, for one of our favorite Grouper Sandwiches in Florida.
See Wild Gators Up Close
Whether or not you see any wild gators while kayaking above, there are a few nearby places where you are almost always guaranteed to see wild gators. The two most popular spots are the Oasis Visitors Center and Shark Valley.
The Oasis Visitors Center in the Big Cypress National Preserve is located right on Tamiami Trail (highway 41) and has a long boardwalk from which visitors can see dozens of gators, just a few feet away. This is a great kid-friendly spot because, well, those gators are close but not within reach.
Shark Valley in the Everglades National Park is 19 miles east of Oasis Visitor Center and offers a chance for a more potentially thrilling gator experience. The 15-mile loop trail is great on foot, bike, or the tram, and always has gators within a few feet of the path—every time I have been. Gators are often laying in the grass next to the trail or a few feet away in the water, so be careful. Small pets are either prohibited or strongly discouraged.
McCool Travel tip: I almost always see bigger (and wilder) gators along Loop Road, a rugged side road between the two above spots.
For more local area tips in this area see our Fun Things to Do in the Everglades.
See Downtown Tampa on a Water Bike
A relaxing and fun way to explore the downtown Tampa waterfront is from the water itself. Plenty of public and private boating options are available but riding a water bike from Tampa Water Bike Company is a favorite, unique, and cool US Gulf Coast activity. It is one of our favorite Fun Ways to See Tampa.
Under your own power, see things at your own pace and work up an appetite to justify stopping for lunch at Ulele or another of our Best Tampa Restaurants.
Swamp Buggy Eco Tour
One of the most off the beaten path cool activities on the US Gulf Coast is the swamp buggy ride at Babcock Ranch Preserve in Punta Gorda Florida. This 73,000 acre tract is the largest single land preservation purchase in Florida history and the eco tour is a fantastic way to see this stellar natural area.
The fun Babcock Ranch eco-tour is family friendly, crosses meadows, cypress swamps, and streams, and offers informative and entertaining commentary by the driver. You will definitely see gators and likely will be able to pet a baby gator. The swamp buggy vehicle drives right through Cypress swamp portions and that is our favorite part of the tour.
See also Things to Do in Punta Gorda.
McCool Travel note: air boat rides are a unique activity confined to US Gulf Coast destinations but there are so many places to ride one. Air boats are perfect for exploring the Florida Everglades and the Louisiana Bayous and the Tensaw Delta in Mobile Alabama.
Spectacular Sunrises AND Sunsets
Where else in the world can you see amazing sunrises and sunsets over the water in the same day? One of the cool activities on the US Gulf Coast is that sweet phenomenon of savoring a scintillating sunrise over the water in the morning and then doing the same for sunset that evening.
In Key West, for instance, you can see sunrise and sunset from the same spot or anywhere in the Florida Keys you are just a few miles from the water. On South Padre Island, sunrises over the gulf are a given but sunsets in the Laguna Madre are spectacular (see our photo above).
See also our Best Places to See Anna Maria Island Sunsets
I recently heard from a friend that there is a newish FSU (Florida State in Tallahassee) tradition. Just before graduation, students will take one day to drive to the Florida East coast for sunrise and then to PCB or another amazing Florida Panhandle Beach for sunset. Love it!
See also 16 Sensational US Gulf Coast Sunset Spots.
Other Cool Activities on the US Gulf Coast
Let us know of any other favorite unique adventures or cool activities that can only be found on the US Gulf Coast.