Plotted on a map, decades of Lass family beach vacations would no doubt reveal a shotgun-like pattern across the Gulf Coast.

Lola Lass reads the trips off like entries in an accounting ledger: There was Pensacola. Fort Walton. Destin. Rosemary Beach. More Pensacola. And so on.

Up and down the panhandle the family travelled, often at the whim of factors ranging from cost to availability to drive time.

But in recent years, another factor has risen to the top of the list: crowds.

“I do not like a crowded beach,” said Lass, president of Adeeta Corporate Staffing of New Orleans. “Massive crowds -- it becomes more work than vacation.”


Kade Cline, 7, plays in the water on the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Staff photo by Brett Duke, The Times-Picayune)

When summer grips south Louisiana, it can seem that half the Pelican State has flocked to the nearby Alabama and Florida beaches. Just try to get a phone call returned on a Friday afternoon between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

But as thousands head east for the sugar-white sand and blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the miles of traffic congestion at the I-10 tunnel in Mobile won't be the only crowd they tangle with.

The beaches are getting more popular, and that means big crowds, often parked under umbrellas in rows of rented chairs staking out prime beachfront real estate.

“We’re just not going to a place with five rows of umbrellas (on the beach),” said Jaclyn Meith of Mandeville. “We don’t want to fight the crowds on 30A.”

Lass can relate. At Rosemary Beach, located on the popular 30A strip between Destin and Panama City Beach, it can be a challenge to get a good spot with a rental chair.

If you don't luck out, she said with a laugh, your view might be sunburned backsides instead of waves lapping at the shoreline.

Headed to the coast? So are they.

Across the Gulf Coast, tourism types acknowledge the beaches can draw big crowds, particularly in summer when schools are out and young families are most often taking their vacations.

They point to the coast’s easy accessibility from cities across the southeast U.S., the wide range of price points in the beach rental market and the growing number of rentals themselves.

Along Alabama’s coast, for instance, there are more than 18,000 available rentals, said Todd Walton, vice president of marketing for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism.


People make their way on and off the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Staff photo by Brett Duke, The Times-Picayune)

Alabama’s beaches -- Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan -- attracted 6.5 million visitors in 2023, and visitors spent nearly $7 billion. More visitors?are expected this year, Walton said.

Even so, he added, “we think you can still spread out pretty well.”

'We love that problem'

Last year Escambia County and its beaches attracted 2.5 million visitors, according to a report posted on the website.

County Commissioner Jeff Bergosh?said officials have tried to be more aware of the impacts of tourism on the beaches. Across the Florida panhandle, skirmishes often flare between locals who demand more public beach access and condo owners wanting to stake off territory for their renters.

The rows and rows of rental chairs can also act as a barrier to some beachgoers.

"I think it's a very big deal," Bergosh said of efforts to open beaches for public access. "As a kid here in the '80s, we never had these kind of issues. Now you have 'no trespassing' signs all over some beaches."?


People line the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Staff photo by Brett Duke, The Times-Picayune)

But, he added, tourism is the lifeblood of the coastal economy.?

"We love that problem," Bergosh said.

Farther east in Walton County, another strong tourism summer is predicted.

Nicole Everett, communications director for the county's tourism department, said rentals have now reached 20,000-plus, including those along the 30A beaches. Memorial Day brought strong bookings and restaurants have reported being very busy, she said.

Everett expects even more tourists will be jockeying for spots along some of the more popular beaches. In 2022,?the county attracted 5.3 million visitors, according to the latest data.?

Smaller resorts, slower months

“During peak weeks, yes, the beaches are going to get more crowded,” said Tracy Louthain, communications director for Newman-Dailey Resort Properties, which has nearly 300 rental properties in Walton and Okaloosa counties. “If you’re here over the 4th of July it’s going to be crowded.”

Louthain said there are ways to deal with the crowds. Some people choose smaller resorts. Others try to time their visits during the slower months.

Everett agreed. October, for instance, has fewer visitors and “phenomenal weather,” she said.

And if you do find yourself at a busy beach during peak season?


Melissa Horrall, who recently moved to Gulf Shores, enjoys the beach scene on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Staff photo by Brett Duke, The Times-Picayune)

Hit the beach early, Louthain says.

“Just like Disney – I know I have to get there early to ride the best rides,” she said.

Sharing secrets

Savvy beach travelers, of course, find their own ways around the crowds.

Meith, for instance, said she and her family plan a trip to Orange Beach, Alabama, in the coming weeks where they’ll stay at the Phoenix, a high-rise condo tower. But, she said, her husband’s family “are boat people,” so finding a welcoming beach is simply a matter of cruising the shoreline.

“We have a big crowd ourselves,” Meith said.

Laura Freeman of Zachary, meanwhile, “discovered” a secret on her most recent trip to the Panhandle: Navarre Beach.

“We were pleasantly surprised,”?Freeman said of the barrier island beaches between Pensacola and Fort Walton.?

Freeman said she and her family have probably been to the Panhandle 40 times over the past two decades. But as the crowds have grown, they’ve increasingly found themselves seeking quieter, slower locales to put their toes in the sand.

“I have to say: Navarre was great," she said. "But I hate to say out loud because then everyone’s going to start booking there."