When our family arrived in Gulf Shores, Ala., for a beach vacation last week, we found plenty of company. Traffic was bumper to bumper entering Gulf Shores and equally heavy when we left. The beach seemed more crowded than in previous visits — an indication, maybe, that tourists were making up for their absences from the Gulf Coast during last year’s massive BP oil leak.

The leak scared away a lot of beach tourists, which was a blow to the regional economy. Besides killing several oil workers, damaging business and threatening the environment, the BP disaster disrupted household traditions.

Living within a day’s drive of good beaches is a privilege of living in south Louisiana. Many families return to the beach each summer to renew their minds and spirits. One of the pleasures of seeing any landscape over the years is that you learn to appreciate the skyline in all its forms.

Mention “beach,” and most of us automatically think of a postcard image of cloudless blue sky, azure water and white sand. But some of my best time at the beach last week came on a day when clouds kept other tourists inside. Despite the grayness of the horizon, the rain held off.

With the sun muted by clouds, we could read our books by the shore and watch the passing sailboats and sand crabs without squinting. Even a clouded beach is a beautiful thing.

I can’t say this in front of my children, but an occasional rainy day near the beach cheers me, too. An afternoon shower provides a nice excuse to stay indoors for a while, and I liked sitting on the back porch of our rented house after lunch last week as the drizzle dampened the screens and the air swelled with the scent of raindrops. I daydreamed and dozed as the book on my lap slowly lost its claim on my attention.

On a subsequent morning, I took another break from our beach chairs to enjoy a hike along the Pine Beach Trail in the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge near Fort Morgan. Operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the trail offers a free, four-mile round trip that takes hikers through marshes, hardwoods, pines and palmettos before ending in dunes at the coast.

A shaded, elevated observation deck at the trail’s midpoint is a great place to have a sandwich, sip a soda and watch egrets swoop across Little Lagoon.

The hike, along with our trips to surrounding produce stands and seafood dealers, reminded us that the beach is part of a larger web of ecology along the Gulf Coast.

Protecting that ecology should be a priority for everyone sustained by the Gulf Coast, even as summer begins to fade, and our sand toys and beach umbrellas go into hibernation for another year.