Numerous waterways course through the state of Alabama. More than 77,000 miles of charted rivers and streams vein their way from the mountains in the north to the Gulf of Mexico. And that number doesn’t include the myriad smaller creeks and bayous that are hidden away in the state’s backwoods. This water-rich state provides paddlers of all abilities a multitude of watery adventures.
The state is ranked sixth in the nation for the most continuously flowing rivers and streams, and one of those routes has become the longest river trail in America: the 650-mile Alabama Scenic River Trail (ASRT). Kayakers from around the world venture to the state to experience the incredible biodiversity, landscapes, history, and challenges -- like white-water rapids -- the trail presents.
It’s easy to get confused about the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Not only is it the name of the trail, but it is also the name of the nonprofit organization that Fred Couch established to continue the work he began.
The trail was the brainchild of Couch, who realized that a floatable mountain-to-sea waterway was possible. He created the nonprofit Alabama Scenic River Trail organization, and along with an army of volunteers, he identified campsites and partnered with outfitters and tourist attractions along the way. Today, the trail provides exciting float trips of a few hours, days, or weeks for paddlers of all stripes.
About The Alabama Scenic River Trail
Since its inception, the Alabama Scenic River Trail has come to include many tributaries off the main route, but it’s the main 650-mile core that tempts the adventurous with paddles ranging from an afternoon float to a full-fledged long-distance paddle.
The core route uses three main rivers to make its journey to the Gulf: the Coosa, Alabama, and Mobile Rivers. It also includes the second-largest river delta in the country, the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, and Mobile Bay. It begins at the Georgia state line in the town of Cedar Bluff at The Cove at Riverside Campground & Motel, where you can commence a leisurely float trip down the Coosa River (the birthplace of Popeye the Sailor Man), passing impressive towering rock bluffs and paddling across wide, expansive lakes.
The central section is a series of lakes that have been formed by dams operated by Alabama Power. The dams pose a problem for paddlers in that you must portage around most of them except for one. We’ll explain more about that in just a moment.
From there, you’ll cross into one of the more fascinating legs of the journey, the River Heritage section. History abounds in this region. It all begins where the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers converge to form the Alabama River. There, on the banks, you will find the historic Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson. Originally built by the French in 1717, it was the site where the Creek Indian War ended with the signing of a treaty between the Creek nation and Andrew Jackson in 1814.
Farther down the river, you will cross under the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a major event in civil rights history occurred in 1965: Bloody Sunday. Civil rights leaders and marchers began the Selma-to-Montgomery March in an attempt to gain voting rights, but they were met with violence from local and state police as they crossed the river.
This region also presents a bit of excitement, with a series of fast-running shoals and the famous Moccasin Gap rapids in Wetumpka. The Moccasin Gap is usually a Class II/III rapid, but after Memorial Day, the power company opens the floodgates at the Jordan Dam, which turns the rapids into a great Class IV. Each year, the town plays host to a fun weekend of rafting, the Wetumpka Whitewater Festival.
The route then makes a sharp turn to the south and heads into what is known as “America’s Amazon” -- the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. It is so named because of its rainforest-like environment. The delta is truly a magical place to paddle, and you’ll see alligators, wild boar, deer, and black bears. Trees draped in Spanish moss line the banks. The myriad bayous and backwaters beckon to be explored, but be sure you bring a GPS and know how to use a map and compass. It’s easy to get lost. More on that in a moment.
The route finally comes to an end as you paddle the eastern shore of Mobile Bay to make a stop at the site of the last major battle of the Civil War -- Historic Blakeley State Park -- and eventually end your trip at the tip of the Fort Morgan peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico at the fort of the same name, where the famous Battle of Mobile Bay took place.
Tips For Paddling The Alabama Scenic River Trail
Plan Out Your Route
As I mentioned several times already, there are a few different options for paddling the Alabama Scenic River Trail. If you were to paddle the entire route, you’d need a minimum of 48 days to complete it. Remember, that doesn’t include unexpected weather conditions and the many stops you will want to make to explore nature, historic sites, eateries, and nightlife along the way.
Most people don’t have the time to paddle the entire length of the trail. If that’s the case for you, you may want to opt for paddling one of the trial’s four delineated sections. Each takes approximately two weeks to complete. They are:
- Piedmont: from Centre to Childersburg
- Central: from Childersburg to Wetumpka
- River Heritage: from Wetumpka to Claiborne
- Delta: from Claiborne to Fort Morgan
Get The Latest Information
Before heading out, obtain the latest maps and trail information from the Alabama Scenic River Trail organization. As with all outdoor recreational activities, things can change at a moment’s notice. Agreements with landowners who have campsites on their property are constantly in flux. The same goes for the rules for approaching the many dams you will encounter. The Alabama Scenic River Trail organization is the go-to source for such updates. Check out their trip planner page or contact one of their chapters for information.
Remember, if you are paddling in the lower delta and Mobile Bay, tides and strong currents will affect your trip.
Make Reservations For Campsites
Several campsites along the route require reservations -- for example, the floating platforms on the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. The trip-planning section of the Alabama Scenic River Trail website has updated contact information for these campsites. It also lists outfitters that can provide shuttles, kayak rentals, and more.
Don’t Forget Your Personal Flotation Device
Before you even place the kayak on your car, load up your Coast Guard-certified life jackets, and wear them at all times on the river!
Bring A Map And Compass (And Know How To Use Them)
Bring along your GPS, but also bring a map and compass and know how to use them. GPS signals -- and cell-phone reception -- isn’t always reliable along the route. There are a multitude of backwaters that can easily get you turned around.
Know How To Navigate The Dams
You will encounter several dams along the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Most of the dams will require you to portage around them. Through agreements with the Army Corps of Engineers, the three dams in the river region allow you to use the locks so that you can sit in your kayak to continue downstream. Paddlers used to be able to use the locks 24 hours a day, but that has recently changed. Contact the lock master to check the hours of operation.
Bring Your Own Food And Water
While there are some great places to eat along sections of the trail -- like the Montgomery Riverwalk in the state’s capital or The Sandbar in Selma -- be sure to bring along plenty of food and water and make sure you have extra for a few days in case of an emergency.
Bring A Change Of Clothes In A Dry Bag
No matter how long you plan on being on the trail, bring a change of clothes and keep them -- as well as other important gear, like cameras and cell phones -- in a dry bag.
Bring An Extra Paddle
There is nothing worse than losing your paddle while kayaking. You will literally be up a creek without it. Bring an extra one.