Alabama is recognized as one of the most biologically and geologically diverse regions in the Southeast and, in many cases, the world. The state is teeming with rare and endangered plants and animals, beautiful waterways ranging from slow, meandering blackwater rivers to white water in the mountains, and panoramic views that will take your breath away.
The state has its doors wide open, just waiting for you to explore the fantastic outdoor experiences it has to offer.
1. Stunning Waterfalls
Many people don’t realize that Alabama is littered with beautiful cascading waterfalls. Oh, sure, there are the main ones that everybody knows about, like Little River Falls in Mentone and Noccalula Falls in Gadsden, but those are only the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of tumbling, roaring falls to be found just off the state’s back roads, but you’ll have to do a little hiking to see them.
Some of the most spectacular include Bethel Spring in Huntsville, where a 2-mile moderate (but rugged) hike takes you to the 75-foot-tall waterfall with several flows that create a dazzling water show that cascades into a 334-foot deep cave. There is the breathtaking sinkhole waterfall, Lost Sink on Keel Mountain, that can be found at the end of a rugged 1.1-mile (one-way) hike where the cascade tumbles down its limestone wall into a circular, 100-foot deep sinkhole.
And then there is the “Land of a Thousand Waterfalls,” the Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness, where there is a waterfall around every bend of the interconnecting trails -- the 40-foot, tiered Auburn Falls, the 25-foot-wide, roadside Kinlock Falls, and the 25-foot plunge of Fall Creek Falls, to name only a very few.
Always use extreme caution around waterfalls. The rocks around the cascade are wet and can cause a serious fall. At Lost Sink, use caution because from the rim, it is a precipitous drop to the bottom. Keep children and dogs away from the edge.
While most of the hikes in the Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness are easy walking, you will be in a wilderness area. If you’re an experienced hiker, visit the Sipsey Wilderness Hiking Club’s website for a list of suggested trails and hikes. If not, then it’s best to explore the area with experienced guides. We recommend visiting the Wild Alabama website to find their scheduled hikes that are free and open to the public.
2. Spectacular Views
The southern-most mountains in the Appalachians offer up plenty of breathtaking panoramic views any time of year -- from brilliant greens of spring and summer to the fiery reds, orange, and yellows of autumn to the silent, snow-covered peaks of winter.
Some of the best can be found within the Talladega National Forest.
Within the forest at Cheaha State Park, there are several short, easy walking trails that pay off with awe-inspiring views. Here, atop the state’s highest mountain, you will feel like you are high above the clouds (and many times, you are) as you take the short 0.7-mile out-and-back hike to Pulpit Rock on the trail of the same name.
Another jaunt is a one-mile out-and-back hike down the park’s Lake Trail to the Rock Garden, where you will be standing out on a narrow outcropping high above the surrounding mountains with eagles and hawks soaring around you. (See the Pro Tips for more.)
There are also trails at Cheaha that everyone will enjoy no matter their age or ability, like the Doug Ghee Boardwalk. The half-mile, ADA accessible trail follows the mountain’s ridgeline, ending with an incredible view from the quartzite outcropping known as Bald Rock.
Take a break from your exploring by grabbing a window seat at Cheaha’s Cliffside Restaurant, where you can gaze at the breathtaking view of the surrounding Talladega Mountains as you dine.
Don’t forget, there are many more views from overlooks that dot the Skyway Motorway (Alabama Highway 281), which travels the ridges of the mountains to Cheaha.
One of the many views along the trails that weave their way through the national forest itself -- and one for experienced hikers and backpackers with plenty of stamina -- is the extremely difficult 3.8-mile (one way) hike to the top of the “Stairway to Heaven.” This rugged hike on section six of the Pinhoti Trail heads north from the Adams Gap Trailhead and really makes you work for the view, climbing from around 1,500-feet to just over 2,000-feet in a half mile.
For more information on hiking the Pinhoti Trail, complete with trail guides, visit the Pinhoti Trail Alliance’s website.
Always use extreme caution when visiting rock outcroppings. It is a long way down.
When hiking the Lake Trail to the Rock Garden, start from the beginning of the trail at the top of the mountain and head downhill. The garden is only one-half mile down the trail. After you take in the view, you will turn around here and head back uphill the way you came. If you start from the lake, it is an exceedingly difficult climb and a much longer hike.
3. The Path Of The Paddle: Canoe And Kayak
Look at the Alabama state seal. What do you see? A myriad of rivers, creeks, and streams veining southward to the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, there are over 132,000 miles of waterways. You will be hard-pressed to find a better place to wet your paddle than Alabama.
If you’re looking for whitewater, one of the best is the Locust Fork section of the Black Warrior River just north of Birmingham. This 5.5-mile run features fun, fast, and challenging class II and class III rapids. The put-in is located on U.S. Highway 231, the takeout at County Road 160.
If you are a novice or just looking to practice your paddling, there is no better run than the Bear Creek Floatway in Marion County. The Tennessee Valley Authority controls the water flow, creating some light class II rapids. And with several different launches along the 26-mile route, there are plenty of options for short runs of a few hours to a full-day paddle.
And don’t forget the saltwater kayaking at the Gulf, where your kayak will glide through the water of Little Lagoon, Pelican Island, or the southern end of Mobile Bay at Navy Cove, all the while being escorted by friendly dolphins.
Alabama is well-known for its sudden and severe thunderstorms. Keep an eye on the weather and be aware of the river stage so that you are not caught in a flood situation.
4. The Wind In Your Hair: Mountain Biking
The feel of the wind in your face as you negotiate hairpin turns, berms, and natural obstacles makes mountain biking one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports in the state. It seems like a new mountain biking course pops-up every day.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or seasoned biker, there is a trail for you. Three of the best courses can be found at Coldwater Mountain, Chewacla State Park, and Oak Mountain State Park.
Helmets are required on all trails. Many trails in the state parks are shared with hikers. Use caution.
5. Taking It To The Road: Bicycling
If a nice, leisurely pedal is more your speed, never fear. Just like with mountain biking, recreational trails and rail-trails are springing up across the state.
The premier bike path is the Chief Ladiga Trail. The paved path winds its way for 33-miles from Anniston to Piedmont through wildflower-laden wetlands and over rolling hills. Many of the towns along the trail offer excellent restaurants, rest areas for bikers, and historical sites to explore, as well as trailheads so you can customize the length of your trip.
Along the Gulf Coast, pack up the bike and take to the 15-plus miles of trail on the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. The myriad of trails interconnects, giving you dozens of trip options through a unique maritime environment with scrub oak, palmetto, and thick, green deer moss. The trails pass shimmering freshwater lakes, coastal swamps, and wetlands where whitetail deer, bobcat, coyote, wild boar, otters, and yes, even alligators may be seen crossing your path.
6. Become One With Nature
Alabama is recognized by the scientific community as one of the most biologically diverse states in the country. No matter where you roam in the state, you will undoubtedly be treated to some incredible wildlife viewing, and there are a few standout events that you should put on your bucket list to see.
One spectacle of nature is the evening flight of the bats at Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge in Scottsboro. The cave itself was once a saltpeter mine during the Civil War, a speakeasy during prohibition, even a fallout shelter in the 1960s. Today, it has been reclaimed by nature and plays host to almost 400,000 endangered gray and Indiana bats. The bats put on a show that you just have to see.
In July and August, about 30 minutes before darkness falls, the entire population flies out of the cave, swooping and diving for their nightly meal of flying bugs. Spectators gather outside of the cave’s entrance on a viewing platform (you are not allowed inside) to watch the bats explode from the cave. Admission is free.
Nature lovers of all ages should head to Lake Guntersville State Park for the annual Eagle Awareness Weekends. The event takes place over several weekends between mid-January to mid-February and is filled with presentations from raptor experts and guided hikes to see eagles catching thermals, gliding effortlessly in the deep blue Alabama sky.
As the sun goes down over Alabama’s Gulf Coast and the dark, mysterious bayous of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, you will come face to face with the American alligator. The best ways to see them are by kayak or taking the Wild Native’s guided Alligators After Dark pontoon boat ride. Just after the sunset, take out your flashlight and shine it around, and you will see dozens of red glowing eyes peering at you. Visit the Wild Native website for kayaking and pontoon-boat tour information.
When visiting the bats at Sauta Cave, be sure to wear a poncho, raincoat, or bring an umbrella. When nature calls and bats have to relieve themselves, they aren’t fussy about where they drop it.
7. Taking It Underground: Caves
Not all outdoor experiences in Alabama are above ground. There are many caves you can explore, with two of the best easily accessible caves found in Alabama state parks.
The massive Rickwood Cavern in Warrior has 260-million-year-old formations that were the creation of an ancient ocean. The aptly named Cathedral Caverns has an enormous 126-foot wide, 25-foot-tall opening and features incredible geologic formations like the “frozen” waterfall, stalagmite forest, and one of the world’s largest stalagmites, “Goliath.”
Visit the Cathedral Cavern or Rickwood Cavern websites for guided tour information and pricing.
8. Incredible Sunsets
There is one thing you can say about Alabama -- it has unbelievably gorgeous sunsets, especially along the banks of Mobile Bay and on the snowy white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.
If you are near the city of Mobile, your best bets for a flaming orange sunset are to take a stroll down the trails at Village Point Park in Daphne to the sandbar along Mobile Bay or visit the Fairhope Municipal Pier in Fairhope that stretches out into the bay.
Head south from the city to the public beaches of Dauphin Island, Gulf Shores, or Orange Beach and relax with the soothing sounds of the crashing waves as the sun fills the sky with its brilliant orange glow before sinking slowly below the horizon.