Spring is not too far away. The cool, crisp breezes of winter will soon give way to hot, humid summers in Alabama, but before the mosquitoes and yellow flies take wing, you still have plenty of time to do a little tent camping.
Alabama has an extraordinary number of excellent tent camping sites, ranging from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers locations to state parks and everything in between, with just as many adventures as there are sites.
From the exciting adventure of camping in what is known as America’s Amazon -- the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta -- to mountain vistas from the top of the state’s tallest, Cheaha Mountain, these campsites are sure to provide you with plenty of splendid nights under the stars. So let’s pack the tent into the car and go tent camping in Alabama.
1. Cheaha State Park, Delta
Located in the heart of the Talladega National Forest is the state’s tallest mountain, the 2,411-foot-tall Cheaha Mountain. And situated on the top of the mountain is Cheaha State Park, which makes it the perfect base camp for your hiking and mountain biking adventures.
The park itself features five mountain bike trails and six hiking trails, including Pulpit Rock and the Doug Ghee Boardwalk, which lead you to spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. And that doesn’t include the many trails located in the national forest itself with even more spectacular views and plenty of waterfalls to explore.
Cheaha is located in Delta on Alabama Highway 281. The park’s campgrounds have recently been renovated and are nestled away in the hardwood forest -- the Upper and Lower Campgrounds.
In all, the two sites have 77 tent pads (four of which are ADA accessible) with water and electricity. The bathhouses are clean, and you will appreciate that they are heated if you visit in winter.
For something more rugged, the park has 28 primitive campsites with basic amenities -- fire rings, tent pads, and community water spigots.
The best time to camp at Cheaha State Park is in the fall when the mountains come alive with fiery fall colors. But reserve your spot early by visiting the Alabama State Park online reservation system. Fall is the busiest time of year at the park, not only because of the fall colors, but also the crowds that flock to the nearby Talladega 500 stock car race.
2. Bartram Canoe Trail, Stockton
It’s known as America’s Amazon: the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. The second-largest river delta in the country is veined with dark and mysterious bayous lined with palmetto and Spanish moss-draped trees. Alligators glide silently just below the water’s surface, and bald eagles soar above.
The Bartram Canoe Trail is located on the Gulf Coast in Baldwin County and has several different locations for you to put in your kayak. The trail was established by the Alabama State Lands Division and features six overnight kayak trips down the blazed waterways for you to experience this wilderness first-hand. You can pitch your tent on one of two sandbars, four floating platforms, or four elevated shelters. The sandbars are on a first-come, first-served basis while the platforms and shelters must be reserved by contacting the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort.
There are no amenities at these campsites. It is pure roughing it in a unique wilderness environment.
Only experienced paddlers should float the delta. Better yet, go with an experienced paddler or guide.
3. Gulf State Park, Gulf Shores
The ultimate resort campground in Alabama is Gulf State Park. Located only a stone’s throw from the beautiful Gulf beaches, the park boasts 496 improved campsites and immaculate bathhouses. And even if you pitch your tent in one of the 11 primitive campsites, you’re not really roughing, with swimming pools, a laundromat, tennis courts, and a nature center that holds weekly outdoor-related events and presentations.
For something different, the park has the Outpost -- two safari-style tents located 1.8 miles from the main campground. The only way you can reach it is by packing along everything you need to spend the night and hiking or biking to them. The Outpost does have showers, a bathroom, Adirondack chairs, and fire rings stocked with firewood.
The park also boasts 28 miles of hiking and biking trails and is centrally located to the Alabama Gulf Coast’s nationally famous events and venues, like the Hangout Music Fest, the National Shrimp Festival, and the Wharf at Orange Beach.
If you plan on camping at Gulf State Park, make your reservations early, sometimes a year in advance. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are two of the most popular tourist destinations on the Gulf Coast, and getting a spot at the last minute is virtually impossible.
4. Cathedral Caverns, Woodville
Walking into the 126-foot-wide, 26-foot-tall opening of Cathedral Caverns in Woodville is impressive enough on its own, but once inside, you will be in awe at the cathedral-like appearance -- towering stalagmites, “frozen waterfalls,” a stalagmite forest. It is an incredible scene that will make you want to linger a few days to take it all in.
You have a few options for camping at Cathedral Caverns State Park. The park has only 11 improved sites with water and electricity. Five of the sites are basically RV pull-throughs, so the best for tent camping are sites 6 to 11. There is also drive-up primitive camping.
The campsites are a bit crowded together, but because of the limited number, you are virtually guaranteed a pleasant camping experience. The best part of camping at Cathedral Caverns (besides the cavern itself) is the light show provided by the twinkling stars overhead as you bed down for the night.
Ninety-minute cave tours are given daily, weather permitting. Reservations are required, and while there isn’t a fee to enter the park, there is a fee for the tour. Reservations must be made the same day you plan on taking the tour.
Reservations are not required for a site, but I suggest that you contact the park to check on availability just in case.
5. Dismals Canyon, Phil Campbell
Located in Phil Campbell, Alabama, the 85-acre, privately owned Dismals Canyon offers up some truly unique natural wonders and history, and an equally unique camping experience.
Camping at the Dismals is primitive only, so bring what you need. On site, you’ll find a well-stocked camp store and a restaurant that serves up some great burgers and shakes, so it’s not too primitive.
There are 18 sites in all, limited in number to protect nature. The campsites are well-spaced to give you plenty of room and privacy. There is one main clean bathhouse with nice, hot showers. The campsites are considered “backcountry,” which means you carry your gear in, but it is only a short walk from your car. Three of the sites are outstanding. More on them in the Pro Tips.
So, what’s the draw? Why should you spend the night at Dismals Canyon? The canyon itself. There is a 1.5-mile trail that leads you alongside a sparkling creek, past waterfalls and incredible tall bluffs, through narrow passageways, and across a rope bridge. And at night, grab your flashlight and join the guided tour of the canyon to see the light show put on by the Dismalites, a larva that clings to the canyon walls and glows with a bluish light. It’s an incredible show with hundreds of them lining the path.
Three of the campsites are well worth making a reservation for, but make them early! They are popular. The Creek Campsite is located right on the banks of Dismals Creek for a soothing night’s sleep with the sounds of the creek. Pitch your tent under a small rock shelter at the Sleeping Water site, which also has its own nearby (seasonal) waterfall. And the most popular is the Caveman site, where you pitch your tent underneath a 30-foot-tall rock shelter. Make your reservations by calling (205) 993-4559.
6. DeSoto State Park, Mentone
DeSoto State Park in Mentone is another great base camp for exploring the natural wonders of Alabama. Within the park boundaries, there are many waterfalls, including the incredible, thundering DeSoto Falls, the raging waters of the West Fork of the Little River. Only a short drive away is the deepest canyon east of the Mississippi, Little River Canyon and Falls.
The best time of year to camp at DeSoto is in fall, when the leaves burst with color, but even in the dead of winter with a light dusting of snow, it is a beautiful camping location.
The campsites are well spaced for privacy, and the thick canopy of the trees provides excellent shade in the heat of summer. Two clean comfort stations with hot showers, restrooms, and laundry serve the 94 improved campsites that are situated in two loops.
The best sites are the odd-numbered ones in the Lower Loop from number 59 to 71, and sites 16, 17, 19, 22, 23, 25, 27, and 29 in the Upper Loop. These sites are set up against the forest with no other sites behind you.
7. Deerlick Creek Campground, Tuscaloosa
Even though it is one of the most popular campgrounds in the Tuscaloosa area, the two words most often used to describe the Deerlick Creek Campground are quiet and peaceful.
The campground is located on the banks of Holt Lake and is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Each one of the 40 improved campsites is nestled within a beautiful oak, beech, and pine forest. Even the six primitive campsites are phenomenal. They are located on a bluff overlooking the lake.
With a clean central bathhouse and laundry, there is plenty to do at Deerlick -- excellent bass and crappie fishing, swimming, short hiking trails, and a road biking trail. But the big draw is the quiet, relaxing atmosphere.
You would think that the best sites are located directly on the lake, but actually, they are just above the lake on bluffs: sites 5 through 9, 13 through 18, and 34 through 39.
Make your reservations through the Recreation.gov website.
Most of the year, the campground is quiet, but during college football season, it’s hopping when the Alabama Crimson Tide has a home game. The campground is closed from November through February.
8. Monte Sano State Park, Huntsville
Monte Sano is Spanish for “mountain of health.” It was believed that the cool, crisp air atop the mountain of the same name could cure all that ailed you, including yellow fever. Whether it does or not is up for debate, but camping at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville is definitely good for the soul.
The 59 improved and 21 primitive campsites have enough space between them for privacy and a good canopy for shade in summer.
What makes Monte Sano so special? First, there is its rustic charm, with many remnants of hand-laid stone buildings and structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. There are also 22 miles of hiking and biking trails ranging from easy walks in the woods to challenging and difficult climbs up rocky paths.
Monte Sano is also the perfect base camp to explore the outdoor activities that Huntsville has to offer, as well as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. And speaking of space, a night of camping is highlighted by taking in a planetarium show at the Wehrer von Braun Planetarium, which is located right next to the campground.
The planetarium is operated by the Von Braun Astronomical Society, which opens the doors to the public every Saturday night for the show and many times an informative speaker, including astronomers, scientists, and sometimes astronauts. After the show, weather permitting, the public can look through their telescopes to view the night sky. Visit the society’s website for the latest schedule and fees.