You don’t have to travel to the Smokies to experience the beauty and wonder of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Instead, avoid the crowds and head to Alabama and the Talladega National Forest, where you will be treated to all that makes the Appalachians special -- incredible panoramic views, stunning waterfalls, wildflowers, and swimming in crystal clear mountain streams.
The Talladega National Forest stretches some 70 miles as the crow flies from Sylacauga, Alabama, to the Georgia state line, near the town of Borden Springs, offering up some amazing hiking adventures no matter your experience. Here are only a few of the many you will find within the forest.
Keep in mind that some areas in the forest are designated as wilderness areas, and, as such, trails are not blazed but usually well-worn and easy to follow. Intersections with other trails and forest service roads are well-marked with directional signage. And hunting is allowed within the forest. Contact the forest service for dates and wear hunter orange during that time.
1. Pinhoti Trail
This is the big one -- the 170-plus-mile Pinhoti Trail. The trail travels the entire length of the Talladega National Forest, following its ridges and valleys to incredible views and waterfalls as it winds its way from Flagg Mountain in Weogufka, Alabama, to the Georgia state line. The trail connects to the Appalachian Trail to run the entire mountain range to Maine.
Now, you don’t have to be a long-distance hiker to enjoy the Pinhoti. The path is divided into 13 separate sections, each with its own character and special features, which gives you plenty of options for doing an overnight or multi-night backpacking adventure. As the backbone trail of the forest, the Pinhoti also offers many great day hiking adventures as well (more on that in a moment).
There are so many options when it comes to hiking the Pinhoti Trail that it is impossible to include them all here. Your best bet is to visit the Pinhoti Trail Alliance website for complete details. Also, read some tips for hiking the Pinhoti Trail here.
2. Chinnabee Silent Trail
If there is one trail in the Talladega National Forest that is the perfect hike to give you an overview of the beauty of the forest, that trail would be the Chinnabee Silent Trail. Not only does the trail encompass a beautiful walk in the woods, but also several spectacular water features and a wonderful view.
There are a few options to hiking the 6-mile-long trail (more on that in a moment) that begins (or ends) at the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area to the north and ends (or begins) at the Chinnabee Silent Trail parking lot to the south on AL-281, near the Turnipseed Campground.
The highlights of this trek include a walk beside the rushing waters of Chinnabee Creek, with its many shoals, cascades, and drops, and a few refreshing swimming holes; an incredible view of the impressive cascade that churns down Devils Den Gorge from high above on an elevated bluff walkway; the soothing sounds of Cheaha Falls, and a panoramic view of the Talladega Mountains from the Cheaha Trail Shelter.
The trail is moderate in difficulty, with a few decent little climbs but nothing an average hiker couldn’t handle. You can hike the Chinnabee as a 6-mile point-to-point, which would require a shuttle vehicle at the opposite end, or my favorite route: a 5.4-mile out-and-back beginning at the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area and hiking to Cheaha Falls, where you turn around and head back to your car.
By the way, the trail is named for Creek Native American Chief Selocta Chinnabee. The “silent” part pays homage to the 80 boy scouts from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind -- all of whom were deaf -- who carved out this incredible trail in 1962.
The recreation area is closed from November to the beginning of March because of dangerous road conditions in the winter. There is a nominal day-use fee charged per vehicle to park there. The rec area can be very crowded in the middle of summer as people flock to the swimming holes on Chinnabee Creek.
3. Skyway Loop
If you would like an amazing overnight backpacking trip, then make plans to spend the night on the Skyway Loop. The loop is a 16.7-mile-long moderate to difficult hike that uses three trails to complete the circuit -- a portion of the Pinhoti Trail, the Chinnabee Silent Trail mentioned previously, and the Skyway Trail, another trail built by Troop 29 from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.
The loop begins at the Pinhoti Trail’s Adams Gap Trailhead at the intersection of AL-281 and Adams Gap Road in Lineville. This is a moderate to difficult hike that features all the beauty of the Chinnabee Silent Trail plus some amazing panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. There are plenty of rugged and tough climbs to challenge you, including what is known as the "Stairway to Heaven," a rugged, half-mile hike up a rock garden with an elevation gain of almost 600 feet. It will test you.
You also have to get your feet wet as you ford the wide Hubbard Creek on the Skyway Trail and cross Cheaha Creek at the top of Cheaha Falls.
You can camp anywhere along the loop, as long as you follow the National Forest Service dispersed camping guidelines. You can also spend the night in the Cheaha Falls Trail Shelter near the falls, but it is on a first-come, first-serve basis and will very often be full by the time you arrive, so be prepared with a tent or hammock just in case.
The crossing of Hubbard Creek can be dangerous after heavy rain, when the water runs fast. The same is true for crossing Cheaha Falls. Please use caution when crossing, and don’t attempt when it is running full and fast.
4. Nubbin Creek Trail
The Nubbin Creek Trail in the Cheaha Wilderness section of the forest is a quiet trail. For the most part, it is sparsely used, making it the perfect hike to get away and take in the quiet solitude of the Talladegas. But the trail has a couple of stunning secrets -- three waterfalls.
While the trail is 2-miles long (one way), the best section is the first 1.7 miles, where you will encounter those three waterfalls, making a nice 3.4-mile out-and-back hike.
From the trailhead, the path winds its way around the ridges for three-tenths of a mile. Brilliant wildflowers brighten the path in season, including tunnels of mountain laurel and flaming colors in fall, before arriving at the first waterfall -- a stunning, 100-foot-long (at least) cascade churning down a gorge into a turquoise pool viewed from high above on a rock outcropping.
At 1.2-miles into the hike, you will cross your first stream, where the water tumbles over boulders down the hillside, and only a half mile later, cross another stream with another rocky cascade. Just past the second waterfall, you will come to a clearing with a nice view of the surrounding hillsides. This is where you will turn around and head back to the trailhead.
Keep in mind that waterfalls in Alabama, for the most part, are seasonal, which means that they may or may not be there in the heat of summer. The best time to visit is from fall to late spring when the streams are running full.
5. Rock Garden (Also Called Lake Trail)
In the heart of the Talladega National Forest is the state’s tallest mountain, Cheaha, which is 2,411-feet tall, and atop the mountain is one of the state’s most beautiful parks, Cheaha State Park.
The park offers many outdoor recreational activities: swimming in Cheaha Lake or at the park’s cliffside swimming pool, nature trails, an interpretive center, a hotel and restaurant, and this challenging 1.4-mile out-and-back climb up the side of the mountain to what is known as the Rock Garden. Here, you will have one of the most spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. But you must work to get there.
The Rock Garden is accessible by using the blue-blazed Lake Trail, which begins on the north side of Cheaha Lake, on Cheaha Road, in the town of Delta. From here, the trail is deceiving, starting off nice and easy but then changing quickly as you start walking steeply uphill through rock jumbles. In fact, it’s a climb of 953 feet in a half-mile, but the view is worth it. Don’t be surprised if you see rock climbers practicing their hobby next to you as you walk.
When there has been a good soaking rain, you will be climbing uphill next to the ribbon waterfall known as Angel Falls.
6. Hopeful Falls
Here is a nice 0.6-mile hike for the entire family to a gorgeous little waterfall. On Google Maps, it’s called Secret Falls. Some locals call it Camp Mac Falls due to its proximity to the summer camp of the same name. Still, others call it Hidden Falls. This waterfall with an identity crisis is actually called Hopeful Falls.
Hopeful Falls is a 35-foot plunge waterfall (one where the cascading waterfall loses touch with the rock face and you can walk behind the curtain of water) that has either a full curtain of water draping across the rock shelf when it’s running full or a double ribbon of water in times of low water.
The trailhead is located 11 miles west of Cheaha State Park on Bass Lane in Munford, Alabama, next to Camp Mac. The trail to the falls itself is not blazed but is well-worn and easy to follow. You will have to get your feet wet, crossing a creek four times to get to the falls.
The trailhead is just before you cross the 7-ton bridge on Bass Lane. Do not cross the bridge. Park your car on the left side of the road so that traffic can pass through. The nondescript, unmarked trail is directly across the road from where you park to the east.
As always, use caution crossing streams and creeks.