Alabama is blessed to have 21 beautiful state parks that protect over 48,000 acres of incredible landscapes, which range from stunning white Gulf beaches to breathtaking views from the Southern Appalachian mountaintops.
No matter what time of year you visit, Alabama’s state parks offer something for everyone when it comes to activities and adventure, with each season putting a new face on the parks — rainbows of wildflowers in spring, glorious swimming in mountain lakes and streams in the summer, fiery leaves in the fall.
As you would expect, the parks are crowded through those three seasons, but when it comes to winter, most people shy away from visiting, which is a shame. During the frosty, cold (and possibly snow-covered) days of winter, the landscapes and adventure offered in an Alabama state park change, morphing into a completely new experience of beauty and wonder.
Here are five of the best Alabama state parks you should visit for the perfect winter getaway.
1. DeSoto State Park — Fort Payne
While all Alabama state parks are special places to visit in winter, a couple of them are standouts like DeSoto State Park. One of 12 parks either built or improved by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, DeSoto features a nice, cozy motel with warm and inviting rooms.
The park has several short but easy hiking trails that lead to impressive waterfalls that are literally frozen in time in the dead of winter. With a light blanket of snow on the ground, the woods become silent and calming.
After a brisk walk or bike ride on one of its mountain biking paths, warm up with a hearty meal in the historic Mountain Inn Restaurant. The restaurant is part of the sandstone lodge building that was hand-built stone by stone by the CCC on the edge of the canyon formed by the West Fork of Little River. Be sure to get a window seat to enjoy the view. The restaurant is open year-round on weekends
Other lodging options at DeSoto include its impressive log and rustic cabins with fully equipped kitchens, comfortable beds, cable TV, central heating and air, and stone fireplaces that are perfect for cozying up to on a chilly winter evening. Four of the rustic cabins are located on the rim of the canyon so you can step out onto the porch with a hot cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the view.
2. Cheaha State Park — Delta
Another standout is Cheaha State Park. The park is named for the mountain where it is located. Being on top of the state’s tallest mountain, at 2,413 feet, you can imagine that there are some spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and valleys in winter — and you would be right.
The park has eight short hiking trails ranging in length from 0.3 to 1.4 miles. Two of the best are the moderately rugged 0.3-mile Pulpit Rock Trail and the 0.3-mile Bald Rock Trail (the mileages are one-way). Both trails take you to breathtaking views of the Southern Appalachians from rock outcroppings where bald eagles soar above you. The Bald Rock Trail can be hiked on the ADA-accessible boardwalk or the dirt footpath that runs parallel to the boardwalk.
Throughout the winter, Cheaha offers guided hikes to view wildlife, and those views just mentioned as well as other special events.
Many people wouldn’t think camping in the middle of winter would be fun, but it is, especially when you end the evening around a campfire with friends and family chatting about the day, and the campsites at Cheaha are perfect for that. All improved sites with water and electricity in the campgrounds are spacious, with plenty of room between each pad for privacy. Even tent camping is a joy in winter, with each loop having clean and heated bathhouses.
One of the best views will be found at the park’s Vista Cliffside Restaurant, where large windows overlook the surrounding mountains. The restaurant is open weekends only through the end of November. As of this writing, the restaurant will be closed after November 28 due to a labor shortage, but visit its website for updates on reopening.
Cheaha also has nice, clean hotel rooms and chalet-style cabins. Walk-in reservations for lodging are permitted, but it is highly recommended you use the online reservation service.
The road to the park, Alabama 281, is a winding route along the ridges of the Talladega National Forest and may be closed due to weather. Visit the Cheaha State Park Facebook page for updates.
3. Lake Guntersville State Park — Guntersville
Another amazing state park resort is at Lake Guntersville. Within the park’s 6,000 acres, you will find so much to do that you’ll need a weekend — or more — to take it all in: 36 miles of hiking and biking trails, fishing on the banks of the state’s largest lake (a freshwater license is required), ziplines, and an 18-hole championship golf course.
What makes Lake Guntersville State Park a must-visit destination in winter is its Eagle Awareness Weekends.
The event began as a project of the Alabama Nongame Wildlife Program in 1984 as an attempt to help bring bald eagles back from the brink of extinction in the state. The program was extraordinarily successful and today is celebrated each weekend from mid-January to mid-February.
Each weekend is filled with guided hikes to view eagles in the wild, a sight you will never forget, as well as raptor demonstrations and presentations on not only eagles but birding and other wildlife as well.
The weekends are immensely popular, and the chalets, campsites, and the incredible lodge overlooking the lake from the top of Taylor Mountain fill up quickly, so make reservations early.
And you’ve got to eat. I highly recommend dining at the park’s Pinecrest Dining Room, where it serves up hearty breakfasts and delicious dinners, including the Friday night seafood buffet. Visit Pinecrest’s website for its current hours.
4. Gulf State Park — Gulf Shores
Snow of a different kind — snowy white Gulf of Mexico beaches — make Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores arguably the most popular state park in Alabama. Even though the winters are milder, you probably won’t want to take a swim in the gulf, but winter is still a wonderful time to visit, mainly because the throngs of summertime beachgoers have left town.
Having said that, as the beachgoers leave, the snowbirds (folks who migrate to the beaches from the north to escape their frigid winters) do flock down, but it’s a more manageable size crowd.
Using Gulf State Park as a base camp, you will find plenty to explore during the winter months along the Alabama Gulf Coast: kayaking Shelby Lake and Middle River, wildlife viewing at the nearby Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and walking or biking the six distinct ecosystems found along the 15 miles of trail on the Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail. Bikes can be rented at the camp store.
An added benefit is that the park is centrally located in Gulf Shores, making visits to the town’s eclectic shopping and many events easy.
There are many options for you to choose from to spend the night (or more) at Gulf State Park. The park features 496 improved campsites with spacious, clean bathhouses and laundry facilities.
For something less outdoorsy, there are the Eagle Cottages that line the banks of the shimmering waters of Shelby Lake. Each cottage has three bedrooms and bathrooms, fully furnished kitchens, and beautifully appointed living rooms.
Then there is the Lodge at Gulf State Park. Almost every room at this Hilton Hotel has a wonderful view of either the gulf to the south or Shelby Lake to the north.
5. Monte Sano State Park — Huntsville
While not a resort park, Monte Sano in Huntsville offers unpretentious weekend getaways with just enough to do in the park itself, with 22 miles of hiking and biking trails ranging in difficulty from easy to difficult.
There isn’t a high-class lodge here, but what Monte Sano does offer is peace and quiet in the winter months in beautiful CCC cabins — 11 in all, many of which sit on the edge of a bluff for beautiful views of the surrounding valleys. Each cabin has a kitchen with appliances plus cooking and utensils, cable TV, and a screened-in porch. All but three have a stone fireplace.
What makes Monte Sano a perfect weekend getaway is its location. After spending time hiking or biking, you can explore other nearby trails of the Land Trust of North Alabama, spend a Saturday night stargazing at the Von Braun Observatory, which is located next to the campground, or use the park as a basecamp for exploring the many shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues in the Rocket City.
- Spending time at an Alabama state park this winter sounds inviting, doesn’t it? Weather-wise, Alabama’s winters are fickle. One day, temperatures can dip to single digits, and the next, it could be a balmy spring-like 70 degrees.
- It does snow in Alabama, with significant accumulations from Birmingham north to Huntsville. Check with the park you are visiting for the latest road conditions, especially driving in the mountains.
Visit the AlaPark website regularly to discover special reduced winter lodging rates and special winter events including guided hikes held by park rangers. While the number of visitors will be low, unique events — like Eagle Awareness at Lake Guntersville — can draw decent-sized crowds. Make your reservations early.
For more on Alabama outdoor activities, read on: