10 Historic Hikes in Alabama

Dismals Canyon has long been home to Native Americans.
Dismals Canyon has long been home to Native Americans. e.c.johnson
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For more than 10,000 years people have occupied the area now known as the state of Alabama. From the arrival of the Paleo-Indians to the Civil War to the birth of the steel industry, Alabama has a rich human history. In many of the state’s parks and national historic sites, trails will lead you to relics of the past, including caves that housed ancient Indians, abandoned mines, and forts that saw fierce battles. From the mountains of northern Alabama to Mobile Bay, you can find fascinating treks that allow you to explore nature while getting a glimpse of the past. As you plan your next hike through history, consider one of the following hikes, which reveal some of Alabama’s most interesting moments in time.

1. Dismals Canyon

Winding through the Dismals Gorge in northwest Alabama, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time 10,000 years. This 85-acre Natural Conservatory has a 1.5-mile trail along the canyon floor through a primeval landscape with high bluffs, caves, stone tunnels, and massive boulders covered with moss.

Less than a half mile in, you’ll reach Temple Cave, which was occupied by Paleo Americans as well as Chickasaw and Cherokee Indians. In 1838, the U.S. government forced the Chickasaw to live in the canyon before forcing them to relocate and march the "Trail of Tears." A little further down the path is Weeping Bluff, where a large pool sits before a rock wall. According to legend, if you look at the wall at just the right angle you can see the face of an Indian woman, and the water streaming down the stone looks like tears.

2. Moundville Archaeological Park

More than two dozen earthen mounds dot the park landscape.
    Max Wolfe
More than two dozen earthen mounds dot the park landscape. Max Wolfe

From AD 1000 to AD 1450, Mississippian Native Americans established a village, spanning 300 acres overlooking the Black Warrior River near Tuscaloosa. Over hundreds of years, they constructed 26 earthen mounds that supported dwellings, burial sites, and ceremonial structures.

University of Alabama archaeologists have studied the site since the 1860s, and the Moundville Archaeological Park established in the 1930s covers 185 acres. A 3-mile loop in the park winds among the remains of mounds, including 60-foot Chieftain’s Mound. In the park’s impressive museum, you can see 200 Indian artifacts, including jewelry and pottery, and see a reconstructed earth lodge.

3. Monte Sano Old Railroad Bed Trail

Large stones beside the trail are the remains of trestle foundations.
    Marcus Woolf
Large stones beside the trail are the remains of trestle foundations. Marcus Woolf

Winding through the Monte Sano Land Trust Preserve in Huntsville, the Old Railroad Bed Trail traces a historic railroad corridor. Completed in August 1888, the railroad line carried people from Huntsville to a resort atop Monte Sano Mountain. Unfortunately, a derailment in October scared away potential passengers, and the line ferried only freight cars until it shut down in 1896.

In 1990, the Land Trust of North Alabama established the 1.7-mile Old Railroad Bed Trail, which passes through hardwood forest, crosses creeks and traverses stone bridge supports for the old rail line. From Old Railroad Bed trail, you can extend your hike by linking to numerous other Land Trust trails, including the Alms House Trail, which leads to an impressive limestone quarry that operated from 1945 to 1955.

4. Red Mountain Park

The entrance for the Number 13 iron ore mine on Red Mountain.
    Max Wolfe
The entrance for the Number 13 iron ore mine on Red Mountain. Max Wolfe

Located less than seven miles from downtown Birmingham, Red Mountain played a key role in the development of Alabama’s steel industry. Beginning in the 1800s, several mines on Red Mountain supplied iron ore, a key ingredient in the production of steel.

Established in 1962, Red Mountain Park has 15 miles of hiking trails that will lead you to remnants of these old mines. In recent years, park officials have recorded the oral histories of miners who worked on Red Mountain, and you can hear their stories by using the TravelStorysGPS app for smartphones. When you’re hiking along Red Mountain Park’s trails and you approach various historic sites, the app will provide audio of the miners’ tales and also display historic photos.

5.Horseshoe Bend National Military Park

A battlefield overlook features a map drawn by Andrew Jackson.
A battlefield overlook features a map drawn by Andrew Jackson. Allen Patterson

** **On March 17, 1814, a bloody battle on the banks of the Tallapoosa River near Alexander City brought an end to the Creek Indian War. Led by General Andrew Jackson, members of the Tennessee militia, U.S. Infantry, and 600 Cherokee and Creek Indians won the battle by killing a thousand members of the Creek Tribe known as the Red Sticks. After this defeat, Native Americans in the South were forced to migrate to Oklahoma in a journey known as the "Trail of Tears." At Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, a 2.8-mile nature trail winds through the battlefield and visits important areas of the conflict. In this serene, green landscape, the path also hugs the scenic shoulders of the Tallapoosa River and explores the site of a Creek Indian camp from the 1800s.

6. Flagg Mountain

Flagg Mountain isn’t really notable for what you’ll find on the peak; rather, it’s known for what’s not there. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps began to construct what was supposed to be one of the state’s most impressive parks, including amazing views from the summit at 1,152 feet. While the CCC did finish building log cabins and a magnificent fire tower made of carved stone, work halted shortly before World War II, and the park never opened. From the Yellow Trail trailhead on Weogufka Road, a two-hour round trip will lead you up the mountain where you’ll enjoy lofty views and visit the historic cabins as well as the fire tower.

7. Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park

Stop and dip your toes in the cool water along the trail by Mill Creek Bridge.
Stop and dip your toes in the cool water along the trail by Mill Creek Bridge. Natalie Cone

Take a journey through Alabama’s metal-making past with a visit to this 1,500-acre park in McCalla, near Birmingham. From 1859 to 1863, slaves working Tannehill Ironworks cut huge sandstone rocks, and then hauled and stacked them to form the area’s three furnaces. Winding through forests and fields, several scenic trails follow the paths where the raw materials were carried. By hiking the one-mile Tramway Trail you can reach the remains of furnaces that rest beside Roupes Creek. For a longer trek, take the 3.9-mile Iron Works Loop to pass by a slave cemetery. When you visit, also make sure to explore the museum full of iron-making tools, as well as vintage cabins and a cotton gin.

8. Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson Park

Since 5,000 BC, people have inhabited this 165-acre site along the Coosa River in Wetumpka. From AD 1100-1400, Native Americans occupied the land, and a path in the park leads to the remains of Mississippian Native American earth mound. In the 1700s, the French built Fort Toulouse here, but had abandoned the land by the late 1700s. In 1814, the American military moved in to establish Fort Jackson.

Visitors today can wander among recreations of the buildings. If you visit the park during Alabama Frontier Days in November, you can mingle with re-enactors who portray the lives of French and American soldiers as well as Creek Indians. In addition to its rich military past, this park is known for its natural beauty, especially along the William Bartram Nature Trail—a relaxed, one mile hike through wildflowers, bogs and woods. When you reach an elevated boardwalk, keep an eye out for wildlife, as this is a stop on the Piedmont Plateau Birding Trail.

9. Confederate Memorial Park

An easy, 1.5-mile trail loops around the Confederate Memorial Park, occupying an area that was once Alabama’s Old Soldiers Home near Clanton, a spot where veterans of the Civil War lived out their final years. The last veteran living there died in 1934, and the facility closed in 1939. Today, the park includes a museum with Civil War artifacts, including vintage uniforms and weapons, a research facility, an old post office and church, ruins of the cottages, hospital and mess hall that served the aging men, as well as the final resting places of more than 300 soldiers. The trail is dotted with signage identifying the flora and fauna as well as markers that outline the sites and its former inhabitants’ stories.

10. Fort Morgan State Historic Site

For more than 180 years, fortifications have protected shipping lanes at the mouth of Mobile Bay. In 1812, the United States built a small structure called Fort Bower to guard against a British attack. In 1834, it was replaced by Fort Morgan, a hulking, star-shaped battlement designed to protect the coastline. At the site, you can explore the ramparts and hallways of the fort, as well as a museum. Beginning behind the fort museum, follow fields, sidewalks, gravel roads, and stretches of sand for 2.4-mile loop to see old barracks, gun battery locations, and scenic views of the Gulf of Mexico.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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