When you see the words “state park” and “winter,” you might imagine an empty, drab landscape where nothing moves but the bitter wind. Sure, there can be gray, gloomy days, but for much of the winter season Alabama’s wild areas, particularly its state parks, are fantastic places to visit.
In winter, state parks see fewer visitors, allowing you rare opportunities to enjoy solitude as you walk the trails. You’ll also encounter some of the best views from bluffs and overlooks where you can take in winter’s brilliant sunsets. Then, at the end of a day, you can cozy up to a warm fire in one of the many rustic cabins available for rent.
If this scenario sounds inviting, you should seriously consider hitting one of the state’s 22 parks in the next couple of months rather than waiting for the spring thaw. If you need a little more convincing, here are 10 reasons you should start packing your bags.
1. It’s Not Always Freezing
Alabama sees a fair number of cold days, but the state’s fickle winters also include days that feel almost like spring. During most winters, cold spells are interrupted by sunny days that reach temperatures in the 50s and 60s. On fair days in winter, the parks do draw many visitors, so get going early to beat the crowds and experience a few quiet hours on the trail. Or, venture to some of the more remote parts of a park to escape the masses.
2. Fantastic Waterfalls
Several Alabama state parks, including Monte Sano, Cheaha, DeSoto, and Oak Mountain, have trails that lead to magnificent waterfalls. While these cascades are spectacular in spring and fall after a good rain, they can become frozen works of art when winter temperatures plummet and glistening columns of ice flank curtains of water. If you love outdoor photography, the frozen falls offer the opportunity to capture fantastic images.
3. No Insects
Cold weather means no insects! During winter you don’t have to contend with mosquitoes, gnats, yellow flies, and ticks, making this a great time to hike and bike the trails.
4. Thinner Crowds
Alabama’s state parks are real gems that draw thousands of people from spring through fall each year. How many times have you delayed making reservations because your favorite park was booked full? How many times have you hiked down a trail crowded with people? Not in the winter months! You’ll have an easier time booking cabins and campsites, and you won’t have to battle crowds to take in the sights and enjoy the activities you love most.
5. Reduced Rates
During winter, you not only have easier access to accommodations, but you can also take advantage of reduced rates on campsites and cabins. During some years, state parks have reduced the price of accommodations by 25% during certain weeks in winter. Visit the Alabama State Parks website to see the latest deals.
6. Cozy Lodging
Beautiful and cozy resort style lodging is waiting for you at several Alabama state parks including DeSoto, Joe Wheeler, Lake Guntersville, and Lakepoint in Eufaula. The rooms are warm and inviting with all the amenities you would expect including big, beautiful stone fireplaces in the lobby.
If you’re looking for something a little more rustic, rent a stone cabin at Monte Sano State Park, Chewacla State Park or DeSoto State Park. Built the 1930s, by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, these cabins include TVs, kitchen appliances and showers, and many have stone fireplaces.
7. Warm and Hearty Meals with a View
After a day of winter hiking, bird watching, or biking, there’s nothing better than pulling up a chair for a hot and hearty meal. Cheaha State Park’s Pinhoti Dining Room offers a spectacular view of the Talladega National Forest, while DeSoto State Park’s Mountain Inn overlooks the west fork of Little River. For a panoramic view of Lake Guntersville, visit the Pinecrest Dining Room atop the state park’s Taylor Mountain. So many choices, so much great food.
8. The Best Views from the Trail
If you think the views along your favorite trail are great in spring or early fall, wait until you see them in winter when the leaves fall to unveil spectacular mountains, ridges, lakes, and valleys. It’s an entirely different experience.
9. Great Views of Wildlife
When the forest loses its thick canopy of leaves in winter, you have better opportunities to see bald eagles, golden eagles, and red tail hawks soaring above. In January and February, Lake Guntersville State Park offers Eagle Awareness Weekends where you can learn about raptors and join guided outings to view varieties of eagles and hawks.
Winter is also a great time to glimpse rare and endangered Whooping Cranes as they migrate into Alabama. In January, the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge hosts the annual Festival of the Cranes, and nearby Joe Wheeler State Park offers convenient lodging options and a restaurant.
10. Starry Starry Nights
Winter is the best time of year to do some stargazing. Summer heat waves and haze disappear, giving you the clearest view of the nighttime sky. Many Alabama state parks have dark sky areas (places where there is little to no light pollution to block the stars), and views of the Milky Way can be dazzling.
To really get lost in the stars, visit Monte Sano State Park every Saturday evening when the Von Braun Astronomical Society opens its planetarium to visitors. (There’s a small admission charge.) Enjoy a presentation on the heavens, and then peak at the stars and moon through the society’s telescopes.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.