It’s a common post-holiday predicament: an extra incentive to get more active for those New Year’s resolutions, but a depleted bank account that makes it tricky to shell out for expensive gym memberships, outdoor gear, or entrance fees.
Well, good news: There are plenty of things you can do outdoors in Alabama that cost little to no money, but will certainly get the blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing. If you have some gas in the car, you have easy access to dozens of places where you can hike, bike, climb, and paddle—often without paying entrance fees or buying a permit.
Here, 20 free outdoor things to do in Alabama to kick off the new year on a healthy foot.
1. Hike the Cane Creek Nature Preserve.
There’s no charge to explore one of Alabama’s best hidden gems. Tucked away in Tuscumbia, the 700-acre Cane Creek Nature Preserve includes 15 miles of hiking trails that lead to waterfalls, canyons, and pockets of old-growth forest. While there’s no entrance fee, you should sign in at the entranceway kiosk and grab a map to keep you oriented on the many trails that loop through the preserve.
2. Play a round of disc golf.
No greens fees. No need to rent a cart. The beauty of disc golf is that most courses are absolutely free, and you need little equipment—only about three discs, which you can probably borrow. If you’re a newbie, try Huntsville’s Mastin Lake course, which rolls through a patch of woods and includes a wide variety of shots, so it’s fun no matter your skill level.
3. Ride Dothan’s Forever Wild Trails.
Free and open to the public, Dothan’s Forever Wild property includes 10.5 miles of trails for biking, hiking, and trail running. Traversing 100 acres of shaded woodlands and wetlands, most of the trails are singletrack paths optimized for mountain biking. Whether you’re a beginner or experienced rider, you’ll find plenty of terrain to suit your abilities here.
4. Camp in the Sipsey Wilderness.
You don’t have to pay user fees or get a permit to camp in the Sipsey Wilderness, where deep canyons, high waterfalls, and hemlock trees resemble the ecosystem of the north Georgia mountains. Located a few miles south of Moulton, the Sipsey is easy to access, but the extensive trail system takes you deep into lush forest for a restorative escape from civilization.
5. Give back by volunteering on a trail project.
Without volunteers, Alabama’s hiking and biking organizations can’t do the important work of building and maintaining trails. If you frequent a certain recreation area, join the next gathering to spruce it up. You’ll sweat a bit, meet like-minded folks, and have more fun than you expected. To learn about cleanup dates, search online for local trail groups; Facebook and other web pages usually list upcoming events.
6. Go climbing outdoors.
Several of Alabama’s best crags are free and easily accessible, so you just need some climbing skills and perhaps a friend with the right gear. In Birmingham, Moss Rock Preserve is known for its high-quality sandstone, and it has dozens of incredible bouldering problems that suit most skill levels. In north Alabama, Yellow Bluff offers more than 1,500 linear feet of cliff line and 30 to 40 routes, and most are bolted and well maintained. The hike in is an easy quarter-mile approach up to the cliff line.
7. Enjoy an awesome Alabama sunset.
In the fall and winter, the air is especially dry and clear, which allows more colors of the light spectrum to reach our eyes without getting scattered by particles in the air. As a result, sunsets catch fire with brilliant bands of red and orange. So, pack a warm drink, bundle up, and hike to a west-facing perch, such as McDill Point near Cheaha State Park to soak in a sunset. For no cost, you’ll savor a one-of-a kind artistic masterpiece created by Mother Nature.
8. Backpack the Pinhoti Trail.
Craving a quick—and cheap—winter adventure to break up the return back to work? Consider an extended trek on the Pinhoti Trail, which stretches 171 miles across Alabama (and another 100 miles in Georgia). If you’ve considered thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, this is a great opportunity for a test run. While the Pinhoti will give you a taste of what it’s like to backpack for a long period of time, it requires less planning, time, and money than an AT hike. In other words, it’s a great way to kick off a new year of adventure.
9. Try your hand at treasure hunting (also known as geocaching).
Download a free app from Geocaching.com and embark on a hi-tech outdoor treasure hunt. Here’s how it works: You use a GPS or smartphone to locate a hidden object or container, known as a cache. As you explore the wilderness, you're rewarded by discovering objects, which are sometimes odd and fascinating, like the Jolly Green Giant’s oversized possessions, which you’ll find in North Alabama. Around the world there are about 2.7 million active geocaches and more than 15 million geocachers. Join them for a fun, cheap way to get active while exploring Alabama.
10. Ride the Chief Ladiga Trail.
Part of the Rails-To-Trail system, the Chief Ladiga Trail is a 32.5-mile paved path that begins in Anniston, extends to the eastern border of Alabama, and connects with the western terminus of the Silver Comet Trail in Georgia. Because it’s flat, easy to ride and safe, it makes a great destination for a family or solo traveler. Plus, it’s free.
11. Explore Hurricane Creek Park.
Covering 60 acres near Cullman, Hurricane Creek Park includes trails that wind through a 500-foot-deep canyon. With many cliff faces and large rock formations, it’s also a good place for climbing. In some places, the rock has weathered to create natural passageways, like the Twilight Tunnel and Dead Man’s Squeeze. Admission to the park is free, and it’s open daily from sunrise to sunset.
12. Join a group adventure.
Need a climbing partner? Looking for like-minded folks to explore hiking and biking trails? There are several trail organizations and meet-up groups in Alabama that have regular outings, such as the Birmingham Adventure Group and the Huntsville chapter of Outdoor Club South. Plus, the Alabama chapter of the Sierra Club welcomes people to join a wide variety of hikes and other outings held throughout the state.
13. Paddle the Bartram Canoe Trail.
Covering 200 miles in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the Bartram Canoe Trail winds through bottomland hardwood forests, cypress swamps, creeks, and lakes, providing the chance to do lots of day trips or multi-day journeys. The trail system includes day use trails, overnight trails, two land-based campsites, and four floating platform campsites. Camping is free along the trail, though the floating campsites require a reservation. For suggestions for day trips and overnight excursions, visit the Outdoor Alabama website.
14. Burn off holiday calories with a trail run.
If you spent the holidays like many—eating (and drinking) with reckless abandon—the new year is always a great time to get back into a healthier routine. Forgo the gym for a calorie-torching trail run (or hike). In Huntsville, you’ll get a serious workout with thigh-burning climbs in the Blevins Gap Preserve. (While there’s no admission fee, consider making a donation to the Huntsville Land Trust.) If you’re in Birmingham, Red Mountain Park is free and offers lots of trail options, from a flat, easy two-mile jaunt on the BMRR South Trail to a 6.5-mile round-the-mountain tour that takes you to Grace’s Gap Overlook and back.
15. Explore Ruffner Mountain’s mining history with an expert.
History buffs can join a guided mining history hike in the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve. Beginning in the 1800s, this land was home to the Sloss-Sheffield Mines, where iron ore and limestone were extracted. During the three-mile hike, which takes about three-and-a-half hours, an expert on the area’s history will lead you to mining relics like iron-ore crushers and show mine openings that visitors rarely get to see. While the hike has moderate inclines and slopes, it’s suitable for kids 10 and older. For info on the next available hike, visit the Ruffner Mountain website.
16. Paddle Cypress Creek.
Enjoy a relaxing day floating through a forested corridor with great blue herons and cypress trees. Cypress Creek is accessible from roads near the city of Florence, and there are no fees to paddle. Due to its mild currents, the creek is popular with beginner paddlers, anglers, and folks who just want to float the day away. It’s best to put in where Alabama Highway 133 crosses Cypress Creek. From there, you can paddle four miles and take out at Wildwood Park. Or, you can continue downstream another three miles to Savannah Highway Bridge, where Alabama Highway 20 crosses the creek.
17. Bike Turkey Creek Nature Preserve.
Try out some of Alabama’s newest mountain biking trails at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in Pinson, just 15 miles north of Birmingham. This 466-acre preserve allows free access, and two mountain bike trails offer 3.5 miles of riding over moderate trails. Running through the heart of the preserve, these reach high elevations to provide good views, and you’ll follow the base of a beautiful outcrop of 60-foot rock walls.
18. Hike the Walls of Jericho.
The Walls of Jericho trail will challenge most hikers, but this 6-mile out-and-back hike is extremely popular and rewarding. Located on Forever Wild land in Jackson County, the trail descends 1,000 feet to a valley floor with a natural rock amphitheater and several picturesque waterfalls. Because the trail is steep and often slippery, you need sturdy shoes with traction, and it’s not recommended for young children.
19. Bike the shores of the Duck River Reservoir.
In a rural area east of Cullman, 13.5 miles of singletrack encircle the 650-acre Duck River Reservoir. While the trail is starting to get some attention, it’s still relatively unknown, and offers good terrain for beginner and intermediate bikers. In general the trail has modest changes in elevation, but certain stretches provide a rollercoaster ride through the forest, and there are a few technical rocky areas. You can park and access the trail for free at the boat launch on County Road 1651, the trailhead at County Road 1651 and the public pier on County Road 1651.
20. Go climbing indoors.
If the weather outside is frightful, head inside to climb at Birmingham Boulders, the largest bouldering facility east of the Mississippi river. While you typically have to pay to climb at Birmingham Boulders, the gym offers customer appreciation nights that allow people to climb for free in the evening. The massive 12,000-square-foot main room of the gym offers find routes that suit climbers of all ability levels.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.