5 Best State Parks to Hike in Alabama

Oak Mountain State Park is a mecca for hikers.
Oak Mountain State Park is a mecca for hikers. Rain0975
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Alabama is blessed with beautiful state parks—22 of them, to be exact—that dot the landscape from the mountains of Huntsville to beaches of Gulf Shores. These outdoor playgrounds are popular spots for active-minded folks and their families, and some are even classified as resort parks, meaning they have impressive hotels, dining, golf, and more.

Of course, most of the parks also have a hiking trail or two generally shorter in length, but there are some that offer a little something extra for hikers—namely, a wide variety of longer trails with a range of difficulties, landscapes, and lengths. Here, a primer on five amazing Alabama state parks that serve as ideal base camps to explore these trails. So lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail.

Monte Sano State Park

A look at what’s in store as you head down into MacKay Hollow at Monte Sano State Park.
A look at what’s in store as you head down into MacKay Hollow at Monte Sano State Park. Joe Cuhaj

Perched high atop Monte Sano Mountain in Huntsville is Monte Sano State Park. Monte Sano means "mountain of health" in Spanish, and here in the 1800s people would come to the mountain’s hotel or sanitarium to take in the fresh air with the hopes of curing what ailed them. People still flock to the mountain today to take in the fresh air but also to get in a little exercise on one of the parks 20 trails, which range in difficulty from easy to extremely difficult.

Ideal family hikes include the easy 1.2-mile North Plateau Loop that circles the campground and scenic overlook, the 1.4-mile Fire Tower Trail, and the 2.9-mile Bucca Family Trail, which is just a great walk in the woods. There are also intermediate trails, like the 3.5-mile South Plateau Loop, which loops around the southern portion of the mountain with beautiful views of the valley below from O’Shaughnessy Point.

More ambitious hikers can choose from challenging trails like Stone Cuts, which takes a route directly through a set of "stone cuts" through a limestone outcropping. Another grinder is the McKay Hollow Trail, whose highlights include a beautiful waterfall at one end, a spring in the valley, and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains as you head down the steep slopes.

Another bonus for the trails here? Many are shorter in length but they interconnect with each other to create adventures of different lengths and skill levels.

DeSoto State Park

Lost Falls is one of three on DeSoto State Park’s Falls Loop Trail.
Lost Falls is one of three on DeSoto State Park’s Falls Loop Trail. Joe Cuhaj

Up in the northeastern corner of the state, in Fort Payne you’ll find DeSoto State Park. On its own the park is a great place to just visit, camp, or rent a cabin—consider visiting in the winter, when there are fewer tourists and a good dusting of snow. For hikers, the park boasts 13 traditional dirt hiking trails, plus 11 multi-use trails, which total 25 miles that serve up breathtaking views of the canyon that was carved by the West Fork of Little River and many waterfalls.

One of the more popular treks in the park is what many call Falls Loop. This 3.1-mile circuit winds past three cascades: Laurel Falls, Lost Falls, and Azalea Cascade. The trail is best experienced in the spring, when the falls are in their prime and the azaleas and rhododendron are in full bloom, giving the hike a wonderful fragrance and brilliant color. Remember that waterfalls and streams in Alabama tend to be seasonal—and they’re at their peak in spring—so plan your visit accordingly.

A portion of the DeSoto Scout Trail meanders through the park first, taking you high above the canyon for spectacular views of the raging blue-green waters of the river then down to the river itself, where you will get a firsthand look at the rapids plus a view of Indian Falls just above. Link this trail with the Green and Violet Trails to create a loop that gives offers a nice view of the falls from above.

Cheaha State Park

A spectacular view from Cheaha State Park’s Rock Garden Trail.
A spectacular view from Cheaha State Park’s Rock Garden Trail. Joe Cuhaj

Perhaps the most well-known of Alabama’s state parks, Cheaha State Park is located near Anniston and Talladega and is centered on the top of the state’s highest mountain at 2,411 feet above sea level.

The park itself has several solid trails, including two with impressive views: the Doug Ghee-Bald Rock Boardwalk and Trail, which travels across the spine of the mountain to Bald Rock, and the 1-mile Pulpit Rock Trail that leads to an equally spectacular view from the overhanging rock outcropping. For a challenge, the strenuous out-and-back Rock Garden Trail travels steeply 1.4 miles up the side of the Cheaha Mountain. Those ambitious hikers who tackle this trail may find themselves sharing it with rock climbers.

What really makes Cheaha a standout hiking park is the fact that it is located in the heart of the Talladega National Forest, making it the perfect basecamp to head out from and experience the forests views, waterfalls, and wildlife. Recommended choices include the sections of Alabama’s long-path the Pinhoti Trail; the Chinnabee Silent Trail, which features an amazing waterfall filled gorge, 3-tier waterfalls, and a swimming hole that’s perfect for a dip in the summertime; and Skyway Loop Trail. Showcasing even more views, this trail, when connected with the Pinhoti and Chinnabee, makes an outstanding 17-mile weekend backpacking trip.

Oak Mountain

A couple chats at the base of Oak Mountain’s Peavine Falls.
A couple chats at the base of Oak Mountain’s Peavine Falls. Joe Cuhaj

Just south of Birmingham in Pelham there is a wonderland for hikers, and cyclists, too, for that matter—Oak Mountain State Park. Twenty-five miles of trails await that wind around the park’s lakes, streams, and up the rough, rocky slopes of Double Oak Mountain itself on either the aptly named Blue or White Trail (named for the color of their blazes). The pair can be linked together to form a 13-mile loop, and since the park offers backcountry camping you can make this into a nice overnighter. The two trails join together at the park’s Green Trail, which takes you on a short walk to the magnificent 60-foot Peavine Falls.

Lake Guntersville

The trails are well marked at Lake Guntersville State Park.
The trails are well marked at Lake Guntersville State Park. Joe Cuhaj

Last up: the town of Guntersville and Lake Guntersville State Park. Located on the southern end of the park’s namesake lake, Guntersville sports 36 miles of trails ranging in difficulty and length, from a flat 0.5-mile walk to a more rugged 3.5-mile trek. The trails interconnect so you can tailor your adventure to suit your needs.

Some of the more popular trails at the park include the Old Still Path and Moonshine Trail, where you can see remnants of an old moonshine still; the Waterfall and Cascade Trails, where water cascades down the hillside; the King’s Chapel Trail that leads you to an old cemetery dating back to the 1800s; and the Seals, Bailey, and Meredith Trails that form a loop around the north side of Taylor Mountain and features beautiful views of the blue-green waters of Town Creek as it feeds into the lake.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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