5 Historic Hidden Treasures on Alabama Trails

A view from inside the massive Kinlock Shelter in the Bankhead National Forest.
A view from inside the massive Kinlock Shelter in the Bankhead National Forest. dmtilley
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In Alabama, history is all around you—especially in the wilderness. That trail you are walking may have been an old Indian path hundreds of years ago. Hidden just off the trail may be a cemetery dating back to the 1700s. That small, unassuming stone retaining wall nearby? It may have been built by hand by the Civilian Conservation Corps decades ago.

Here are five fun hikes in Alabama that each have a little hidden history along the way. The next time you hike one, perhaps bring along a friend, so you can wow them with your knowledge.

1. Cave Mountain

Cave Mountain was once a primary source of salt peter, which was used to make gunpowder, during the Civil War.
Cave Mountain was once a primary source of salt peter, which was used to make gunpowder, during the Civil War. Joe Cuhaj

On the southern banks of Lake Guntersville near the dam that forms the lake is a small 34-acre piece of property protected by the Tennessee Valley Authority: the Cave Mountain Small Wild Area.

Cave Mountain has a fun little 1.4-mile lollipop loop hike that is filled with natural beauty: rocky climbs, tall bluffs, views of the lake, and a turtle filled tupelo swamp. It also has a backstory, in the form of the mountain’s namesake cave.

The trail is rocky and moderate in difficulty as it loops around then over the mountain just below 764-foot summit. At one point, the trail is wedged between a weeping rock bluff and a tupelo swamp teeming with birds and box turtles sunning themselves on logs. Before long, it winds up at the cave of Cave Mountain.

It is a quintessential cave opening — a neat, round hole in the rock wall that centuries ago was a small water channel. Widened by rain over the years, the cave at one time housed a huge population of bats, which disappeared in the mid-1850s. Their guano became a key ingredient of salt peter, which, when processed, was used during the Civil War to make black powder (the original gunpowder). During the war the Long Hollow Nitre Works Company began mining the guano driving the bats out. The workers would dig and carry out up to 1,000 pounds of the material a day by hand.

Hikers can peek into the cave, but unless you’re an experienced spelunker you shouldn’t venture in. The entrance tunnel goes back about 250 feet before the landscape turns pitch black, and then there is a dangerous vertical drop.

2. Kinlock Shelter

The colorful sandstone walls of Kinlock Shelter also house petroglyphs.
The colorful sandstone walls of Kinlock Shelter also house petroglyphs. Joe Cuhaj

The trail leading to the Kinlock Shelter in the Bankhead National Forest is only one mile total out-and-back. But the steep climb down into a valley is well worth it for what’s at the bottom: the shelter itself.

Kinlock is part of the Kinlock Historic District, an area in which a plantation was established here near a spring in the 1800s. The shelter itself is a massive rock wall and cave that was used by Native Americans for centuries as a place of spiritual worship and ceremony. The cave itself is fascinating—but the walls really steal the show. Petroglyphs carved thousands of years ago adorn the sandstone surfaces. One depicts a turkey foot, a common bird found in the forest. You’ll also see a series of scratch marks where weapons and tools were sharpened.

Just a friendly reminder that Kinlock Shelter is a protected historic site. Due to its ceremonial significance, it should be treated with reverence.

3. Indian Tomb Hollow

An example of an Indian "marker tree", bent to show the direction to food, water, and safety.
An example of an Indian "marker tree", bent to show the direction to food, water, and safety. Joe Cuhaj

Another fascinating historic site in the Bankhead National Forest is Indian Tomb Hollow. You’ll have to really work to get there, though: The 4-mile out-and-back trail is not blazed and requires intrepid hikers to cross several streams and scamper up a bluff line. For first-time visitors, the recommended way to get there is to join one of the many guided hikes scheduled through Wild South.

Along the way, you’ll see amazing geology and two significant historic features. The first are "marker trees". Native Americans took young trees and bent them in such a way that when they grew they would point in a specific direction to indicate how to get to food, water, or a safe way out of the hollow.

The other highlight is Gillespie Cemetery. There are only three marked graves here, the oldest that of James Gillespie, a War of 1812 vet who was born in 1770 and died in 1849.

4. Ruffner Mountain Mines

Coming out of the forest of Ruffner Mountain like an ancient Mayan ruin is this giant iron ore crusher from the 1800s.
Coming out of the forest of Ruffner Mountain like an ancient Mayan ruin is this giant iron ore crusher from the 1800s. Kyle Crider

Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve in Birmingham is well known among outdoor enthusiasts. But it’s surprising how many people never get off the preserve’s wide, main trail and explore the hidden treasures reflecting the area’s rich mining history. Travel about a half mile down the preserve’s backbone trail, the Quarry Trail, and turn off onto paths less travelled, the Crusher and Mine Ruins trails, for a trip back in time.

Depending on the route, the hike can be from 2.1 to 3 miles long and is moderately difficult. On these lesser traveled trails, you will find an abandoned mine that was opened by the Sloss Furnace Company in the late 1800s, stone foundations and retaining walls from the same period, and the real highlight of the trail: a huge steel iron ore crusher from around 1880. Workers would push carts carrying iron ore out of the mine on a tram to this crusher, which appears out of the forest like an ancient Mayan temple. Records show that in one year the workers here made 60 cents per car load.

5. Monte Sano Nature Preserve

A runner crosses Dry Falls on Waterline Trail at Monte Sano Preserve.
A runner crosses Dry Falls on Waterline Trail at Monte Sano Preserve. peteandboodog

The Land Trust of North Alabama has done an amazing job at protecting green spaces throughout the Huntsville area, and one of the best and the one with the most hidden historic treasures is the Monte Sano Nature Preserve.

More than 18 miles of trail with varying degrees of difficulty will take you to several historic sites that most people overlook when hiking the preserve. An easy walker is the 1.5-mile Old Railroad Bed Trail. Back in the 1800s, trains would chug along this route from the Huntsville Train Depot to the Monte Sano Hotel. You can still see remnants of trestle supports along the route.

There is also the 0.75-mile Waterline Trail, where the main waterline for the city ran from the 1950s; part of the waterline are still visible along the route. Other highlights include the Spring House, where settlers in the region built this stone building over a spring to store their perishable food items in sort of an early refrigerator, and the impressive Three Caves, a quarry that was mined for limestone from 1945 to 1955.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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