If you’ve spent any time exploring the outdoors in Alabama, chances are you’ve hiked a trail that’s there because of the Nature Conservancy. This hardworking nonprofit preserves and protects some of the most amazing landscapes and ecologically sensitive areas in the state, by either purchasing property outright, purchasing and reselling the property to the state’s Forever Wild program, or partnering with local non-profits and organizations like the Land Trust of North Alabama to help protect a property.
As a result, the Conservancy has provided outdoor enthusiasts in Alabama with some fantastic hiking across the state. Many of the Nature Conservancy’s trails are short in length, some only a quarter of a mile long, and many aren’t blazed, but what you’ll experience is well worth the visit. Here, a recommended list to get you started.
1. Barton’s Beach
One of three Nature Conservancy preserves along the banks of the Cahaba River is the 125-acre Barton’s Beach Cahaba River Preserve. Located in a mixed hardwood forest floodplain, the preserve features swamps, some beaver ponds, and one of the largest gravel and white sand bars on the river. You can access the preserve in one of two ways: either by paddling the river and landing at the beach or hiking the trails of Perry Lakes Park in Marion. Here you’ll find an excellent 1.5-mile loop trail through beautiful cypress and tupelo swamps, a 100-foot observation tower to climb for a glorious bird’s-eye view, and a quarter-mile footpath through Spanish moss-draped cypress that leads to Barton’s Beach.
2. Pratt’s Ferry
Many people know that you can only find the Cahaba Lily on its namesake river, the Cahaba. But there is another rare plant, a shrub, that can only be found on the river and in the Blackwater River basin: the Alabama Croton. The Croton is a shrub that can grow as high as six to eight feet tall and prefers to cling to rocky limestone bluffs and outcroppings like those at Pratt’s Ferry Preserve, just north of Centreville.
There are plenty of other protected plant species to be found here, including wild ginger, smallflower baby blue eyes, and wild blue phlox. A very short trail makes for a nice leg-stretcher and is a great place to simply relax and soak up the proximity of the surrounding wildflowers in the spring and summer, and at the banks of the river, the great views of the fast-moving shoals. For geocaching enthusiasts, there’s a cache here and for paddlers it’s a great spot to take-out or put-in.
3. Kathy Stiles Freeland Bibb County Glades Preserve
The Glades Preserve has been described as a "botanical wonder". In fact, this 480 acre-site is said to currently be the most biologically diverse property in the entire state, boasting 61 rare plant species and dozens of aquatic fish and reptiles that live in the Little Cahaba River flowing through the property. The forest is a longleaf, oak, and hickory mix with plenty of rocky bluffs and outcroppings to explore.
History buffs will want to check out the remains of the earliest known iron furnace in Alabama, the Brighthope Furnace. Birders, meanwhile, can add an amazing variety of species to their check-off lists, including Kentucky warblers, wood pewees, and a variety of thrushes. And any hiker will enjoy the trail, which is moderate in difficulty over rolling hills.
4. Cane Creek Preserve
The Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve is one of the most fascinating hikes in the state. The property is owned by Jim and Faye Lacefield, who began buying up the land in Tuscumbia back in 1979. Each year the couple bought a little more, adding up to the 700 acres they own now, making quite a backyard full of amazing canyons, towering waterfalls, rock shelters, and a rainbow of wildflowers.
The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the Lacefields to help manage the property and maintain its pristine condition. One example of how successful their efforts have been is the waters of the preserve’s namesake creek, which are so clean that small snails called periwinkle are abundant in the flow.
Visitors can revel in all this natural beauty along the preserve’s 15-plus miles of trail, which have varying difficulties but all interconnect to form loops of different lengths.
5. Splinter Hill Bog
In the town of Perdido just north of Bay Minette, at the headwaters of the Perdido River, you’ll find what some plant enthusiasts describe as the world’s most spectacular landscape of white-topped pitcher plants. It’s called Splinter Hill Bog, one of the most intact seepage bogs remaining in the country, a perfect environment for these carnivorous plants. Similar to their cousin, the Venus flytrap, these long, tubular plants—which resemble pitchers—draw in ill-fated insects with their sweet-smelling nectar.
The walk here is more of a ramble through the preserve. The best time to visit is between March and May, when the plants are in full bloom and you will be surrounded by thousands of them.
6. Keel Mountain Preserve
Another 310 acres of land protected by the Nature Conservancy, Keel Mountain is located near Esslinger Hollow, just 20 miles southeast of Huntsville. The property has protected status because it’s home of the endangered Morefield leather flower. A vine with thick, hairy, purple-green flowers, the flower can only be found in 22 areas, six of which are around Huntsville.
A great moderate to difficult 4-mile out-and-back trail, called the Lost Sink Trail, is an excellent way to explore the area. Along this rugged limestone path, you’ll pass sinkholes and Buck Ditch, a creek that can really run fast after a good rain. Halfway through, you’ll arrive at the Lost Sink, a beautiful waterfall that flows into a sinkhole. (Climbing down into it is dangerous and prohibited.)
Most people turn around and head back at Lost Sink, but the trail continues about another mile until it dead ends at Buck Ditch. The trails are maintained by Land Trust of North Alabama, and as with all their work, are well groomed and marked.