Alabama is home to magnificent Appalachian mountains, white sand Gulf Coast beaches, four national forests, three national trails, 22 state parks, and one of the country’s longest navigable inland waterways—not to mention countless miles of hiking trails and mountain bike singletrack. Whether you’re in the market for hiking, paddling, biking, fishing, or camping (or nearly any other outdoor activity you please), you don’t need to look any further than Alabama’s best adventure towns.
Despite its population of nearly 100,000—including the coeds of the University of Alabama during the school year—Tuscaloosa manages to retain its Southern charm, thanks, in part, to its in-town attractions. The university’s 60-acre arboretum showcases native flora and fauna, including a bog garden, with 2.5 miles of walking trails. Just outside of town, head to Moundville Archaeological Site, situated on a bluff overlooking the Black Warrior River. Tuscaloosa is also just 20 minutes from Lake Lurleen State Park, popular for its excellent bass fishing, and just over an hour from Oak Mountain, which features over 20 miles of epic singletrack mountain biking.
Its location at the head of the Gulf Coast’s Mobile Bay means Mobile (population 193,000) is a serious adventure hub, especially for water lovers. Beachgoers can head to Gulf State Park, a public beach ample camping options and a 1,512-foot fishing pier. Mobile—the only saltwater port in Alabama—is also a major jumping-off point for saltwater fishing. Charter boats, available for hire, leave from town regularly for deep-sea fishing runs in the Gulf. If scratching the surface doesn’t do it for you, take an open-water diving course in order to explore some of Mobile’s famous shipwrecks, including the popular Whiskey Wreck. Don’t worry, landlubbers, there’s plenty of hiking and mountain biking nearby, too.
The "City of Natural Beauty" is a pretty fair description of tiny Wetumpka. The town’s name is Creek (the language of the Muscogee people) for “rumbling waters,” which, smack-dab in the center of Alabama’s River Region, is right on the money. The Coosa River runs directly through town and over the Devil’s Staircase, offering easy access to whitewater kayaking, swimming, and even a few cliff-jumping spots. Paddlers looking for calmer waters can head to nearby Lake Martin or 6,800-acre Lake Jordan to fish and canoe. The banks of Lake Jordan also play host to the 12-mile Swayback Bridge Trail, a local favorite among hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers—and home to several annual adventure races, including the Attack on Swayback and the Coosa River Challenge.
The small town of Steele is the gateway to some of the best bouldering anywhere in the country. Horse Pens 40, home to climbing widely considered to be in a league of its own, is just eight miles from downtown Steele. Horse Pens boasts an almost unbelievably high concentration of boulders, ranging in difficulty from V0 to V12, so it’s virtually impossible to run out of climbing—and, when your forearms need a break from slopey holds, the park also offers plenty of hiking, plus a general store and restaurant. There’s camping available in the park, perched atop Alabama’s third-highest peak, plus some adventurer-friendly (read: affordable) lodging options in town.
Situated atop Lookout Mountain, Mentone is the quintessential Appalachian mountain town for Alabama adventures. It is just over 10 minutes from DeSoto State Park, whose 3,500 acres play host to rustic rental cabins and mountain chalets, 25 miles of hiking trails, 11 miles of mountain biking trails, and the famous DeSoto Falls. Mentone is also home to the four-season Cloudmont Ski and Golf Resort where you can hit the slopes in the winter, enjoy outdoor adventures at the adjoining 800-acre Shady Grove Dude Ranch, or just take in all the scenic beauty that Lookout Mountain has to offer year round.
One of the benefits to living in (or visiting) the largest city in eastern Alabama is its excellent recreational infrastructure. Auburn is home to 16 parks, which include dozens of lakes, hiking trails, and multi-use paths. The Louise Kreher Forest Ecology Preserve, part of Auburn University, hosts a free nature center with trails and regular programming. The highlight, though, is Chewacla State Park, whose 700 acres in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains include hiking and mountain biking trails, plus six gorgeous stone cottages, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, which are available for rent year-round. Auburn is also just 15 miles from the Tuskegee National Forest, whose Bartram Trail is the first in Alabama to be named a National Recreation Trail.
Sure, it’s larger than a town—but the largest city in Alabama has tons to offer adventurers. It’s just half an hour from Oak Mountain State Park, where you’ll find 50 miles of epic mountain bike trails and two lakes perfect for flatwater paddling. Just 15 miles north of the city is Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, home to one of the state’s best-loved swimming holes—which, in those southern summer months, is practically a mandatory activity. Within city limits, there’s the 350-acre Moss Rock Preserve, which boasts miles of hiking trails and, for climbers, a plethora of moderate boulder problems.