A Captivating Look at Alabama’s National Forests

Bankhead is the oldest national forest in the state.
Bankhead is the oldest national forest in the state. billdavislandscapes
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It’s said that Alabama is the most ecologically and geologically diverse area in the Southeast—maybe even the world. Much of that diversity can be explored in the state’s four national forests. From the towering longleaf pines of Conecuh to the cultural history of Tuskegee, the breathtaking vistas of Talladega and the countless waterfalls of Bankhead, these national forests offer unique opportunities to revel in nature.

Remember, hunting is allowed in all of Alabama’s national forests. Between fall and spring, visit the National Forests in Alabama website for hunting dates and closings.

Tuskegee National Forest

Tuskegee National Forest near Auburn almost seems like Alabama’s forgotten forest. Everyone loves the wildness of Bankhead’s Sipsey Wilderness and Talladega’s mountains, but Tuskegee has its own special place in Alabama’s national forests.

Tuskegee is the smallest national forest in the country, coming in at just over 11,000 acres, but don’t let that small size fool you. The forest offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities and outdoor recreational activities for just about everyone.

The backbone of the forest is the Bartram Trail, an 8.5-mile path that meanders through longleaf pine and river floodplain forests. The trail runs the complete width of the forest and was the first in the state to be declared a National Recreation Trail. The trail approximates the route that William Bartram, famed Botanist to the Queen of England, took between 1775 and 1776.

Its solitude provides plenty of opportunities to view white-tailed deer and other wildlife. The route crisscrosses several seasonal streams with a section running through a mixed hardwood forest where wood thrush, gnatcatchers, and tanagers dart in and out of the thick understory and wild turkey will startle you as you round a bend. In the spring, the trail is lined with brilliant flowering white dogwoods and magnolias.

If you’re a mountain biker and find nearby Chewacla State Park a bit crowded for your taste, then head to Tuskegee. The north section of the Bartram Trail is open for riders with some sand pits, roots, and rocks making a challenging ride. Or, hit the 4-mile Pleasant Hill Trail.

Conecuh National Forest

Find towering long leaf pines, their long, slender forms spiking into a cerulean sky, a magnificent sight. PROU.S. Department of Agriculture

Conecuh National Forest in Andalusia is an enchanted place. The 83,000-acre longleaf pine forest is just wild enough that novice mountain bikers, hikers, and birders can feel safe and secure while learning more about their sport and more advanced recreationists can still feel challenged.

When hiking or biking the 20-mile Conecuh Trail, or any of its offshoots, you’ll be struck by the towering longleaf pines, with their long, slender forms spiking into a deep-blue sky.

The forest is an important habitat for many species of birds, plants, and wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk along the sandy trails for evidence of the endangered gopher tortoise which calls this forest home and burrows itself a home in the sand. You may get a glimpse of an Eastern indigo snake, but it’s a rare treat. The snake shares the gopher tortoise’s burrow, but their numbers are on the decline almost to the point of extinction. Many Southeastern states, including Alabama, are working to bring the species back.

In the seepage bogs you’ll see white top pitcher plants, a beautiful green and white carnivorous plant with a long tube that opens at the top with a flap. Like the Venus flytrap, it entices insects into its tube, but enzymes inside never let them out.

The silence of walking the trails of Conecuh is broken with a rhythmic tapping sound. Your ears will hear it first, causing your eyes to gaze skyward to the tops of the pines to find a red cockaded woodpecker endlessly searching for its meals as it bores into dead and decaying trees.

And there are amazing water features in Conecuh. Several tranquil, glistening ponds dot the landscape, most notably Open Pond. It adjoins a large campground with 74 sites, most of which include water and power. Moving south from Open Pond and the crowd of campers you’ll encounter the solitude of Ditch and Buck Pond, the wide and swift tannin-colored Five Runs Creek, and the beautiful crystal-clear waters of Blue Spring.

As sundown approaches, head north to Gum Pond and Nellie Pond to watch the fading light in the cypress trees and enjoy being serenaded by a chorus of frogs.

It bears mentioning that alligators are known to live in the ponds of Conecuh, so use caution near their banks and keep your children and dogs close at hand.

Talladega National Forest

Tucked away in Talladega's peaks and valleys are some remarkable water features. Alan Cressler

The southernmost mountains of the Appalachians run through Alabama and they are calling you to explore their peaks in the 392,000-acre Talladega National Forest.

Driving up the Skyway Motorway toward Cheaha Mountain, the state’s highest peak at 2,407 feet, it’s hard to concentrate as panoramic vistas appear around every bend. But, keep your eyes on the road. There are plenty of overlooks where you can stop and take selfies with the landscape laid out before you.

Of course, the best way to experience the mountains is by getting off the beaten—or in this case paved—path. The forest has hundreds of miles of hiking trails that lead to incredible rock outcroppings like McDill Point, where you can sit and lose yourself in the stillness and beauty, with nothing to break your spell but the occasional swooping red tail hawk.

Talladega is most famous for Alabama’s premier long trail, the Pinhoti. Traversing about 170 miles of Alabama wild lands, the Pinhoti Trail is the perfect training ground for long-distance backpackers.

Tucked away in those same peaks and valleys are some remarkable water features. Head out on a hike of the Odum Scout Trail to see High Falls, a seasonal ribbon waterfall that crashes down a rocky bluff. In the fall, when the trees are ablaze with color, hike the Chinnabee Silent Trail to find breathtaking cascades, the awe-inspiring rush of water through Devil’s Den, and the three-tiered Cheaha Falls.

Cheaha State Park is at the center of the forest where you can rest your head in the 70-site improved campground, sleep cozy in a cabin, or if you don’t want to rough it, spend the night in their hotel. In the morning, wake up to a hot breakfast at the park’s Cliffside Restaurant.

Many people think that Alabama actually has five national forests. On the west side of the state, just south of Tuscaloosa, there is Oakmulgee which is actually a "unit" or part of the Talladega National Forest. Another longleaf forest, Oakmulgee is sliced in two by the Cahaba River and features tranquil Payne Lake, where you can fish and camp.

Bankhead National Forest

Bankhead is truly a wonderland. billdavislandscapes

And then there is the Bankhead, the oldest national forest in the state. In its early years, the forest went through an identity crisis. Though it was originally purchased in 1914 under the name the Alabama Purchase Unit, President Woodrow Wilson changed the name in 1914 to the Alabama National Forest. In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt renamed the tract the Black Warrior National Forest, only to have the name changed for the last time in 1942 when Congress voted to rename it for William B. Bankhead, a famous and popular Alabama representative of the time.

Putting names aside, the Bankhead is truly a wonderland. Deep gorges cut through the landscape, formed over the centuries by nature. The sandstone bluffs were carved out, forming rock shelters that provided shelter for Native Americans thousands of years ago. One such shelter is known as Kinlock, where you can still view ancient petroglyphs.

Segmented off within the Bankhead is a 25,000-acre area called the Sipsey Wilderness. The Sipsey has been labeled the "Land of a Thousand Waterfalls," and for good reason. There seems to be a waterfall around every corner, as you hike below the towering rock bluffs of the canyon. Of course, many of those falls are seasonal, so if you plan to visit do so from fall to spring to catch a good rain.

But the waterfalls are not limited to the Sipsey. Falls of varying heights and flows dot the entire Bankhead National Forest from Caney Creek (the most photographed), to the 20-foot wide Kinlock Falls, and dozens more.

For outdoor recreationists there are more than 90 miles of hiking trails, more than 38 miles of designated horse trails (not to mention the countless miles of old logging roads), and miles and miles of pristine waterways to paddle.

Excellent improved camping facilities with power and water await you at the Corinth and Clear Creek Campgrounds. For backpackers, there are countless trails to explore that make for an amazing overnight trip or longer backpacking trek.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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