The mighty Tennessee River has been an economic engine for the Southeast for hundreds of years, providing a navigable waterway to transport goods and people across the region.
The river, which covers four states—Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky—became even more critical to the growth of the Southeast when the U.S. government created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) during the Great Depression. The mission of the TVA was to build dams along the river and its tributaries to control flooding and erosion, and more importantly, provide power to the population of the Tennessee River Basin.
When the TVA constructed four dams in Alabama and one in Tennessee, they not only generated power but also provided families with amazing recreational opportunities. Along the banks of the vast TVA lakes, Alabamians can enjoy hiking, camping, birdwatching, paddling, and so much more.
Here’s a quick guide to the most popular activities you can enjoy on TVA lands and waterways.
In Alabama, TVA manages five bodies of water open for recreation. The first, Pickwick Lake, is actually formed by Pickwick Dam in Tennessee, but the lake stretches into Alabama forming the extreme northwestern boundary of the state.
Slightly south and east of Pickwick in the Muscle Shoals area, you’ll find Wilson Lake and a little east of that in Rogersville, Wheeler Lake. In northeast Alabama, TVA controls Guntersville Lake, and finally, near the Mississippi state line just southwest of the town of Russellville, a TVA dam is used for flood control (not electricity) along Bear Creek.
Day Use and Picnicking
There are dozens of day-use recreation areas along TVA lakes that are managed by TVA, local governments, or private property owners. Each park or day-use area includes picnic tables and pavilions, and most offer playgrounds and beautiful lake views. Many of the locally managed recreation areas also have beaches and places to swim.
If you’re looking for a good place to go camping, you’ll find a seemingly endless number of options along TVA lakes, including popular destinations like Lake Guntersville State Park and Joe Wheeler State Park. Both include improved campsites with power and water as well as plenty of primitive camping spaces. During your stay, you’ll have access to hiking trails, swimming areas, and restaurants. Rates vary, so check their websites for information.
Many privately managed campgrounds, such as Honeycomb Campground on Lake Guntersville, surround TVA lakes. Honeycomb has 141 improved campsites, a general store, canoe rentals, laundry facilities, and a beach for swimming. If you like to hike, the eastern trailhead of the Honeycomb Trail (see below) is located here.
On Pickwick Lake in Florence, you can camp in style at McFarland Park. It has 60 improved campsites, and there’s plenty to do. You’ll find baseball and soccer fields, playgrounds, a driving range for golfers, lighted jogging and walking paths, and a restaurant. Plus, you’re only minutes away from downtown Florence.
Hiking, Walking, and Biking Trails
TVA maintains six hiking trails on its properties in Alabama. On the Muscle Shoals Reservation at Wilson Dam, you can hike the longest series of TVA paths, which measures 17 miles. Several of the trails are easy walks and ADA accessible, like the 0.3-mile out-and-back Waterfall Walk. This trail hugs the banks of the lake, giving you beautiful, expansive views of the water, and also passes several waterfalls.
You can combine all 13 trails on the reservation to make loops of varying difficulties where the lake provides a nice backdrop, and there are many opportunities to photograph wildflowers. On one stretch of trail, you can stroll across a repurposed historic railroad bridge that spans the Tennessee River. For cyclists, the Waterfall Walk offers a comfortable ride along the lake, while the 3.1-mile Muscle Shoals Jogging Trail combines a bit of road biking over rolling terrain in a forest of mixed hardwoods.
The Marbut Bend Trail is perfect for an easy walk. This 1.1-mile loop is also ADA accessible and includes boardwalks that cross wetlands and a finger of the Elk River.
You will find the remaining TVA trails on Lake Guntersville. The 1.6-mile Buck Island Trail loop takes you on a leisurely walk around the perimeter of a finger of land that juts out into the lake. As you walk this path, you’ll likely be serenaded by songbirds and frogs.
On the north side of Guntersville Dam, the Honeycomb Trail is a 9-mile (one-way) trek over rolling hills with broad views of the lake. On the south side of the dam, you can walk the Cooley Cemetery Trail, a moderate 6-mile (one-way) hike that once again traces the banks of the waterway.
On the south side of Guntersville Dam in one of the TVA’s Small Wild Areas, you’ll also find the Cave Mountain Trail, which is one of TVA’s best paths. This 1.5-mile moderate loop weaves around the mountain and visits a beautiful and rare tupelo gum swamp, towering rock bluffs, and a cave that was once mined for saltpeter for gunpowder during the Civil War. Entrance to the cave is prohibited to prevent the spreading of white-nose disease to bats. Plus, the cave is dangerous.
Every TVA property provides remarkable birdwatching opportunities. One of the best spots is at the Muscle Shoals Reservation on Wilson Lake. All 37 species of eastern warblers can be found here, including the very rare Swainson Warbler. Also, there’s an incredible variety of bluebirds, thrushes, kestrels, heron, and terns as well as sandpipers and hummingbirds.
It goes without saying that with all of this water canoeing and kayaking opportunities are everywhere. Grab your boat and paddle and put in at any of TVA’s launches for a great day of calm lake paddling.
A fun river run for beginners and families is a float down the Flint River near Huntsville. This three-hour float trip begins at the landing on Alabama Highway 72 where it flows past beautiful rock bluffs, four islands, and three year-round springs before arriving at the takeout on Little Cove Road. If you need to rent boats or book a shuttle service, head to North Alabama Canoe & Kayak.
If you’re a more experienced paddler, consider exploring the Bear Creek Floatway in Bear Creek. You’ll encounter stretches of flat water take you through groves of beautiful blooming azaleas, mountain laurel, and magnolias before you reach Class I rapids and shoals. There are two areas where you are warned to portage—Upper and Lower Factory Falls, which contain dangerous rapids rated Class V and higher.
These are only a few of the many recreational opportunities waiting for you on TVA lands and waterways. Visit the recreation page on the TVA website to research even more ideas for your next adventure.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.