In 2007, the state of Alabama came up with the perfect slogan for its yearly tourism campaign—"Alabama the Beautiful." Those three words perfectly summed up what locals and the scientific community have known all along—Alabama is a beautiful state, and when you delve deeper into that beauty, you’ll find that it’s also one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the country.
Within its boundaries there are countless rivers to paddle, fish, and swim; inspiring vistas from the heights of the southern Appalachians; shimmering white sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico; the dark and wild wetlands of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta; and breathtaking waterfalls and canyons in the state’s northern tier. The list seems endless.
The Yellowhammer State at a Glance
Scientists around the world agree that Alabama is one of the most biodiverse areas in the country, and the University of Georgia called it the "Fort Knox of the country’s biodiversity."
The state boasts 64 types of ecosystems. Its warm, damp, subtropical climate is home to more than 130,000 miles of streams and rivers and the second largest river delta in the country, while the Gulf Coast creates a fertile breeding ground for an incredible amount of aquatic life. For example, Alabama has more species of freshwater mussels, snails, and reptiles than any other state in the country. Scientists have discovered 99 species of crayfish in the Alabama, and researchers believe they have found number 100. In the Cahaba River alone there are more species of fish than in the entire state of California.
That biodiversity is segmented into a remarkable geologic landscape that includes the coastal plain, where the state’s rivers and streams merge as they flow to the Gulf of Mexico; the Cumberland Plateau, with its canyons and waterfalls; the hilly Highland Rim; and the mountains of the Appalachian Ridge and Valley area.
Alabama’s Grand Canyons and Caves
Alabama’s northern landscape is dotted with canyons. While they don’t rival the Grand Canyon, they’re grand in their own right. The sandstone that was laid in this part of the country millions of years ago by an ancient ocean has been worn and weathered by the elements, slowly chipping away at the rock to form towering walls.
In Tuscumbia, a 700-acre, privately protected piece of property known as Cane Creek Canyon offers an amazing look into this geologic history. Cane Creek’s 15 miles of hiking trails take you down some 350 feet into the canyon where you’ll encounter rock shelters and numerous waterfalls that tumble down the stone walls. As you gaze at the tops of massive boulders you’ll spy colorful beds of wildflowers.
A little south of Cane Creek in the Bankhead National Forest you’ll find the Sipsey Wilderness, an impressive sandstone canyon carved out over millennia by nature. In this 25,000-acre Wilderness area, more than 90 miles of hiking trails take you through a remarkable landscape known as the "Land of a Thousand Waterfalls," where it seems there’s a set of falls around every bend.
Then, there is the big one, Little River Canyon, the deepest canyon east of the Mississippi River. Carved by the action of the Little River, the canyon is 12 miles long, and in some sections 600 feet deep. At the head of the canyon you’ll find the impressive rushing waters of Little River Falls.
You can explore the rocky floor of the canyon and the rushing turquoise water of the river by hiking down from the rim along the steep 1.5-mile (out and back) Eberhart Trail. Just remember that what goes down…
Or, for something easier, walk the Bridge Trail and Martha’s Falls Trail for a nice 3-mile out-and-back hike that visits a favorite swimming hole for locals.
Besides canyons, Mother Nature has also carved out incredible caves in north Alabama, and some are open to the public. At Rickwood Caverns State Park you’ll walk 175 feet below the Earth’s surface to view rock formations that are 260 million years old.
At Cathedral Caverns State Park you can take a 1.5-mile walk to view "Goliath," a massive stalagmite that’s 45 feet tall and 243 feet around.
For true spelunkers, Alabama offers up Neversink, a 162-foot vertical drop into its open pit with an incredible waterfall. This one is only for experienced cavers with specific skills.
The Mountains Are Calling
The southern Appalachian Mountains roll through Georgia and end (or begin depending on perspective) in Alabama, providing hikers breathtaking panoramic vistas from rocky quartzite outcroppings. No matter the season, the mountains are waiting with their lush greens of summer, fiery colors of autumn, and frosty, snow-covered peaks of winter.
Hundreds of miles of trail crisscross the Talladega National Forest where you will find magnificent views from the Odum Scout Trail. On Alabama’s premier long trail, the Pinhoti, hikers can take in extraordinary views from McDill Point and Hernandez Peak.
But, you don’t have to be a hardcore hiker to enjoy the view. Cheaha State Park offers easy access to the state’s highest peak, 2,411-foot Cheaha Mountain. For a bird’s eye view of the Talladega Mountains, take a stroll along the 0.3-mile (ADA accessible) Bald Rock Boardwalk, or the 0.3-mile (one-way) Pulpit Rock Trail.
A Watery State
Take a look at the state seal of Alabama. What do you see? Rivers. Thousands of miles of rivers, creeks, and streams, interconnecting as they flow endlessly southward toward the Gulf of Mexico. These waterways have been the state’s life blood, providing communities essential water and food, as well as a means to produce energy and ship goods. And, of course, the rivers, lakes and streams provide an escape, where Alabamians can relax, get exercise and connect with friends and family.
From Montgomery to the Gulf you’ll find lazy black water rivers, which aren’t actually black, but tea colored, tinted from the tannin found in the trees that line their banks. One of those is the Perdido River, which sits on the border of Alabama and Florida. If you paddle the new Perdido River Canoe Trail you’ll meander slowly southward past beautiful white sandbars and riverside shelters, making it a good destination for a multi-day trips. Because the canoe trail provides easy access to campsites, put-ins and take-outs, it’s a great option for beginner and seasoned paddlers alike.
Maybe a little whitewater is more to your liking. Try your hand at the Class II/II+ rapids of the Mulberry Fork of the Warrior River in Cullman County. The run starts with a few shoals and ends with those Class II or II+ (depending on rain) rapids. Or, for more experienced paddlers, there is South Sauty Creek near Rainsville and Buck’s Pocket State Park, which boasts of Class IV rapids when the river is up.
Then, for the really adventurous, how about a 631-mile-long paddle across the state from the Georgia state line at Weiss Lake to the Gulf of Mexico at Fort Morgan? If that’s your style of adventure, definitely check out the Alabama Scenic River Trail.
Alabama’s rivers and streams all funnel into the second largest river delta in the country, the Mobile-Tensaw. In this untamed wilderness spanning more than 260,000 acres, wild boar and black bear roam freely, and the eyes of the American alligator peer at you from just below the surface of the murky water.
This is a fertile delta of cypress and tupelo swamps, bottomland hardwoods, marshes, bogs, and a brackish mix of salt and fresh water that make for outstanding fishing and crabbing. The intricate system of bayous and back bays provide endless opportunities for paddlers to kayak with stops at the "Big Cypress" and the ancient Indian village known as Mound Island.
The safest way to paddle the delta is by following the Bartram Canoe Trail, which was established in 2003. But, remember, even though you’re within a few miles of Alabama’s Port City, Mobile, you’re also in a wilderness area, and you need to be able to read a map and compass, or carry a good GPS, to navigate these waters, even while following the canoe trail.
For more adventure, camp beneath the stars on one of the state’s floating camping platforms where the red eyes of those alligators will light up the banks when you shine your flashlight on them. Don’t worry, they won’t climb up on the platform.
This is only a very, very small look at "Alabama the Beautiful." With 28 state parks, four national forests, three wilderness areas and numerous other natural areas, Alabama’s great outdoors offers a lifetime of adventures, challenges and escapes.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.