You may not know it, but Birmingham—the largest city in Alabama and a place once known as the "Pittsburg of the South" due to its long history of mining, railroad, iron, and steel industry–is now a place that's teeming with outdoor possibilities. Flanked by mountain ridges, dissected by free-flowing rivers, and surrounded by green spaces and charming state parks, Birmingham is a wonderful place for the renaissance outdoorsmen and women of the world.
Whether you're here for a visit or call this place home, the Magic City is full of ways to keep you entertained. Here's a guide to some of its best assets—from that first cup of craft coffee in the morning, to that unforgettable trail, waterway, or crag in the afternoon, to that rewarding burger and brew at the end of the day.
Where to Get Caffeinated
Birmingham has several top notch coffee shops to choose from.
For a fine cup of fair-trade coffee from a spot that was voted "Best Coffeehouse in Birmingham" in 2012, try the Red Cat Coffeehouse. The owners personally visit the farms where their coffee beans are produced in developing countries, and follow the Fair Trade model to promote sustainability and to help producers improve on trading conditions. Sit outside at bistro tables on the sidewalk and enjoy your latte in the sun, or stay indoors to enjoy the artfully decorated interior with exposed brick walls and the original coffee roaster from Red Cat’s humble beginnings that's on full display.
Another Birmingham favorite is the ever-inviting Church Street Coffee and Books. With hundreds of book titles—both famous and obscure—lining the shelves and a cozy reading room tucked upstairs in which to dive into their pages, Church Street Coffee is the perfect place to while away the hours with a cup of Octane coffee and a homemade pastry. We're talking Apple Oatmeal Cookies, Vanilla Rice Crispy Treats, Kahlua Cake, Cinnamon Oat Scones, and much more. The perfect kind of indulgent fuel for a day of adventure.
Where to Hit the Trail
The Birmingham area is practically overflowing with hiking trails both inside the city limits, and in the nearby outskirts of town.
For an incredibly easy-access hike, you won’t want to miss Moss Rock Preserve. There are 8 miles of trails twisting throughout the preserve, some easy and flat, some with a bit of a challenge. You’ll certainly get your fill of scenery with the waterfalls and rocky creek, and the good news is that you won’t travel far too get there. Only 12 miles from downtown, Moss Rock Preserve will provide some of the best trails near town that you can find anywhere.
Oak Mountain is a favorite among local hikers for several reasons. With 51 miles of trails, your hike will never be the same no matter how many times you visit. You'll find everything from easy trails that loop around the glittering lake to a 17-mile backcountry loop that will put your stamina to the test. Full of creeks, waterfalls, hardwoods, and pines, Oak Mountain won’t disappoint with its natural beauty, well-maintained trails, and incredible overlooks.
If you’re looking for a challenge, the trails at Ruffner Mountain are just the ticket. Less than 10 miles from downtown, this unique park is more than just a scenic place to hike. Within its 1,036 acres you’ll find old mining relics (a major part of the Magic City’s history) as well as breathtaking ridges that overlook Birmingham’s downtown. A fun and rewarding discovery along your hike is the quarry, a fascinating gem that allows you to explore the bottom or hike along the edge of the rim.
Where to Go Climbing
With world-renowned sandstone boulders, uninterrupted cliff bands, and a maternal-like presence from the Southeastern Climbers Coalition , Birmingham's backyard is simply littered with great places to climb.
You can't discuss the climbing scene in Alabama without first mentioning Horse Pens 40. This highly concentrated sandstone boulder field—one of the most densely concentrated in the world, in fact—is in a league of its own when it comes to bouldering. Known for an incredible variety and quantity of rock, with everything from smooth slopers, to mantling top-outs, to pumpy overhangs, Horse Pens 40 should be a destination on every climber's bucket list. And though it's 50 miles from downtown Birmingham, it truly is worth the trip.
Much closer to town, Moss Rock Preserve is an intermediate climber's dream come true, with 40 bouldering problems ranging from V4 to V8. There are even a few V10 spots for the slightly more ambitious boulderer. All of the rock is the same high-quality, sticky sandstone that the region is known for, and considering the first boulder clusters are just about 100 yards from the parking lot, it’s probably the easiest approach a climber could ask for.
Where to Paddle
With nearby access to the longest free-flowing river in Alabama as well as plenty of steep creeks and leisurely streams, Birmingham has a wealth of wonderful paddling destinations.
For advanced whitewater enthusiasts, you can't beat the paddling at Little River Canyon. Flowing for most of the length of Lookout Mountain, this river is the perfect place to test your boating mettle. With the right skills and equipment, you can navigate the Class IV-V rapids and brag to your friends about it later. The incredible scenery, breathtaking cascades, powerful currents, deep pools, and highly technical whitewater make this river well worth the visit.
For something a little more accessible to less experienced paddlers, the Sipsey River is a wilderness gem. This stunning river has flowed for many years and has slowly cut through the layers of sandstone that make up the Brindley Mountain plateau to create steep canyon walls on both sides. Even after the slightest rain, tons of water will funnel off these canyon cliffs into the river basin below, creating what locals call the "Land of 1000 Waterfalls." The river canyon is narrow, steep, and stunning, with small tributary streams cascading from above and no signs of civilization for most of the run. For 9.5 miles, the wildflowers and pine-studded shorelines will make you feel worlds away. Although beginners are advised to bring along a more experienced partner to help navigate the waters, it's a great way for novices to learn the art of paddling, and for intermediates and experts to enjoy a true Alabama treasure.
If a more laid-back flat water paddling experience is what you’re after, you can’t go wrong with the Cahaba River. The Cahaba is the longest free flowing river in the state of Alabama and is considered one of the most biologically diverse in the nation. What really makes the Cahaba special between mid-May and mid-June, however, is the emergence of the extremely rare Cahaba Lily. Home to about a quarter of this beautiful white flower's entire population, the Cahaba River in late spring and early summer is an unrivaled place to enjoy a day on the water.
Where to Unwind
At the end of the day, there are plenty of places in the Magic City to relax and unwind with a hearty meal and an ice cold beverage (preferably of the adult-variety).
Frequented by hikers, climbers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all types, The Boot is one of the best places to enjoy amazing food and local brews at prices that will please any budget. A stone’s throw away from Moss Rock Preserve, The Boot is a casual family eatery that serves juicy burgers and unique menu items that will please the tastebuds of even the pickiest eaters. And there's a top notch outdoor patio as well, perfect for soaking up the last rays of the day.
If you’re in the mood for fresh Mexican (and really, what outdoor enthusiast isn't?) head to the Little Donkey or Rojo. For made-from-scratch-daily menu items, the Little Donkey is as authentic as they come. They even grind their own corn for fresh masa used in their tortillas. The covered patio, with garage doors that are kept open in the spring and summer, is the best place for end-of-the-day margarita and taco relaxation.
Rojo is a little different, however. This Latin-American joint is not only known for their local craft beers and incredible cuisine, but also for their 10% Tuesdays. No, not a 10% discount—10% of the proceeds toward a charity of Rojo’s choice! The large covered patio is pet-friendly, and the food is divine. This is the kind of place you’ll want to come back to with plenty of friends.
Where to Get a Good Night’s Rest
So you’ve had your fun, your belly is full, and your eyelids are heavy. There are many unique places to get some shut-eye and recharge the batteries. Birmingham may not have any hostels, but there are plenty of comfortable places to make camp or rent a cabin, which are just as inviting, if not more so.
Oak Mountain State Park is not just known for its trails. Campsites are complete with picnic tables and fire rings as well as well-maintained bathhouses only a short walk away. The park is dog-friendly and popular among all sorts of people—from families to 20-somethings. For those looking to hike in a little further and find something more remote, there are also backcountry sites tucked away in the park for only $6 per night, and primitive sites (without water and electric) are less than $20 per night.