Summer is on her way out, but there’s still a chance to savor the season before she’s completely gone, and a day spent on and around Lake Martin is a great way to wave goodbye. The 41,000-acre lake in Central Alabama with 800 miles of shoreline and clean, blue-green water was once the largest manmade lake in the country. It may not claim that title anymore, but its massive size and close proximity to Montgomery (about 45 minutes to the closest side) allow it to offer a plethora of outdoor activities that are easily accessible to capital city residents. Here are four favorites.
Sunlight bouncing off the lake’s ripples creates a sparkling diamond effect, but underneath the shimmering surface is the lake’s true jewel. Its water is clean and in many areas, clear all the way to the lake bed. One of the best public access points to the lake is Wind Creek State Park. This park’s 1,445 acres rest along the scenic banks of the lake and encompass pine and hardwood forests. Visit for the day and take a dip in the warm water or reserve one of the 626 campsites—187 are waterfront—and float away an entire weekend. Another popular spot is Chimney Rock. You’ll have to take a boat to get there, but once you make it, you can splash around in the deep water while you decide if you’ve got the guts to take the plunge and jump into the lake from one of several spots that jut from the cliff on rocky island's side.
Wind Creek State Park also offers 28.5 miles of hiking, biking and horseback trails winding along the shore and through the woods dotted with dogwoods, wildflowers and full of wildlife. If you’re after something more rugged, try the Smith Mountain Alpine Trail, which takes you to the highest elevation around the lake. The trek is short but steep both up and back but rewards you with stunning views from the craggy peak of Smith Mountain, with jagged rocks and boulders scattered across a series of plateaus. Crowning this natural formation is a historic 90-foot-tall fire tower that was built in 1939 as a lookout point for forest fire detection. It was decommissioned in 1980 and fell into disrepair, but in 2010, when Smith Mountain became part of the Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail Association, the group began a restoration that allowed it to be safely opened to the public.
The “big water” sections of the lake are a bit rough for canoeing and kayaking thanks to a bevy of powerboat and jet-ski traffic. But the calmer waters in the many quiet sloughs and inlet hideaways that cut into the lake’s banks are paddling paradises. Rent kayaks and canoes at several places on the lake including Russell Lands Adventure Center. Lake Martin Services rents paddle boards.
A day on the water—no matter what you’re doing—will work up a hearty appetite. Satisfy yours at one of the many waterside restaurants on Lake Martin accessible by both car and boat. Chuck’s Marina is famous for its live music and fresh-baked pizzas. Try the Chimney Rock, a thin-crust pie piled high with pretty much every topping there is. A new addition to the lake dining scene is The Landing at Parker Creek, which promises the “burger of your dreams” as well as tasty fish tacos, dill pickle fries, BBQ chicken with Alabama white sauce and more all enjoyed on decks and under pavilions in the eatery's outdoor setting. SpringHouse is the fine-dining star on the lake (and only open for dinner and Sunday brunch), with James-Beard-award-nominated chef Rob McDaniel creating upscale yet rustic dishes using locally sourced ingredients. Don’t forget to order a drink here. Bartender Will Abner whips up innovative craft cocktails that go way beyond most basic bar lists. And Kowaliga is longtime favorite. Though it has been through a few changes in ownership and even burnt to the ground in 1999, it’s back and better than ever.