‘Exploring Wild Alabama’ Highlights 150 Must-See Destinations

The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge is home to the world’s largest lily population.
The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge is home to the world’s largest lily population. Alan Cressler
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If you’ve ever cruised down I-65, you’ve probably seen "Alabama the Beautiful" highway signs. It’s a fitting slogan, considering the state’s abundant forests and waterways. At least one-sixth of the state is covered by rivers, lakes, and other forms of fresh water, while timber covers nearly 70 percent of Alabama. If you love the outdoors, Alabama is an excellent playground.

But, many people still don’t realize all that Alabama has to offer, says Ken Wills, a natural resource planner for the Alabama Environmental Council. To steer people toward the state’s recreation lands, Wills partnered with Samford University professor Larry Davenport to write the new book, "Exploring Wild Alabama."

The 400-page book, published by The University of Alabama Press, takes you to 150 of the state’s wild public-access areas, many of which you may not have known even existed. For each wild area in the book, the authors provide descriptions of the ecology, landscapes, plants, and animals. Plus, the book includes 130 color images, 27 maps, and detailed directions with GPS coordinates to each site.

Creating the Book

High Falls features a beautiful 35-foot waterfall with a pedestrian walking bridge over the falls and a natural rock bridge.
High Falls features a beautiful 35-foot waterfall with a pedestrian walking bridge over the falls and a natural rock bridge. Chuck Clark

Wills says he got the idea to write "Exploring Wild Alabama" while showing a friend the types of vegetation found on limestone slopes in the Tennessee Valley. “He said I should put that in a book,” says Wills. “I thought the best way to share this information would be to point out all the publicly accessible wild lands in Alabama where you can experience the state's varied ecology.”

According to Wills, Alabama is the most ecologically significant state in the Southeast—maybe even the country.

"I have spent a lifetime traveling to just about every park, refuge or public forest in Alabama, and I wanted to let folks know all the natural areas they could visit without trespassing," says Wills.

It took Wills about six months to complete a rough draft of the book, making personal visits to newer sites and using a "lifetime of accumulated knowledge" to craft ecological descriptions. He then gave the rough draft to Davenport, who transformed it into a polished manuscript.

"I’d probably been to half of the 150 places before I received Ken’s manuscript," Davenport says. “Then, my wife and I ground-truthed the manuscript by checking out the more obscure places.” One such “new” favorite place isHigh Falls Park in DeKalb County, where a pedestrian bridge and a natural rock bridge allow you to walk above a beautiful 35-foot waterfall.

Alabama’s Diverse Terrain

One of Davenport's favorites is the Walls of Jericho on the Alabama/Tennessee state line.
One of Davenport's favorites is the Walls of Jericho on the Alabama/Tennessee state line. Shannon McGee

As you peruse the pages of "Exploring Wild Alabama," you definitely get a sense of the state’s great diversity in terrain and ecosystems.

"You can start in the mountains and canyons of north Alabama and experience northern habitat types such as beech-hemlock and sugar maple-buckeye-basswood forests," says Wills.

Heading south, you can pass through the unique mountain longleaf pine forests and Cahaba Lily Shoals near the Fall Line of Central Alabama, and then proceed into bald cypress-tupelo bottomland hardwood forests.

In South Alabama you’ll find pitcher plant bogs carpeted with a great diversity of carnivorous plants. If you explore the more subtropical Coastal section of Alabama, you’ll discover evergreen live oak-magnolia forests, diverse freshwater and saltwater marshes, tall sand dunes and undeveloped sugar white beaches in conservation areas.

"In between, there are many beautiful streams, chalk prairies, rock outcrops and ravines full of species found nowhere else in the world," says Wills.

The Authors’ Favorite Places

Another favorite of Davenport's is the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge.
Another favorite of Davenport's is the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge. Alan Cressler

When asked to name some of their favorite outdoor destinations in Alabama, Davenport calls out the Walls of Jericho on the Alabama/Tennessee state line. Reader’s Digest recently named it one of the Top 20 Places to Hike in the country.

Davenport is also partial to theCahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to the world’s largest lily population.

For Wills, a favorite spot isPerry Lakes Park in Marion. "It contains easily accessible bald cypress swamps draped in Spanish moss, a habitat dear to my heart," he says.

Protecting Wild Alabama

The green pitcher plant is categorized as Endangered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The green pitcher plant is categorized as Endangered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Alan Cressler

While Wills and Davenport have worked to promote Alabama’s natural areas, they’re also striving to protect them.

"An equally important goal was to encourage folks to love our state's publicly accessible natural areas and subsequently fight for their continued long-term conservation," says Wills.

One purpose of the book is to get the public involved in protecting some of the state’s unpreserved habitats, such as the Coosa Prairies, Jackson Prairies and granite outcrops, says Davenport, who served on the board of the Alabama Forever Wild program.

"There are those in Montgomery and Washington D.C. who would like to end programs like Forever Wild and sell off our public lands," says Wills. “We hope this book will inspire folks to love our publicly accessible natural areas and work to help conserve and defend them as well as the programs that foster their conservation.”

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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