Each year, as summer wanes and fall arrives, two spectacular things occur in Alabama. First, cool, dry air breezes in, providing a respite from the sweltering heat and perfect conditions to explore the outdoors. And second, college football returns and grabs the attention of fans throughout the state.
But for football fans who love the outdoors, fall weekends pose a challenge: How to balance the time watching the game with their drive to hit the trail, crag, or river?
However, with some savvy planning, you don’t have to sacrifice either. Whether your game-day festivities are in Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Birmingham, or elsewhere to watch a game, your outdoor fix is within easy reach. For a quick pre-game or post-game getaway, consider this list of convenient places to hike, bike, paddle and climb around the state.
University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
Stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Nicol
For decades, University of Alabama students have made the short road trip to Lake Nicol to sunbathe on the cliffs that tower over the water. But, in recent years, stand-up paddleboarders have flocked to this 384-acre lake, which is located 20 miles northeast of Tuscaloosa. Because jet skis and water skiing are not allowed on the lake, SUPers and kayakers can enjoy some peace and quiet, and they don’t have to worry about avoiding speedy watercraft and the wake from a passing boat.
Even though Lake Nicol lies near a residential area, it still feels like a natural place, as the forest and 60-foot bluffs provide an attractive backdrop. Plus, you can paddle a couple of miles to the north or south to see bald eagles or osprey. If you need gear, Tuscaloosa Paddleboard provides board rentals on weekends.
Auburn University, Auburn
Mountain biking at Chewacla State Park
Located less than 5 miles from Auburn University, Chewacla State Park is one of the best mountain biking areas in Alabama. This is partly due to the fact that the Central Alabama Mountain Pedalers (C.A.M.P.) put great effort into developing and managing more than 15 miles of trails that traverse Chewacla’s rugged terrain. To sample some of the park’s best offerings, link together the Kick Six, Rocky Bottom, and Tiger Woods trails in Upper Chewacla. For the biggest thrill ride in the park, take Dell’s Trail and head for the Great Wall of Chewacla. At first, you’ll ride up a wooden bridge and then make a steep and swift descent, gaining necessary speed to traverse the wooden wall at a height of 10 or 15 feet above the ground. After you negotiate the wall, you’ll cross a series of serpentine bridges, skinnies, and a few pumps and jumps.
University of Alabama (UAB), Birmingham
Climbing at Moss Rock preserve
UAB fans in Birmingham don’t have to travel far for a great day of climbing. In the heart of Hoover, Moss Rock Preserve has about 40 bouldering problems ranging from V4 to V8, providing good options for beginners as well as experts. When the cool, dry air of autumn arrives, you’ll have ideal weather for exploring the high concentration of sandstone boulders in the south-central portion of the park. From the parking lot and trailhead on Preserve Parkway, you only have to walk about a hundred yards to reach easier problems for beginners, as well as moderate to difficult problems ranging from V4 to V8, plus a few V10s. If you would rather do roped climbing, head to the Bolt Boulder, which has a few bolts for a top rope anchor and a handful of 5.10 routes.
University of Alabama (UAH), Huntsville
Hiking Wade Mountain Preserve
When you take your seat at Louis Crews Stadium to watch the Alabama A&M Bulldogs, you’re only about three miles from a great trail system. Covering 843 acres, the Wade Mountain Preserve includes 11 miles of unpaved trails that wind through quiet forest. While plenty of people walk and bike the preserve’s paved greenway path, this is still the least visited of the five land trust preserves in north Alabama, and Wade Mountain’s unpaved trails are rarely overcrowded. Two loop hikes—a 4-mile route on the east side of the preserve, and a 5.3-mile trek on the west side—wind among rock gardens and streams, and climb above 1,000 feet of elevation to offer good views of north Huntsville. On really clear days, you can even see into Tennessee.
University of South Alabama, Mobile
Mountain Biking at University of South Alabama
As you speed through dense forest on the Red Rock Trail, you’ll forget that you’re riding in the middle of a college campus. In total, there are 12 miles of bike trails that wind through the heart of the University of South Alabama. Because Mobile is so flat, these trails have little change in elevation, but that doesn’t mean that every ride is easy. While the 3.5-mile Orange Loop suits beginners, there are plenty of fast singletracks, including Eric’s Trail, which stretches for a mile. If you like technical obstacles, hit the Bottoms trail where you’ll encounter tree roots, ditches and dives. Also, the 8-mile Red Loop will challenge intermediate riders, while the White Loop and Yellow Loop are best for advanced riders.
University of North Alabama, Florence
Paddling Cypress Creek
With a morning start, you can easily get in a few hours of paddling on Cypress Creek and still make an afternoon tailgate for the UNA Lions. Winding through the west side of Florence, this tributary of the Tennessee River has easy currents and flat water, so it’s great for beginner paddlers, anglers, and folks who just want to relax and float the day away.
If you put in at Cox Creek Parkway (off of Waterloo Road) and take out at Wildwood Park, you’ll cover about 4 miles, which can be done in a couple of hours. Though the creek does run past housing tracts, farms, and a park, it also snakes through wild corridors with forested banks and high bluffs. Along the way, you’ll see a wide variety birds, turtles, and other wild creatures. In many parts of the creek you can land smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, bluegill, and catfish. If you have time, continue past Wildwood Park and go downstream another three miles to Savannah Highway Bridge. In this lower section of the creek you’ll see large cypress trees and great blue herons.
Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville
Hiking the Pinhoti Trail
One of Alabama’s most rugged trails lies less than 30 minutes from Jacksonville State University in Anniston. Stretching 171 miles through the Talladega National Forest, the Pinhoti Trail passes through the Dugger Mountain Wilderness and other large tracts of contiguous forest that actually support populations of bears. If you’re a Gamecock fan in Anniston, you can escape for several hours with heart-pumping day hike that climbs Dugger Mountain and exceeds 2,000 feet of elevation. Beginning at the Pink E. Burns trailhead on Rabbittown Road in Piedmont, the trail ascends through towering mature hardwoods. Near the 3-mile mark, the forest changes dramatically, as mosses, ferns, and deep-green mountain laurel line the trail. At 4.8 miles, on the upper reaches of Dugger Mountain, a break in the canopy allows you to look north and see the broad rural landscape far below. While the Pinhoti continues to climb, this is a good spot to turn around and retrace your steps.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.