The Best State Parks in Alabama (and Some Amazing Wilderness Areas, Too)

Alabama may not have any national parks, but it boasts some great state parks and wilderness areas.
Alabama may not have any national parks, but it boasts some great state parks and wilderness areas. Richard
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In the 1800s, rumors grew of a magnificent place in the Wyoming Territory with stunning scenery and vast fields of boiling sulphur springs. By 1872, explorers had confirmed the reports, and President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone as the world’s first national park. Later, in August 1916, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service.

To celebrate its 100th anniversary throughout 2016, the NPS is encouraging people to get outdoors in the national parks across the country. Alabama may not have any national parks to its name, but the NPS manages a couple of great outdoor destination across the state, including Little River Canyon and Russell Cave. But Alabama is also blessed with state parks that offer a diverse range of natural escapes, from the mountains to the sea.

Here, the best state parks in Alabama, as well as other wilderness areas around the state well worth a visit in 2016 (or anytime).

Little River Canyon National Preserve

The LIttle River Canyon Nature Preserve is especially scenic with the changing fall leaves.
The LIttle River Canyon Nature Preserve is especially scenic with the changing fall leaves. Alby Headrick

Over the course of 10 miles, Class III to Class V whitewater crashes though this sandstone canyon, making it a great destination for experienced paddlers. Those who prefer to hike can follow trails into the canyon and skirt the banks of Little River to find swimming holes, waterfalls and big boulders for lounging in the sun.

In the Canyon Preserve you can also access the DeSoto Scout Trail, a 16-mile path that follows the West Fork of Little River. As you travel this rocky trail, you’ll cover diverse terrain with waterfalls, ridges, valleys, rocky plains, and stretches of sand.

Russell Cave National Monument

Prehistoric people inhabited Russell Cave from 10,000 BCE to 1650 CE. — NPS
Prehistoric people inhabited Russell Cave from 10,000 BCE to 1650 CE. — NPS

For more than 10,000 years, prehistoric people inhabited Russell Cave , located near Bridgeport, Alabama. In 1961, it was established as a National Monument and now serves an important archaeological site and popular destination for travelers. While visitors aren’t allowed to explore deep into the cave, they can tour the exceptionally large cave entrance, known as the “cave shelter,” which was the site of one of the earliest human settlements in the Southeast.

If you want to get a taste of prehistoric life, you can watch interpretive rangers demonstrate the art of throwing a spear with an ancient tool called an atlatl. To round out your visit, visit the cave museum and hike the 1.2-mile Backcountry Trail, where you’ll find wildflowers blooming in spring.

Cheaha State Park

Cheaha State Park offers magnificent views of the surrounding landscapes.
Cheaha State Park offers magnificent views of the surrounding landscapes. faungg's photos

In Cheaha State Park , you’ll find some of the most spectacular views in Alabama, and you can access miles and miles of hiking trails that traverse immense forested areas. From the park’s Cheaha Trailhead you can reach the Pinhoti Trail, a 335-mile path that passes through Alabama and north Georgia to connect to the Appalachian Trail. Another option is to begin at the Cheaha Trailhead and hike a little more than three miles to McDill Point, a west-facing outcrop where you can relax in a hammock and enjoy sunset.

Cheaha State Park is also the jumping off point for the Odum Scout Hiking Trail, which stretches 7.5 miles along the eastern slopes of Talladega Mountain in the Cheaha Wilderness Area.

For experienced mountain bikers, the park has about six miles of trails where that require negotiating fairly rocky terrain, a few short but steep climbs, and fast sections of singletrack, topped off with hallways of rhododendron. Just keep in mind that the rides aren’t recommended for beginners.

Oak Mountain State Park

A bird's-eye view from the King's Chair outcrop. — Marcus Woolf
A bird's-eye view from the King's Chair outcrop. — Marcus Woolf

Covering 10,000 acres,  Oak Mountain is Alabama’s largest state park, with 51 miles of trails for hiking, running, biking, and horseback riding. Also onsite are two 85-acre lakes and one 60-acre lake where you can kayak, paddleboard, and fish for bass, bream, catfish, and crappie.

While the park is just a few minutes from Birmingham, its hiking and biking trails wind through a forest that feels way more secluded. Along the quiet ridge tops, hikers can follow relatively level trails and take short detours to gaze out over broad green valleys. For an excellent hike, climb the Blue Trail to the remote Eagle’s Nest overlook, and then continue to King’s Chair, the park’s most impressive rock outcropping with a sprawling view of the valley below. For a short, heart-pumping hike, begin at the Park Office/Beach area on Terrace Drive and ascend two miles on the Green and White trails to reach Peavine Falls, a 65-foot cascade.

If you have some experience hiking and want to try backpacking, Oak Mountain State Park is a perfect place to build up some valuable wilderness skills. After hiking an hour or two, you can reach backcountry campsites that offer quiet solitude, though they’re just a few miles from civilization.

If you bring bikes to the park, the 22-mile Double Oak Trail (aka “Red Trail”) has something for riders of all skill levels. On the level Lake Trail, beginners can cruise around Double Oak Lake, while intermediate and advanced riders can challenge themselves on steep climbs, swift downhill runs, bumpy rock gardens, and sand pits.

Gulf State Park

Four cots are ready and waiting for you at the new Outpost primitive campsites in Gulf State Park.
Four cots are ready and waiting for you at the new Outpost primitive campsites in Gulf State Park. Alapark.com/GulfStatePark

While high rises have replaced most of the bungalows at Gulf Shores, there are still quiet spots in the area where you can enjoy a low-key vacation surrounded by nature.

For rustic accommodations, Gulf State Park offers Outpost campsites that include secluded tents with cots and a nearby portable toilet. There are cots and a sink with running water for dishes, but you'll have to bring your own drinking water, for example), but the immersion in nature is next-to-none. To reach your tent,begin at the Cotton Bayou Trailhead and walk 1.5 miles.

If you prefer more amenities, Gulf State Park also has 20 cabins and 11 cottages within walking distance of the beach. Lining the shores of Lake Shelby, the cottages sit in the shade of the pines, and screened porches look out over the 900-acre freshwater lake. Nearby you can rent kayaks and paddleboards and venture across the water to eat lunch at a picnic table beneath massive oaks.

Lake Shelby feeds into nearby Little Lagoon, which gets little motorboat traffic, making it a tranquil destination for kayaking and paddleboarding. Teeming with redfish, flounder, and speckled trout, it’s also a good spot for kayak fishing.

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