Travel Back in Time on Alabama’s 5 Best Native American Hikes

The Bartram Canoe Trail is the only way to get to Mound Island.
The Bartram Canoe Trail is the only way to get to Mound Island. Bahen Privett
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In Alabama’s massive river delta, rolling mountains, and dark blackwater rivers there are historic treasures hidden away, some that date back to 10,000 BC. These treasures are the remnants of Native American cultures, a way of life long gone but open for rediscovery for those who want to find them.

Some of this history is tragic, like the forced removal of Cherokee from the southeast in what has been called the "Trail of Tears," while others give us a glimpse of life as it was centuries ago and how these cultures learned to survive, prosper, and co-mingle with nature. And it’s all there ready for exploration. Here, five of the best hikes in Alabama rich in Native American history.

1. Smoke Rise Trail

The Smoke Rise Trail was one of the paths used to relocate Native Americans in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
The Smoke Rise Trail was one of the paths used to relocate Native Americans in what became known as the Trail of Tears. Joe Cuhaj

The Smoke Rise Trail is located in the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Blevins Gap Nature Preserve in Huntsville. The trail is a nice walk in the woods with a few good views of the surrounding mountains, but this trail represents more than just landscapes. This is one of the few trails left that you can still walk in Alabama that was part of what has been called the "Journey of Injustice" or the “Trail of Tears”.

Aggression towards Native Americans began as far back as the 1500s, when explorers first came to the New World. But the worst offense came between 1830 and 1840, when tribes were forcibly removed from their homes in the southeast by the federal government and relocated to Oklahoma. Many were shackled; they had little to no food, water, or other vital supplies; thousands died. A Choctaw leader was quoted in an Alabama newspaper as calling the incident "a trail of tears and death," and from then on the incident had a name.

By combining the Smoke Rise Trail with the Bill and Marion Certain Trail and Sugar Tree Trail you will have a 3-mile moderate to difficult loop hike. The paths are narrow, rocky, and have rather steep inclines going down and up the ridge.

Before heading out, it’s worth checking out the National Trail of Tears Association website to learn more about the tragic event and reflect on it as you walk the Smoke Rise Trail. And visit the Land Trust website for dates when special "Trail of Tears" hikes are scheduled.

2. Moundville Archeological Park

A view of the tribal leaders mound towering over Moundville Archaeological Park. These mounds, some 40+ feet tall, were built completely out of dirt by hand.
A view of the tribal leaders mound towering over Moundville Archaeological Park. These mounds, some 40+ feet tall, were built completely out of dirt by hand. Joe Cuhaj

The Indians of the Mississippian Period (generally between 1100 to 1541) were known as "mound builders". They would build haul baskets of dirt by hand to build enormous mounds some as high as 60 feet tall, which became the political, religious, and economic centers for the tribes.

The best place to experience and learn about the mounds and the culture of the period is at Moundville Archeological Park near Tuscaloosa. The park is managed and maintained by the University of Alabama’s Archeological Department and features 28 mounds in all. The best way to take in the history and experience all there is to see is by getting out of your car and making the 2.8-mile loop around the park. By walking you will be able to see more including several smaller mounds, pits where dirt was excavated to build the mounds, and beautiful views of the Black Warrior River. You can also climb to the top of the Chieftain Mound before you arrive at the recently renovated museum housing artifacts from the site and learn more about the culture through a holographic guide.

3. Mound Island

Hiking Mound Island in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is like stepping into a South American rainforest.
Hiking Mound Island in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is like stepping into a South American rainforest. Joe Cuhaj

You’ll feel like a true adventurer as you hike the dark wilderness of the second-largest river delta in the country, the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, on Mound Island. As the name implies, this is another area much like Moundville where the Indians of the Mississippian Period built large dirt mounds for various uses.

The difference between Mound Island and Moundville is that Moundville is a well-groomed park whereas Mound Island is in a natural state among the bayous and backwaters of the delta. The mounds are difficult to see since they are overgrown. In fact, you will only be able to see two of the 18 mounds on the island because of the brush. But you will be able to climb up one of the tallest, known as "Mound A".

The hike itself is a 1.1-mile out-and-back through a thick, rainforest-like environment. The narrow path is hugged by thick rows of palmetto, golden orb spiders about the size of your fist, and alligators that lurk along the banks.

You can only get to the island by paddling the Bartram Canoe Trail with your own kayak or by renting one nearby or by taking one of the tour boats that visit the island like the one offered by Delta Safaris. Tour guides will point out the history. Insider tip: Avoid this hike in the summer or you’ll face squadrons of mosquitoes.

4. Kinlock Shelter

This photo of Kinlock Shelter is only a partial view of the huge rock wall and shelter and doesn’t do Kinlock justice.
This photo of Kinlock Shelter is only a partial view of the huge rock wall and shelter and doesn’t do Kinlock justice. Joe Cuhaj

You’ll have to keep your head down to watch your footing as you hike down the steep rocky path of this hike. But when you arrive at the valley floor, be sure to look up—and prepare to be wowed by the massive rock wall and cave known as Kinlock Shelter.

Kinlock has been used by Native Americans for centuries as a place of spiritual worship and ceremony, and it is still used today. Look around at the cave walls, and you’ll see petroglyphs adorning the sandstone carved hundreds of years ago. One is a turkey foot representing one of the many wild animals found in the forest.

The shelter is now part of what is known as the Kinlock Historic District, which is part of the Bankhead National Forest and is a protected historic site. The trail is only one mile long, but it’s a difficult mile. Remember, the shelter is still used as a ceremonial site and as such should be treated with reverence. Please protect this rare and wild site. Visit gently.

5. Cave Trail

Entering Russell Cave along an easy walking and ADA accessible boardwalk.
Entering Russell Cave along an easy walking and ADA accessible boardwalk. Joe Cuhaj

Native Americans have called Alabama home as far back as 10,000 BC, and you can travel back in time to learn about that amazing past by visiting the Russell Cave National Monument in Bridgeport and hiking the Cave Trail.

Russell Cave had one of the most complete records of prehistoric cultures in the world, a diary, if you will, of what life was like thousands of years ago. The cave was placed under federal protection in 1961.

The Cave Trail itself is a short walk down a boardwalk from the park visitor’s center to the cave (which is also ADA accessible). For those who want something longer and more challenging, combine the Cave Trail with the the Hiking and Nature Trails. These are narrow asphalt paths that switchback very steeply up the side of the mountain. All along the route there are fascinating signs painting a picture of what life was like thousands of years ago.

The park hosts daily guided tours of the cave daily; in May is the annual Native American Festival.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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