Why You Should Visit Tuskegee National Forest, the Country's Smallest

Tuskegee National Forest is the nation’s smallest at just over 11,000 acres, but it’s full of outdoorsy options.
Tuskegee National Forest is the nation’s smallest at just over 11,000 acres, but it’s full of outdoorsy options. Michael Lambert
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Located in east-central Alabama, Tuskegee National Forest spans just over 11,000 acres, making it is the smallest U.S. national forest. But what Tuskegee lacks in acreage, it makes up for in history, recreational opportunities, and off-the-beaten path solitude.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed the area a national forest in 1959. Prior to the federal government acquisition, the land that is now Tuskegee was in pretty bad shape: According to the U.S. Forest Service, it was some of the most abused, eroded wastelands in the state, at one time 80 percent clear-cut as a result of heavy logging practices.

Naturalist and author William Bartram traveled through what is now Tuskegee National Forest during his exploration of the southeastern U.S. in the 1770s. Bartram recorded his experience along the broad floodplains of the Tallapoosa River in what is now Macon County, AL, in his book Bartram’s Travels. An eight-mile section of hiking trail dedicated to Bartram runs through the center of the national forest. (Fun fact: The original title of Bartram’s book, which was eventually shortened, was Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscolgulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions; Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians.)

Tuskegee National Forest is about a 20-minute drive from downtown Auburn and lies on the outskirts of a town that shares its name. Hiking along the forest’s trails or camping in its primitive sites, one is reminded of the stories of the past and, perhaps, what might lie in the future. Here, a few highlights (print or download a map beforehand for optimal exploring).

History-Rich Land

Fall is a great time to visit Tuskegee National Forest.
Fall is a great time to visit Tuskegee National Forest. Michael Lambert

The name Tuskegee is often associated with the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots made famous for their bravery during WWII. If you are visiting the area, a stop at Moton Field and the historic site associated with the squadron is a must-do.

The Tuskegee Airmen helped convince President Harry S. Truman to make an executive order in 1948 that banned discrimination in the Armed Forces. They also helped to sow the seeds for the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Learning about their experience is as important now as ever, and planning a trip to see both the national forest and the historical site is as good for the mind as it is for the soul.

Bartram National Recreation Trail

A visitor on the Bartram National Recreation Trail, the first of its kind in Alabama.
A visitor on the Bartram National Recreation Trail, the first of its kind in Alabama. U.S. Forest Service

The Bartram National Recreation Trail was the first of its kind in Alabama. It runs about eight miles long and cuts through the center of the national forest, offering hikers a glimpse of the natural beauty that Tuskegee contains. During the spring, the area is awash in blooming wildflowers, dogwoods, and magnolias. Fall is prime time to visit, too, with leaves changing color and offering beautiful vistas at every turn (note: As of December 2016, the trail was closed due to storm damage and flooding).

Prior to hiking the trail, check out the District Office for updates like trail closures, while resources like this tree identification guide will help enrich the experience, especially for the non-botanists out there.

Other Outdoor Activities

Hiking isn’t the only activity at Tuskegee, though: The forest also is home to the Uchee Shooting Range, mountain biking trails (such as Pleasant Hill Trail), a fire tower, hunting and fishing areas, and the Tsinia Wildlife Viewing Area. In addition, 14 primitive campsites offer a chance to make it an overnight adventure.

Located in the northeastern corner of the forest, the Uchee Shooting Range offers firearm enthusiasts and hunters the opportunity to target practice at 20, 50, and 100-yard increments. The facility is modern and offers visitors a safe and responsible location for shooting.

Pleasant Hill is roughly four miles of purpose-built mountain biking trail in the heart of Tuskegee. One of the newest additions to the existing trail network, it provides cyclists the opportunity to experience wildlife and natural settings on two wheels.

Wildlife enthusiasts, meanwhile, should certainly check out the Tsinia Wildlife Viewing Area, an interpretive trail that is off-limits to hunters and fishermen. Managed by the Forest Service, the 125-acre space includes several paths that weave through the area, with several species of hardwoods, low-lying areas, and many types of birds.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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