Following a relatively warm winter, the first burst of wildflowers has come to Alabama, while some plants will bloom until the end of April, adding a riot of color to any outdoors excursion and providing good incentive to dust off the hiking boots.
While some nature and wildflower hikes in Alabama are easy walks, other trails stretch for miles, crank up your heart rate and cross tough terrain as you hunt for trout lilies and spring beauties. Here, four moderate-to- strenuous wildflower hikes that explore state parks, land trust preserves, and wilderness areas.
1. Lake Guntersville State Park Cutchenmine Trail
Hugging the base of Sand Mountain, the 2.3-mile Cutchenmine Trail is home to dogwoods, red buckeye and dozens of other wildflowers. Beginning just beyond the park office, the trail drops to a bridge, crosses a creek, and then begins to roll through pines and hardwoods. Throughout the hike you’ll encounter a few gradual climbs, but nothing too steep, so this is a popular path for beginner mountain bikers. (While hiking this trail, it’s wise to ditch the headphones and stay alert for approaching riders.)
As you walk, scan the sides of the path for trillium, which has mottled green leaves that resemble military camouflage and surround a deep red flower. Also, search for wild phlox, which has a purple star shape at the center of five delicate white petals. After you’ve traveled 2.3 miles, the trail ends at a creek that is often dry, and you can retrace your steps to the trailhead.
2. Sipsey Wilderness Thompson Creek (Trail 206)
Within the first 20 minutes of this 5-mile out-and-back hike, you can spy a wide spectrum of wildflowers, from purple trillium to yellow violets and red buckeye. From the Thompson Creek Trailhead, follow Trail 206 south and look for at least two dozen species of flowers along the edges of Thompson Creek. Keep an eye out for Virginia bluebells as well as spring beauties, with petals painted purple and white.
If you’re planning to do an overnight trip, you’ll find campsites in the low-lying areas near the water. After descending for about a half mile, the trail rises through a canyon to the point where Thompson Creek joins Hubbard Creek and forms the Sipsey Fork. Just ahead, at the 2.5-mile mark, you can scramble up to Shiprock, a massive rock formation that resembles a ship’s bow. In this area, you can also thread the Eye of the Needle by slipping between two boulders that lean against each other and form a slim opening. From here, retrace your steps to hike back to the trailhead.
3. Huntsville Land Trust Wildflower Trail
At the base of Monte Sano Mountain, beside the clear waters of Fagan Creek, the spring beauties and trout lilies are already in bloom. Along this path, you’ll find the May-apples dangling beneath their green umbrellas, while bloodroot and Virginia bluebells add bright colors to the hardwood forest. Located at the end of Cleermont Drive in southeast Huntsville, the Wildflower trail stretches only about a half mile, following a mellow stream, but you can extend your walk by ascending the mountain via the Alms House and Tollgate trails. As you climb, you’ll not only see more flowers, but also get in a workout.
From the Land Trust Parking Lot on Bankhead Parkway, the Tollgate Trail makes a moderate-to-steep ascent, and the rough and rocky path requires sturdy footwear. After winding upward through oak and hickory, this path ends on the upper portion of Bankhead Parkway. If you take this route during the latter half of April, you'll catch the second major wave of wildflowers, including toothwort, Sweet Betsy trillium and large colonies of mature trout lily plants, which take up to seven years to flower.
Getting There: From Governor's Drive in Huntsville, drive north on California street and turn right onto Hermitage Drive. From Hermitage Drive, turn left left onto Cleermont Drive and travel to the end of the road. A small gravel trailhead parking area is on left at the end of Cleermont.
4. Desoto State Park/Little River Canyon
Need a quick wildflower fix? This moderate 1-mile loop is just the ticket, beginning in Desoto State Park at Indian Falls, where a thin curtain of water emerges from beneath a bridge to drop into a ravine. From the falls, the trail makes a slight incline to skirt the West Fork of Little River, where you’ll need sturdy shoes for some mild rock-hopping. As you proceed, keep your eyes peeled for the white, cupped blooms of mountain laurel, and the magenta flowers of Catawba rhododendron.
If you’re in the mood to mellow out, the riverbank is lined with broad, flat rocks where you can lie back and relax in the sun. Eventually, the trail bends away from the stream and climbs gradually to the bluff above Little River. During the ascent, you might find ivory clusters of oakleaf hydrangea, or oxeye daisy, with its thin, finger-like petals and a center that resembles an egg yolk. After you leave the bluff top, the trail quickly makes its way back to Indian Falls.