Travel Plans: Get Outside

My fourth grade Alabama history class was all about coloring in state maps. One such map series required our stubby elementary fingers to color code the immense geological and biological diversity of our state. And while I was very excited to use most of my Crayola box to produce gorgeous rainbow maps, I know that my fourth grade self missed the point.

I didn't really understand or care about the diverse natural environments my state has to offer until I got out in the middle of things with my kid. Now, however, Matt wakes up on weekends and vacation days asking for an adventure, and we've made tons of memories by immersing ourselves in the forests, streams and mountains close to home. Here are a few of our favorite spots for outdoor adventuring.

I've written about Dismals Canyon before, but this one's worth at least one more mention. Located in Phil Campbell, Alabama, in the northwestern corner of our state, this natural conservatory is one of our top places to explore and splash around on a hot summer day (bonus points for the 10-degree temperature drop as you descend to the canyon floor!). It takes its name from the Dismalites - bioluminescent creatures that live on the canyon walls - and the canyon's waterfalls, boulders, bridges, and stream offer plenty to do in the short 1.5 mile trail on the canyon floor.

I recall visiting Tannehill for its monthly Trade Days as a kid, and Erik, Matt, and I have revisited to check out its trails. The park, about 30 minutes from downtown Birmingham, still bears signs of its history in the local iron industry. It's a fun place to explore, with lots picnic areas, old buildings, easy trails, and a bubbling spring to dip toes in.


Turkey Creek was a new find for us in 2016. Created through a partnership between Alabama's Forever Wild and the Freshwater Land Trust, it's a beautiful place tucked away in Pinson, Alabama, that contains five hiking trails, as well as several species of endangered fish. But my favorite part is that spots like these pictured below are accessible just a few steps from a parking area.

Red Mountain Park
Early in our adventuring, Matt designated Red Mountain as the friendliest park, and I definitely agree with his assessment. Nearly everyone we encounter, from park staff to visitors, is smiling and up for a chat. Evidence of the care and attention this park receives abounds: the trails are well-marked and maintained, and we notice something new on nearly every visit. There's public art to check out, treehouses and overlooks to find, and a range of trails that accommodate both the casual walker and the more adventurous hiker. This was the first real hiking that Matt and I did together, so it's a special place for us.

Oak Mountain State Park
Oak Mountain boasts the largest number of amenities of all the parks we visit regularly. We've been many times, and it feels as though we've barely made a dent in the more than 25 miles of hiking trails. Plus we've logged hours at the playground, hung out at the lakeside beach, visited rehabilitated birds along the Treetop Nature Trail, and worn out our legs in a rented pedal boat. Incidentally, this park is where I drove a car for the first time. My mom and I rented a cabin one weekend when I was in elementary school, and she briefly let me behind the wheel of her Honda Prelude. Not a parenting move I intend to adopt, but definitely a fun memory!

I'll admit that, of all the places listed here, we have the least experience with Ruffner Mountain, but we're anxious to visit some more! The nature center is a super-cool LEED certified building with a treehouse vibe, and there are around 14 miles of trails to explore. We like any place with an overlook, so we did not leave disappointed.

Moss Rock is a great spot just out of sight in Hoover, Alabama. We love it for the boulders, and the local community has a cool festival in the fall.

This kinda counts as urban exploring, since Jemison Park is essentially greenspace in the city of Mountain Brook, Alabama. We particularly like this mill house, which reminds me a bit of the Sanderson Sisters' house from Hocus Pocus.

Cheaha State Park
We most recently visited Cheaha on an unseasonably cool summer day in June 2016. None of the trails here are very long, but there is great stuff to see! Our first stop was Bald Rock via a boardwalk trail through the forest: easy going with a big payoff. Next we visited the tower that marks the highest point in the state of Alabama. Finally, we headed to Pulpit Rock, which was a tricky climb in and out but also totally worth it for the view.

Little River Canyon National Preserve
During a Spring Break stay in Mentone, Alabama, in 2016, we visited Little River Canyon to do a bit of exploring. We fell in love with Little River Falls and the numerous overlooks. We'll definitely be back.

Desoto Falls was another stop during our stay in Mentone. It's impressive, but I will admit that heights are not my jam, and I got a little freaked out taking photos at the railing.

Rickwood Caverns State Park
This is another great choice for a sweltering summer day. The cave temperature hovers around 60 degrees, so a tour offers an hour-long break from the heat. It's also a crash course in the geological history of the area and an opportunity to see fossils embedded in the cave ceiling and walls. Pro tips: Watch your head, and be on the lookout for the tiny bats that make the cave their home - they're super cute!

What's next? We're on the lookout for more adventures close to home and hope to visit the places listed below in the near future.  Where else should we go?

Chief Ladiga Trail
Monte Sano State Park
Cathedral Caverns