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

Dismals Canyon

I crave green this time of year.  Leafy greens on the plate, verdant surroundings (or memories of  'em) - I can't get enough.  So I've been reminiscing hardcore about our time at Dismals Canyon last summer.

Dismals Canyon is a privately owned Natural Conservatory and National Natural Landmark in northwest Alabama.  The "Dismals" in Dismals Canyon stems from the presence of bioluminescent creatures known as Dismalites that make their home on the canyon walls.  

While outdoor activities in Alabama in June tends to be a sweaty mess, one of my favorite things about this location is that the temperature drops by ten degrees or more as you descend the steps into the canyon.  Couple that with the guarantee that you're going to dip your toes and wade through the stream that flows along the canyon floor, and it's actually a pretty comfy place to hang out in the hotter months.  

This probably goes without saying, but if you go, definitely wear clothes and shoes that can stand a little dirt and water because you're going to want to be able to do this:

Stop in at the soda fountain before you leave.  Canyon exploring is thirsty work, and they make a yummy limeade!  

Night tours are also available if you want to see the Dismalites in all their glowy glory, but we stuck to the daylight hours.  The photos you'll see below represent the two different day trips we took to the canyon in June 2015.

Lunch at Delta Blues Hot Tamales

Until I watched Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt: The River Run, I had no idea that tamales are kind of a big deal in the Mississippi Delta.  It might feel kind of random that this Mesoamerican dish gained a foothold and developed its own character in the southeast.  But one story suggests that migrant workers from Mexico who shared fields with African Americans also likely shared foodways.  Another possibility is that American soldiers who fought in the Mexican-American War brought the recipes back with them.  Either way, they're in our neck of the woods (or near enough), and they're worth checking out.

Here's a bit more about Delta tamales from the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Since watching The River Run (so... since roughly 2007), I've been meaning to make a day trip over to the Tamale Trail to give them a try, and I've done a horrible job of achieving that goal.  It's still on the list for a future food adventure.

Last weekend, though, we took a quick trip to Birmingham for lunch at Delta Blues Hot Tamales.  The spot opened on Cobb Lane in December, serving tamales by the half-dozen or dozen and tamale plates with additional toppings, along with other offerings like tacos and jambalaya.

First of all, I love the location of the place.  We're not especially familiar with the Five Points South area yet, but tucked in just off a little cobbled street it feels a tiny bit hidden away and special.

We started with fried dill pickles.  The first time I ever had this appetizer was at Green's Barbecue in Gantt, Alabama.  Combined with their dipping sauce, they were exactly the right combo of salt and sour and ranch for my sixth grade self.  The Delta Blues version topped them because they were crinkle cut, hamburger dill chip-style, the better to hold that extra-crispy breading, and they were served with comeback sauce.  I most definitely believe in the power of comeback sauce.

Matt demolished an order of catfish strips, and Erik and I each ordered a tamale plate.  We preferred the pork tamales over the black bean, though it's great that there's a vegan option.  I definitely recommend the M'sippi Melt, which comes topped with crossroads queso and charred corn relish, adding a bit of crunch, sweetness, and creaminess to balance out the heat of the tamale.  So good!  I also appreciate that the tamales are cooked in corn husks, not paper.  They're unwrapped for easy eating, but laid out on a husk on the plate, and you can still see the pattern of the husk on each tamale.  We ordered the small plates, and each came with a side, so we got the corn macque choux.  It was perfectly seasoned and delicious - definitely worth ordering again.  We were so busy tasting and talking about the food that we forgot to take any photos after the starter!

We weren't certain how kid-friendly the place would be, though the inclusion of a kids' section on the menu certainly gave us enough confidence to make the drive.  Turns out it's a great spot for families: one of the staff pointed us toward a collection of toys near the entrance (we declined, but it was nice to know they were there), and the service was quick and friendly.  Our server interacted directly with Matt, chatting with him and offering him the check at the end of the meal.  Engage my kid - score big points with me.

We're definitely going back. It's a part of our southern culture and heritage, and it's really yummy, too!  I can't wait to try the Tamale Pie and Ragin Cajun.  And also perhaps talk them into selling macque choux by the bucket.  If you're in the area, definitely give them a try!

Blueberry Picking

At this point, I'd venture a guess that Matt is at least fifty percent blueberry.  When those tiny fruits are in the house, he maintains a blue-smeared grin, sneaking them a handful at a time and eating frozen ones like ice cream.  If you pay any attention to produce prices, you might be thinking that this is an expensive habit to maintain.  Enter the u-pick!

We've established a trip to Leavelle Farms in Buhl as an annual tradition for our family and look forward to it as the temperatures start to rise.  From the first day of summer vacation this year, Matt asked me each morning to check online to see if the berries were ready (they're usually good to go around the second week of June).

The bushes produce some shade, but it definitely helps to go as early as possible to beat the heat, so we hit the road early on opening day.  I aim for at least two gallons per trip, and I love that the owner provides little ones with tiny buckets so that they can contribute to the haul.  Matt worked on filling up his bucket for maybe ten or fifteen minutes before abandoning it to set up a "kitchen" among the twigs and leaves that had fallen to the ground under the bushes.

So far we've consumed most of this year's berries straight out of the fridge.  I do make a habit of cooking up something on picking day, though.  This year we kept it really simple by way of waffle dinner with blueberry compote - berries cooked down with sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Pie Lab and Moundville Archaeological Park

Pie + Ideas = Conversation

Conversation + Design = Social Change

I believe in the transformative power of food.  It's common ground (everybody eats) that also conveys history, culture, and unique community stories.  It's necessary fuel but also central to so many celebrations and opportunities to serve others.

Breaking bread with others, in any form from crusty baguette to salty-sweet pie crust, matters.

So, with its mission to bring community members together for positive change via pie consumption, Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama has been on my radar for a while now.  On one of first free summer days this year, Matt and I hopped into the car and took a little drive down south, picking up Beard along the way.

It's a quirky little spot with salvaged and recycled furnishings, mix & match dinnerware, and a rural south industrial vibe (is that a thing?).  We grabbed a quick bite of smoked chicken salad (and a hot dog for Matt), as well, of course, as a couple of slices of pie: Matt and I shared a light, sugary slice of coconut cream, Beard had key lime, and we boxed up a piece of lemon chess for Erik.  Tasty pie, good company, and a message we can all get behind.  Not too bad for Summer Adventure #1.

On the way back from Greensboro, we passed the turn-off to Moundville Archaeological Park, another item on our list.  

Fun fact: from 1st grade through the first semester of 12th grade, I planned to be an archaeologist.  My version of summer camp was going on digs run by our local museum of natural history, and Moundville was the destination of many an elementary school field trip.

So we decided it made little sense to drive right by the place without stopping in to say hello to the mounds.

Hello, mounds!

The park celebrates and preserves the remains of a Mississippian settlement that served as a bustling town as well as a religious and political center for about 500 years.  The mounds were used as residences for prominent village figures and for support and ceremonial purposes.  Only a few remain safely climbable today, and climb we did.  Though the building atop the mound we climbed is no longer open, it's well worth it to head up the steps and check out the view.

After touring around the site, we made our way to the Jones Archaeological Museum, which reopened in 2010 after a major renovation.  The museum offers exhibits featuring Native American artworks and artifacts and helps to tell the story of life among the mounds.    

Not bad for a day's adventuring.  And a good reminder that spots worth checking out are just a few miles down the road.