Hike forest-covered mountains with breathtaking views, tackle whitewater rapids in a kayak, relax on sugar-white beaches and swim with sea turtles. From the swathes of stunning sands along the Gulf of Mexico to the raw beauty of its inland wilderness, Alabama has a whole lot of gorgeous scenery up its sleeve – perfect for outdoor adventure.
There’s something otherworldly about Dismals Canyon in Phil Campbell. Trails twist between moss-covered giant boulders and caves, and wooden bridges wind past tumbling waterfalls and feathery ferns. Here and there shafts of sunlight find a way through a primeval forest canopy, picking out gnarled and contorted tree roots on the canyon floor.
Hike the canyon during the day and take a tour at night to see the amazing blue-green, glow-in-the-dark, Dismalites – strange, bioluminescent insect larvae that live on the rocks.
If adrenaline-inducing airborne adventure in a forest sounds thrilling, head for Screaming Eagle’s zip-lining course at Lake Guntersville State Park in Guntersville. There are lines up to 2,100-feet long and 190-feet high, as well as shorter ones closer to the ground for the more cautious. As you fly through the air, you’ll get stunning views of Lake Guntersville and the Tennessee River, as well as the treetops below.
If, however, even the thought of whizzing through the air at a great height makes you feel dizzy, take advantage of Lake Guntersville State Park’s other opportunities for outdoor adventure. The 6,000 acres of forest has 36 miles of hiking, biking and horseriding trails, while anglers can settle in for a spot of fishing at the lake. There’s also a sandy beach with an area for swimming and an 18-hole golf course.
If you prefer water-based action, rather than tree-top thrills, and you’re no stranger to navigating challenging rapids, head to Little River in Fort Payne. This is one of Alabama’s prime spots for white-water rafting for the intermediate, to more experienced, paddler. The river tumbles along a spectacular 10-mile sandstone canyon hitting numerous rapids along the way, ranging from class III-IV. There’s also a class IV-V for the brave – ominously named the Suicide Section!
Reaching depths of around 600-feet in places, Little River Canyon in northeast Alabama is the deepest gorge in the state. Its dramatic landscape of rocky rims, sandstone cliffs and gushing waterfalls is overlooked by huge areas of forest, which means it’s also a prime destination for lovers of the outdoors. Mountain bikers and horse riders will love exploring the system of unpaved backcountry roads.
There are miles of hiking trails, from gentle woodland rambles, to steeper and more demanding canyon treks. Easier walks with stunning scenery include the two-mile route to DeSoto Falls and the short trail to Little River Falls. Just beyond is the wonderfully named Hippie Hole, a fantastic, secluded swimming hole, where the emerald green water reflects its woodland surroundings.
The boulders and rocky crags at Little River Canyon are also a big draw for climbers, the steep gradients offering a tough muscle-trembling challenge.
Sticking with the theme of whitewater rafting – and hiking – the Sipsey Wilderness in Mt. Hope provides opportunities for both, in abundance. Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that the “land of 1,000 waterfalls” is great kayaking territory. The clear water of the Sipsey River winds its way through the narrow sandstone bluffs that form the Brindley Mountain Plateau. The slower flow makes for a gentler paddle than at Little River, and there are class II rapids that the less experienced can tackle.
Flanking the river is some of the most gorgeous scenery in Alabama – perfect for exploring on foot. The Sipsey Wilderness, which sits inside William B. Bankhead National Forest, has several trails that meander through woodland of hemlock trees and mountain laurel, passing cascading waterfalls, red rock outcrops and giant boulders.
These paths include the relatively short and easy, such as the five-mile Borden Creek Trail, as well as longer, and more strenuous hikes, such as the whopping 24-mile Sipsey Wilderness Loop trail.
Another wonderful aspect of the Sipsey Wilderness is that after a day’s exploring, you can continue your outward-bound adventure by pitching up a tent and cooking your dinner (and drying wet socks) over a campfire. There are several campsites – although this is a loose term, as these spots are simply flat areas with nothing more than a fire ring in the middle.
The king of climbing destinations in Alabama, Cherokee Rock Village has around 200 rope climbs to test your agility, strength and nerve. The "village" of rock faces and boulders, perched on top of a mountain above Leesburg, is interspersed with trees of pine, oak and hickory and offers spectacular views of glinting Weiss Lake below.
The Native American Creek nation named it “Chaha”, meaning “high place. That’s certainly telling it like it is. At 2,407 feet, the peak of Mount Cheaha in Clay County at the southern tip of the Appalachians, is Alabama’s highest point. Various hiking trails wind around the mountain’s granite boulders and ancient trees, the summit rewards you with breathtaking vistas over the vast Talladega National Forest below and far away to a misty blue horizon. If an uphill hike sounds too much like hard work, you can also drive to the summit via the Talladega Scenic Byway and Bunker Loop.
With 600 square miles to play with, it’s no wonder Talladega National Forest is one of Alabama's top outdoor destinations. Hikes, such as the Chinnabee Silent Trail, Lake Shore Trail, Nubbin Ridge Trail and the 18-mile Skyway Loop Trail, pass picturesque waterfalls and rivers, rugged rocks and – obviously – a lot of trees. The forest includes part of the Pinhoti National Trail, a 337-mile, point-to-point, multi-use trail, stretching all the way to Georgia.
The Talladega National Forest also has trails specifically for mountain biking, including a section of the 120-mile Alabama Skyway. It takes riders through forest of longleaf pines and old oaks, with a thigh-burning stretch to the summit of Cheaha Mountain. You'll find plenty of basic camping spots in the forest for overnight pitching. Just be sure to hang any food away from inquisitive nocturnal wildlife visitors!
We can’t talk about state parks of Alabama without mentioning Oak Mountain State Park outside of Birmingham. At just under 10,000 acres of hills, woodland, lakes and waterfalls, this is Alabama’s largest state park. Hiking and biking (including a BMX track), boating and swimming, horse riding, fishing, golf, camping – you can take your pick of outdoor adventure here. There are more than 50 miles of trails, including the 22-mile Double Oak Trail (also known as the Red Trail), a favourite among mountain bikers. There’s a trail leading to the beautiful Peavine Falls, while the elevated boardwalk of the Tree Top Nature Trail provides a fantastic view of the park’s birdlife.
In South Alabama, the Gulf of Mexico’s endless shimmering white sands and warm turquoise waters are a magnet for beach lovers. Gulf Shores has several beaches for lazy, sun-filled relaxation, games of volleyball, sunset strolls and fun in the water. The most popular is Gulf Shores Main Public Beach, which has a lively seaside buzz and easy access.
East of Gulf Shores is Orange Beach, an area that includes an eight-mile stretch of glorious sugar-white sand lapped by an aquamarine ocean. Families will love spending the day at Alabama Point Beach, where the waves are gentle with dunes to explore and a wide sweep of sand providing plenty of space for picnics and building sandcastles.
Sometimes spending the day reading, dozing and bronzing on the beach is enough to pass the time. But when you get restless, why not get active in (or on) the water? You can whizz through the waves on jet skis, try your hand at paddleboarding or enjoy a leisurely kayaking trip to the cluster of little islands in the bay near Orange Beach – Robinson, Bird, and Walker Islands are beautiful spots for a swim. Just be sure to leave nothing but your sandy footprints, as this is shorebird nesting habitat and a protected area. You can book a guided excursion or go it alone.
If you want to pack in more waterbound adventure, take a sunset dolphin-spotting cruise. You'll get to see Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins at play, as well as a great view of the Alabama coastline.
From sunken shipwrecks to schools of bright-coloured fish, the warm waters off Gulf Shores and Orange Beach provide fantastic opportunities for underwater exploration. The Whiskey Wreck, a 1920s rum runner 150 feet from Gulf Shores, is shallow enough for snorkelers, as is the paddle wheeler, west of Lagoon Pass.
The high visibility at Alabama Point jetties of Orange Beach make this a popular spot too. Down Under Dive Shop and Harry’s Dive Shop offer snorkelling and scuba diving classes, as well as diving trips at Gulf Shores.
There’s more to Gulf State Park than its beautiful quiet beaches. With 28 miles of trails and boardwalks for walking and biking, and lakes for freshwater fishing or an afternoon’s boating, there’s never a dull moment. The park also provides vital habitat for a diverse population of wildlife. Catch the distinctive red markings of a mud snake as it slithers between the leaves, or an alligator idling in the sun. Look up and you may spot an osprey, heron or bald eagle.
The Nature Center, located in the park's campground, is a living museum of the area's native plants and animals. You can also hire bikes from nearby rental providers, such as Beach Bike Rentals and Infinity Bicycles. For kayaks and fishing licenses head for the park’s office next to Lake Shelby.
For a small island – just 14 miles long and less than two miles at its narrowest point – it doesn’t skimp on gorgeous, powdery, white-sand beaches. Families, in particular, are drawn to Dauphin Island’s safe and shallow shoreline, perfect for little ones to splash about in the water. It’s only reachable by ferry or bridge, which perhaps accounts for its wonderfully laid-back, almost old-fashioned vibe.
Birds are also attracted to Dauphin Island. The dunes, wetlands and maritime forest of Audubon Bird Sanctuary provide a vital stop-off during spring migration from Central and South America. With 95 percent of Alabama’s bird species recorded here, the sanctuary is an obvious pull for bird lovers.
Its size may not be much to shout about, but the abundance of wildlife and tranquil beauty within its 11 square miles certainly is. From woodland of oak and southern magnolia, dripping in Spanish moss, to wetlands, coastal marsh and sandy dunes patched with salty scrub, Bon Secour National Wildlife refuge provides a habitat for a huge number of creatures.
Birds, such as ospreys, egrets, herons and hummingbirds can be found here, alongside red foxes, sea turtles, alligators and the endangered (and cute) Alabama beach mouse. The refuge's proximity to Gulf Shores make it an ideal spot for quiet exploration once you tire of beach activity.
Hear the gentle splash of a turtle as it pushes off the bank into the water, a family of ducks scurrying past, a glimpse of a deer between the trees and the snuffle of a wild pig in the undergrowth – all against an audio track of various frogs, crickets, and competing bird calls. Travelling the waterways of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta by canoe is a wonderful way to get close to wildlife.
The intricate system of creeks, marshland and tributaries that forms the U.S’s second largest river delta, is a showcase for an enormous and diverse population of wildlife, including alligators, wild pigs and at least 126 species of fish.
The Bartram Canoe Trail offers 200 miles of waterways to explore by boat. And with campsites and shelters – including floating platforms for camping right on the water – you can make this a real adventure. WildNative Tours offer boating and fishing excursions, from two-hour tasters to multi-day expeditions.