Did you know there are mountains in Alabama? I definitely didn’t realize it until I moved to North Alabama. In fact, Huntsville, Alabama is technically located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. There are about 20 mountains in the Madison County area alone with more popping up the farther east you travel. And while they’re not as impressive as the mountains of Colorado or Tennesseee, the truth of the matter is “big hill” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “mountain.”
Within these series of mountains, you can find a hiker’s paradise full of gorges and valleys, rolling hills and riverbeds. These hiking hideaways are well-known by locals; however, visitors very rarely get a chance to discover them. It’s ridiculous. All of the hikes listed below are within driving distance of Huntsville, making an easy and quick day trip. Here are the ones you don’t want to miss in my corner of sweet home Alabama.
Dismals Canyon, Phil Campbell AL
I didn’t know places like this existed in Alabama — and I definitely didn’t think I could see glow worms here — of all places — either. Dismals Canyon is a magical, irresistibly green oasis located in Phil Campbell deep in the heart of northwestern Alabama. It is a place unlike anything else I’ve experienced in the state, and it’s one of my favorite hikes to tell people about when I’m trying to explain why I love the North Alabama area so much.
Dismals Canyon is an incredibly easy 1.5-mile hike that winds along a stream into and out of the canyon. The huge rocks and boulders are covered in a bright green moss — we’ll get to that later — and there are bridges and stepping stones and cute foot paths throughout, making it easy for older folks or young children to enjoy this area too. During the summer months, families come here to play in the streams and underneath the falls. And while I didn’t know it at the time, you can sign up for a guided night tour to see actual glowworms. That’s right — you don’t have to head to New Zealand, Costa Rica or Australia to see them. You can take a little drive down yonder to Dismals Canyon and see them in all their glory from May through September. It is highly recommended you sign up for the tour at least two weeks in advance (not kidding, we got turned away last summer) and to bring along some bug spray and a flashlight to better see by. It’s on my summer 2018 bucket list and I can’t wait to show you guys those photos. I plan to opt in on the combo day and night tour admission to maximize my time there.
Monte Sano Trail System, Huntsville AL
This is probably one of my favorite parts about living in Huntsville — there’s never a trail system too far away. Although the Rocket City is surrounded by quite a few mountains, Monte Sano is considered * the* mountain of the Rocket City and it’s probably the easiest to get to from downtown.
I would vouch for any trail in Monte Sano State Park — they’re all pretty great — pick a but my favorite is the Stones Cut Trail because it’s like experiencing another planet, which is fitting seeing as we’re in a city known for its space and rocket program. Monte Sano State Park’s website rates the trail as “very difficult,” and I believe that’s due to how steep it can be. It’s so much fun walking in between the rocks and boulders that I don’t think you’ll notice how steep and narrow parts of it can be.
DeSoto State Park, Fort Payne AL
I love waterfalls and when I learned northwestern Alabama is basically a waterfall wonderland, I fell in love. There was only one problem: I worked in news when I learned this tidbit and I didn’t have a lot of free time to get there. We constantly used file video from DeSoto Falls (that was largely because state funding for the parks was a hot topic at the time), and every time I saw it in a newscast I thought, “Man, I need to get out there.” It took me four years but one fall day my hiking buddy — and fellow TV news survivor — and I finally made it out to Lookout Mountain.
DeSoto State Park has more than 30 miles of hiking trails, most of which interconnect into a slightly confusing jumble. I would recommend picking up a map from the trail station in advance and I would triple recommend *not* picking up the free one…as it is conveniently a black-and-white “color coded” trail map. Aside from DeSoto Falls, the state park has several more waterfalls along the trail system. We decided to drive out to DeSoto Falls and hike to as many trails as possible within the park. If you start on the Talmadge Butler Boardwalk, you can make it to a handful in just a few hours. Afterward
Walls of Jericho, Estilfork AL
My first ever hike with my now favorite hiking buddy was the Walls of Jericho. We had never hung out alone before and proceeded to spend the next 12 hours together, six of which were spent hiking. It could have been a recipe for disaster. Luckily, it turned into a beautiful friendship.
Rated as one of the top hikes in Alabama, the Walls of Jericho trail hugs the Alabama-Tennessee northeastern border and is — technically — accessible from both states. The seven-mile round-trip hike leads into and out of a gorge, follows a riverbed and eventually to several waterfalls. It’s a joy going down into the gorge (but, then again, it is downhill for roughly three miles) and the walk along the riverbed is gorgeous. It’s navigating the switchbacks coming out of the gorge that makes it tough because, well, they never seem to end. I’d avoid trying this hike in the peak of summer when the temperatures can be brutal. Instead, aim for spring when the waterfalls are at their strongest or late fall when the leaves are changing and the temperatures are mild but not yet too cold. Bonus points awarded if your hiking/adventure buddy has a great sense of humor and penchant for going off the beaten trail for photo opps.
Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, Tuscumbia AL
Though I visited this area back before I had an Instagram, I’ve been dying to go back every since. I went to college at the University of North Alabama and originally visited Cane Creek Canyon for a class assignment and my first foray into travel writing.
Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve is actually situated on private land. The “parking lot” AKA an open field is directly beside the Lacefield family home. Depending on when you visit, one of them will personally walk out of the house to greet you and hand you a map. It was their idea to make what is essentially their 700+ acre backyard open to the public. It’s free and the trails are incredibly well marked. First timers will want to make it to Point Overlook to take in the stunning vista and surrounding mountains before heading back into the canyon in search of waterfalls and wildflowers and caves. Don’t be like me and forget to take photos. Keep your camera handy everywhere you go — literally every corner is picture perfect.
I wish I could say there’s not a bad time to take a hike in the North Alabama area, but that would be a little white lie. Though the temperatures stay mild, Alabama rain and thunderstorms, especially in the summer, can be unexpected and relentless, and we’ve been known to have snow shower or two as well in December or January. Make sure to take a special look at the weather radar before you head outdoors, especially in the spring. If rain is in the forecast — and it nearly always is — pack a light rain jacket in your backpack that you can easily throw on during your hike. In the fall and winter, wear layers so you can stay warm (or cool, depending on what’s going on) and don’t be afraid to wear a swim suit underneath your clothes if you’re feeling like taking a quick dip.
Reception into some of these areas can be spotty, but — if I’m being honest — you don’t typically need good cell service to connect with nature, right? Before entering any of the trail heads, be sure to check in at a station (if there’s one around) and to always grab a map at one of the trail stations so you aren’t relying on your phone to get you around.
I used to be terrible about not bringing enough water or snacks with me on a hike. I would tell myself I could “treat myself” after the hike was through. By the time I was off the trail though, I was starving and grumpy. I don’t play that game anymore. Instead, I bring a backpack on every hike (even the short ones) and fill it with plenty of water (this is especially important for the Walls of Jericho), add a few apples and granola bars to enjoy. No more hangry Corinne!
Interested in more of my adventures? Check #fivefootexplorer out on Instagram!