With a cool autumn breeze blowing across the rocky outcropping known as the King’s Chair, and the hardwood trees glowing with brilliant fall colors, you really get a true impression of the city of Birmingham. On the horizon, you see the skyscrapers that mark the city as a bustling business center. But there is another side of the Magic City that is often overlooked — the natural beauty that encircles it.
Enveloping the city are gently rolling mountains, tumultuous white water and tranquil flatwater rivers and streams, and much more. There are myriad ways to visit these natural wonders.
Visitors to Birmingham have a seemingly endless variety of outdoor activities to pursue. Let me introduce you to eight of the best that you shouldn’t miss on a trip to Birmingham.
You will be surprised at how many miles of hiking trails are located near and around the city. Your first stop for a walk in the woods should be Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham. Only 30 minutes from downtown, Oak Mountain has 25 miles of incredible hiking trails that lead you to spectacular views. The most challenging hike, but the one with the best view, is to the King’s Chair, a 4.2-mile loop that takes you to a tall rock outcropping with a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and valley.
Your hike begins on the Blue Trail from the park’s north trailhead. The park is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is a $5 a day use fee for adults, $2 for seniors age 61 and over, and children ages four to 12.
For nature walks, I recommend hitting the trails at the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve or Moss Rock Nature Preserve. Both preserves offer beautiful strolls through the hardwood forests around Birmingham.
Ruffner is located only eight miles from downtown, but you will feel a world away from the city as you follow one of the 12-miles of trails ranging from easy to difficult that zig-zag around the ridge. The paths take you past calming wetlands where wildflowers light up the path in season, have stunning views from outcroppings, and reveal historic mining structures buried in the woods. The preserve also has a nature center where you can learn about the local environment and wildlife.
Ruffner Mountain’s trails are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. March through October, then until 5 p.m. November through February. Visitors are required to purchase a $5 parking pass.
Moss Rock is located on the edge of an upscale subdivision just south of Birmingham in Hoover, but you wouldn’t know it as you hike along the park’s 12-miles of moderately difficult trails to several small waterfalls and fascinating geologic features like Hole in Rock and Turtle Rock.
Moss Rock is free and is open from sunrise to sunset.
The premier mountain biking location in the state is located only 57 miles east of Birmingham in the town of Anniston at Coldwater Mountain. There is a trail here for both beginners and experts. In fact, there are 35 miles of trails in all.
For novice riders, try the Baby Bear Mountain Bike Trail, a short 1.1-mile ride over rocks with a short but fast descent. More advanced riders will love the McGazza Trail which is rated as extremely difficult. The highlights of McGazza are its huge moguls and steep, fast drops.
The trailhead at Coldwater is located on Coldwater Pump Road and is open from sunrise to one hour after sunset. The trails are free. Trail descriptions and maps can be found at the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association website.
In the heart of downtown Birmingham, there is a fabulous green space that celebrates the city’s rich history, culture, and arts — the 19-acre Railroad Park. Known as “Birmingham’s Living Room,” the park is a historically rich area of the city where artisans and musicians can be found performing or working at their art almost any day of the week. It is also an amazing place to do a little pavement biking.
Hand-cast bricks and original cobblestone create the paths that are lined with a multitude of fragrant flowers blooming throughout the year and circle around a shimmering lake, a stunning rain curtain, wetland, and numerous streams.
After your ride, stop by the Box Car Café for a delicious lunch outside under a brilliant blue Southern sky with the city skyline as a backdrop.
Railroad Park is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Ready for a little whitewater action? Grab a kayak or rent one from the Yak Shak or any number of outfitters in the area and check out Mulberry Fork. The best section of the river is a 3.1-mile paddle that flows from the old U.S 31 bridge to the Birmingham Canoe Club (BCC) takeout on White Water Drive. The paddle is lined with plenty of interesting, striated rock formations and cliffs but the main draw are the many drops, fast shoals, and rapids that are rated as Class II+ and when it’s really flowing after a rain, Class III, making for a really fun and exciting two to three hours on the river.
The float ends at the takeout at a rapid known as “Hawaii Five-O,” a turbulent wave that is known for ending many a paddler’s day in a soggy fashion.
There are changing rooms located at the takeout but please, make sure that you only park in the authorized BCC parking lot and respect the neighbors who live next door. For more information on the Mulberry and other whitewater adventures in Birmingham, visit the BCC website.
Flat Water Paddling
For something a little less exciting and more relaxing, there is nothing like a paddle on the Cahaba River. The wide, shallow river is the longest free-flowing river in the state and where you will find the rare Cahaba lily blooming along its rocky shoals between May and June. The river is also one of the most biodiverse rivers in the country, playing host to 131 species of fish including 18 that can only be found on the river.
There are several sections of the river you could paddle. The best way to experience it, however, is to join up with the Cahaba River Society for one of its scheduled canoe trips where the friendly hosts guide you through the rich environment and point out what you might otherwise miss.
We’ve already mentioned the many waterfalls at Moss Rock Preserve, but there is another that you shouldn’t miss at Oak Mountain State Park — Peavine Falls.
Peavine is a 65-foot plunge waterfall and is arguably the centerpiece of the park with hundreds of people flocking to view its thundering cascade each week. Well, it thunders most of the time. Waterfalls in Alabama tend to be seasonal and even Peavine can be no more than a trickle during dry seasons, but catch the falls from fall through spring or after a good rain in summer, and you are guaranteed a spectacular show.
The easiest route to the falls is from the Peavine Falls trailhead where you will start on the White Trail then pick up the Peavine Falls Trail for a 1-mile out-and-back hike. The 0.2-miles on the White Trail from the trailhead is easy walking on a gravel road, but the second trail becomes a rather steep climb down into the gorge to view the falls. The average hiker should have no problem navigating down. Just use caution.
Oak Mountain is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is a $5 a day use fee for adults, $2 for seniors over 61, and children ages four to 12.
Walk The Miracle Mile
One of the most incredible sights you will see in Alabama is located only 30 minutes due north of Birmingham, and 175 feet underground. It’s Rickwood Cavern, a breathtaking example of nature’s power that formed this cave over 260-million years ago when an ancient ocean receded, carving the rock into what we see today.
Make your reservations early and get in on the guided tour that leaves four times a day from the park’s headquarters. It’s an incredible journey through what is known as the “Miracle Mile,” where beautifully illuminated stalagmites and stalactites will amaze you, thousands of ancient fossils are frozen in time on the walls, and mineral-laden drops of water will be seen, proving that the cavern’s “architecture” is still a work in progress.
Rickwood Cavern State Park is open daily from 9 am. to 5 p.m. Admission to the park with a cavern tour is $19 for adults, children five to 11, $9.
For the Thrill Seeker
Besides the normal outdoor activities, Birmingham also has something for the thrillseeker in you.
Visit Oak Mountain State Park for a wild ride on the Flipside Cable Skiing course. Strap on a wakeboard, grab hold of the tow line, and a fast-moving pulley on a cable propels you across one of the park’s placid lakes.
If you are new to wave boarding, friendly instructors will give you pointers. For the more experienced, there are ramps that you can race up and get a little air.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the course is closed as of this writing but hopefully, by the time you read this, it will be up and running again. Visit the Flipside website for updates.
Alabama has many scenic outdoor wonders that beg to be discovered: