Along the 53-mile coastline, white-sand barrier islands lie just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay, Alabama. Their maritime forests and marshy dunes act as a temporary avian rest area for migrating birds, making this short coastal strip one of the best birdwatching locations in North America.
Dauphin Island, one of the most popular, is home to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, which protects more than 137 acres, offering respite to hundreds of species. Wander along the elevated boardwalk – now a National Recreation Trail – and spot pelicans, pipits, blue grosbeaks and painted redstarts among the mangroves and loblolly pines.
Just beyond the shoreline are peaceful lagoons and slow-moving bayous, providing a haven for nesting sea turtles in places such as the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. These wetland areas extend all the way into the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, where cypress swamps and hardwood forests are criss-crossed by a network of airboat waterways and canoe trails.
But while this low-lying panorama is restful and serene, a shift in topography ushers in a welcome change of pace. Alabama’s most striking scenery lies a couple of hundred miles further north, where the southern end of the Appalachian mountain range extends into the north east and central parts of the state. With the rising landscape come more adrenalin-fuelled activities, such as mountain biking, rock climbing and abseiling.
Roughly midway between Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia, the Talladega Mountains form part of this range. Covering an area of Clay, Talladega and Cleburne counties, these rolling peaks offer many recreational opportunities, with campsites and cabins available to rent, and hiking, fishing and boating in abundance.
Talladega Scenic Drive, otherwise known as State Route 281, bisects the mountain range from south west to north east. Past rocky outcrops and over thickly forested slopes, the road unwinds like a spool of grey ribbon along the spine of Cheaha Mountain, the tallest point in Alabama at 2,407ft above sea level. Here, the humid climate lightens, the air is surprisingly cool and dry, and the views from the summit’s Bunker Tower are among the best in the state, encompassing the wilderness areas of Talladega National Forest, home to white-tailed deer and coyotes.
Further north across the wide expanse of Weiss Lake lies Little River Canyon National Preserve, an area of forested uplands and gorges. The river flows for most of its length along the flattish top of Lookout Mountain, carving depths of more than 600ft in places. A scenic drive along the Canyon Rim Parkway provides plenty of short hikes and overlooks with views of waterfalls and soaring sandstone cliffs, while numerous Class III and IV rapids make this one of the best places for white-water kayaking in Alabama.
Little River Canyon is classic southern backcountry, so this is a chance to gain a deep appreciation of the wilderness and its way of life – while being immersed deep in nature, far from the usual amenities. To recharge, head to the adjacent DeSoto State Park at the northern end of the preserve. As well as the beautiful DeSoto Falls, you’ll find rustic log cabins and mountain chalets, as well as the chance to dine in an original 1930s lodge.
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