Hiking Mount Cheaha, Alabama’s Highest Point

“Are you ready?”

My dad obviously didn’t think so. But in all fairness, I couldn’t blame him. We hadn’t hiked in over a year, and we were about to tackle one of the most difficult trails in the southernmost Appalachians. One that dropped more than a thousand feet in the first half a mile. My mom (smart woman, it turns out) decided not to join us.

man looking down at a valley from the top of Mount Cheaha

To begin with, we were brave. We planned to start at the top, hike down, take a break, and hike back up. We thought we’d finish the whole hike, two miles in total, by lunch.

rocky mountain

One mile, two hours, and the shakiest of shaky legs later, we reconsidered. Lucky for us, Mom had anticipated that we’d change our minds. While we were finding footholds between rocks and grabbing tree limbs for balance, she had driven our car down the mountain, parked at the trail head, and walked a few hundred, very flat feet down the trail. We found her reading a book by a stream when we reached the bottom.

creek from above

creek

A few days later, we set our eyes on waterfalls. For starters, we went looking for a classic–Cheaha Falls, named after the nearby mountain. The hike was flat but sunny, and when we reached the waterfall, I nearly cannon-balled into the pool below.

Waterfall

cliff from below

The most stunning was Devil’s Den, a three-tier waterfall nestled between two cliffs. We began at Lake Chinnabee and walked half a mile alongside Cheaha Creek to the falls. As we got closer, the trail rose with the cliff, giving us expansive views of the canyon and waterfalls below.

hiking trail beside a creek

creek

two-tier waterfall

whitewater rapids

whitewater rapids

waterfall from above

creek between two cliffs

three-tier waterfall

creek

Our final day at Cheaha, we took one last leisurely hike out to Pulpit Rock. The trail ended in one of most beautiful, sweeping views of the valley below. The day we went, there was no one in sight, and the wind was gusty, ruffling tree leaves and blowing our hair into our faces.

mountain overlook

mountain overlook

THE DETAILS

WHERE TO HIKE

Lake Trail: By far the most difficult, steep trail in the area, but a short, one-of-a-kind hike down the mountain. Feeling a challenge? Hike up!

Chinnabee Silent Trail: This six-mile, out-and-back trail passes both Cheaha Falls and Devil’s Den. Experienced hikers can easily hike the entire trail in one day, but I recommend a shorter route, starting at either the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area (off County Road 12/Forest Service Road 650) or the Turnip Seed Parking Area (off Highway 281). This part of the trail is about three-and-a-half miles one-way. Cheaha Falls is about three quarters of a mile from Turnip Seed, and Devil’s Den is about half a mile from Lake Chinnabee. Hike the entire length for a nice stretch of the legs!

Pulpit Rock: Located inside Cheaha State Park, this trail isn’t quite a third of a mile but ends on a rocky ledge at the mountain’s edge. Don’t let the beginning of the trail scare you–it starts out rather steep but flattens out quickly. It’s my personal favorite because it’s easier than the Lake Trail but just as pretty as, and more rustic and secluded than, the more popular Bald Rock.

WHERE TO EAT

Cheaha Brewing Company: Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend and well worth the 45-minute drive. Located in an old train station that was built in 1885, the atmosphere is one-of-a-kind, but I’d argue that the food and beer are even better. This small, local brewpub has some of the best craft beer around, and its food (equally delicious) is made using locally grown, organic produce and dairy products and all-natural meats. And with more than a dozen beers on tap at any given time, you’re sure to find something for everyone! Tip: Bring a growler. You might like the beer so much that you’ll want some to-go!

Cheaha Restaurant: We never ate here, but the convenient, in-park location and expansive views from the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows are hard to beat. Described as “country cooking at its best.”

WHERE TO STAY

Cheaha State Park: For weekend and short trips, I highly recommend that you stay at Cheaha State Park unless you want to drive upwards of an hour to and from the nearest town each day. The best option, in my opinion, is a semi-primitive campsite (approximately $18 per night), where you can sleep in a tent under the stars but benefit from nearby bathhouses. Other options include hotel rooms, chalets, cabins, improved campsites, and primitive campsites.

Talladega National Forest: For adventurers seeking seclusion, camp in the nearby Talladega National Forest, which surrounds Cheaha State Park. According to the U.S. Forest Service, permits aren’t required except during gun deer hunting season, and primitive camping is allowed in most areas of the forest. Just be sure to follow the rules!

AREA HIGHLIGHTS

High Country Wine Cellars: Located just off the interstate a few miles east of Cheaha, you MUST visit this winery, even if only to stock up before heading home. High Country sells 50+ wines at any given time, including a mix of dry, semi-sweet, and sweet wines made from nearly every fruit imaginable–peach, strawberry, blackberry, raspberry. My personal favorite (which might be my all-time favorite wine of any variety) is the “sweet” Charred Peach. I’d say it’s about as sweet as your typical Riesling, and while I’m not typically a fan of sweet wines, the Charred Peach is phenomenal. Tastes like a fresh peach that’s just been taken off the grill. Not sure if that sounds like your cup of tea? High Country offers free tastings during business hours, which are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

What are your favorite trails and places around Mount Cheaha?

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The Perfect Wedding

I’m not one to cry, but I did. I almost lost it. You see, I was so overwhelmed. A mere song before walking down the aisle, it dawned on me. This is actually happening. After all we’ve been through, this is happening.

I woke up calm as sunrise. All day, I felt the tingling peace that sweeps over a girl when someone plays with her hair, all the way from mid-morning mimosas to the first step into my dress to the very last pre-ceremony picture. I laughed with my photographer, rejoiced in small rays of sunshine, let go of the tiny, insignificant details.

wedding

In the bridal suite, I could hear the songs we had picked out weeks before through the speakers overhead. Songs by rugged, red dirt guitarists with raspy voices singing about love that lifts one’s feet off the ground. My bridesmaids leave, go outside, line up. Alone, I realize. This is happening. After all we’ve been through—five years, summers nearly 700 miles apart, misunderstood gestures, historic tornados, hazy futures, a painful breakup, an emotional makeup—and this is finally happening.

I wasn’t quite sure when to step outside. When I did, there stood my dad, right on cue. He tried to talk to me. I can’t remember what he said. All I could do was stare straight ahead, straight at nothing, and breathe. Keep it together or your face is going to turn the color of their dresses.

We’re given the cue to leave our spot behind the wall and start walking. I am overwhelmed again. When have I been to a wedding where I knew this many people? Why, never. This is my wedding. I know all these people. These people are here for me.

And then, I see him. Am I smiling? I can’t tell. I feel as though my face is shaking.

I nearly lost it after the first line of my first set of vows. I, Stephanie, take…

My voice begins to shake. Tears well up and fall. I look away and breathe. I finish, voice trembling. He is collected, like a rock. He smiles at me with his whole face and rubs the back of my hand with his thumb. The second set is considerably easier.

He kisses me, we turn to face the crowd, and I am glad for the song to which we have chosen to leave, because the song is how I feel, like feet-stomping bluegrass starring a high-spirited banjo and fiddle, like a song to which you just can’ t keep from dancing.

When the time came for us to leave for our honeymoon, we didn’t want to go. We wanted to keep sipping wine and smoking cigars and spending time with our families and friends on the banks of the river where we got engaged. Fifteen minutes later, the sun set. The cigars became nubs. The bouquet was tossed. The garter was thrown. We left beneath an array of fiery, smokeless sparklers.

The Perfect Wedding

On our way to the historic Tutwiler hotel in Birmingham that night, we both marveled at how perfect everything had been—the rehearsal dinner the night before held beneath pine trees and electric icicles, the heartfelt speeches given by our friends and family members, the late-morning breakfast, the getting ready with our best mates, the sunny and 70-degree weather, the simple ceremony, the carefully selected music, taking the time to eat dinner with our families, the visiting, the delicious food, the timing of it all, the balcony overlooking the river. It was simple, it was southern, it was smooth, and it was so, so us.

Photos by Drew Hoover

Some things, as they will, didn’t go as planned. The bows on the reserved seats were the wrong color. The decorative flowers on the cake were smaller than I had expected. The flowers above the gazebo wouldn’t fit and had to be split in two. We started pictures nearly an hour after we said we would. But those are tiny, insignificant details.

That night, I cried again, only I didn’t keep it together. I didn’t even try. This has happened, and he loves me despite my face turning the color of cherries and my body being drenched in sweat from spending all day in a dress the size of a hula hoop. In good times and in bad. In joy as well as in sorrow. I wouldn’t have done anything differently.