With a mix of mountain sanctuaries and underground caves, you can explore Alabama from the top down at its parks. Take in mountaintop views from the side of the highway or the back of a canoe, go deep into Alabama's caves or dig into natural history and ancient cultures.
This is a state full of parks that offer laid-back fun -- day hikes, picnics, and dips in the lake. There are also some attractions you might not expect in a state or national park: a swimming pool with a high dive and a golf course.
LITTLE RIVER, LONG VIEWS
Pack your lunch and take a stroll at Little River Canyon National Preserve near Mentone, Ala.
• Canyon rims and waterfalls make this preserve nice for short, leisurely hikes or even a scenic drive.
• Hunting and fishing are permitted.
• If you'd rather just look at the wildlife, bring your binoculars for birdwatching. You may even see a bald eagle.
• The preserve is open during daylight hours, and there is no admission fee.
• The Canyon Mouth Picnic Area in the preserve is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. CDT in the summer, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST in the winter. There is a $3 fee per vehicle.
Source: National Park Service
A PEEK AT ANCIENT TIMES
Explore the homes of prehistoric people at Russell Cave National Monument near Bridgeport, Ala.
• After the entrance of the cave collapsed and created a shelter, people lived here for more than 10,000 years.
• The archaeological site provides some of the best records of the daily life of prehistoric people in the Southeast.
• Outside the cave are a nature trail, a wildflower meadow and a picnic area.
• The park is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CDT. There is no entrance fee.
Source: National Park Service.
DeSoto State Park outside Fort Payne, Ala., is a quiet spot to spend the day hiking and picnicking.
• Winding through woods and by mountain streams, there are more than 25 miles of trails for hiking and biking that
• Pack your swimsuit for the pool.
• Stay overnight in the primitive campground or in the "improved" campground, which features a lodge and restaurant.
• Park hours for day use are 7 a.m. until sundown. There is no charge for general use, but there is a $1 fee per person for the picnic area, and a $3 fee per person at the swimming pool.
Source: Alabama State Parks
Explore a mile of underground caverns at Rickwood Caverns State Park in Warrior, Ala.
• Take a 45-minute tour of the caverns with 260 million-year-old limestone formations.
• In the warmer months, cool off by jumping off the high dive into the park's Olympic-size swimming pool.
• The park also includes campsites, a playground and a picnic area.
• It's open daily from dawn to dusk. Caves are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. CDT, seven days a week from Memorial Day to August, and on weekends only from March through May and August through October.
• There is a $1 fee per person for entrance to the park and a $5 pool entrance. Cave tour tickets are $6 for young children, and $15 for anyone 12 years or older.
Sources: Alabama Tourism Department and Rickwood Caverns State Park
LUNCH IN THE PARK
The newly dedicated Weathington Park in Section, Ala., is a spot to take a short stroll or enjoy a picnic.
• A short walking track overlooks downtown Scottsboro and the Tennessee River.
• Settle down on a rock or picnic table and enjoy the view while you eat.
MUCH MORE THAN A WALK IN THE PARK
The huge variety of activities at Oak Mountain State Park just south of Birmingham is almost unheard of at a state park.
• Horseback riders will feel especially welcome. There are 14 miles of horse riding trails and a special equestrian campground.
• For water lovers, there are beaches, boat launches and fishing.
• Get friendly with animals at the petting farm, or take a walk in the tree-top nature trail to see birds of prey up close.
• Play a round of golf at the 18-hole championship course.
• If you'd rather get away from all the activity, take advantage of one of the backcountry campsites.
• Park gates open at 7 a.m. CDT and close at sundown. For general use of the park, there is a $3 fee for adults, and a $1 fee for children 6 to 11 and seniors over 62. There are additional fees for certain activities.
Source: Alabama State Parks
Mary Helen Miller joined the staff at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as a multimedia reporter in 2013. She produces audio, video, and graphics for the Web, and occasionally writes stories. Before starting at the Times Free Press, Mary Helen worked as a radio reporter at WUTC, the NPR affiliate station in Chattanooga. She won an Edward R. Murrow award for a story she produced there about the anniversary of the 2011 tornadoes that hit ...