There are a few things unique to the South, like mint juleps and fine gospel music. And cypress ponds. The bogs and cypress swamps of the Southeast comprise one of the most distinctive hiking environments in the United States.
The best place to sample this southern pleasure is along Alabama’s Conecuh Trail, a 22.5-mile path that meanders through a remote section of forest near the Alabama-Florida border. The gentle trail rarely exceeds a 5 percent grade, proving that Southern hospitality extends even to backpackers.
The Conecuh (kuh-nek-uh) Trail is at its best November through March, when cooler weather and fewer bugs make hiking the trail as pleasant as a walk in the park. I start my trek on the Conecuh’s South Loop and follow the white diamond trail markers past the tranquil green waters of Buck Pond. Pine, dogwood, holly, and cedar scents infuse the air. At Five Runs Creek, the translucent water is spiked with furrowed gray cypress knees. Next up is Blue Spring, a car-size pool of startlingly clear water, where I stop for a dip in the chilly aquamarine depths.
After hiking and swimming my way around the South Loop, I make the 4-mile trek to the beginning of the North Loop. Along the way, the Conecuh Trail skirts another crystalline pool at Natural Spring and rambles across wheat-colored meadows dotted with umbrellalike longleaf pines. Red-cockaded woodpeckers appear in the forest here on occasion, as do a few species of poisonous snakes, so keep your eyes peeled for both.
Traveling counterclockwise on the 13.5-mile North Loop, the trail soon crosses Camp Creek. I take the hint and pitch a tent next to placid Nellie Ponds, home to the endangered gopher frog. Sounds of scurrying skinks and armadillos float through the evening air.
The trail’s Southern character is strong the next day at Mossy Pond, where tall, moss-draped cypress trees stand knee-to-knee like shaggy forest guardians. Insectivorous sundews and pitcher plants thrive in a nearby bog. Back at the trailhead, my hike over, I’m already marveling at the memory of this beautiful path in a uniquely Southern setting.