Alabama's Cheaha Wilderness: A Southern Secret

The little-known Cheaha Wilderness Area is the gateway to Alabama's largest trail system.
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The little-known Cheaha Wilderness Area is the gateway to Alabama's largest trail system.

The Great Depression was a tough time in America, but some good did come out of it. At least that's my opinion after hiking the Cheaha Wilderness Area and Cheaha State Park in Alabama's Talladega National Forest. After all, it was the Great Depression and the "make-work" projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that yielded many of the trails and backcountry structures in this area.

Of all the footpaths in Talladega, the 6-mile Chinnabee Silent Trail-just one part of a three-trail loop-stands out as one of the most scenic hikes in the South. Here you have the chance to experience deep hardwood forests, rock outcrops, and waterfalls that are still a well-kept secret.

Starting at Lake Chinnabee, the trail follows Cheaha Creek for 3 miles. Just half a mile in, a wooden walkway provides great views of Devil's Den Falls, one of two cataracts along the trail. Two miles beyond the creek, the trail climbs 1,000 feet and connects with the Pinhoti Trail. Be forewarned: It's a tough, rocky scramble.

From there, Alabama's largest trail system is open for business. Turn southwest to follow the Pinhoti to Adams Gap and eventually return to Lake Chinnabee along the 17-mile loop. To add a few miles to your hike (backtracking required), turn east on the Pinhoti. Within 2 miles, you'll be rewarded with the best vistas in the area.

In either direction, the Pinhoti traverses the state's highest ridgelines, and the temperature along the exposed rock faces is always cooler than elsewhere. On one recent January hike, I stumbled across a curtain of glistening icicles draping the rocks.

From Adams Gap, the 6-mile Skyway Trail completes the loop. Winding through stands of hardwood, the trail passes near the remains of a small community abandoned in the early 1930s when rural life succumbed to the Depression. All that's left are a few crumbling chimneys-the flat spots nearby are great for tent-pitching.

Living in this rugged country was always tough, but the Depression made it unbearable for many. Still, once you've seen the clear, rushing streams, majestic ridgelines and thick hardwood forests, it's hard to imagine leaving.

QUICK TAKE: Cheaha Wilderness Area, AL

DRIVE TIME: Cheaha Wilderness Area is about 100 miles (11/2 hours) east of Birmingham.

THE WAY: From Birmingham, take I-20 east past Anniston. Take US 431 (exit 191) south for 2 miles to AL 281. Follow AL 281 south half a mile past Cheaha State Park, then turn east onto AL 42 and travel 3 miles. Turn left onto Forest Service Road 646. Travel 2 miles to the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area. Parking is $3 per car per day.

TRAILS: With more than 130 total trail miles in the area, trips of almost any length are possible. Some 102 miles are along the Pinhoti, the longest hiking trail in the state.

ELEVATION: The high point on the route is 2,135 feet near Odum Point, and the low point is near Lake Chinnabee (750 feet).

CAN'T MISS: The Chinnabee Silent Trail offers breathtaking views of Cheaha Creek's waterfalls.

CROWD CONTROL: April and May are peak hiking months, but you'll leave the crowd behind once you pass the first vista (and swimming hole) half a mile from the Chinnabee Silent trailhead. From February 1 (end of hunting season) through early spring, you'll probably have the trail to yourself.

MAPS:Pinhoti Trail Map #4 covers the entire wilderness and then some (see ranger district address below, or pick one up near the trailhead at the Cheaha State Park Country Store on US 281; $4.75).

PIT STOP: Drive into nearby Anniston for good pizza at Mata's on Quintard Avenue.

WALK SOFTLY: October 15 to January 31 is hunting season. Wear brightly colored clothing.

MORE INFORMATION: Talladega Ranger District, USFS, 1001 North St., Talladega, AL 35160; (256) 362-2909. From November 15 to January 31, a hiking permit is required; free by mail from the district office, or pick one up before your hike (ranger station is closed on weekends). Also, Alabama Trails Association, (205) 221-6196, or wild-flower@mindspring.com.