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.
EXPEDITION PLANNER: Conecuh National Forest, AL
DRIVE TIME: The 84,000-acre Conecuh National Forest is in southwestern Alabama, 210 miles
(4 hours) south of Birmingham and 149 miles
(3 hours) northeast of Mobile.
THE WAY: From Andalusia in southeastern Alabama, drive 9.5 miles south on US 29 and turn left (south) onto AL 137. Proceed 5.5 miles to the "Open Pond Recreation Area" sign and turn left onto County Road 24. Go a quarter-mile and turn right onto County Road 28. Follow the signs 1.2 miles to the Open Pond campground and trailhead.
TRAILS: The 22.5-mile Conecuh Trail consists of a 5-mile South Loop and a 13.5-mile North Loop, connected by a 4-mile link trail. Hike an extra loop around Open Pond to log 26.5 miles. Alternative trailheads allow for hikes of various lengths. The North Loop is multi-use, though bikes and horses are rare.
ELEVATION: Conecuh National Forest averages about 200 feet above sea level, with little elevation change.
CAN'T MISS: A refreshing swim at Blue Lake, for a good break between the South and North Loops.
CROWD CONTROL: The trail is rarely crowded, even during peak seasons (fall and winter). However, you should call ahead to make sure your trip doesn't coincide with the forest's infrequent hunting days, when backcountry camping is restricted.
GUIDES: Conecuh Trail map, Conecuh National Forest ($3, see Contact below). Alabama trail hound M. Lee Van Horn maintains an informative Conecuh Trail website here.
WALK SOFTLY: In bogs, tread on grass clumps to minimize damage to the fragile environment.
CONTACT: Conecuh National Forest, (334) 222-2555; www.r8web.com/alabama.