Bicycling in Northeast Alabama
I want to introduce
other cyclists to Northeast Alabama, the area I know best. My purpose is
not to convince you to travel here but to give you some useful information
in case you decide to do so. I want to be a little comprehensive, so I
suggest skipping over the parts you do not find to be immediately interesting.
In particular, I think my information on places to cycle and on routes
through Alabama will be helpful. In the future, I intend to add additional
specific information about bike shops, clubs, places to ride, etc., but
for the present, this page is mainly just a general guide.
A map of Northeast Alabama
My Knowledge of Northeast Alabama
to Northeast Alabama in 1955 when I was ten. Since then, although I have
lived in other states for about six years, I have spent a total of 37 years
here. During that time, I have lived in Gadsden, Jacksonville, Huntsville
briefly, Tuscaloosa, Hokes Bluff, Bessemer briefly, Birmingham, Anniston
briefly, the West Jefferson area, and Scottsboro, and I camped out with
my son near Warrior for several years as well. Besides cycling, I have
been interested in hiking, camping, caving, geology, natural history, gardening
(briefly), fishing, swimming, rafting (one-man raft), and beekeeping, which
have given me a broader view of my area. Besides traveling by bike, I have
often traveled by car and van through this section of the state, both alone
and with others. Still, there's much more that I don't know than what I
do know. The included map (above) has clipped off a little of the north border
of the state to extend as far south as Tuscaloosa (which is unlabeled in
the left-hand bottom corner just below Northport).
My bike travels in Northeast Alabama
for my cycling experience in Northeast Alabama, the majority of my mileage
has been simple everyday travel from A to B in the towns where I lived.
If this had been my only bike travel, there would be little on the map.
However, I have also taken longer weekend rides from time to time, and
these rides would have at least drawn a lot of lines on the map, many of
them overlapping from one area in which I lived to another. In addition,
I made overnight, non-camping bike trips from one city to another and back.
The shorter trips of the 60's were not recorded, but I made 16 longer overnight
trips in '66 and from '85 to '92 that totaled 2,250 miles. Finally, I have
made 35 camping trips over the years. Nine of these trips included
four or more states and 24 were made in Alabama only. Looking at the last
24 alone: four of them were made while I was in college in the 60's, two
in the '70's, twelve in the 80's, and six in the 90's. The in-state trips
are shorter than the multi-state trips, ranging from 70 to 428 miles in
length, and totaling almost 5,500 miles in distance. Since I like to take
a slightly different route whenever possible, these trips have allowed
me to cover Northeast Alabama fairly thoroughly. By the way, this
map, with my bike travels marked in red, does not extend quite as far to
the east as the first, but it does extend to the state line in the north
and 30 miles farther to the south.
The Paint Rock Valley in the early summer
The Climate and Seasons
climate of Northeast Alabama has an impact on cycling. Unfortunately, almost
everyone takes bike trips during the summer, when Alabama can be deadly
hot. To make the heat worse in the summer and the cold worse in the winter,
Alabama is a humid state. One year a bike magazine stated that one should
never ride a bike when the combined temperature and humidity were over
160, yet at 8:00 in the morning that summer, the temperature was 80°
in the shade, and the humidity was 80%. About 16 inches of rain falls during
the summer, mostly in thunderstorms, which can be quite violent. It's my
policy, when in Alabama for the summer and unable to make a bike trip northward,
to not ride between noon and four o'clock unless it is cloudy. In fact,
on many days, it would be better to quit riding at ten and not ride again
until six. Nonetheless, I have made five non-camp trips and seven instate
bicycle camping trips during the summer, and nine of my multi-state trips
included at little Alabama summer travel. I took some precautions: I made
many of the trips during cool spells, I was very carefully to drink a lot
of fluids, I used suntan lotion, I kept my face and neck covered, and I
rested at noontime for an hour or more. Whenever I could, I soaked my shirt
in water. Starting and finishing the day early, before the afternoon heat,
is also a good strategy, although one could ride just as easily between
four and nine in the afternoon and evening. In planning summer rides, I
take the sun and heat into consideration, such as choosing the shadier
road for the afternoon part of the day's travel.
Spring in Alabama
is more reasonable that the summer. Over the years, I have made two non-camp
and eight camping trips in March, April, and May. There is nothing more
beautiful than a trip when the leaves are turning green and the first flowers
are coming out, which happens in the first half of April in North Alabama.
During the beginning of this period, the danger of cold weather sweeping
in from the north is great and, near the end of the period, very hot, summer-like
weather can occur. In fact, the sudden changeability of the weather is
the greatest problem during these three months, as periods of cool, rainy
weather, lasting for almost a week, can set in. Northeast Alabama
gets about 16 inches of rain during the spring.
Fall is probably
the most suitable time for bike camping in Alabama. I have made on my bike
seven non-camping trips and six camping trips during September, October,
and November. The rainfall is half that of the other seasons, about 8 inches,
and the weather is unusually uniform for long periods of time. I especially
enjoy the Indian summer weather that comes after the first cold spell in
October, a long mild shirt-sleeve period that extends in some years half-way
through November. Unfortunately, Alabama does not usually receive enough
rain in the fall for strikingly pretty trees, but some trees, such as the
sugar maples, are always pretty anyway.
Winter is the worst
time for cycling in Alabama, but the weather is more suitable than someone
living further north might think. I have seen periods of 70° weather
lasting a week or more, and in February of '76, there was a solid month
of warm, beautiful weather. This winter ('97 - '98), I was able to bicycle
six days out of seven, and I did about as well (on the days that I was
free to cycle) during previous winter as well. The greatest problem is
not cold but rain, and rainy spells can last nearly a week, with temperatures
in the 30's. Snow is a possibility, but usually melts after a single day.
I have only seen two heavy snowfalls that remained on the ground as long
as a week. One problem with winter travel is that the temperatures can
change so quickly. One day might be warm and dry, the next colder and wet,
the next even colder and dry, and the next warm and rainy. The weather
is too unpredictable for camping. Nonetheless, I did make two winter camping
trips, with part of the time on each spent camping in a cave for better
protection. On both trips, I experienced both good and very cold weather.
I also have made two non-camping trips during this season. Besides the
rain and cold and unpredictable weather, there is also the problem of very
short days. So no one should plan to come to Alabama on a bicycle vacation
for the winter; however, the state is a great place for a cyclist to live.
Climbing Skyline Mountain
Geology and Topography
landscape in Northeast Alabama is quite unusual. Basically, this corner
of the state is covered with flat-topped mountains, or plateaus, with narrow
flat valleys between them. The history of these mountains is interesting.
At one time, Alabama was a flat plain, eroded to the level of the sea and
covered with sediments. Then, million of years ago, North America and Africa
collided, and the collision thrust hundreds of miles of rocks northwestward,
crumpling up new mountains. This collision happened very slowly, just as
India is pushing up the Himalayan Mountains today. The mountains that were
formed by this process disappeared long ago, but they have determined the
present geography. Originally, the mountains were topped with softer and
more recent materials, but these have eroded away and are now only found
in the southern half of the state, including the Tuscaloosa region. Underneath
these softer strata were very resistant layers of Pennsylvania sandstone,
often underlain by coal. These layers are flatter to the north and west
but were badly crumpled in the south and east, in fact, they have even
disappeared to the southeast of Gadsden. Directly under these hard layers
of sandstone were limestones of the Mississippian period. Steams of water
flowing into this strata or rain falling on it disappeared into the ground
and emerged at springs, and the mountains were undermined from within.
Beneath the limestone are more resistant older layers, some as old as the
first fossils in the Cambrian. Because of the rapid erosion of the limestone
layers, an odd reversal happened. The former valley floors became the mountain
tops, while the former narrow mountains became the valleys. Since the force
pushing up these mountains came from the southeast, the current valleys
run at a 90° angle from that force, or from the southwest to the northeast.
The current valley floors are roughly flat due to resistant strata in the
stream beds that inhibit erosion. There are a number of these bars across
the Tennessee River, with Muscle Shoals being widely known. The mountain
tops are in a sense plateaus, but they are hardly flat, as they have been
eroded for millions of years. The "top" of Lookout Mountain, for instance,
is badly scoop out near the south end, with the edges of the mountain much
higher. Noccalulu Falls, at the south end of the mountain in Gadsden, was once the end of a river that flowed the entire length of the "valley"; most of the water was long ago diverted into other streams, including Little River and Yellow Creek. Very interesting is
the fact that the Tennessee River and most other rivers of the Cumberland
and Appalachian Mountains cut through the current mountains as if they
don't exist, indicating that these rivers are much older than any of the
current mountains and cut through them as the mountains were being lifted.
However, some of these rivers have been changed nonetheless. The present
Tennessee River flows southwestward in Alabama where a mountain used to
be. Where did it once flow?
Trees and Woodlands
Trees vary as one
travels from north to south. In the northeastern corner of Northeast Alabama,
hardwood trees of the mixed mesophytic forest dominate. For example, on
my ten acres north of Scottsboro are found sugar maple, tulip tree, various
white and red oaks, red cedar, white ash, persimmon, black locust, dogwood,
redbud, sycamore, hophornbeam, various hickories, cucumbertree, basswood,
yellow buckeye, hackberry, several elms, kiri, sassafras, sweet gum, beech,
black walnut, plum, black tupelo, blackhaw, black cherry, and sugarberry.
There are no willows, hemlocks, honey locusts, holly, buckthorn, or sourwood
on my land, but they all occur nearby. As one travels to the south, the
number of hardwood species rapidly drops, with the oaks, hickories, and
tulip tree dominating. Also, some additional species start occasionally
appearing, including the magnolias, the cottonwood, and the catalpa tree.
In addition, the percentage of land with pine trees or oak-pine-hickory
mixtures increase. Eventually, the pines predominate, except along the
streams. Access to the woods is rather easy in Alabama, as unfenced and
unposted woods frequently extend up to the roads; although wherever hunting
clubs have sprung up, they have posted all the land they control.
Wild Fruits and Berries
If, like me, you
enjoy wild fruits and berries, Alabama lacks some of the northern kinds,
but still has many of its own. Of the fruit from trees, I have never have seen any from
uncultivated apples, cherries, or peaches, although I still do see such trees on rare occasions
and also can buy
apples and peaches grown commercially from this state. On the other hand, uncultivated pears and plums do
produce fruit, the latter being fairly common. Wild trees which produce fruit are mulberry, fig,
pawpaw, and persimmon, with the white and black mulberries producing a heavy crop in the early spring and the persimmon a heavy crop in the fall. Of non-tree fruits, the black and red raspberries
grow only in the northeast corner, but the blackberry, dew berry, blueberry,
huckleberry, and muscadine are common and highly productive over the entire region. One important rule -- always take a bath after picking blackberries
or plums in Alabama -- as chigger bites can appear in great numbers in
all the places you don't want to scratch.
Wildlife and Fish
Wildlife is less
common, in my opinion, than in states farther north. I think the hot summers,
which quickly evaporate any rainfall, the dry autumns, the reduction in
the varieties of hardwoods as one moves southward, the pine regions which
provide little food, and the popularity of hunting all contribute. Nonetheless,
I have managed to see red and gray foxes, deer, raccoons, opossums, squirrels,
rabbits, and skunks on numerous occasions, and otters and beavers more
than once. Recently, coyotes have moved into the northern part and armadillos
into the very southern part of this region.
Fishing is very
good in the spring, when the bass and sunfish eagerly seek food along the
shore, and in the winter, when the crappie are striking. In the heat of
summer, however, only the most skillful fisherman in boats achieve any
Cycling in the Cities
The cities of Northeast
Alabama vary greatly in cycling ease. Huntsville, with a population of
190,000 at the twelve o'clock position on the map, is a motor city. While
having more cycling shops than any other town in Alabama, it
is horrible to try to cross during much of the day. The roads in and out
are not very suitable either. The city has grown in a north-south orientation,
but the most recent growth has been to the west. This is the only city
in Northeast Alabama that has grown significantly in population. To the
east of Huntsville are the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau. Forty miles
to the east is Scottsboro, located on the Tennessee River, a town of about
10,000. While 72 is a poor highway for cycling, there are many good roads
in and around this town. Twenty and thirty-five miles towards the northeast
along the river are Stevenson and Bridgeport, much smaller towns, with
nice back roads. To the southwest by twenty-five miles on the river is
Guntersville, a somewhat smaller town that is growing into Albertville
and Boaz, (on the top of Sand Mountain) with good roads in every direction,
except the main highway. To the east of Scottsboro by thirty-five miles
is Fort Payne, similar in size to Guntersville and Albertville, located
in a narrow valley that runs from Chattanooga to Gadsden to Birmingham
and beyond. Traffic is sometimes bad on the main street but elsewhere is
no problem. To the south, across Lookout Mountain is Centre, a much smaller
town on the lake, with many good roads. To the southwest, at the foot of
Lookout Mountain, Gadsden, a city of 50,000 running east - west, is very
easily to cross by bicycle, except one should get off of Meigan Boulevard
and travel on the old main street two or three blocks to the south. To
the southeast is Jacksonville, a college town, which has been growing into
a retirement community, an excellent place to cycle from, with many light-duty
roads nearby. North, along the Choccolocco Mountains is Piedmont, a smaller
town with some busy highways, and south along the mountains is Anniston,
a narrow north-south town of about 35,000. Get on the old street here also,
which is to the west of the main drag. The mountains then turn somewhat
towards the east down to Talledega, half the size of Anniston and not a
difficult town. Then seventy miles west is Birmingham, still the largest
city in Alabama, but now less than 300,000 in size, with a lot of the population
moving to the south across the mountains, for some reason. Cycling is easier
in the city that in the newer areas, and there are many good rides in this
area. On down the main valley to the southwest is Bessemer, the size
of Anniston, with lots of local roads. From here, the valley bends to the
west to Tuscaloosa, 60 miles from Birmingham, 75,000 people strong, and
a difficult city to cycle through as most of the streets are four or six-laned
with heavy traffic. Good cycling roads are scarce in this county. To the
north and somewhat east of Tuscaloosa is Jasper, about the size of Scottsboro,
and to the northeast of that is Cullman, about the same size. I have little
experience with cycling near these towns, although I have pedaled through each of them on trips.
The highways in
Alabama generally have twelve foot wide lanes and no shoulders. Because
of the lack of shoulders and the tendency of cars to travel in packs, four-lanes
are mostly unpleasant and dangerous to travel on. While two-lane highways
sometimes have high volumes of traffic, most of them do not, and I sometimes
use them for many miles of travel. Country roads are almost always
paved, and drivers tend to be less impatient on these roads. In general,
due to the lower population and population density of Alabama and the number
of paved roads, traffic is light compared to other states.
Cyclists in Alabama
Few people in northeast
Alabama ride bicycles. The bike shops depend on mountain bike sales, but
I see few of these riders. It seems strange to me for a region with excellent
weather and mainly flat roads to have so few cyclists. Behaviors towards
cyclists by motorists vary widely from one part of the state to another.
Generally, as is true everywhere, city people are in a great rush and can't
be bothered to slow down, and country people are more patient. Nonetheless,
I find people to be more friendly towards cyclist and more careful about
passing in the eastern half of this region and in the Birmingham region.
As a whole, Alabamians are less conscious of bicycles and are less likely
to behave appropriately than people who are more familiar with meeting
cyclists on the road.
Dogs are more common
in Alabama than in states farther north. On the back roads, where cyclists
like to travel, dogs are frequently roaming free. Some people have told
me that this is the reason they don't ride bikes. Now days, most
people seem to recognize that they are responsible if their dog hurts you
and will cooperate if the dogs get out into the road. I find that being
polite but assertive towards the dog owner wins the most cooperation.
A Recommended Area to Visit
A camping location on Lake Guntersville
I were coming from another state to ride in Alabama, the most attractive
part to me would be east of Huntsville, north of the Tennessee River, and
west of Sand Mountain. This area includes all of Jackson County, most of
Marshall County to the south, and part of Madison County to the west. The
majority of the land in this area is wooded. Most of the roads in
this region are through the valleys, with woods, farm lands, and mountains
all around. Some of the roads are on top of the mountains, which are rolling
but fairly level, and patchy farmlands with drier woods in between. A few
miles of roads connect the roads at the bottom of the mountain with those
at the top. These are either a challenge or a blast, depending on the direction
of travel (up or down). Especially nice rides are the Paint Rock Valley,
with the valley nicer to the north, and the road from Guntersville to Scottsboro
on the east side of the Tennessee. However, the only unrecommended
roads in this area are highways 72 and 431, on which I commonly travel
for short distances.
For places to stay
in this area, there are inexpensive motels in Scottsboro and many motels
in Guntersville, plus a state campground at little Mountain near Guntersville,
private areas a little farther up the road, and free sites on TVA property
along the lake even farther up.
in mountain biking will be pleased to learn that this area has many jeep
roads that travel far back into the woods in the valleys and on top of
the mountains. I can't be more specific as these trails are on private
land, and their status can change easily, due to local hunting clubs.
I will recommend just
two routes across Northeast Alabama at present. These routes will take
you through the region with a minimum amount of traffic and some nice scenery
as well. These routes are both routes that I have used repeatedly.
Highway 79 Alternative
Highway 79 is a usable,
north to south, state highway from the state line to Birmingham. However,
traffic gets heavy long before Birmingham is reached, so I have an alternative
route that I prefer using that accomplishes the same purpose. In addition,
by changing the route somewhat, the ride will be much more scenic and the
traffic will be much reduced. I have used this entire route when traveling
with my son, while he was still a teenager.
This route begins
as Tennessee 16, traveling south from Highway 64 near Winchester, Tennessee,
(located 30 miles NE of Huntsville, Alabama) which is on the Tennessee
Bike Route. To avoid traveling on Highway 64 from Winchester, take South
Jefferson, bear right on Liberty Road, turn right on Liberty Centennial
to Farris Chapel, and turn left onto Highway 16. Several miles south of
Winchester, Highway 16 ascends a very steep grade to the top of Key Springs
Mountain. From there, this excellent road travels through many miles of
woods (which are marked "no trespassing" and patrolled) to finally come
out on Skyline Mountain in Alabama. The name of the road changes to Highway
79 at the state line, of course. After reaching the end of the mountain
and just starting a steep descent, take the first left (country 21) instead.
Five miles ahead turn right at the crossroads at Pikeville, and travel
five more miles to Scottsboro. A short distance north of the traffic light
in Scottsboro is a small supermarket.
ahead at the traffic light onto highway 35, follow a four-lane (with
a shoulder) a few miles until after crossing the Tennessee River.
In crossing the bridge here, I stop and wait on the hill until there is
no traffic behind, which gets me about half-way across. On the other
side, turn right at the foot of the mountain and follow this delightful
road along the river all the way to Guntersville. At Guntersville, go straight
across 79 up highway 69, but turn left when you reach the lake again (a
good supermarket is here).
Follow this road
along the lake but, at a daycare center, just before the road joins highway
79, take another right, and follow this smaller road that parallels 79,
but with little traffic and better scenery. At the foot of a hill, you
will bear left, thus heading for an intersection with 231. After joining
that highway, there will be some traffic, including truck traffic, for
about ten miles, but on reaching Blountsville, take a right turn at the
traffic light, onto county 26, heading down to Garden City. At Garden City,
turn left, and travel down old highway 31.
It would be great
if we could follow this bee-line highway to its end, but it terminates
into the interstate, so at Blount Springs, we have to make a left turn,
and following a hilly, winding, and scenic route to Hayden. At Hayden,
take a right turn onto 160, heading SW. Just before the interstate, turn
left on the road that parallels it. This road takes you into Warrior
and to the four-laned, highway 31 beyond, which is lightly used, due to
the interstate. This road will take you to Gardendale and then on into
The best road to travel
long distances through this region cuts right through the middle of it
from northeast to southeast, Highway 11, extending from Chattanooga to
Tuscaloosa and beyond. This road was upgraded and improved several times
before Interstate 59 was put in and has been kept in excellent condition
since. The interstate is seldom visible from this road, and the traffic
is usually light. Starting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the road climbs the
flank of Lookout Mountain for a short distance, and then turns and follows
the mountain to the southwest, going first through the corner of Georgia.
Traveling south on this route, I have not encountered much traffic until
Fort Payne, where moving one block westward solved the problem through
the thickest part of town. Fifteen miles farther south, in Collinsville,
one can encounter heavy traffic from trade days on Saturdays only. The
next grocery store is in Attalla, where a little traffic occurs. Then,
there are many nice miles until Trussville, where the traffic becomes quite
heavy for a few miles. On entering Birmingham, it is best to leave First
Avenue North, since the speed limit there is 50 mph and the traffic is
sometimes heavy. Instead, I move a couple of blocks to the east, and the
first place where this can be done is just past the Roebuck Shopping Center.
This places me on 4th Avenue South. At some point after the interstate
crosses over First Avenue, I want to move west to 1st Avenue South.
Anytime after crossing 77th street is fine. This road picks up traffic
as it merges with Highway 78, so I turn left at the end of the straight-away
after that junction onto Fifth Avenue South, and travel on this street
through the center of town.
under the interstate, however, the streets all terminate into a street
running north-south. I suggest turning south (left) here and then
right on Dennison Avenue, which leads directly to an intersection with
Jefferson Avenue (on my last trip, I went the other way, which is longer).
Jefferson Avenue is a lightly traveled two-lane that goes all the way to
Bessemer, where it is called Dartmouth Avenue.
Avenue ends on the south side of Bessemer, one can zigzag one block left to Avenue F, and then proceed
down the Eastern Valley Road (CR 18) or one can travel several blocks right
to 4th Avenue, CR 20, also called the Old Tuscaloosa Highway. The
character of the roads is quite different. The Old Tuscaloosa Highway
has more traffic and is flatter, and the Eastern Valley Road has less traffic
and some hills. However, the Old Tuscaloosa Highway leads into state
216, which is hillier and more scenic while the Eastern Valley Road leads
into Highway 11 which is flatter but with more traffic. And, since
the roads run parallel a short distance apart, one can travel from one
to the other. Remember that the last changeover point is the Tannehill
SP - Buckville connection. Since I need to provide no additional directions
for the Old Tuscaloosa Highway route (it runs straight into 216, and 216 runs right into Tuscaloosa), I will describe the Eastern Valley Road instead.
After passing Tannehill
State Park, I continue straight on this road to Green Pond. At Green
Pond, I also continue straight for several miles until I come to a stop
sign. At this point, I turn right over the bridge across the railroad
and up the hill to intersect with Highway 5. Just a short distance
to the right is the junction with Highway 11, where I turn left (there's
a supermarket right after this turn). Although Highway 11 gets some
truck traffic, it seems to be a fairly safe highway. I cooperate with the
trucks by pulling off when they can't see over the hill. However, Highway
11 gets a lot of traffic off of the interstate before getting to Tuscaloosa.
To solve this problem, I turn right onto county road 32, also called Keenes
Mill Road a few miles out of town. This is a scenic ride which unfortunately
has a couple of steep climbs. Keenes Mill Road joins 216 at a cemetery,
and it's a short distance to the left back to Highway 11.
At the intersection
of Highways 216 and 11, it's possible to go straight ahead or turn right.
Neither road is very suited to cycling, and traffic will be heavy at times;
both will lead right into town. From Tucaloosa, one could continue
on Highway 11 or 69 to the south. I have never followed 11 south of Tuscaloosa, although
I once traveled from Greensboro to Tuscaloosa on 69 and didn't have any
trouble. There are also some light-duty roads to the southwest of
Tuscaloosa. Be careful riding in the Tuscaloosa area, as the college students tend to be aggressive and careless drivers.
All in all, I certainly can't claim that Northeast Alabama is the best region in the US for cycling, but with its many lightly-traveled paved roads, its ever-present woodlands, and its mild winter climate, it has some real advantages over most regions I have traveled through on my bicycle.