Hike Location: Oak Mountain State Park
Geographic Location: Pelham, AL (33.32518, -86.75744)
Length: 5.7 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2018
Overview: A figure-eight route, sometimes steep and sometimes rocky, featuring Peavine Falls.
Park Information: http://www.alapark.com/oak-mountain-state-park
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=734063
Directions to the trailhead: Just south of Birmingham, take I-65 to SR 119 (exit 246). Exit, go west on SR 119 for 100 feet to State Park Road, and turn left on State Park Rd. Drive State Park Rd. 1.9 miles to John Findley Drive (there is a 4-way stop here) and turn left on John Findley Dr. Enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and ask for a trail map at the gatehouse. Drive John Findley Dr. a total of 2.6 miles to Terrace Drive and turn right on Terrace Dr. Take Terrace Dr. 1.4 miles to the large park office parking lot on the right. Park here and as close to the road as possible: the hike begins across the road.
The hike: Weighing in at a massive 9940 acres, Oak Mountain State Park is the largest state park in Alabama and the crown jewel of the Alabama State Parks system. The park dates to 1927 when the Alabama legislature’s State Land Act granted the park 940 acres between Double Oak Mountain and Little Oak Ridge. Yet a full 8000 of the park’s acres were added in a land transfer from the National Park Service in 1943. The park’s size and history give the park’s vast natural areas a national park feel even though it is owned by the State of Alabama.
As you would expect for a major park, Oak Mountain State Park offers nearly every amenity. On point, the park features campgrounds with 85 developed and 60 primitive campsites, 10 cabins, numerous picnic areas, a championship golf course, two lakes, a swimming beach, a marina that offers pedal boat rental in season, a demonstration farm, and a BMX track. Due to the park’s amenities and its location only 20 miles south of Birmingham, the park can become very crowded on warm weather weekends. Thus, I recommend a weekday or winter visit to Oak Mountain State Park.
Despite the amenities, much of the park can only be accessed by the park’s extensive 60 mile trail system, which includes trails for hikers, horses, and mountain bikers. The trail system’s most popular destination is Peavine Falls, a very scenic 20-foot waterfall when it has enough water, which it frequently does not because of its location high on Oak Mountain. The waterfall was in fine form when I came here two days after a nice spring rain. While there are easier ways to see Peavine Falls than by doing the hike described here (see below), this classic route visits not only the falls but also a mountaintop overlook and the Alabama Wildlife Center, a rehabilitation center for injured wildlife. Therefore, most experts consider this hike to be one of the best hikes in Alabama.
|Start of Green Trail at its lower end|
The sign for the Treetop Nature Trail located directly across the road from the parking lot marks our return route. To find the start of the Green Trail, the most direct route to Peavine Falls, walk about 100 feet west on Terrace Drive and look for a gravel road on the left. The first plastic green rectangle is located just up this road on the right.
A steady, persistent climb now begins, and the single-track dirt Green Trail gains just over 300 feet of elevation in its first 0.5 miles. As you would expect given this park’s name, the broadleaf forest is dominated by oak trees, although I saw some pecan and sweet gum trees here as well. Numbered and colored trail markers appear periodically throughout the park’s trail system with numbers 51 through 60 corresponding to the Green Trail. Information boards say that the markers are posted at 0.5 mile intervals, but my calculations say they are a little closer together.
|Intersection with Green-Yellow Ridge Trail|
|Hiking under pine trees|
Next comes a fairly flat section in an area with lots of pine trees. A soft bed of pine needles covers the trail here. The flat area quickly ends as the trail descends steeply via a single switchback to cross the Orange Trail in a ravine. Oak Mountain’s steep narrow ridges keep these ravines very quiet despite their location in metro Birmingham.
The assault on Oak Mountain’s main ridge now begins, as does the hardest climb of this hike. The trail gains just under 300 feet of elevation in about 0.2 miles including some rocky and wet sections just under a spring. As you get near the top of the ridge, views of downtown Birmingham peep over the lower foothill you topped earlier.
|Climbing the main ridge|
1 mile into the hike, you cross the Red Trail at an intersection that features an information board and a few benches. A little more climbing brings you to the top of the main ridge, where the trail curves right to begin heading west along the narrow ridge. The dense wooded forest of the ravines is now replaced by grassy sunny areas along the ridge, and the hiking is surprisingly easy considering how hard the climb to this ridge was. I saw several monarch butterflies flittering around along this ridge.
|Hiking along the main ridge|
At 1.9 miles, you reach an intersection with the Green-White Connector that forms the southern loop of this hike. Turn left on the Green-White Connector to continue toward Peavine Falls. The steep and rocky Green-White Connector goes directly down the south face of Oak Mountain, and you should be glad you are descending this trail rather than climbing it.
Mercifully, in less than 0.1 miles you reach the bottom of the Green-White Connector at its intersection with the White Trail along the north bank of Peavine Creek. Turn right to head downstream along Peavine Creek. Because Peavine Creek also forms Peavine Falls, you can gauge how scenic the waterfall will be based on the water volume in the creek.
|Hiking along Peavine Creek|
Near 2 miles into the hike, you reach a major intersection where the White and Blue Trails converge. We will eventually continue straight on the combined White and Blue Trails to continue the southern loop, but to get to Peavine Falls turn left on the Blue Trail and cross Peavine Creek on a rickety footbridge. Follow signs for the base of Peavine Falls, which will take you uphill on the Blue Trail before descending a very steep and rocky spur trail marked by white diamonds. Some use of your hands will be necessary to reach the base of the 20-foot spout type waterfall, which features a shallow plunge pool and a very rocky setting. Find a spot to have a trail snack and enjoy the aquatic entertainment near the midpoint of this hike.
Retrace your steps back to the major intersection, and then turn left to follow the combined Blue/White Trails away from Peavine Creek. Where the Blue and White Trails split, you can go either way: both trails take you uphill to the Peavine Falls parking lot, which features a vault toilet and a picnic shelter but no potable water. If all you want to do is see Peavine Falls, you could drive to this parking lot by continuing on Terrace Drive past our trailhead and turning left on gravel Peavine Falls Road, which dead-ends here.
Angle right across the parking lot to find the upper end of the Green Trail and begin your journey back to the trailhead. A short moderate climb brings you back to the main ridge crest, which you will follow for more than the next mile. Just after topping the highest elevation of this hike, a spur trail marked “overlook” exits right. As advertised, this short spur quickly leads to a partially obstructed south-facing viewpoint located atop a rock outcrop.
|View from south-facing overlook|
Continuing east along the main ridge, you close the southern loop at 3.3 miles. Retrace your steps down the north face of Oak Mountain to reach the intersection with the Yellow Trail at 4.5 miles. If you are getting tired or running out of daylight, your car sits 0.5 miles ahead on the Green Trail. To add a little variety and a possible side trip to the Alabama Wildlife Center, turn right on the Yellow Trail.
The Yellow Trail descends gradually before passing up and over another low but steep ridge. At 5 miles, you reach an intersection with the unblazed Treetop Trail. Turn right on the Treetop Trail, which climbs gradually to reach the Alabama Wildlife Center in only a few hundred feet. The Alabama Wildlife Center is Alabama’s oldest and largest wildlife rehabilitation facility, and portions of it are open for public viewing. Some recovering woodland birds are on display for you to see, and a wildlife window makes for good bird watching. Water, restrooms, and soda vending are also available here.
|Boardwalk on Treetop Nature Trail|
Retrace your steps down the Treetop Trail, and continue straight on the Treetop Trail when you intersect the Yellow Trail. Soon you learn why this trail is called the Treetop Trail: a high boardwalk passes numerous caged birds (hawks, vultures, and other raptors), birds rehabilitated at the Alabama Wildlife Center that would not survive in the wild. The boardwalk ends near Terrace Drive across from the parking lot that contains your car, thus marking the end of the hike.