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What do you do when you have a twelve hour drive, you leave two hours late, and you’re bored out of your mind? When that happened to me I decided to start scouring Google Maps for something interesting. When I found a road called the Talladega Scenic Drive I decided to investigate and quickly realized it led to the highest point in Alabama.
At 2,411′ Cheaha Mountain is the highest point in Alabama. The low elevation just might convince you Cheaha State Park is not worth a visit, but you would be wrong. I found more to do here than other parks at three times the elevation.
My first order of business was to reserve a campsite for myself. They have sites ranging from primitive (really it’s ultra-primitive) to semi-primitive (still kinda primitive) and improved. It’s strange to see this many different types of campground sites in a state park. Let me explain this a bit.
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The “primitive” campground is really meant for a person to pull a car up on the side of the road and plop out a tent. No amenities at all. Bare to the bones. The “semi-primitive” is where it starts to get wonky. It’s still very primitive with unpaved, unleveled parking spots, no tent pads, shared water access, and the only reason a fire pit exists is because a previous camper built it. The “improved” campground turns out to be an improvement on the other sites in the park, but really it’s just a typical campground: paved parking spots for vehicles, campers, and RVs, paved tent pads, water and electrical hookups, and nearby restrooms with showers.
I opted for a semi-primitive site for two nights since I travel in a modified camper van. After scouting out my site I quickly went back to the restaurant to enjoy the late evening sunlight. Thus began my short and ill-fated experience with the restaurant at Cheaha State Park.
It all started with a simple question and a frustrating answer. “Can I see a menu,” I asked the host. “They’re all being used right now,” he replied. I looked over his shoulder at the dozen or so diners. That’s all the menus they had? So I asked if he could tell me what kinds of foods they served and he flubbered around for a moment before admitting he didn’t know what was on the menu. Okay…I cooked my own dinner that night.
The next morning I got up early (this tends to happen when I sleep in a camper van) and went down to the “bottom” of the park at Cheaha Lake. It was incredibly beautiful and peaceful. I was the only person there. A covered shelter with lots of tables made the perfect office for me as I set up my laptop and travel coffee maker.
But I couldn’t spend all day just lounging by the lake no matter how much I tried to convince myself to just take the first day of the road trip off. Instead I headed to the very top of the park to climb up the metal stairs of the Bunker Observation Tower. This tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is the highest point in Alabama with a pretty spectacular view. There were exactly 63 steps to the very top where I found a small enclosed viewing area with old single-pane glass windows.
On my way out of the observation tower I met this lady out walking her dog who suggested I hike the Bald Rock Boardwalk. A boardwalk at a state park? I was intrigued. The trail head is located near the beautiful rental facility that was the CCC headquarters while the park was being built. The Bald Rock Boardwalk is exactly that: a long wooden boardwalk through the woods to an overlook at Bald Rock. It’s a great way for people with disabilities to be able to see a stunning overlook like this. At the very end of the boardwalk a short set of stairs led to a trail that passed underneath the boardwalk and out in front to the very edge of the mountain.
When is one hiking trail a day enough? Determined to explore everything the park had to offer I decided to take a late afternoon walk out to Pulpit Rock. This is probably the most iconic view of the park, even more so than the highest point in the state, because of the giant rock hanging over the edge of the mountain. Of course I had to swing my feet over the edge but I’m too scared of heights to just walk to the edge; instead I had to sit down about 5′ from the edge and scoot my butt along the rock.
I ended my day with a sunset view at the restaurant that I absolutely refused to give another chance (even though I would do so in the morning). I set up my camera gear on the deck looking out across the low-lying plains beyond the Appalachian Mountains. It occurred to me as I was watching this sunset that my entire road trip along the Natchez Trace Parkway would not be in the mountains. I’m very fond of my mountains.
The next morning I woke up a bit late thanks to a very comfy night of sleeping in the campground. I decided to give the restaurant one more try before leaving the park and getting back on track. I pulled up outside the restaurant at 7:45am. Walked to the front door. Locked. I pulled up the state park website to check that the restaurant was indeed supposed to be open at 7:30. I waited another fifteen minutes just to be sure but by 8:05am the doors were still firmly locked without any sign of life within. This final disappointing moment from the restaurant would be my last at Cheaha State Park.
But that has not in any way tainted my experience at the highest point in Alabama. There was more than enough to keep me busy for a day, and if I had decided to go swimming, fishing, or attempt a Pulpit Rock sunset I could have been here for another two days. I think this state park just might make my list of favorite state parks across the country, but you’ll have to visit for yourself to see if it makes your list.