One of my top travel tips is never to pass a visitor center. You never know what might be just around the next corner you would have otherwise missed. That had never been truer than when I stopped at the Alabama Welcome Center. I asked the lady behind the desk what there was to see in the area. She told me about Cheaha Mountain, the highest point in the state. When I asked how to get there, she responded, “Take the Talladega Scenic Drive.”
I was on my way to Natchez, Mississippi, to begin a month of driving the Natchez Trace Parkway. I had intended to take a single day to drive across Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to begin the adventure. But detours are always welcome on my road trips; in fact, detours are my third favorite rule of road trips.
Armed with a map of the national forest and vague directions (why do country directions always include names of local business or landmarks instead of exit numbers and street names?), I was on my way to my favorite detour of the year.
Talladega National Forest
When people think of the Appalachian Mountains, they typically picture anything north of Georgia to Maine. However, the mountains continue south through Alabama. The 400,000-acre Talladega National Forest covers the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains.
Established in 1936, Talladega National Forest is operated together with the three other national forests in the state as the National Forests in Alabama. The forest offers opportunities for hiking, camping, fishing, and of course, a scenic drive along the crest of the mountains.
Supervisor’s Office 2946 Chestnut Street, Montgomery, AL | 334-832-4470 | www.fs.usda.gov/main/alabama/home
Shoal Creek Ranger District 45 Alabama Highway 281, Heflin, AL | 256-463-2272
Talladega Ranger District 1001 North Street, Talladega, AL | 256-362-2909
Getting to the Talladega Scenic Drive
Talladega Scenic Drive’s north end is located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 78 and Alabama Highway 281 near Heflin. Depending on which direction you are driving, there are two ways to get to this starting point.
Heading west on I-20, take Exit 199 and turn right into the small town of Heflin. Turn left onto U.S. Highway 78 and follow it a few miles to a bridge crossing the road. Immediately turn right onto Forest Service Road 500, and you have reached the Talladega Scenic Drive.
Heading east on I-20, take Exit 191 and turn left onto U.S. Highway 431. At the end of the road, turn right onto U.S. Highway 78. It’s a longer drive from this direction, but also more scenic. Before the bridge crossing the road, turn left onto Forest Service Road 500.
Pinhoti Trail Parking
Near the beginning of Talladega Scenic Drive is a small parking area for the Pinhoti Trail. The 335-mile trail crosses the southern Appalachian Mountains between Flagg Mountain and Indian Mountain, traversing the entire Talladega National Forest.
The trail closely parallels Talladega Scenic Drive with three parking areas for day hikes.
A pair of scenic overlooks near the beginning of Talladega Scenic Drive set the mood for the scenic route. The first scenic overlook offers a beautiful view looking east, while the second offers a view south.
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Horseback Mountain Scenic Overlook
Horseback Mountain Scenic Overlook was my favorite scenic overlook along Talladega Scenic Drive. At this point, I had already been driving several hours throughout the day, so I thought it was the perfect place to make a sandwich and enjoy the gorgeous views.
To the north along the edge of the parking area, a series of low-lying mountains stretched across the landscape. To the south, across the road from the parking area, fields and pastures mixed with forests as far as I could see.
Cheaha Scenic Overlook
The last scenic overlook on Talladega Scenic Drive offers a view at the gentle north end of Cheaha Mountain. Just a few miles southwest along that ridge is the highest point in the state.
At 2,411’ above sea level, Cheaha Mountain is the highest point in Alabama. For many years now, I have been on a quest to visit the highest point in every state, so I jumped at the chance to visit this point. The Bunker Observation Tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is located on the summit of the mountain. At the top, the open-air covered deck offered a stunning view in all directions.
Cheaha State Park covered the summit of the mountain and was simply a fantastic park to spend a couple of nights. The Bald Rock Boardwalk was a short hike through the forest to an exposed rocky outcropping with views to the horizon across Talladega National Forest. Pulpit Rock was a slightly more strenuous hike but offered an even more breathtaking view.
Although seeing the view from the top of Cheaha Mountain was a rewarding experience, the most surprising discovery I found on Talladega Scenic Drive was Cheaha Lake. The lake is located far below Cheaha Mountain about a mile along a forest service road off Talladega Scenic Drive.
The small lake had a rather lovely facility, covered picnic shelter, sandy beach, and a dive platform for summertime fun. I was the only visitor the morning I went down to the lake. I was thrilled to make a coffee and sit at the wooden picnic tables for hours writing about travel adventures!
Chinnabee Silent Trail Parking
This parking area along Talladega Scenic Drive allows hikers to access the 6-mile Chinabeee Silent Trail. Ironically, the trail is anything but silent as it winds down the mountain past two waterfalls. The trail ends at Lake Chinnabeee Recreation Area.
Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area
The Lake Chinnabeee Recreation Area is one of the most secluded destinations along Talladega Scenic Drive. The small 17-acre lake is located at the end of a forest service road about four miles from Cheaha Lake.
Lake Chinnabee is much smaller and doesn’t include a sandy beach, but swimming and fishing are still opportunities for outdoor recreation. Because of seasonal flooding, camping is no longer permitted in the recreation area.
Talladega Scenic Drive comes to an unceremonious end at a small parking area for the Pinhoti Trail at Adam’s Gap. I’m not sure why the scenic route officially ends here when Talladega National Forest extends several more miles to the south.
At this point, I think the best thing is to turn around and drive the route back to the beginning. It’s the fastest and easiest access to I-20 to continue your travels.
However, if you continue along Adam’s Gap Road and Clairmont Springs Road to Alabama Highway 77, you will arrive in Talladega in about half an hour.