In 2014, a University of Georgia researcher published an article titled âAlabama’s Biodiversity is Remarkableâ (link below). In it, he described the state as “the Fort Knox of the nation’s biodiversity.” It came as a shock to most countries and the world, but those of us exploring Alabama’s beautiful countryside have known for a long time that there is something special about this state.
Basically, high biodiversity means that an area is home to an incredible variety of animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms, all working together to create a complex web of life – an ecosystem. That pretty much sums up Alabama. Its hot and humid climate, combined with 132,000 miles of rivers, streams, and 60 miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico, make the state a fertile ground for plants and wildlife.
The numbers are mind-boggling: 332 species of freshwater fish (first in US), 180 species of freshwater mussel (first in US), 27 species of freshwater turtle (first in US) United), over 3,100 trees, plants, and shrubs. Well you get the idea.
Here are the six best experiences you can have in one of America’s most biologically diverse states: Alabama.
1. Splinter Hill Bog – Minette Bay
The Ruth McClellan Abronski Splinter Hill Bog on the Gulf Coast of Alabama is called the “world’s most impressive pitching bog.” Simply known as the Splinter Hill Bog to locals, the bog literally overflows with thousands of white-pitched plants between March and August, peaking around June and July.
A jug is a carnivorous plant, much like a Venus fly trap, except that it has a long tube. The insects are drawn to the plant by the sweet nectar inside this tube. Once they climb or crawl, tiny hairs bent down prevent them from escaping, and this nectar turns out to be their disappearance.
In addition to the White Top Pitcher Plant, Splinter Hill – which is managed by the Nature Conservancy – is home to four other species of pitchers and at least seven other documented carnivorous plants.
Pro tip: You don’t have to walk far to see the spectacular spectacle. A 0.1 mile ADA accessible walkway leads to the main plant field from the parking lot. But there are plenty more plants and wildflowers to see in the bog along an easy 3.1 mile walking trail that winds through the reserve.
2. Mobile-Tensaw River Delta – Spanish Fort
The Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the second largest in the country behind the Mississippi, spans 200,000 acres and has rightly earned the nickname “America’s Amazon.” Here, five rivers converge to create an intricate network of bayous, swamps, river bottomlands, and marshes that truly resemble the Amazon rainforest environment.
Hidden deep in the mysterious backwaters are ancient Indian mounds where civilizations first took root, military batteries built by the Spanish armies to protect their territorial claims against the French in the 1700s, and the remains of the last slave ship to arrive in America, the Clotilde.
Beyond history, the delta is a wealth of natural beauty with acres of pitchers in its infiltrating peat bogs with pines, towering cypress trees overlooking the muddy water, fields of purple irises and grasses. marines rippling in the breeze along the shores and in the marshes, and where alligators, wild boars and black bears roam free while bald eagles, pelicans and ospreys soar high above.
There are several ways to discover the delta. The first is an exhilarating airboat ride, where a skiff is propelled for a brisk ride along the waterways, then lean into swampy areas and bayous where most boats cannot reach.
Bring a kayak or rent one from a local outfitter and paddle the delta backwaters on the Bartram Canoe Trail for an incredible up-close adventure with these alligators.
And for an effortless adventure, sign up for a ride on one of the tour boats like those at Wild Native or Historic Blakeley State Park, where knowledgeable guides take you through bayous and canals and tell you about the history of the delta and point out points of interest.
Pro tip: Paddling the delta is not for the novice paddler. Even though the Bartram Canoe Trail is signposted, it’s still easy to turn around in a bayou. It is best to go with experienced paddlers or a guide.
3. Alabama Bird Watching Trail
Alabama is a bird watcher’s paradise, with over 400 species identified from Huntsville to Mobile, including many rare or endangered species and migratory birds. Just over 10 years ago, the Alabama Birding Trail was created and features over 280 top birding sites across the state.
The trail is divided into eight distinct geological regions, each providing a different and unique viewing experience. It can be a simple bench along the shores of a lake or a quiet pond for waterfowl viewing. Maybe it’s a walk on an old logging road through beautiful swamps and wetlands to spot brown mockingbirds and brown-headed nuthatches. Or how about a walk along the sparkling white sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico to spot ospreys, sandpipers and snow plovers?
Pro tip: I highly recommend that you plan to attend the annual Alabama Coastal Bird Festival, which takes place on the first weekend of October each year. Based at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort, the 5-day event is packed with presentations on everything from raptor demonstrations to hands-on instructions and plenty of guided tours to various locations including the River’s Mobile-Tensaw Delta. mentioned earlier.
4. Cahaba Lily – West Blocton
A beautiful flower that can only be found in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina is the Cahaba Lily. A member of the spider lily family, the magnificent Cahaba lily sports a brilliant white flower 3 inches wide. The lily can only be found in the fast currents of the rocky shoals of the river where there is plenty of sunlight, which makes the Cahaba River in Alabama one of the few places where you can see the plant.
Lilies bloom between mid-May and mid-June, usually from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day. The best place to see them is at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, which is located 5 miles east of West Blocton, Alabama, just off County Road 24 on River Trace.
Pro tip: The Cahaba River Society hosts the Cahaba Lily Festival on the last Saturday in May each year with music, hikes, presentations and, of course, views of the fabulous lily.
5. Keel Mountain Reserve – Gurley
The Nature Conservancy does an incredible job protecting sensitive habitats and landscapes not only in Alabama but across the country. One of their sites in Alabama is the Keel Mountain Preserve.
Located just 16 miles southeast of Huntsville, the 310-acre reserve was purchased by conservation to protect the endangered Morefield Leather Flower. This climbing plant produces beautiful large, bell-shaped flowers around June, depending on the amount of rainfall. The vibrant purple bloom adds a pop of color to the otherwise dark summer greens. The plant is only found in six locations around the world, all of which are in the Huntsville area.
The centerpiece of the reserve is the beautiful and scenic 100ft waterfall known as Lost Sink Falls which tumbles over a limestone cliff where it disappears underground into a 30ft deep sinkhole.
Pro tip: Moderately difficult 2.2 mile (total) rough round trip hike over slabs and boulders leads you to the waterfall. The trail is easy to follow with green plastic diamond shaped markers with yellow arrows and the Nature Conservancy logo on the top.
6. Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge – Scottsboro
Located on the shores of a finger of Guntersville Lake, Sauta Cave has seen a lot of human activity over the years. It was a saltpetre mine during the Civil War, a sweatshop in the 1920s, and a fallout shelter in the 1960s. Today the cave is known for its incredible air show.
The cave and the 264 acres surrounding it were placed under federal protection in 1978 to preserve the endangered population of gray and Indian bats that live there. The cave provides a warm and comfortable environment for the breeding of bats, what scientists call a âmajor maternity caveâ.
It is estimated that over 400,000 bats live in the cave, nearly 40% of all gray bats in North America. Every year between July and August, as the last rays of the sun begin to fade and the sun sets below the horizon, the bats come alive and provide a spectacular air show you will never forget.
At first, only a handful of bats come out of the entrance. Suddenly the scene erupts with thousands of them, diving harmlessly into the sky, sometimes just inches from your head, to pick up their dinner of bugs.
Pro tips: Entrance to the reserve is free. There is a universally accessible trail 100 yards from the parking lot on US Highway 72 that leads to a platform near the cave entrance. The cave is closed so people cannot access it. Wear a poncho with a hood or umbrella to protect yourself from bat droppings, use bug spray and bring a flashlight to return to the car after sunset, but do not direct the light towards the cave or the bats when they emerge.