Definitive Guide to Cheaha: Part 2
If you are just joining us, my name is Cameron Sullivan and I’ve been a team member at Alabama Outdoors for almost three years and today I’m talking more about Cheaha State Park.
In our last blog, The Definitive Guide to Cheaha Part 1, I went over where to camp, what to do, and what to bring with you for either a day or weekend getaway to Cheaha State Park. Follow along as I go more in depth on our weekend adventures at Cheaha State Park and the what to and what not to do’s.
So that’s where the journey begins, traveling to Cheaha with a group of four friends, as part of an ad-hoc bachelor party for my 1st anniversary of my wife and mine’s elopement after delaying our original wedding due to Covid. Hardly roughing it, we promised ourselves we’d hike the toughest trails and spend more time outside than indoors to make up for it. Let’s go!
Our travel through Talladega National Forest + check-in at Cheaha State Park
On the way out to Cheaha, you pass some incredible sights. From Talladega Superspeedway to the Coosa River, there’s plenty to enjoy on the drive. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Birmingham, going up I-20 to Oxford then heading down into the forest.
With an elevation of 2,411 ft., a prominence of 1,444 ft. (how high above the other surrounding peaks), and an isolation of about 106 miles (its proximity to a similar-height peak), Mount Cheaha definitely stands out when you see it.
Pulling off the highway, the mountain towers over some smaller peaks in the area. As you get closer you quickly go from suburban roads to county roads to a narrow mountain pass. The drive up takes you across a winding road about 10 miles from the town into the heart of the forest, and straight up to the park entrance.
A rustic place built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the park has a distinct look. The vintage stonework and painted wooden buildings are nestled amongst cabins, forest pines, and dotted quartzite. When you get up to the top, you pull into a parking lot next to the mountain store to check-in.
Going in mid-June, we left Birmingham at about 85 degrees and thick humidity, but Cheaha is alien as it’s somehow more humid and cooler at the top. It was about 60 degrees when we got there, and it’s the first thing you notice when you step out. The thick, brackish air makes you feel like you’re gulping down lake water. Like a lot of climates though, you quickly stop noticing.
We checked in Friday night, at around 6, and perused the mountain store. The mountain store is incredibly well-stocked, with plenty of food, drinks, supplies, games, guides, gear, and more. We could’ve come with nothing but a credit card and still had a great time. So, with the last remaining sunlight, we checked into our chalet and enjoyed the sunset.
Our A-Frame Chalet home away from home
Driving through Cheaha you go up a one-way road around the park until you hit the chalets. Renovated chalets line the cul-de-sac with open grass and rocky yards separating them. The chalets have a stone walkway leading you from the parking spot to the abode, with an outdoor grill and firepit nearby. Inside, the chalet features two rooms on the side with a queen-sized bed and a full bathroom. The living room features a couch and chairs, plus a dining table and a TV.
We were able to start up the grill and a fire thanks to the bundle of firewood we got at the mountain store. With night set in, we sat on the porch and stared up at the clouds floating by like they were 10 feet overhead. After turning in for the night, we woke up to an incredibly bright blue, clear sky.
Cheaha Lake Trail
Now, Cheaha has a lot of hiking options, and all of them are interesting thanks to the plentiful views and many sights to see. When mapping out our hike, we mostly went by what seemed most interesting at 9 am on an 85-degree day; the lake.
Cheaha Lake, a 6-acre artificial lake, isn’t that far away on the map. The Lake Trail is a 1-mile hike down the mountain, on the southwest side. For this hike, I came prepared with an Osprey Hikelite Daypack, Keen Venture Mid Waterproof Hiking Boots, some trusty Smartwool Medium Crew Hiking Socks, and a pair of Patagonia Baggies Shorts. We set out with a bevy of supplies, mostly water, snacks, and a portable fan, but quickly met our match.
While the trail is well-marked, it’s steep and requires some scrambling over rocks. We found that we could get down, but weren’t always sure we could get back up. Eventually, we found ourselves on a cliffside, slightly lost, and not sure how to get back. On this cliff, we could see far out into the valley towards the forest and into Talladega proper. About halfway down the mountain, we still had a great view of the surroundings and stayed here at least an hour soaking it in. We enjoyed the view, decided against continuing down and started looking back.
We almost immediately found the trail, but finding we had turned off, it may have been a minute before we realized we were lost. So, with a resurgence of energy, we headed back up to the peak. Despite our lack of success, this trail is certainly worth doing, especially in the morning when you’re guaranteed the daylight to get back up. The lake was still appealing, but our lack of water and trail map made it difficult to commit to.
Bald Rock- a must visit for the panoramic views + handicap accessible
Back at the top, we refilled our waters and found the free trail map, ensuring we made it to our next destination; Bald Rock. This overlook is an iconic part of Cheaha State Park and features a boardwalk and parking area so it’s handicap accessible all year.
Walking to it from the chalet was possibly the steepest hike we did the whole trip, climbing up the one-way road for half a mile. At the parking lot, we found a well-maintained boardwalk that goes all the way out to the overlook. With informative signs and shady rest spots the whole way, this is a must-see for anyone visiting the peak.
The peak itself is incredible, with a literal birds eye view of the surrounding mountains it feels like you can reach out and touch the sky. Bald Rock remains an iconic part of Cheaha for a reason, it’s one of the most incredible views in Alabama.
The Observation Tower
Heading from Bald Rock, we decided to go back up to the front gate for lunch. Looking at the map, the road took us right past the actual peak of Cheaha Mountain, at the observation tower. Out of an abundance of curiosity, we decided to stop by as it’s fairly close to Bald Rock.
Walking up, the heavy-looking stone building features an observatory next to some radio towers, with a pavilion across the street. As we walked up, the building was open to the public and led us into an air-conditioned and incredibly welcoming staircase, easily 15 degrees cooler than the outside. From the observatory, you can see over the mountain, with a view to the south that can’t be found anywhere else.
The observatory is a nice rest-spot, but if you’re rushed it’s not worth sacrificing other sights for this spot. The nice thing is that the observatory is nestled in the middle of the primitive camping spot, so thru-hikers and campers will find it easy to stop by.
DO have a bite to eat at the Vista Cliffside Restaurant
From the observatory, we continued to the Vista Cliffside Restaurant. Trekking through the primitive campsites we were impressed with the layout and amenities each site had. From the primitive sites, it was a short walk to the Vista Cliffside Restaurant.
When we arrived, we were greeted at a front desk where they took our orders and pointed us to the expansive dining room with a deck. The menu features grab-and-go classics like burgers, pizza, and hot dogs. We were able to order and sit in the air-conditioned dining room and wait. While I always appreciate a good burger, these were truly phenomenal. Far from a gross cafeteria, the Vista Cliffside Restaurant was arguably the best part of the hiking experience. Refreshing and rejuvenating, we were able to continue from here in good spirits.
You can find their menu here if that made you wanting to know more. Did we mention the views are spectacular here, too? It’s called Vista Cliffside for a reason.
Final trip notes
From the restaurant, you can see the main resort, pool, the overlook, some of the cabins, and the Walter Farr Native American Relic Museum. Outside of the gate, this museum is a great place to learn the history of the Creek Nation that originally lived in the region, and look at some of the remarkable artifacts they’ve found in the area.
From lunch, we journeyed back to our chalet for more water before heading back out. We finished the day heading out to the Rock Garden overlook, getting a clear view of the giant quartz pieces jutting out of the mountainside. We waited out on a nearby ledge until sunset.
While we missed some of the landmarks like Pulpit Rock and the lake itself, the trip was unforgettable. From the incredible sights and sounds to the remarkably well-maintained park, everything was the perfect balance of remote, accessible, and beautiful. If you get the chance to visit this gem of a park, try and stay for a night or two.
Safe and happy travels and always remember the 7 Leave No Trace Principles when you go out and explore our beautiful parks and public lands!
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