Alabama’s Natural Wonders Hit You with Their Best Shot
Chances are, you have probably belted out “Sweet Home Alabama” at least once in your life, so you already know that the state's skies are so blue. But the classic song fails to mention natural wonders like Alabama's mountains, waterfalls and caves, which are equally as stunning. To prove that point, we sent Kentucky-based travel influencer and photographer Tyler Glass (@tylerwayneglass) on a three-day trip around the northern part of the state to survey these sights.
As you scroll through his feed, you'll see that Tyler has traveled around the world. But with COVID curtailing international travel, he's spending more time exploring neighboring states and in his view, "the South gets overlooked," he says, noting that with a little work, you can uncover the same great shots you'd find in more Instagram-famous locations. "There's so much potential in this region."
Travelers to Alabama can feel right at home and safe when visiting the state. Amidst the pandemic, extraordinary measures have been taken to ensure visitors can enjoy all Alabama has to offer. Visit the "Take It All In Responsibly" page to learn more.
Read on to follow Tyler’s adventures in Alabama, as seen through the sights he captured.
Huntsville & Stephens Gap
Distance: 4.5 hours (285 miles) from Louisville
Tyler and his wife rolled into Huntsville just in time to grab dinner downtown at Cotton Row Restaurant. Built in 1821 along the cotton exchange, the historic building now serves modern American cuisine with French and Southern influences. As Tyler is allergic to peanuts, he couldn’t try the specialty dessert of peanut butter and jelly in phyllo, but he did try the crème brulee. “It was phenomenal, much creamier than normal,” he says, attributing the difference to the use of vanilla bean. Satiated with dessert, Tyler rested his head at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville Hotel & Spa.
The next morning, the pair set off on the 30-minute drive to Stephens Gap, a beloved Southeast cave known for its 143-foot pit and waterfall. While free to enter, a permit is required, as are helmets, head lamps and sturdy shoes for going over wet rocks. “It’s not full-on spelunking,” he explains. “You can take your family. It’s perfectly safe.”
There are two entrances to the cave – one for rappelling and one you can walk down. The view of the pit from the walk-down entrance is one of the most photographed wild cave scenes in North America, and Tyler waited about five hours to get the above shot of the light rays pouring through. He says from a photographer's standpoint, the best lighting through the pit happens in July and August, so he plans on visiting again.
Distance: 15 minutes (11 miles) from Huntsville
Tyler’s next stop, Cathedral Caverns, was a short drive away. Part of the 493-acre Cathedral Caverns State Park and originally known as the Bat Cave, the caverns have been open to the public since the 1950s. Measuring 126 feet wide and 25 feet high, the entrance is pretty massive, but there are more jaw-dropping features inside, like “Goliath”, one of the largest stalagmites in the world, measuring 45 feet tall and 243 feet in circumference.
Cave tours are scheduled throughout the day, so Tyler joined a 90-minute one in the afternoon. There he learned the story of the man who bought the caverns and how his wife was furious with him -- until they went to one particular room in the dark cave and he turned all the lights on at once. Tyler’s guide did the same thing with the group.
“The most wow factor for me was the Cathedral Caverns and seeing this massive room of spires,” says Tyler, who has been spelunking in 10 different caves in the country. “I had lower expectations for it and it blew my expectations out of the water. It was the best cave I’ve ever been in.”
Lake Guntersville State Park
Distance: 41 minutes (29 miles) from Cathedral Caverns
Tyler’s final stop of the day was Lake Guntersville State Park, where he spent the night at The Lodge. Located along the banks of the Tennessee River, the park holds over 6,000 acres of natural woodlands; within its grounds are an 18-hole golf course, a zipline, a beach complex, Alabama’s largest lake for fishing, horseback riding, boat and kayak rentals, an outdoor nature center and 36 miles of hiking and biking trails. With so much territory to explore, Tyler made use of his drone for footage.
“By the time I got there, it was sunset,” says Tyler, “or I would have played golf there.” He added that he would definitely go back in order to spend more time at Guntersville for the hiking and biking activities.
Tyler had a hunch that it would be foggy there that morning, so he woke up early enough for sunrise and headed for the base of the lake. “It’s caked in fog, there are silhouettes of fishermen in the boats going along with spots of forest,” he says. “It was a really epic morning.”
DeSoto Falls & Little River Canyon National Preserve
Distance: 56 minutes (41 miles) from Guntersville
The next day was all about waterfalls, with a side trip for golf and libations. First he headed to DeSoto Falls, a 104-foot waterfall on the west fork of the Little River. Named after the Spanish explorer, Hernando DeSoto, this waterfall is one of the most visited in Alabama; in the winter and early spring, the water level is highest.
From there, it was about 12 miles south to Little River Canyon National Preserve and its scenic views from the flat top of Lookout Mountain. One of the deepest canyon systems east of the Mississippi River and the deepest in the state of Alabama, Little River Canyon reaches 600 feet down in some sections. He stopped to check out the 45-foot Little River Falls, which starts the formation of the canyon.
Silver Lakes Golf Course
Distance: 50 minutes (41 miles) from Little River Canyon National Preserve
With the golf bug ignited in him from seeing the course at Lake Guntersville State Park the previous day, Tyler stopped to play a round of golf at Silver Lakes Golf Course. Located between Anniston and Gadsden, the course is part of the Robert Trent Jones III Golf Trail, an acclaimed series of 11 courses by the designer across Alabama. Surrounded by the Appalachian foothills and Lee’s Lake, the 36 holes are set among forests, wetlands, grasslands and dramatic elevation changes here.
“The golf course was beautiful beyond reason,” Tyler says. “They’re so finely tuned and so well groomed. If you’re having a bad day, there are ways to bring it back just because you’re never in a trench that’s too hard to get out of.”
Noccalula Falls & Hotel Finial
Distance: 16 minutes (23 miles) from Silver Lakes Golf Course
After playing golf, Tyler headed to Noccalula Falls, which cascades 90 feet over Lookout Mountain. Originally known as Black Creek Falls, the waterfall was renamed after a Cherokee maiden who leaped to her death rather than go through with an arranged marriage. The park also includes gardens and trails, like the Black Creek Trail, a 1.7-mile crushed stone path along the Black Creek Gorge, which takes you under the falls.
Most of Tyler’s meals were spent on the road rather than stopping, but for dinner that night, he gave himself a treat at Back Forty Beer Company in Gadsden. Part of the area’s thriving craft beer scene, popular beers here include Naked Pig (a pale ale), Truck Stop Honey (brown ale) and Freckle Belly (IPA), but new beers are added seasonally. “They had maybe 20 beers on tap and three of them were some of the best I’ve ever had in my life,” he raved, adding, “I had the best chicken and cheese nachos I’ve had in my entire life.”
Full of food and drinks, Tyler and his wife headed for their resting spot for the night, Hotel Finial, in Anniston. A Queen Anne Victorian mansion set on a hilltop, it's a mixture of old style and modern on the inside. “The photos of it looked pretty nice, but when we got there, it blew our minds,” he says. “It was gorgeous.”
Distance: 43 minutes (24.4 miles) from Hotel Finial
The next morning, Tyler headed to Cheaha State Park, a 2,799-acre mountaintop retreat that is the highest point in Alabama. While there are hiking and biking trails, the real must-do in the park is to head to Pulpit Rock and check out the panoramic views of Talladega National Forest.
“You go down this really secluded trail,” he says of the 0.6-mile hike. “You come out to a cliff face and there are jagged rocks stacked on top of each other. There’s just a big wall of it so you can get multiple points of view, photography-wise. You look over this massive range and there are a ton of mountains and trees in front of you. It was really cool.”
From a photographer’s perspective, Tyler says that it’s easier to create content in Alabama than in other places. “Alabama is a little more mountainous, so there’s more perspective and ridge lines, dramatic landscapes,” noting that it’s a fun spot for a 3- to 4-day road trip for a photographer. “It has a lot of opportunity and potential for great shots.”