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Books: Excerpt from Thomas Spencer’s ‘Five-Star Trails: Birmingham’

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Five-Star Trails Birmingham, Thomas Spencer

The following chapter is an excerpt from Birmingham author Thomas Spencer’s “Five-Star Trails: Birmingham” [aff. link]. He grew up hiking and camping in Alabama and worked as a reporter for the Anniston Star and the Birmingham News. Spencer is now senior research associate at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. He was a founder of the Friends of Red Mountain Park and serves on the board of the Cahaba River Society.

“Five-Star Trails: Birmingham” provides plans and details for three dozen hikes, from downtown to the surrounding wilderness areas.

In this excerpt, Tom takes us on a hike to Oak Mountain State Park’s highest point.

• • •

Hike No. 12: Oak Mountain State Park, King’s Chair Loop

At-A-Glance Information

  • Scenery: ★★★★★
  • Trail Condition: ★★★★
  • Children: ★★★☆☆
  • Difficulty: ★★★★
  • Solitude: ★★★☆☆
  • GPS Trailhead Coordinates: N33° 21.438′ W86° 42.288′
  • Distance and Configuration: 5-mile loop
  • Hiking Time: 3 hours
  • Highlights: Challenging uphills, great mountaintop views from Eagle’s Nest and King’s Chair, wet-weather waterfalls
  • Elevation: 600 feet at trailhead, 1,200 feet at peak
  • Access, Maps, Wheelchair Access: [included in book]
  • Facilities: Restrooms and changing rooms at the trailhead
  • Comments: Remember that the Red Trail is a shared hiking and mountain biking trail.

Overview

This route is intense because of its uphill climb and the scenic rewards it provides. It’s a great hike for fall colors, providing sweeping scenic vistas. In wet weather, cascading streams tumble down the mountainside. In any season, it’s a quick way to feel far from civilization.

From the North Trailhead, this hike follows the Blue Trail up Double Oak Mountain to two of the park’s favorite overlooks. It continues southwest along the south rim of the mountain before taking the south Red–Blue Connector Trail to the Red Trail, which heads downhill back to the north trailhead.

Route Details

This hike doesn’t mess around. It makes an immediate climb up Oak Mountain. Between the North Trailhead and the Eagle’s Nest overlook, there is a 500-foot elevation gain, and that’s in the first mile-and-a-half. But that early and intense exertion pays dividends. You get away from civilization quickly. Thanks to the size of the park and the way the trail twists up the ridges, you encounter views on this hike in which all you see is woods and mountains, quick access to the feeling that you’ve wandered off someplace remote.

We hiked parts of this route in the warm and dry early fall and enjoyed the way the breezes on the ridges cooled us after a tough climb. We returned in winter after a rain and were surprised to find that what had been dry drainages in the fall had become a series of gushing waterfalls. There was so much water that creek crossings on the Red Trail offered a challenge for anyone wanting to keep their feet dry.

The hike starts at the North Trailhead, across from the gravel parking lot on the north end of the park, near the lower lakes and the park entrance off Alabama 119.

While the White, Yellow and Red Trails gain elevation gradually, the Blue Trail heads directly up the mountain. It is well marked, with plastic blue blazes nailed to trees. Distance markers are posted every quarter-mile; on the Blue Trail, they start at 0 and go up. So at Post 4, you’ve gone 1 mile.

The forests are a mix of pine and hardwood, with a nice sampling of longleaf pines on the ridges and white oaks in the draws; the latter provide a generous supply of fat acorns in the fall. When we went back in winter, the acorns were harder to find, likely gobbled up by the wintering wildlife. What was present in the winter that had not been there in the fall was water. And lots of it. A little less than a half-mile into the hike, you begin crossing a series of streams dropping down the mountainside, creating little waterfalls as they go. At the 1-mile mark, you pass the north Red–Blue Connector Trail, which serves as a shortcut back to the parking lot if you need it.

Oak Mountain State Park

Oak Mountain State Park
(click image for larger version)

King's Chair Trail map

King’s Chair Trail map, above,
and elevation profile, below

King's Chair Trail elevation profile

Shortly thereafter, the trail splits. Continuing straight, the original Blue Trail offers several unobstructed views of Shackleford Ridge, then descends gently to a saddle between ridges before resuming its upward climb. If you’ve had enough of steep hills by now, this is the way to go. Be forewarned, though, that heavy rains can turn the original Blue Trail into a swiftly flowing creek. Alternatively, if you turn left at the junction, a newer Blue Trail (with the same blue blazes) makes an exceedingly steep 0.2-mile climb to a rock outcropping at the Eagle’s Nest overlook, then continues downhill not quite as precipitously to rejoin the original Blue Trail just before the final pitch up to the Double Oak Mountain ridgetop. From the top of the rock at Eagle’s Nest, you can see yet another perspective of Shackleford Ridge and the park’s highest point. From all points, your view is forest and twisting mountain ridges that hide any evidence of civilization.

At the 1.5-mile marker on the trail (you’re about 2 miles into your hike if you went up to Eagle’s Nest), you top the ridge and reach the junction with the spur trail to the King’s Chair Overlook. Take the spur. At 0.3 miles, it’s a little longer than the spur to Eagle’s Nest, but it’s much less arduous.

At the rocky outcropping of King’s Chair, you get your first chance for wide-open views from the southeastern ridge of the mountain. In the far distance across the wide Coosa River Valley, the Talladega Mountain ridges are visible. In the middle distance, you’ll see steam rising from the cooling towers at Alabama Power’s Gaston electrical plant in south Shelby County, along the river.

Returning to the main trail, continue south along the ridge on the Blue Trail to the southern Red–Blue Connector. Take that connector, which cuts back to the north 0.75 miles to the Red Trail, which in turn takes you back to the North Trailhead. The return trip is especially nice if it has been raining. Those little mountain streams gather together with more volume, creating trailside waterfalls and challenging creek crossings. Along the way, you’ll notice stonework in the drainage system along the road. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Red Road. Remember that you’re sharing this trail with mountain bikers.

The trip back to the parking lot is well marked and easy.

Directions

From I-65, follow the directions on page 111. After entering the park, you’ll drive almost its entire length to get to the North Trailhead.

From US 280, follow the directions on page 111. About a mile past the back entrance to the park, the North Trailhead parking lot will be on your right, along the main park road.

• • •

Thomas Spencer has two library events in March: a brown bag lunch talk at noon March 11 at Emmet O’Neal Library in Mountain Brook [map]; and a book signing at 6:30 p.m. March 19 at Homewood Public Library [map].

He also has a free group hike at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 28 at Perry Lakes Park with Southeastern Outings. Other hikes with him and Scale Back Alabama will take place through April. For more information on the hikes, email Tanya Sylvan at Keen Communication or Tom Spencer.

“Five-Star Trails: Birmingham” (November 2014, Menasha Ridge Press)

Thomas Spencer

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