Take a close look at the state seal of Alabama, and what do you see? Water, and lots of it: a network of of creeks, streams, bayous, lakes, rivers, river delta, and oceanfront, all adding up to thousands of miles of paddling paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Indeed, this web of waterways makes Alabama an amazing destination for kayakers, canoeists, stand-up paddleboarders, and even tube-toting folks out for a lazy summer float.
But for a truly memorable adventure, one paddling trip in particular stands out: the Alabama Scenic River Trail.
The ASRT is actually a nonprofit organization that began looking at maps and tracing those waterways. They realized that there was actually a route one could paddle from the Georgia state line in the mountains of northeast Alabama all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It is a 631-mile float from mountain to sea that, according to the National Park Service, is the longest river trail in a single state.
It’s also overflowing with history: Along the way, you’ll get the chance to visit Native American sites and Civil War battlegrounds, explore serene backwater stretches without seeing another soul, and even paddle under the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, one of the country’s most compelling civil rights landmarks. Another bonus? The route is easily accessible, with more than 100 points of river access and some 100 overnight campsites along way.
Whether you do a day paddle, a section, or the entire trail, you’re in for a real adventure on the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Here’s what to know.
A complete paddle of the trail from one end to the other takes about 48 days, depending on how fast you go. But, just as with land-based long-distance trails, you don’t have to tackle the entire length all in one shot. With the many campsites, launches, and parks along the route, not to mention outdoor outfitters and restaurants, it is easy to simply take a half- or full-day trip, or stretch your paddling adventure into an overnighter, weekend, or week-long (or longer) trip.
While the trail has numerous offshoots and tributaries, the main or "core" trail of the ASRT runs down two main rivers, the Coosa and Alabama, as well as through the second-largest river delta in the country, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, and along the banks of historic Mobile Bay before finally ending in the Gulf of Mexico. The trail is divided into four sections: the Piedmont section,
from Centre, Alabama, to Childersburg; the Central section, from Childersburg to Wetumpka; the River Heritage section, from Wetumpka to Claiborne; and the Delta section, from Claiborne to Fort Morgan. Each of these stretches provides its own unique landscapes, wildlife, and challenges.
Purists will want to start the route right from its origin: three miles from the Georgia state line in the town of Cedar Bluff at the Riverside Campground and Motel. From here, the route winds down the Coosa River, past impressive rock bluffs and through wide, expansive lakes with miles of backwaters to explore.
As you move into what is known as the Central Section, you’ll begin to cross several other lakes, all of which were formed by dams now operated and maintained by the Alabama Power Company. Things can get a little tricky here, as you’ll have to portage around each of the dams, except for Mitchell Dam in Verbena which has a super steep bank. Here, it’s highly recommended to arrange a shuttle to take you around the dam.
Next up is the River Heritage section, which offers a taste of history and a little whitewater time. Just after Jordan Dam, the Coosa River has a series of fast-running shoals which is followed by the famous Moccasin Gap in the town of Wetumpka. During normal times, the Gap is a class II/III rapid, but in the summer the power company opens the flow of the dam, amping it up to a class IV.
Also in Wetumpka, at the convergence of the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers to form the Alabama River, is Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson. The original fort was established by the French in 1717 and marks the spot where the treaty that ended the Creek Indian War was signed in 1814.
A few miles farther downstream, you can dock your boat along the Riverwalk in the state capital, Montgomery, to check out the restaurants, shops, and nightlife. A little farther still, crossing into Selma, you’ll pass under the famous Edmund Pettis Bridge, the site of what is known as "Bloody Sunday" that occurred in 1965. Marchers of the Selma to Montgomery March were met with violence as they fought for their civil rights.
You will also encounter three more dams in this region, but thanks to agreements with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there’s no need to portage: You can sit in your kayak and use the lock to continue downstream. (You’ll need to contact the lock before your arrival; phone numbers are available on the ASRT planning page.)
From here, the Alabama River swings from an east-west flow to south as it heads into the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, which has been called "America’s Amazon" because of its rainforest-like environment. It’s a magical place to paddle, rich with wildlife, including alligators and wild boar, and trees draped with Spanish moss. But don’t get too distracted by your surroundings: Most of the trip through the delta is unmarked, and it is very easy to get lost in the thick forest and miles of narrow bayous. A good GPS is a must when paddling this section.
The last stretch of the trip skirts along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, where you can visit the site of the last major battle of the Civil War at Historic Blakeley State Park and stroll along the Fairhope Pier, home to the excellent Shux on the Pier seafood restaurant. Wrap up your adventure at the tip of the Fort Morgan peninsula along the Gulf of Mexico, at the fort of the same name where the famous Battle of Mobile Bay took place during the Civil War.
The ASRT provides an excellent online brochure full of information and resources to help plan your trip. And no matter how long your adventure on the trail, keep in mind the following:
Know how to use a map and compass and, of course, have them with you.
Carry a GPS with backup batteries.
Bring plenty of food and water and make sure to have extra in case of emergencies.
Remember, cell phones usually only work near cities.
Bring a change of clothes and keep them, and other important gear like cameras and cell phones, in a dry bag.
Bring an extra paddle.
Once you reach the lower delta and Mobile Bay, tides can affect your trip, so plan accordingly.
Remember to pass through the locks on certain dams in the River Heritage section, you’ll need to make arrangements ahead of time. Phone numbers for the locks are available on the ASRT planning page.
Don’t forget a PFD.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for RootsRated in partnership with BCBS of AL.
Featured image provided by Joe Cuhaj