[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Bicycling in Northeast Alabama
My knowledge of North Alabama, the seasons, the terrain, plants and animals, towns and highways, attitudes towards cycling, and dogs. The best area to visit and two routes through the area.

What is my background and experience for writing about Northeast Alabama? What has been my cycling and touring experience in North Alabama? What is the climate and weather like in Alabama in the summer, spring, fall, and winter? What is the topography and geology of Northeast Alabama? What are the trees of North Alabama, and what are the woods like? What kinds of wild fruits are found in this region? What kind of wildlife and fish are found? How are the cities for bicycling? What are the problems and advantages of Alabama highways for cycling? Are there large numbers of cyclists in Alabama, and what are the attitudes towards them? What is the dog situation in Alabama? What would be the single best part of Northeast Alabama for a cyclist or mountain biker to visit? What are two good routes for a touring cyclist to follow in Northeast Alabama?


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Bicycling in Northeast Alabama

I want to introduce other cyclists to Northeast Alabama, the area I know best. My purpose is not to convince you to travel here but to give you some useful information in case you decide to do so. I want to be a little comprehensive, so I suggest skipping over the parts you do not find to be immediately interesting. In particular, I think my information on places to cycle and on routes through Alabama will be helpful. In the future, I intend to add additional specific information about bike shops, clubs, places to ride, etc., but for the present, this page is mainly just a general guide.

A map of Northeast Alabama
A map of Northeast Alabama.

My Knowledge of Northeast Alabama

I moved to Northeast Alabama in 1955 when I was ten. Since then, although I have lived in other states for about six years, I have spent a total of 37 years here. During that time, I have lived in Gadsden, Jacksonville, Huntsville briefly, Tuscaloosa, Hokes Bluff, Bessemer briefly, Birmingham, Anniston briefly, the West Jefferson area, and Scottsboro, and I camped out with my son near Warrior for several years as well. Besides cycling, I have been interested in hiking, camping, caving, geology, natural history, gardening (briefly), fishing, swimming, rafting (one-man raft), and beekeeping, which have given me a broader view of my area. Besides traveling by bike, I have often traveled by car and van through this section of the state, both alone and with others. Still, there's much more that I don't know than what I do know. The included map (above) has clipped off a little of the north border of the state to extend as far south as Tuscaloosa (which is unlabeled in the left-hand bottom corner just below Northport).

My bike travels in Northeast Alabama
My bike travels in Northeast Alabama

As for my cycling experience in Northeast Alabama, the majority of my mileage has been simple everyday travel from A to B in the towns where I lived. If this had been my only bike travel, there would be little on the map. However, I have also taken longer weekend rides from time to time, and these rides would have at least drawn a lot of lines on the map, many of them overlapping from one area in which I lived to another. In addition, I made overnight, non-camping bike trips from one city to another and back. The shorter trips of the 60's were not recorded, but I made 16 longer overnight trips in '66 and from '85 to '92 that totaled 2,250 miles. Finally, I have made 35 camping trips over the years. Nine of these trips included four or more states and 24 were made in Alabama only. Looking at the last 24 alone: four of them were made while I was in college in the 60's, two in the '70's, twelve in the 80's, and six in the 90's. The in-state trips are shorter than the multi-state trips, ranging from 70 to 428 miles in length, and totaling almost 5,500 miles in distance. Since I like to take a slightly different route whenever possible, these trips have allowed me to cover Northeast Alabama fairly thoroughly. By the way, this map, with my bike travels marked in red, does not extend quite as far to the east as the first, but it does extend to the state line in the north and 30 miles farther to the south.

The Paint Rock Valley in the early summer
The Paint Rock Valley in the early summer.

The Climate and Seasons

The climate of Northeast Alabama has an impact on cycling. Unfortunately, almost everyone takes bike trips during the summer, when Alabama can be deadly hot. To make the heat worse in the summer and the cold worse in the winter, Alabama is a humid state. One year a bike magazine stated that one should never ride a bike when the combined temperature and humidity were over 160, yet at 8:00 in the morning that summer, the temperature was 80° in the shade, and the humidity was 80%. About 16 inches of rain falls during the summer, mostly in thunderstorms, which can be quite violent. It's my policy, when in Alabama for the summer and unable to make a bike trip northward, to not ride between noon and four o'clock unless it is cloudy. In fact, on many days, it would be better to quit riding at ten and not ride again until six. Nonetheless, I have made five non-camp trips and seven instate bicycle camping trips during the summer, and nine of my multi-state trips included at little Alabama summer travel. I took some precautions: I made many of the trips during cool spells, I was very carefully to drink a lot of fluids, I used suntan lotion, I kept my face and neck covered, and I rested at noontime for an hour or more. Whenever I could, I soaked my shirt in water. Starting and finishing the day early, before the afternoon heat, is also a good strategy, although one could ride just as easily between four and nine in the afternoon and evening. In planning summer rides, I take the sun and heat into consideration, such as choosing the shadier road for the afternoon part of the day's travel.

Spring in Alabama is more reasonable that the summer. Over the years, I have made two non-camp and eight camping trips in March, April, and May. There is nothing more beautiful than a trip when the leaves are turning green and the first flowers are coming out, which happens in the first half of April in North Alabama. During the beginning of this period, the danger of cold weather sweeping in from the north is great and, near the end of the period, very hot, summer-like weather can occur. In fact, the sudden changeability of the weather is the greatest problem during these three months, as periods of cool, rainy weather, lasting for almost a week, can set in. Northeast Alabama gets about 16 inches of rain during the spring.

Fall is probably the most suitable time for bike camping in Alabama. I have made on my bike seven non-camping trips and six camping trips during September, October, and November. The rainfall is half that of the other seasons, about 8 inches, and the weather is unusually uniform for long periods of time. I especially enjoy the Indian summer weather that comes after the first cold spell in October, a long mild shirt-sleeve period that extends in some years half-way through November. Unfortunately, Alabama does not usually receive enough rain in the fall for strikingly pretty trees, but some trees, such as the sugar maples, are always pretty anyway.

Winter is the worst time for cycling in Alabama, but the weather is more suitable than someone living further north might think. I have seen periods of 70° weather lasting a week or more, and in February of '76, there was a solid month of warm, beautiful weather. This winter ('97 - '98), I was able to bicycle six days out of seven, and I did about as well (on the days that I was free to cycle) during previous winter as well. The greatest problem is not cold but rain, and rainy spells can last nearly a week, with temperatures in the 30's. Snow is a possibility, but usually melts after a single day. I have only seen two heavy snowfalls that remained on the ground as long as a week. One problem with winter travel is that the temperatures can change so quickly. One day might be warm and dry, the next colder and wet, the next even colder and dry, and the next warm and rainy. The weather is too unpredictable for camping. Nonetheless, I did make two winter camping trips, with part of the time on each spent camping in a cave for better protection. On both trips, I experienced both good and very cold weather. I also have made two non-camping trips during this season. Besides the rain and cold and unpredictable weather, there is also the problem of very short days. So no one should plan to come to Alabama on a bicycle vacation for the winter; however, the state is a great place for a cyclist to live.

Climbing Skyline Mountain
Climbing Skyline Mountain.

Geology and Topography

The landscape in Northeast Alabama is quite unusual. Basically, this corner of the state is covered with flat-topped mountains, or plateaus, with narrow flat valleys between them. The history of these mountains is interesting. At one time, Alabama was a flat plain, eroded to the level of the sea and covered with sediments. Then, million of years ago, North America and Africa collided, and the collision thrust hundreds of miles of rocks northwestward, crumpling up new mountains. This collision happened very slowly, just as India is pushing up the Himalayan Mountains today. The mountains that were formed by this process disappeared long ago, but they have determined the present geography. Originally, the mountains were topped with softer and more recent materials, but these have eroded away and are now only found in the southern half of the state, including the Tuscaloosa region. Underneath these softer strata were very resistant layers of Pennsylvania sandstone, often underlain by coal. These layers are flatter to the north and west but were badly crumpled in the south and east, in fact, they have even disappeared to the southeast of Gadsden. Directly under these hard layers of sandstone were limestones of the Mississippian period. Steams of water flowing into this strata or rain falling on it disappeared into the ground and emerged at springs, and the mountains were undermined from within. Beneath the limestone are more resistant older layers, some as old as the first fossils in the Cambrian. Because of the rapid erosion of the limestone layers, an odd reversal happened. The former valley floors became the mountain tops, while the former narrow mountains became the valleys. Since the force pushing up these mountains came from the southeast, the current valleys run at a 90° angle from that force, or from the southwest to the northeast. The current valley floors are roughly flat due to resistant strata in the stream beds that inhibit erosion. There are a number of these bars across the Tennessee River, with Muscle Shoals being widely known. The mountain tops are in a sense plateaus, but they are hardly flat, as they have been eroded for millions of years. The "top" of Lookout Mountain, for instance, is badly scoop out near the south end, with the edges of the mountain much higher. Noccalulu Falls, at the south end of the mountain in Gadsden, was once the end of a river that flowed the entire length of the "valley"; most of the water was long ago diverted into other streams, including Little River and Yellow Creek. Very interesting is the fact that the Tennessee River and most other rivers of the Cumberland and Appalachian Mountains cut through the current mountains as if they don't exist, indicating that these rivers are much older than any of the current mountains and cut through them as the mountains were being lifted. However, some of these rivers have been changed nonetheless. The present Tennessee River flows southwestward in Alabama where a mountain used to be. Where did it once flow?

Trees and Woodlands

Trees vary as one travels from north to south. In the northeastern corner of Northeast Alabama, hardwood trees of the mixed mesophytic forest dominate. For example, on my ten acres north of Scottsboro are found sugar maple, tulip tree, various white and red oaks, red cedar, white ash, persimmon, black locust, dogwood, redbud, sycamore, hophornbeam, various hickories, cucumbertree, basswood, yellow buckeye, hackberry, several elms, kiri, sassafras, sweet gum, beech, black walnut, plum, black tupelo, blackhaw, black cherry, and sugarberry. There are no willows, hemlocks, honey locusts, holly, buckthorn, or sourwood on my land, but they all occur nearby. As one travels to the south, the number of hardwood species rapidly drops, with the oaks, hickories, and tulip tree dominating. Also, some additional species start occasionally appearing, including the magnolias, the cottonwood, and the catalpa tree. In addition, the percentage of land with pine trees or oak-pine-hickory mixtures increase. Eventually, the pines predominate, except along the streams. Access to the woods is rather easy in Alabama, as unfenced and unposted woods frequently extend up to the roads; although wherever hunting clubs have sprung up, they have posted all the land they control.

Wild Fruits and Berries

If, like me, you enjoy wild fruits and berries, Alabama lacks some of the northern kinds, but still has many of its own. Of the fruit from trees, I have never have seen any from uncultivated apples, cherries, or peaches, although I still do see such trees on rare occasions and also can buy apples and peaches grown commercially from this state. On the other hand, uncultivated pears and plums do produce fruit, the latter being fairly common. Wild trees which produce fruit are mulberry, fig, pawpaw, and persimmon, with the white and black mulberries producing a heavy crop in the early spring and the persimmon a heavy crop in the fall. Of non-tree fruits, the black and red raspberries grow only in the northeast corner, but the blackberry, dew berry, blueberry, huckleberry, and muscadine are common and highly productive over the entire region. One important rule -- always take a bath after picking blackberries or plums in Alabama -- as chigger bites can appear in great numbers in all the places you don't want to scratch.

Wildlife and Fish

Wildlife is less common, in my opinion, than in states farther north. I think the hot summers, which quickly evaporate any rainfall, the dry autumns, the reduction in the varieties of hardwoods as one moves southward, the pine regions which provide little food, and the popularity of hunting all contribute. Nonetheless, I have managed to see red and gray foxes, deer, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, rabbits, and skunks on numerous occasions, and otters and beavers more than once. Recently, coyotes have moved into the northern part and armadillos into the very southern part of this region.

Fishing is very good in the spring, when the bass and sunfish eagerly seek food along the shore, and in the winter, when the crappie are striking. In the heat of summer, however, only the most skillful fisherman in boats achieve any results.

Cycling in the Cities

The cities of Northeast Alabama vary greatly in cycling ease. Huntsville, with a population of 190,000 at the twelve o'clock position on the map, is a motor city. While having more cycling shops than any other town in Alabama, it is horrible to try to cross during much of the day. The roads in and out are not very suitable either. The city has grown in a north-south orientation, but the most recent growth has been to the west. This is the only city in Northeast Alabama that has grown significantly in population. To the east of Huntsville are the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau. Forty miles to the east is Scottsboro, located on the Tennessee River, a town of about 10,000. While 72 is a poor highway for cycling, there are many good roads in and around this town. Twenty and thirty-five miles towards the northeast along the river are Stevenson and Bridgeport, much smaller towns, with nice back roads. To the southwest by twenty-five miles on the river is Guntersville, a somewhat smaller town that is growing into Albertville and Boaz, (on the top of Sand Mountain) with good roads in every direction, except the main highway. To the east of Scottsboro by thirty-five miles is Fort Payne, similar in size to Guntersville and Albertville, located in a narrow valley that runs from Chattanooga to Gadsden to Birmingham and beyond. Traffic is sometimes bad on the main street but elsewhere is no problem. To the south, across Lookout Mountain is Centre, a much smaller town on the lake, with many good roads. To the southwest, at the foot of Lookout Mountain, Gadsden, a city of 50,000 running east - west, is very easily to cross by bicycle, except one should get off of Meigan Boulevard and travel on the old main street two or three blocks to the south. To the southeast is Jacksonville, a college town, which has been growing into a retirement community, an excellent place to cycle from, with many light-duty roads nearby. North, along the Choccolocco Mountains is Piedmont, a smaller town with some busy highways, and south along the mountains is Anniston, a narrow north-south town of about 35,000. Get on the old street here also, which is to the west of the main drag. The mountains then turn somewhat towards the east down to Talledega, half the size of Anniston and not a difficult town. Then seventy miles west is Birmingham, still the largest city in Alabama, but now less than 300,000 in size, with a lot of the population moving to the south across the mountains, for some reason. Cycling is easier in the city that in the newer areas, and there are many good rides in this area. On down the main valley to the southwest is Bessemer, the size of Anniston, with lots of local roads. From here, the valley bends to the west to Tuscaloosa, 60 miles from Birmingham, 75,000 people strong, and a difficult city to cycle through as most of the streets are four or six-laned with heavy traffic. Good cycling roads are scarce in this county. To the north and somewhat east of Tuscaloosa is Jasper, about the size of Scottsboro, and to the northeast of that is Cullman, about the same size. I have little experience with cycling near these towns, although I have pedaled through each of them on trips.

Alabama Highways

The highways in Alabama generally have twelve foot wide lanes and no shoulders. Because of the lack of shoulders and the tendency of cars to travel in packs, four-lanes are mostly unpleasant and dangerous to travel on. While two-lane highways sometimes have high volumes of traffic, most of them do not, and I sometimes use them for many miles of travel. Country roads are almost always paved, and drivers tend to be less impatient on these roads. In general, due to the lower population and population density of Alabama and the number of paved roads, traffic is light compared to other states.

Cyclists in Alabama

Few people in northeast Alabama ride bicycles. The bike shops depend on mountain bike sales, but I see few of these riders. It seems strange to me for a region with excellent weather and mainly flat roads to have so few cyclists. Behaviors towards cyclists by motorists vary widely from one part of the state to another. Generally, as is true everywhere, city people are in a great rush and can't be bothered to slow down, and country people are more patient. Nonetheless, I find people to be more friendly towards cyclist and more careful about passing in the eastern half of this region and in the Birmingham region. As a whole, Alabamians are less conscious of bicycles and are less likely to behave appropriately than people who are more familiar with meeting cyclists on the road.


Dogs are more common in Alabama than in states farther north. On the back roads, where cyclists like to travel, dogs are frequently roaming free. Some people have told me that this is the reason they don't ride bikes. Now days, most people seem to recognize that they are responsible if their dog hurts you and will cooperate if the dogs get out into the road. I find that being polite but assertive towards the dog owner wins the most cooperation.

A Recommended Area to Visit

A camping location on Lake Guntersville
A camping location on Lake Guntersville.

If I were coming from another state to ride in Alabama, the most attractive part to me would be east of Huntsville, north of the Tennessee River, and west of Sand Mountain. This area includes all of Jackson County, most of Marshall County to the south, and part of Madison County to the west. The majority of the land in this area is wooded. Most of the roads in this region are through the valleys, with woods, farm lands, and mountains all around. Some of the roads are on top of the mountains, which are rolling but fairly level, and patchy farmlands with drier woods in between. A few miles of roads connect the roads at the bottom of the mountain with those at the top. These are either a challenge or a blast, depending on the direction of travel (up or down). Especially nice rides are the Paint Rock Valley, with the valley nicer to the north, and the road from Guntersville to Scottsboro on the east side of the Tennessee. However, the only unrecommended roads in this area are highways 72 and 431, on which I commonly travel for short distances.

For places to stay in this area, there are inexpensive motels in Scottsboro and many motels in Guntersville, plus a state campground at little Mountain near Guntersville, private areas a little farther up the road, and free sites on TVA property along the lake even farther up.

Those interested in mountain biking will be pleased to learn that this area has many jeep roads that travel far back into the woods in the valleys and on top of the mountains. I can't be more specific as these trails are on private land, and their status can change easily, due to local hunting clubs.

Recommended Routes

I will recommend just two routes across Northeast Alabama at present. These routes will take you through the region with a minimum amount of traffic and some nice scenery as well. These routes are both routes that I have used repeatedly.

Highway 79 Alternative

Highway 79 is a usable, north to south, state highway from the state line to Birmingham. However, traffic gets heavy long before Birmingham is reached, so I have an alternative route that I prefer using that accomplishes the same purpose. In addition, by changing the route somewhat, the ride will be much more scenic and the traffic will be much reduced. I have used this entire route when traveling with my son, while he was still a teenager.

This route begins as Tennessee 16, traveling south from Highway 64 near Winchester, Tennessee, (located 30 miles NE of Huntsville, Alabama) which is on the Tennessee Bike Route. To avoid traveling on Highway 64 from Winchester, take South Jefferson, bear right on Liberty Road, turn right on Liberty Centennial to Farris Chapel, and turn left onto Highway 16. Several miles south of Winchester, Highway 16 ascends a very steep grade to the top of Key Springs Mountain. From there, this excellent road travels through many miles of woods (which are marked "no trespassing" and patrolled) to finally come out on Skyline Mountain in Alabama. The name of the road changes to Highway 79 at the state line, of course. After reaching the end of the mountain and just starting a steep descent, take the first left (country 21) instead. Five miles ahead turn right at the crossroads at Pikeville, and travel five more miles to Scottsboro. A short distance north of the traffic light in Scottsboro is a small supermarket.

Traveling straight ahead at the traffic light onto highway 35, follow a four-lane (with a shoulder) a few miles until after crossing the Tennessee River. In crossing the bridge here, I stop and wait on the hill until there is no traffic behind, which gets me about half-way across. On the other side, turn right at the foot of the mountain and follow this delightful road along the river all the way to Guntersville. At Guntersville, go straight across 79 up highway 69, but turn left when you reach the lake again (a good supermarket is here).

Follow this road along the lake but, at a daycare center, just before the road joins highway 79, take another right, and follow this smaller road that parallels 79, but with little traffic and better scenery. At the foot of a hill, you will bear left, thus heading for an intersection with 231. After joining that highway, there will be some traffic, including truck traffic, for about ten miles, but on reaching Blountsville, take a right turn at the traffic light, onto county 26, heading down to Garden City. At Garden City, turn left, and travel down old highway 31.

It would be great if we could follow this bee-line highway to its end, but it terminates into the interstate, so at Blount Springs, we have to make a left turn, and following a hilly, winding, and scenic route to Hayden. At Hayden, take a right turn onto 160, heading SW. Just before the interstate, turn left on the road that parallels it. This road takes you into Warrior and to the four-laned, highway 31 beyond, which is lightly used, due to the interstate. This road will take you to Gardendale and then on into Birmingham.

Highway 11

The best road to travel long distances through this region cuts right through the middle of it from northeast to southeast, Highway 11, extending from Chattanooga to Tuscaloosa and beyond. This road was upgraded and improved several times before Interstate 59 was put in and has been kept in excellent condition since. The interstate is seldom visible from this road, and the traffic is usually light. Starting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the road climbs the flank of Lookout Mountain for a short distance, and then turns and follows the mountain to the southwest, going first through the corner of Georgia. Traveling south on this route, I have not encountered much traffic until Fort Payne, where moving one block westward solved the problem through the thickest part of town. Fifteen miles farther south, in Collinsville, one can encounter heavy traffic from trade days on Saturdays only. The next grocery store is in Attalla, where a little traffic occurs. Then, there are many nice miles until Trussville, where the traffic becomes quite heavy for a few miles. On entering Birmingham, it is best to leave First Avenue North, since the speed limit there is 50 mph and the traffic is sometimes heavy. Instead, I move a couple of blocks to the east, and the first place where this can be done is just past the Roebuck Shopping Center. This places me on 4th Avenue South. At some point after the interstate crosses over First Avenue, I want to move west to 1st Avenue South. Anytime after crossing 77th street is fine. This road picks up traffic as it merges with Highway 78, so I turn left at the end of the straight-away after that junction onto Fifth Avenue South, and travel on this street through the center of town.

After crossing under the interstate, however, the streets all terminate into a street running north-south. I suggest turning south (left) here and then right on Dennison Avenue, which leads directly to an intersection with Jefferson Avenue (on my last trip, I went the other way, which is longer). Jefferson Avenue is a lightly traveled two-lane that goes all the way to Bessemer, where it is called Dartmouth Avenue.

Where Dartmouth Avenue ends on the south side of Bessemer, one can zigzag one block left to Avenue F, and then proceed down the Eastern Valley Road (CR 18) or one can travel several blocks right to 4th Avenue, CR 20, also called the Old Tuscaloosa Highway. The character of the roads is quite different. The Old Tuscaloosa Highway has more traffic and is flatter, and the Eastern Valley Road has less traffic and some hills. However, the Old Tuscaloosa Highway leads into state 216, which is hillier and more scenic while the Eastern Valley Road leads into Highway 11 which is flatter but with more traffic. And, since the roads run parallel a short distance apart, one can travel from one to the other. Remember that the last changeover point is the Tannehill SP - Buckville connection. Since I need to provide no additional directions for the Old Tuscaloosa Highway route (it runs straight into 216, and 216 runs right into Tuscaloosa), I will describe the Eastern Valley Road instead.

After passing Tannehill State Park, I continue straight on this road to Green Pond. At Green Pond, I also continue straight for several miles until I come to a stop sign. At this point, I turn right over the bridge across the railroad and up the hill to intersect with Highway 5. Just a short distance to the right is the junction with Highway 11, where I turn left (there's a supermarket right after this turn). Although Highway 11 gets some truck traffic, it seems to be a fairly safe highway. I cooperate with the trucks by pulling off when they can't see over the hill. However, Highway 11 gets a lot of traffic off of the interstate before getting to Tuscaloosa. To solve this problem, I turn right onto county road 32, also called Keenes Mill Road a few miles out of town. This is a scenic ride which unfortunately has a couple of steep climbs. Keenes Mill Road joins 216 at a cemetery, and it's a short distance to the left back to Highway 11.

At the intersection of Highways 216 and 11, it's possible to go straight ahead or turn right. Neither road is very suited to cycling, and traffic will be heavy at times; both will lead right into town. From Tucaloosa, one could continue on Highway 11 or 69 to the south. I have never followed 11 south of Tuscaloosa, although I once traveled from Greensboro to Tuscaloosa on 69 and didn't have any trouble. There are also some light-duty roads to the southwest of Tuscaloosa. Be careful riding in the Tuscaloosa area, as the college students tend to be aggressive and careless drivers.

All in all, I certainly can't claim that Northeast Alabama is the best region in the US for cycling, but with its many lightly-traveled paved roads, its ever-present woodlands, and its mild winter climate, it has some real advantages over most regions I have traveled through on my bicycle.


Alabama Bicycle Shops  A list of all the bike shops in North Alabama.

The Alabama Cycling Touring Society  A Birmingham-area club with a more leisurely approach to bicycling.

Spring City Cycling Club  Spring City Cycling Club Huntsville AL USA - The Spring City Cycling Club in Huntsville, AL.

Montgomery Bicycle Club  In Montgomery, Alabama, the capitol, which is near the center of the state.

Bicycle Across Magnificent Alabama  A tour of Alabama, made every year.

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