Closings and other items of note for the Trail traveler:
Where the Alabama Scenic River Trail goes
The Trail passes many points of historic interest, all of which are described in Trail Guides that are now available. These guides include information on all aspects of the Trail.
The route, suitable for every kind of craft from canoes and kayaks to powerboats, begins in the mountainous terrain of northeastern Alabama, flows through beautiful scenery in nine lakes, through the serenity of the second largest river delta in the United States, through Mobile Bay, terminating at historic Ft. Morgan.
Total mileage on the original "core" trail and its major tributaries is about 2,000 miles, with over 5,000 miles oficially adopted into the trail. Tennessee River guidebooks are now available and our Delta Guidebooks are back in stock! The new version is a printed map/poster style instead of with individual pages, and with lots of fresh information about new amenities that you won't find anywhere else.
Read the following article and familiarize yourself with the trail. Then carefully plan your trip using the Campsite resource on this website.
The content above, Route Map of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, is released for public use under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.
Above: This overview map shows the four main sections of the Alabama Scenic River Trail's original 631 miles historic "core" trail. Of course there are many other spurs and waterways not directly connected to the core, and many of them are beautiful paddle and powerboat destinations in their own right. As of 2012, there are over 2000 miles of waterways recognized as part of the Trail. Guidebooks with detailed maps have been produced for the main sections show above, and are available for sale on this website.
The content above, The Extent of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, is released for public use under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.
Above: A state map with roads and waterways overlaid in a diagrammatical style. The rivers and streams shown represent the 40+ waterways officially recognized by the ASRT, whose aim is to develop boating resources and information for each one.
Doing the Trail
The first place within the state with amenities for the boater—lodging, camping, food, fuel and access to the Coosa—is Riverside Campground and Motel (256 779 8365) in Cedar Bluff, about three miles in from the Georgia line. The campground is considered the de facto trailhead of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, whose 631 miles of riverway will terminate at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay. This marina and others in the area will be the last source of fuel for the powerboater for many miles.
Above: a group takes a lunch break during a multi-day paddle tour of Weiss Lake below Centre on the Coosa River.
Hopping down the lakes of the Coosa means hopping around the dams of the Alabama Power Company. All of these lakes, in order from the state line south—Weiss Lake, Neely Henry Lake, Logan Martin Lake, Lay Lake, Mitchell Lake and Jordan Lake—along with their respective dams, offer no trouble to the powerboater wishing to trailer around the dams. Paddlers will find adequate portage at each dam with the exception of Mitchell Dam, whose topography is so steep that a portage would require superhuman strength. Given that most of us paddling Alabama rivers are mere mortals, a shuttle has been arranged by the organizers of the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Paddlers in need of a shuttle around Mitchell Dam should contact G.R.A.C.E.’s Marina (punctuation shown is correct… the marina’s name is a combination of the family’s initials) at 205 280 4110. There will be a modest charge to cover mileage on this twelve mile ride, and be sure to give 24 hours notice if possible.
Above: Yellow Creek Falls near Leesburg, less than half a mile's paddle from the Public Ramp five miles northwest of Leesburg on Highway 273. This 90-foot gash of white water falls off of the plateau of Shinbone Ridge into a swimming hole on Yellow Creek near its confluence with the Coosa River. Yellow Creek is the next creek entering the Coosa past Little River, which cuts through the large and famous canyon there.
Heed the navigation aids on the Coosa
The Coosa River is one of the most well-endowed rivers in the state for navigation aids, and there’s a reason for that that boaters should pay attention to.
If you don’t see a channel marker, you’re probably in the wrong part of the river. Consult your map or GPS to determine where you should be. Carto-Craft Map Company makes excellent maps with bathymetric markings (the underwater equivalent of the contour lines on a topographic land map) but even this shouldn’t be relied upon as the sole navigation aid. The upper Coosa, well-marked as it is, is no river to be on without a depth finder.
Above: Chief Ladiga Trail Campground is a great place (arguably the only place) to use as a base of operations to explore and paddle the Terrapin environs. The Campground (3180 County Road 94 Piedmont, Mile 35 on the Chief Ladiga Cycling Trail 256 282 2370) is a beautiful 20-acre site where the Alabama Scenic River Trail, the Chief Ladiga Cycling Trail and the Pinhoti Hiking trail amazingly converge and are all accessible from. From this campground beneath Oakey Mountain, the adventurer can cycle to Atlanta, hike to Maine on the AT, or paddle to the Gulf of Mexico.
The well-loved Terrapin Creek empties the cleanest water into the Coosa River that it receives anywhere along its length. The Terrapin is twisty and quick with plenty of shoals, rocks and whitewater spots to make for a few fun hours and long enough for a multi-day trip. In 2011, the Alabama Scenic River Trail designed and created access improvements over fifty of the most-used miles of the Terrapin through a grant by the Recreational Trails Program of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Development (ADECA).
Above: Steel steps with kayak slide was one of a number of ASRT-designed, ADECA Recreational Trails Program-funded improvements made on Terrapin Creek during 2010-2011.
Above: A future paddler stands below one of eight Terrapin Creek Guide Signs created by the Alabama Scenic River Trail with funding from ADECA's Recreational Trails Program. The signs are part of a program whose aim is to eventually develop such signs for every segment of the Alabama Scenic River Trail.
If you're interested in doing all or part of the Terrapin, be sure to study the map below and check out the area outfitters.
The Gadsden Area
Gadsden’s City Marina is has recently undergone renovations to greatly improve its amenities. The proximity of public ramps to the city center makes it easy to boat over and walk to a great meal and nearby shopping. Call Gadsden Parks and Recreation Department at 256 549 4680 for more information.
Above: The City of Gadsden has transformed itself into a boating mecca by integrating the city's parks and recreation and Chamber of Commerce events into its river life. The excellent Ray Park under Interstate Spur 759 provided by Alabama Power Company didn't hurt, either. From the park, paddlers and powerboaters have access to malls, restaurants and all else the town offers.
Above: Downtown Gadsden. Photo by Charles Seifried
A paddler's kingdom on the Coosa
Though there’s nothing to keep a kayaker or canoeist off of the upper lakes of the Coosa, the trackless wide waters and their overwhelming affinity for powerboats mean that paddlecraft, while welcome, play second fiddle here. That situation changes where the brim of water that spills over Jordan Dam and the little dirt-and-gravel bar below it. This six-mile run is the most-paddled stretch of water in the state, and it contains the most fun you can legally have almost anywhere.
Whitewater adventure on Wetumpka's Moccasin Gap
The fall line, the last stone underlayment supporting the Alabama uplands before the rivers grind deep into the plains on their way to the Gulf of Mexico, is an exciting place on any river in Alabama. It's especially loved on the Coosa River near the city of Wetumpka, whose very name means Rumbling Waters in Creek tongue.
The damming of the Coosa smooths over the rough-and-ready world here at the historical end of upriver navigation. If it had not been for the fall line, fish on the Coosa would have no problem reaching Rome, Georgia and beyond. But the fall line is a fact of life, and its existence clustered the great Indian capitals around this source of easy protein. Where the fish stopped, people stopped. A sight even today on the run down the fall line is an ancient fish trap exposed only during low water. Part natural formation and part stacked stone, it no doubt provided many a pleasant summer afternoon in days gone by.
The rapids begin just beyond at River Falls with a number of Class I and II. The rapids are interspersed with pools of flat water. Class II/III Moccasin Gap is located about halfway down the whitewater stretch of the Coosa.
There are numerous rapids following Moccasin Gap with the last rapid being Corn Creek Rapid. It is only a few hundred yards downstream from the large white house on river right. Just past the Corn Creek Rapid, you will need to move to left of river center to see the bright yellow banner that will bring you in. If you go past it, you will miss the take-out and you must turn around and paddle back 100 ft. The outfitters charge a fee for pick-ups further down the river as they have to drive into town to get you!
Above: Shooting Moccasin Gap above Wetumpka. Photo by Charles Seifried.
Just a few more miles of unforgettable paddling await you before you are back in Wetumpka at whichever of the two outfitters took you out.
Above: Landing at a Wetumpka outfitters after a day at Moccasin Gap. Photo by Charles Seifried.
For a guide, a boat and ride on this stretch of the river, call Coosa Outdoor Center at 334 201 5510 or Coosa River Adventures at 334 514 0279.
Upper Tombigbee at Demopolis
A mention of Demopolis almost always prompts the question “where is Demopolis?” Most don't, but all Alabamians should know this historic town where followers of Napoleon came in self-exile from France after the Emperor’s fall from power. The attempted to establish the Vine and Olive Colony, but their attempts did not flourish as did their hopes. Their land titles and deeds were too weak to defend them against the onslaught of the frontier squatters who moved in like a swarm of mosquitos and whose courts did not recognize the rights of the well-dressed French-speaking settlers who struggled to raise a city on these bluffs. Two hundred and more years later, it is not unusual for the Demopolis Historical Association to receive and attempt to answer inquiries from France about the families and lands of American ancestors.
All in Demopolis was not abandoned, though. The town at the confluence of the Black Warrior and the Tombigbee lived on as an important cotton town and river community in the western territory— soon to become a state—Alabama. Nearly equidistant between Tuscaloosa and Monroeville, today the area is a paradise for the naturalist and its recreation opportunities are primarily served by two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers parks, Foscue and Forkland. Although both parks and their full-service facilities are located on the Tombigbee River, Foscue Park geographically serves the Black Warrior River that joins the Tombigbee just above it. Forkland Park, 22 river miles above the town and to the west, serves a completely different set of experiences. Between them, literally, the rivers and backwaters will provide many days of paddle exploration in the arms of the two rivers.
Forkland Park—Tombigbee River
There is a fine campground with great spaces and views of the river at Forkland, which sits on the north side of Rattlesnake Bend. The campground has nice USACE-style campgrounds and showers. Rattlesnake Bend is a dead arm of the river which now channels north to south across the neck of the bend. There is no barge traffic on the dead arm. Forkland Park is the least-used of all the major USACE parks, but it is one of the most, if not the most, appealing.
Leaving the ramp at Forkland to the right will take you out to the river about a mile from the main channel. The cut-off bend can also be treated as a twelve mile loop, where paddlers could visit the Forkland backwaters, the Birdseye area, Taylor Lake and a couple more backwaters. They would only spend a mile of the trip on the channel of the Tombigbee where it cuts across the neck of the bend.
It is twelve miles to Demopolis City Park from here. It is 24 miles if you do the entire bend and then travel to Foscue Park just down from the city.
Belmont Park is a USACE park with a ramp. One lane of the ramp is closed to traffic, making it perfect for paddlers. Belmont has good camping and bathrooms, but no showers. Belmont serves as a kind of watery bridge between adjacent Spidle Lake, itself a large and interesting backwater, and a cypress swamp that equals or exceeds the one near Backbone Creek, mentioned in the Foscue Park section of this article. Belmont is about five miles above Demopolis City Park, so an outing conducted from Belmont could end up back at Belmont or downriver at Demopolis City Park.
Paddlers could have a challenging run down to Demopolis for those so inclined. Those wanting to forego a long-distance paddle may take a car shuttle down to put in at Belmont for birdwatching, so that both parties could end up back at Belmont if they wanted an easy paddle and all meet up downriver at Demopolis City Park.
Foscue Park: Black Warrior River
Put in north of Demopolis at Backbone Creek Park and explore its hauntingly beautiful cypress swamps before heading down the Black Warrior for a number of other sloughs and creeks along the way. A long day of paddling will end at Demopolis City Landing by mid-afternoon. This trip covers most of the bird-intensive and beautiful route, but you can paddle a few more miles into Foscue Park and pull out of the water within sight of your campsite if you want to save yourself a shuttle.
Some of the bird species that can be seen on a Demopolis paddle:
The Alabama River
US Army Corps of Engineers information on the Alabama River
If you need assistance or planning information on one of the Alabama River Lakes (Robert F. Henry, William "Bill" Dannelly, or Claiborne), you may use the contact information below:
Ike Lyon, Recreational Manager, USACE
8493 US Highway 80 West
Hayneville, Alabama 36040
Click here to view a printable table of all USACE Alabama River boat ramps and related information, including waypoints.
Click here to view a printable table of all USACE Alabama River parks and related information, including waypoints.
Camping opportunities at USACE-operated campgrounds are catalogued in the Guidebooks for sale in the store on this website.
Journey through the Locks of Time on the Alabama River: An Overview of the three river lakes
Above: a regional map of the Alabama River as it flows through the state's Black Belt. Click on the image to down load a higher-resolution version of this map for planning and printing.
There is a world along the Alabama River that few people have ever seen and even fewer have fully experienced. It is a world seen from the waters still strongly tinged with over 400 years of documented history and of many, many thousands of years before that.
There have been two great discoveries along this waterway, some 300 river miles of a crescent as narrow as a new moon. The first discovery was when humans came here to live along its banks, and who left us no language to describe themselves but who left hints and clues among and beneath their enduring mounds.
The next discovery is taking place today and it involves you.
Between those two discoveries, events happened here that changed the world time and time again. People, larger than life people, the kind we don’t seem to make any more and only find in our history, walked and paddled and steamed up and down this river.
Steam-powered boats plied the water in the “Golden Age” surrounding the Civil War, carrying furniture ordered from Boston and Paris for the big fine homes along the river; bridegrooms; buggy wheels; hard-rolled cigarettes; side meat; cotton; and bolts of the coarse fabric that dressed the slaves who labored under it all.
You can almost hear the work songs, chanted to the rhythm of the steam engines they stoked night and day, at every stop at every now-dead and now-living town along the Alabama:
De John T Moore
De Lula D
An’ all dem boats is mine.
If you can’t ship on de Lula D
You ain’t no man o mine.
Two hundred years ago a fight broke out between settlers and Indians. It brought an end to the way of life of the river’s original inhabitants, and, in the late 1830s, soldiers went up and down the river, gathered these people out of canebrake and village and forest, and moved them to the Oklahoma territory. The land along the Alabama was gridded out on a map and sold to a flood of people who tromped the muddy roads from Georgia and the Carolinas. They brought slavery and cottonseed with them. Those things brought on a second fight wherein the City of Montgomery became the cradle of the Confederacy. Then there was a third fight for the right to be treated like a human being, a right expected to come as a result of the second fight, but didn’t. It all happened right here, along the Alabama River. And though the fighting tore down a lot of what was here, it built up much more than it tore down. There is actually a fourth fight going on right now to save all that is left, but we are winning that fight little by little when you come to see the history and majesty of our river.
Naturalist Nugget: The Alabama River described in this article passes through three of Alabama’s eight birding trails. Stations of those three birding trails are marked on the maps provided with each section.
The story of every punch thrown in every one of these fights, even if it is not written down word for word in a language we know, has been left like the Indian mounds as ciphers in a language we can see and examine, and there is no better way to see and examine than from a passage on the river, the blood, the original highway, the bearer of all things that came here. The locks through the dams on the Alabama River are the vital keys to that passage.
Today, the three lakes that comprise the Alabama River are the core of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, a network of thousands of miles of rivers and streams that have been formed into the nation’s longest river trail in a single state. The Alabama Scenic River Trail was designated a National Water Trail by the US Department of the Interior in 2012. Many campsites in the region are designated as paddler-only and are reachable only by water.
The Alabama River Locks
The last puff of steam left the belly of the last steamboat about the time that the first puff of steam left the first locomotive that hauled all those people and goods down iron tracks instead of rivers. The Alabama River was then constrained with dams like an elephant that had rampaged too many times to trust. The squirming monster was tamed with dams to control the raging fits that left people homeless in its mighty floods, and to generate electricity to attract jobs and light homes. To get around the dams and on to the next stretch of the river, locks were built into them.
There are three locks on the Alabama River, all operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. They can be viewed in great detail in the three following sections of this website:
Claiborne Lock and Dam to Millers Ferry (Claiborne Lake)
Millers Ferry Lock and Dam to Robert F Henry Lock and Dam (including Camden and Selma)
Robert F. Henry Lock and Dam to Ft Toulouse (including Prattville and Montgomery
Together they comprise about 200 miles of channel and many, many more miles of backwater.
Besides their well-known function as gateways for barge traffic, the locks perform other necessary functions that we don’t often consider— they turn the segmented river back into a contiguous trail of water. Without the locks, the recreational value of the Alabama River would be diminished. Kayaks and canoes can be dragged around the dams on already-established portages. Powerboats without access to locks can be hauled around locks (expensive, inconvenient and time-consuming), but in practical terms, if no lock access is available, the powerboater experiences the river as three separate lakes. The large boat owner is hopelessly restricted to home waters, wherever that might be, if lock access is not available.
Locks were figured out thousands of years ago. They are nothing but a box, big enough for a ship that lies alongside a dam in the channel of a river. Both ends of the box can open and close. When the end on the upstream side is opened, water flows in and boats can flow right into it. Then the upstream end closes, and the water in the box is let out slowly. The boat sinks to the level of the downstream side, and then that end opens. The boat floats quietly out onto the lower water. It works in reverse, too, with the water being let into the lock raising the water level—and anything floating on it—to the height of the upstream water above the dam.
The first of them, going upriver from Mobile towards Montgomery as the first steamboat did, is Claiborne Dam. It withholds the river up to Millers Ferry Lock and Dam. Above that, between the cities of Selma, is the Robert F. Henry Lock and Dam. Each of these areas is explored in more detail in the three related content areas:
Claiborne Lake on the Alabama River—Claiborne to Millers Ferry Lock and Dam
William Dannelly Reservoir—Millers Ferry Lock and Dam to Robert F. Henry Lock and Dam
R. E. Woodruff Lake—Robert F. Henry Lock and Dam to Ft. Jackson/Ft Toulouse and Wetumpka
Day trip highlight
Put in at the Ft. Toulouse Ramp (enter Ft. Toulouse, turn left at the campground road intersection and follow to the concrete ramp on the Tallapoosa side of the peninsula) and paddle or power the 22 miles to the Montgomery Marina (note: previous information furnished to us for use on this site listed the distance for this trip as 7 miles).
The following US Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds operate through the region:
Gunter Hill 334 269 1053
Prairie Creek 334 418 4919
Six Mile Creek Campground 334 875 6228
Chilatchee Creek Campground 334 573 2562
Millers Ferry Campground 334 682 4191
Isaac Creek Campground 251 282 4254
Roland Cooper State Park is located between Millers Ferry Campground and Chilatchee Creek Campground. 334 682 4838.
All other listed access in the region are either day-use parks or are specially designated paddler only campsites along the Alabama Scenic River Trail. A complete listing and more detailed maps can be found in the three related content areas on this site:
About seven river miles downstream the river touches south of Prattville and turns into Cooter Pond and some of the best golfing on the renowned Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Here, too, is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cooter Pond Park, offering camping and RV access to the R. E. “Bob” Woodruff Lake, as this impoundment of the Alabama is known. There is a public ramp at Cooter Pond.
A few miles downriver, on the north side (river right to the paddler) Autauga Creek enters the Alabama River. Autauga Creek was the anchor for the city of Prattville almost 200 years ago when northern industrialist Daniel Pratt selected the falls on the creek as an ideal place to build a company town to support the vast mills he created and operated there. The beautiful dam, still a centerpiece of civic life in Prattville, is the only portage on the Autauga Creek Blueway, developed and expertly implemented by the Autauga Creek Improvement Committee. Though their informative website will provide you with all the information you need to know, it's worth entering here that the creek is twisty and quick though not highly challenging, making it good family fun. It is at least partially spring-fed, which means it has water enough for paddling even when others don't, and it is largely overhung with trees, providing a further respite from the sun on hot days. Outfitters on the trail provide rentals and shuttles, and camping is abundant. The end of the upper float (and the beginning point of the lower one) is the town itself, and urbane shopping, dining and history when you hop off the water.
Above: Keeping busy on Autauga Creek
Above: The Edmund Pettus Bridge, now a national icon of the struggle for civil rights that took place in the south during the 1960s.
Below Durant’s Bend are the unmistakable Cunningham Bluffs, and less than ten miles below them is the Highway 80 bridge, a signal that the city of Selma lies above you on the banks. Selma was founded by Rufus King, a notable Dallas County landowner who was, in his time, a U.S. Senator from Alabama; President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, United States Minister to France, and Vice President of the United States. For fifteen years in Washington, D.C., James Buchanan (the fifteenth president of the United States) shared a house with King and a relationship so close that Andrew Jackson would refer to the two as “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy” while Aaron V. Brown would refer to “Buchanan and his wife.” One of King’s favorite books was The Songs of Selma, a collection of poems published in 1760 by James McPherson. McPherson’s publication was allegedly the work of the blind, third-century Gaelic poet Ossian, and McPherson further asserted that he had acquired the necessary ancient Gaelic tongue to wander the hills and valleys of Scotland to collect and translate the obscure texts of the long-dead poet. The texts eventually came to be known forgeries by McPherson himself, who added his own lines to existing Scottish folk-poetry. Nevertheless, The Songs of Selma became The Lord of The Rings of its time, and was so popular that even Napoleon carried the book with him into battle. In the book, Selma was the castle home of Ossian’s father Fingal, and was perched on a bluff above a river. In the story, Fingal was a Beowulf-like character appointed by his people to be the leader of the Fenians, an army of warriors whose exploits are the subject of many of Ossian’s tales.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the turn of mind that led the complex, literate King to name his city after the bluff-borne Selma of McPherson’s tales. Floating there on the river, looking up at the back of the St. James Hotel (the last surviving such structure out of all that once graced the banks of Alabama Rivers in steamboat days), the small, white bridgetender’s house beside it and the tumult of ancient commercial buildings cascading to the bottom of the water in fits, starts, and steps, the Selma of legend still lives. The bridgetender’s house is now a tiny B&B clinging to the bluff above the river. But it was once the quarters of the tender of a wooden toll bridge that spanned the river near the modern-day Edmund Pettus Bridge.
If this city told us all its tales from the heady days as rival to Montgomery as the state’s capital city; through the burning it took during the civil war; to its role as crucible in the nation’s struggle to recognize human decency; to its destination as social tourism Mecca in the present day, Ossian’s exploits would surely be rivaled.
William Rufus King lies buried, after an odd series of events, in the city’s exquisitely beautiful Live Oak Cemetery, which in my mind rivals the famous Pere Lachaise of Paris for sheer wonder and may surpass it in beauty. Two half-sisters to Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln are also buried at Live Oak.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which comes into view next, was the scene of a bloody confrontation between civil rights demonstrators who had had enough of the old ways and the authorities that intended to force their obedience with violent means. The struggle and subsequent long march over the bridge and on to Montgomery is today a legend of American heroism that brings many visitors to Selma.
While there’s no good way to get from the river to downtown Selma these days, it is possible to see the city’s many picturesque historical and cultural sites after landing at Selma City Marina (being rebuilt after a fire and not yet open as of November 2012) and strolling up Dallas Avenue the several miles into the heart of the town and its museums, including the National Voting Rights Museum. Tourism information is available by calling the Selma & Dallas County Centre for Commerce at 334 875 7241. For fuel or other use of the Selma City Marina, call 334 874 2173.
For a real, riverboat-days experience, nothing beats a couple of days at the modestly-priced St James Hotel adjacent to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and within a short walk of all things downtown Selma, which has more than its share of history along its wide avenues that teemed with commerce so long ago. Today it is a quiet place, but the history is still accessible, touring by foot is easy and the food can be very good.
Here are some places where our paddling friends like to eat:
The St James Hotel—1200 Water Avenue Selma, AL 3670
The Tally Ho—509 Mangum Avenue Selma, AL 36701.
Southern Girls Restaurant. 2808 Citizens Pkwy, Selma, AL 36701. 334 874 0090
Hancocks Country Bar B Que. New Orville Road (a few miles out of town out Dallas Avenue) 334 872 5541.
The Pancake House. Breakfast. , 36701. 334 872 2736.
Note: this maps features many of the known camping and access points on the Alabama River between Selma and Millers Ferry, encompassing the Gees Bend area. Miles shown are the US Army Corps of Engineer miles. They DO NOT match the mileage that the ASRT directors decided upon (and that you will find in our Campsites section on this website), which go the other direction and do not correspond to any other mileage designators. This will not be a problem in some other parts of the state where there is no other mileage reference, but on the Alabama River it is worth bringing to the trip planner's attention.
South of Selma, which has taken a meandering but primarily east-to-west course from Montgomery, the river takes a dive for Mobile. From Selma to its terminus at the birth of the Mobile River, the Alabama may wander through loops, bights and bends but never strays its aim far from its end 38 miles above the Gulf of Mexico.
The Selma City Marina, though it is not officially finished rebuilding as of November 2012, is nonetheless an official campground on the Alabama Scenic River Trail where through-paddlers may camp and day-paddlers may land or embark. There is a small grove of trees on the side of the parking area from the marina building that serves as the ASRT campsite.
Nine river miles below Selma Marina is the USACE campground known as Six Mile Park where Six Mile Creek enters the Alabama at Mile 194. In 2012, Six Mile was closed for the winter after October and may be in coming years. It's a great place to stay if it is open. Look carefully for the inlet from the river if approaching the campground as it is not marked with a sign; the docks and ramp cannot quite be seen from the channel.
About fifteen miles below the bluffs of Selma are the low banks at the inlet of the Cahaba River. One of the state’s best-loved waterways today, the ghost town of Old Cahawaba above the inlet on the Alabama is all that is left of an emotional struggle that pitted the old Alabama capital of Cahawba, as it was called, against the upstart Montgomery farther up the river and higher on the banks. Ultimately, newspaper reports of the fevers and floods that plagued the low-lying river town—however untrue they might have been—brought it to its knees; lives were changes, political power tilted toward Montgomery and countless Cahaba fortunes were lost to the Alabama River. What was left of Cahawba was eventually carted off to build other places. Though the streets of the town became silent and bare, the imprint of them is very much alive in the archaeological park today. The tours and guidance of the staff make them livelier still, and a visit by paddleboat, powerboat or car is highly recommended.
Contact Old Cahawba Archeological Park at 9518 Cahaba Road Orrville, AL. 334 872 8058.
A few miles down the river are White Bluff, a gleaming cusp of white stone cut into the outer curve of the riverbank. Add the 120 feet that the depth finder reads to the bottom of the river to the hundred or so feet of gleaming stone above you and you’ll grasp the true geological sense of this palisade at mile 179.5. As you pass beneath it, realize that the depth of the water here is equal to the height of the bluff, some seventy feet. At the downstream end of White Bluff a steep canyon called The Ravine beckons paddlers for a few hours away from the wide and glittering Alabama.
Above: White Bluff. Photo by Charles Seifried.
Between Six Mile and Elm Bluff Park there was no place to camp until landowner Woody Till offered to let us drive a campsite sign in the ground and put his contact information up as a Trail Angel on the ASRT. Called Till's Landing (River Mile 183), this stopover for through-paddlers is too remote to serve as a point of access. In fact, we ask that you don't even try. You would have to go through a number of farm fields to get to it, and that would violate our agreement with the landowner. If you need help, supplies, or a ride, call the number on the sign.
South of Tills Landing is Elm Bluff Park at River Mile 168.5. This is another primitive campground that tends to stay open year-round. It's an excellent site and another place where careful spotting of the inlet will lead in a few hundred yards to the ramp. There is no cell phone service in the park per se; hike a quarter mile up the hill for a few bars. The phone kind, not the kind with swinging doors. And if you see a guy driving a golf cart with a Natural Light in one hand and fishing pole in the other, that's Bobby Wright, area resident and all-around good-friend of all who boat on the Alabama.
Between Elm Bluff Campground and Chilatchee Creek is the Portland day use area on the north side of the river. The ramp and pavilion are a half mile off the river on the right after the creek narrows, so if you are bent on taking out at Portland don't give up if you don't see the ramp right away.
At mile 158 we near the Chilatchee Creek Campground. This U.S. Army Corps of Engineers site offers developed camping with water and electricity, in fact Chilatchee has everything the Corps has to offer in a campground. Plus, you will always see an alligator here, even if it is a small one. Once again, the campground is half a mile or so off the channel. Powerboaters in low water will need to hug the left bank going in to wind around to the campground, showers, laundry and bathrooms. Paddlers can aim straight for the back and pass between the two islands flanking the center run to reach the camping area.
The big bends
Downstream of Chilatchee is the near-figure-eight that is the combination of Canton Bend and Gees Bend. The night sky is like a roll of black velvet with the lurid stars painted on in exaggerated detail. It is THE place to see the International Space Station pass over. During the day, as the temperatures rise, so do the visions of the generations making cotton on this land. King Cotton has been deposed; his royal highness has fled and the land here is in cultivation mostly to support timber and cattle. We'd like to see tourism added to that list, as the area is ripe for exploration.
And in this near-figure-eight are several places to step out of the river and into civilization and vice-versa. Two of the best in the area are Roland Cooper State Park and Miller’s Ferry Campground, the latter operated by the U.S. Army Corps of engineers. Only nine miles or so apart by land, they are about 20 river miles apart. Both are on the east bank of their respective stretches of the river (Miller’s Ferry Campground was formerly called and still appears on some maps as East Bank Campground) and both offer beautiful views of the sun dropping into the Alabama every fair evening. Roland Cooper State Park features a small store; there are no provisions at Miller’s Ferry Campground. Millers Ferry campground is adjacent to Millers Ferry Marina, which caters primarily to powercraft but whose operator will take care of all who come his way, however they arrive. Roland Cooper State Park offers river access by way of docks and an excellent ramp. Miller’s Ferry Campground features both a ramp and several small docks for paddlecraft that step right into well-developed campsites.
Above: One of the many sights on the Alabama River. Photo by Bill Vanderford.
For Roland Cooper state Park, follow the signs from the channel into the slough to the State park and the adjacent Bridgeport Beach, a former USACE park that is now owned and operated by Wilcox County. This park is worth a visit and is the place to spend a night or two to explore the area or as a base for any travel the area. The Park offers campsites only a few hundred feet from the Alabama River in an area with more twists than Chubby Checker. Look for the several campsites that view the river through a veil of Spanish moss. A century-and-a-half ago, people traveling the Alabama by steamboat would disembark near the site of the current-day state park and then take wagons into Camden. So slow was the progress of the boats through the tortuous channel that the travelers could shop all day in Camden at their leisure, then take a wagon to the next stop down the river where they would re-board the steamer with the day’s loot and continue on the river.
Arrive before sundown to watch the park attendants feed deer in easy sight of the parking area. Golfers will be surprised to see the condition of the park’s course in this isolated place.
You’ll have some cell phone reception in the park’s high spots. Unnumbered sites with the best views are near the first site by the bathhouse. These offer a view of the river through a gentle wooded slope. There a many nice sites to choose from, each with something different to offer.
The primitive camping area here is not so nice, and is priced higher than most other full-hookup sites along the river. To make matters worse, the primitive campsite is only steps away from a chidren's playground that local parents use frequently, which compromises tent-camping privacy more than most people would want to tolerate. I lost a brand new PDF and a VHF radio during a hike to the not-so-nearby chemical toilet which gave mommy and daddy a chance to grab junior and my stuff and leave.
Roland Cooper is six miles from Camden, 28 miles south of Selma off Alabama Highway 41 on the William Dannelly Reservoir of the Alabama River.
Above: Heron in the mist near Gees Bend. Photo by Bill Vanderford.
Between Chilatchee and Roland Cooper State Park on river left, heading downstream are incredible backwater experiences for the powerboater and paddler alike in Lidell's Slough and the even larger Buzzards Roost, more of a riverside lake than a slough. The CartoCraft map of the area for sale in our online store is a good guide. Our River Heritage Guidebook is a worthwhile investment as well.
Above: Not everything on the Alabama River is in the channel. There are dozens upon dozens of backwaters to explore.
Following southeast and then east around Gees Bend from the park will lead, at two points, to the two ports of the Gees Bend Ferry that provide a water connection along County Road 28. This ferry provides the only direct route to the Boykin community and the people of Gees Bend, once living in obscure poverty but today famous for the art of their quilting. The first to be passed, on the south side of the river, is the side nearest to Camden. Once it is spotted to the left going downstream, look immediately to the right—you'll see nothing but trees. That's because the channel is separated from a slough by a barrier island that, if you could see through it, would reveal the location of the ferry terminal on the Gees Bend side. To find the northern ferry terminus, travel about a mile downstream past the southern terminus and keep an eye out for the markers as they describe the channel back into a slough on your right. As you enter the slough you will see the ferry landing ahead on your left. The spiffy new terminal building for the north landing is about a block and a half up the road approaching the terminal on the right. There is a similar terminal that has been in place for the southern terminus, but it is about three miles from the water on Highway 28 where it is joined by County Road 28.
Many “benders” are the decendants of slaves who had once worked the land here, almost perished during the Great Depression. Since the days following the Civil War, benders had worked the land and had been quietly taken care of by the owners’ lawyers. When the price of cotton plummeted during the depression, the crops they grew no longer paid for their food, seed and utensils. Absentee landlords discovered their presence here and booted them from their homes at gunpoint, leaving them literally to starve to death. The poor former tenants would certainly have died during the terrible winter that followed their ousting had it not been for the kindness of neighboring farmers, the Red Cross, and the newly-established New Deal programs that delivered financial aid to these desperate people here in this remote bend of the river.
There is plenty of river here for the boater and the ferry, which runs the river eight times a day the year around. If you’re in a powerboat, be sure to keep an eye on the depth if you are out of the channel if you make way for the ferry. Watch for the ferry markers and you'll be OK.
Just downstream of the Gees Bend Ferry Terminal, river right, is the Gees Bend Park. Long a playground and place for family fun, the park is also now an official campsite along the Alabama Scenic River Trail.
The famous quilters of Gees Bend
If you’re in the Gees Bend area and want to see the famous quilters at work, you’ll want to take the ferry if coming from the south. From the nearby town of Camden, take Highway 41 out of town and turn left on Highway 10. Look for County Road 28 north of town, and then take Ellis Landing Road at the Gees Bend Ferry sign in sight of the big silos.
Above: Quilters at work on Gees Bend. Photo by Bill Vanderford.
The quilters meet at the Boykin Nutrition Center each morning Monday through Thursday at 8:30 and work until after lunch. You no longer need to bring anything with you that you want to eat. There is a new (and excellent) soul food restaurant on the Bend called Keitsha's Snack Shack (334 573 2007, 334 419 3726) 13181 County Road 29 Alberta, AL. Excellent catfish, chicken fingers and onion rings. And salads. You'll also find plenty of food in nearby Camden, notable Miss Kitty's which recently moved from its in-town location of many years to more bland suburban quarters on the bypass near the Piggly Wiggly. The food isn't bland, though, it's the real-deal soul food and Miss Kitty packs 'em in. Several fast food outlets are nearby.
Above: An evening at Keitsha's Snack Shack.
No mention of food in the black belt would be complete without Gaines Ridge Dinner Club (933 Highway 10 East
Camden, Alabama 36726) 334 682 9707. Open Thursday through Saturday 5:30 PM - 9 PM. The setting, an antebellum home in the country, is stunning. The owner/chef is talented and the food is as international as it is southern.
More information on cultural Camden can be found by calling Black Belt Treasures at 334 682 9878 or the Regional Tourism Headquarters in Thomasville at 334 636 0120.
Check the numbers above for current ferry schedule information. There is a $3.00 fee for each car and driver on the ferry, with an additional $1 per passenger. Cash only, no receipt.
Below the ferry port on the south bank of the river is Ellis Landing, an extensive day use facility. Heading north and then east and over the adjacent Canton Bend is the County Road 28 Bridge where you’ll find the Millers Ferry Campground on your left and the Millers Ferry Marina on your right. This little marina is big on services and hospitality. In addition to a dock, ramp, berths (as they become available), gasoline, propane and bait, proprietor Charles Stogner and his wife operate a restaurant and will even provide rides to Camden and the provisions available at neighboring commercial shopping areas. The marina can be reached at 334 682 5125. Though the sign on the road touts diesel fuel, that is not to be. Even gasoline must be arranged by calling ahead these days.
Less than a mile below the bridge is Millers Ferry Dam. Stay to the right of the long pointed peninsula and stay left into the lock. The locks don’t operate around the clock or even every day of the week anymore. Call ahead to 205 682 4877 with your expected lock time. If your trip doesn’t coincide with the lock’s shift operation, and you are in a paddleboat, then a marked portage is available to you. Obey the signs for where you can and can’t go and don’t cut corners or circumvent fences—you could be in violation of homeland security restrictions.
The quiet and secluded Cobbs Landing stands about two miles below the dam. There’s nothing more here than a flat parking lot, a ramp and a toilet, and it’s three miles to County Road 28.
From either Roland Cooper State Park or Millers Ferry Campground, provisions, dining and shopping can be found at a commercially-developed spot a few miles north on Highway 10 (Camden bypass) from its four-way-stop intersection with County Road 28. Don’t go to this area, though, without a visit to Black Belt Treasures in Camden, a store that sells the creations of artisans from the state’s eleven black belt counties. This converted auto dealership will surprise everyone with its artworks, furniture, books, glass, quilts and lawn ornaments. Contact the store at 334 682 9878.
What is the black belt?
In hearing or reading about Alabama, you’ll often find references to the state’s Black Belt. Don’t feel bad if you’re not sure what it means. Many Alabamians can’t tell you either.
The term refers primarily to dense black topsoil over a layer of Selma chalk, a light limestone in a belt that stretches from Virginia to Texas. It covers the lower middle of Alabama. This land produced great quantities of cotton before it was worn out by exploitation, and is farmed very little in its current state. The Black Belt cotton grown in years past depended upon the Alabama and other related rivers to reach the cotton markets and shippers in Mobile and New Orleans.
The black belt is the prairie of Alabama, in a literal sense as well a a geological one. The lands was scraped flat by glaciers in a previous ice age, and among the glaciers were open spots where plants and critters were pushed south to the black belt. Mitchell's satyr butterfly, for instance, can be found only in certain spots in the black belt and areas of Minnesota and Michigan. The insect, one of the living things brought south with the glaciers, never left after they moved on.
Imagining steamboats made easy
One hundred and fifty years ago, the rivers of this state were its lifeblood. Alabama was new, the land was rich, and the rivers were wide and accommodating to people and the things they wanted.
Here at Millers Ferry, mile 133 on the Alabama River, much of the state’s history has flowed past the banks where I am spending the night under the bright moon and beside its rippling reflection by the Highway 28 Bridge. The sky is teeming with stars as it can only do above such a remote stretch of river, without pollution from city lights. And what a difference it makes, this remoteness. The skies hang rich with an astonishing show that city-dwellers will never see without coming here.
Sometimes it seems unfair that the life has been squeezed out of the little places and byways by the steady rumble and crush of Interstate 65. But here, at Millers Ferry Campground, as evening sets and the few distant lights begin to gleam over the river, it is difficult to look out upon this bend in the river without seeing the old paddlewheelers and feel the excitement and connection to the outside world they brought to the little towns along the Alabama.
You can discover much more about the floating palaces and life on Alabama’s rivers of those days in Harvey H. Jackson III’s excellent book Rivers of History.
Day trip highlights
Several day trips are available in this area for the adventurous powerboater or paddler willing to stay on top of navigation and keep an eye out for river traffic, which includes the Gees Bend ferry and its wide swings to stay between channel markers.
If you’re camping at Roland Cooper State Park or Millers Ferry Campground, paddling the environs of the river from either place will provide an afternoon of exploration. Millers Ferry Campground actually has shared and individual campsite access to the water, and both campgrounds have boat ramps.
The same short trip is available by launching from Millers Ferry Marina. The marina restaurant is the only place to eat for many miles if you don’t bring a lunch.
For a more challenging outing, consider paddling from Roland Cooper State Park to either Millers Ferry Campground or Millers Ferry Marina (they’re adjacent on the river). It’s 16.7 miles from one place to the other, and the Gee’s Bend Ferry Landing presents on the right as a brunch spot (stop early if you’re coming down from Roland Cooper State Park. It’s a lot closer to Gees Bend than Gees Bend is to Millers Ferry. The ferry’s channel markers are a good clue as to how to get up to the landing, where you’ll find a picnic shelter in plain sight. Bring anything you need, though. There’s no restaurant on The Bend.
A shorter trip to Gees Bend involved traveling the Ellis Landing Road and following the signs to the public landing, not across the bridge to the Ellis Island community. Use the public landing to launch, then leave the slough by traveling northeast and into the channel. Once there, turn westerly (downstream) and look for markers to guide you around the bar to your right and into the channel and again to your right (east), where the Ferry landing will be on your left. If it weren’t for the jog around the bar, you could head straight from Ellis Landing to the ferry dock.
Motorboaters and canoeists should have no trouble negotiating the height of the dock. Kayakers might find this difficult at low water levels.
The wreck of the Orline St. John
One of the most famous tragedies from the days of steamboats occurred on March fourth, 1850, about 20 miles above the town of Camden. One of the most successful steamboat operators of his time, John Meaher (for whom Meaher State Park in Spanish Fort is named) fell in love with the young daughter of a prominent New Orleans family. He named his newest boat, a craft that compared in splendor and size to many of the best on the great northern rivers, after her. On this day it was steaming north against a stiff headwind, and fast-burning pine cordwood was stacked conveniently around the mouth of the boiler. The ship had set out from Mobile for Montgomery on March first. It stopped to take on extra fuel at the landing of the small town of Bridgeport on the afternoon of March 5th in an attempt to get passengers to Montgomery on the sixth in time for an important train connection. The captain had pushed the boat hard, and it had “run well, averaging fifteen miles (per hour) against the current” as was noted by a witness on board. At four-thirty on the fifth of March, the cry of “fire!” rang out and within two minutes everyone on board was involved in an effort to save themselves from the flames, the churning paddlewheel, the smoke, the cold muddy waters of the Alabama or the inevitable impact with the bank after which the scars were visible a hundred years later.
Forty people died, including all the women and children on board. Many of them were laid to rest in a common grave in Camden.
There were no bridges then, no convenient way to cross these wide waters as we have today. Here were plantations with steep wooden slides to get bales of cotton from the field to the boat; here were landings that were the mini-metropolises of the frontier (back in the early days, going “out west” meant going to Alabama, which was known as the western territory) and here was a way of life wrapped around the river as the river here wraps around the land. Travelers complained that they were never out of earshot of the curses and foul language of the young men who piloted their passengers and pitched their cargo on the busy and crowded Alabama. Travelers also complained about waiting for the boats to load with cotton at each frequent stop in the river, a task that often took a full day or even more. Anxious to get down to Mobile or back up to Montgomery or Selma during these languid interruptions, there was nothing to do but gamble, socialize and listen to the musicians aboard these floating towns. Unless, that is, you happened to be a geologist in those days.
Why Alabama Rocks
It is no coincidence that the science of geology uses many names for soil and rock types that were taken from steamboat stops along Alabama’s rivers. Before Alabama became a state, and before America became a nation, European scientists were riding the rivers on every kind of craft to view the spectacular geology that Alabama offers. Few places on earth offer such insight to so many geological formations. Other parts of the world may offer some of the same features, but those tend to be obscured by jungle or are too remote for easy observation. There are places on Alabama rivers where I have gathered hundreds of fossils in a handful of earth simply by reaching out from my kayak.
If you want to discover the secret wonder of Alabama fossils and geology for yourself, try the book Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks by Jim Lacefield.
Shipwrecks on the Alabama
This stretch of the Alabama River has seen its share of shipwrecks over the years they plied the river with passengers and trade.
Nearby at mile 118.5, the sidewheeler Joab Lawrence snagged and sank on August 28, 1807.
At mile 92.5, the Confederate sidewheeler Commodore Ferrand sank in 1865.
The Orline St. John burned and sank on March 5th, 1850, twenty miles above Camden, in a tragic incident reported in newspapers around the world.
At mile 253.2, two miles above Holy Ground Battlefield Park, just below Autaugaville, the Union steamboat Autaugi went down in 1865 with its macabre cargo of the bodies of dead soldiers that had been reclaimed from the Confederate prison camp at Cahaba for their final journey home.
South of Claiborne, the river loops into the low lands of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, second only to Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Delta in size. Here, the Alabama soon joins with the Tensaw and the Mobile River rises. Between these latter two giants, a jungle world of capillary creeks and streams work back and forth to host hundreds of miles of habitat rich in birds, fish, and mammals to which you are invited to include yourself in a number of ways.
The perfect place to explore this, the final stretch of the Alabama River before its realm broadens into the wide alligator jaws of Mobile Bay, is Isaac Creek Campground just north (in fact in sight of) the Claiborne Lock and Dam. Operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the campground offers full-service sites with concrete pads that can accommodate the biggest rigs with boats and toys in tow but are secluded and wooded to satisfy the primitive camper. Fishing must be good here if the number of boats are any indication.
Isaac Creek Campground is clean and well kept, but it’s not exactly in the middle of civilization. Monroeville is the nearest town of any size. There is only one place to buy diesel fuel, and that is on the stretch of County Road 21 a few miles south of the road into the campground. Bring what you need except ice, which is available at the gatehouse.
Above: Detailed map of the portage and general layout that will be encountered at Claiborne Lock and Dam.
This is no place to plan a swimming vacation for the kids, either, with alligators commonly visible from creekside campsites. Driving the narrow roads to the campsite after the long lonely stretches of blacktop leading here from the closest towns may put you in the mood to keep moving, but don’t. Staying a while at a place like Isaac Creek can sharpen one’s aptitude for leisure, and there’s a satisfying atmosphere about this quiet, remote stretch of the Alabama River.
Directions vary depending on where you are arriving from. For information, call the gatehouse at 334 282 4254.
Fossils sand dollars abound in the formations under the bridge.
On Fridays and Saturdays, modern-day river passengers can visit the Alabama River Museum adjacent the Claiborne Lock and Dam March through October. Here you can view exhibits that will take you through a 60-million year trip from the geological formation of the area to the operation of the dams and its locks today. In between are represented Indian cultures (don’t miss the dugout log canoe suspended over your head) and steamboat days, including an exact replica of the steamboat Nettie Quill, queen of these waters, and actual artifacts rescued from the wrecks of these great vessels.
From Monroeville, take Highway 41 North 8 miles and turn left on County Road 17 and follow signs to the museum.
Launch from Isaac Creek Campground and paddle or motor straight downriver for the locks to get downriver of the dam. Lock schedules and information is available from the lockmaster at 334 682 4244. If you arrive and need to pass the dam when it is not operating, or if you simply prefer to tote your boat, a takeout is available on the east bank just before the dam. The paved road will allow paddlers to portage past the lock and put in again below the dam.
About thirteen miles downstream of the Highway 84 Bridge, Randons Creek comes into the nearly-straight southwest leg of the river. This place was the site of what has come down to us as the Great Canoe Fight.
Isaac Creek is the last "official" campsite you'll encouter for more than 60 miles until you encounter the State Lands Division's Spoonbill Sandbar Campsite six miles above the Alabama's confluence with the Tombigbee, where the Mobile River is formed. Don't worry about a place to stay. Pick out a dazzling white sandbar to set your tent on. The US Army Corps of Engineers approves of sandbar camping in this area.
Above: The Alabama Scenic River Trail has produced and printed this guide (map side shown) on waterproof paper. Anyone contemplating a trip in or through the area south of Claiborne needs a guide like this. These can be purchased at our website store.
Above: An example of the exacting detail in the ASRT Delta Guidebook.
Above: Sunset over Claiborne Lock and Dam.
The town of Claiborne could be the place referred to in the DeSoto Chronicles as Piache, but the death and devastation sewn by the diseases that DeSoto left in the wake of his travels may leave us never to know for sure. His army may have crossed the river here and marched to Choctaw Bluff where may have stood the Indian capital of Maubila. Or, he may have embarked upon the Tombigbee to his encounter with Chief Tuscaloosa.
In any event, when, 20 years after he came through Alabama with DeSoto, Chrtian de Luna led an expedition that retraced his steps in the area. Here, in the year 1560, now stood the Indian village of Nanipanga.
Claiborne was established in 1813 by Andrew Jackson’s general of the same name who had in his army a number of Mississippi Choctaws friendly to the American cause and who fought bravely against the Red Stick rebels. The Indians were led by the famous Pushmataha. The American Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de LaFayette was entertained in the town at a lavish ball in 1825 on his post-revolution sweep of the country he helped to create. He was brought downriver from Montgomery aboard the Henderson, which sank here at Claiborne upon its return trip.
The great canoe fight
On the twelfth of November of 1813, the world of the white settlers along the lower Alabama Rivers was on edge after the recent massacre at Fort Mims where hundreds of men, women and children had been murdered. Scouting parties had been sent out to determine the extent of Indian activity in the region. One such group had camped near Lovett’s Creek where it enters the Alabama River. There were three in the party, which included Same Dale, the big frontiersman who was to the Alabama territory what Davy Crockett was to Tennessee; nineteen-year-old Jeremiah Austill; and a slave named Caesar. No sooner were they in the water that morning than Sam Dale looked upstream to see a dugout canoe with eleven Indians. The three paddled for the Indian craft, two of whose occupants left the canoe and swam for shore. The nine remaining Indians closed on the canoe of white settlers and joined them in battle.
In those days, canoes were used not in the seated position as we are accustomed to today, but were rowed by standing crew. We can but imagine the fight that took place as Caesar’s mighty grip held the two boats together as the occupants clubbed each other wildly with whatever they could find. The Indians perished in that bloody struggle, and their symbolic defeat at the hands of a smaller number of whites locked in hand-to-hand combat went down in history as the Great Canoe Fight.
The site of the Great Canoe Fight is approximately US Army Corps of Engineers mile 52 where Randon Creek and Lovett Creek enter the Alabama.
Next stop: Gainestown Landing
From here south the river bends can present spacious sandbars, and the higher of them can provide suitable places for spending a pleasant night under a rich, star-filled sky in the warmth of a campfire.
Two more ramps appear in the coming ten miles or so at Choctaw Bluff and Dixie Landing.
Choctaw Bluff was settled by Indians of the tribe of the same name after Christian de Luna’s 1560 expedition and the earliest exploration of the area by Louisiana Governor D’Iberville in 1702. Some believe that this is the site of the Indian capital Maubilia, but archaeological evidence has not borne the theory out.
At mile 17, the sternwheeler Cuba lies below. The big loops and lonely straights diminish and the river’s rhythm tightens in anticipation of our arrival in a network of capillaries that begins the delta experience. When you are in sight of the powerlines crossing the Alabama River at mile 7.5 (yes, you’re that close to the Mobile River) Holley Creek enters from your left. About three miles out Holley Creek is Holley Creek Landing. The next creek to your left, just past the powerlines, is a narrow backwater that leads to Boatyard Landing and its access to fuel and the nearby community of Tensaw. Keep the northeast course to find the landing; don’t take the creek heading north about halfway to the landing.
Fort Mims and America's first great massacre
At Boatyard Landing you are within a short distance of Ft. Mims, where a nearby State marker commemorates one of the most brutal massacres in American history.
On the thirtieth day of August of 1813, a seething resentment was smoldered into flame as more—some say many more—than 300 settlers were killed at the settlement known as Ft. Mims. Treaties between the Indians and the settlers had been signed and broken, and the English, French Spanish and Americans were doing everything they could to undermine each other's interests. The claims and hatred between the English and the Americans came to blows in another clash shortly after the American Revolution, this time called the War of 1812. The British, operating out of Pensacola, began arming Indians and inciting them to rise up against the Americans. Tecumseh had swept through the area giving fiery speeches supporting the routing of white settlers from what he and his followers believed to be Indian lands. The rebel faction that he led, called the Red Sticks, wanted blood.
The home of Samuel Mims was situated near the end of a dead lake that came off the Tensaw River. Here about seventeen buildings stood, fenced by a wooden wall and protected by two heavy gates that hinged closed and fastened securely. The fort was under the command of Major Daniel Beasley, appointee and close personal friend of General Ferdinand Claiborne. As good a friend as the Major was to the General, he was not qualified to lead such a command, especially in such perilous times.
With over 550 settlers crammed within its gates and fearful for the rumors that their lives were in danger, the occupants earned the scorn of Major Beasley who didn’t believe that his command was under any kind of threat. Under his direction, security was lax and improvements proceeded slowly.
A shipment of whiskey arrived at the fort on august 29th, which the residents—and the Major in particular—were enjoying at the same time nearly 1,000 Red Stick warriors under the command of William “Red Eagle” Weatherford were hiding themselves in the woods just six miles away.
Two young slaves tending cattle outside the gates of the fort were surprised to see Indians in war paint in the woods near the fort. When they informed Major Beasley of what they saw, he ordered ten of his soldiers to check out the situation. The soldiers he sent came very close to but never saw the Indians hiding in the woods. Upon hearing that no attacking Indians were found, the two boys where whipped for lying to stir up trouble.
That night Weatherford and two warriors were able to climb the fence and peer into the fort’s interior where they watched the sentries playing cards.
The next morning, Major Beasley rose to write a letter to General Claiborne describing the false alarm concocted by the slave boys. It was the last thing he would ever write. He was to receive one more clue about the trouble he unknowingly faced. A scout rode to the fort at noon to inform Major Beasley that hostile Indians had been seen in the area. Beasley scoffed and implied that the scout had only seen red cattle, not Indians, to which he was answered that the red cattle would “give him a hell of a kick before night.”
The Creek warriors had agreed that the rattle of the soldier’s noon drum would be the signal to attack. When the drums began to roll, most in the fort were playing at one diversion or another to keep their minds off of the oppressive heat of the day. Hundreds of Red Sticks rushed the fort, where they found that the lackadaisical Beasley had allowed so much dirt to build up in the way of the gates that they could not be closed for defense.
The drunken Beasely was clubbed to death in the opening moments of the struggle. The Indians, though out-weaponed, were of superior numbers and soon gained the upper hand. When they set the fort aflame, the central powder magazine exploded.
William Weatherford was supposedly horrified by the brutality that raged that afternoon but was powerless to stop it. No one knows the number for sure, but it is believed that as many as 400 settlers and militiamen were killed by the Creeks. No boat could be found for an evacuation; the survivors walked until they arrived in Mobile early in the morning of September 4th.
The events at Ft Mims were answered by the destruction of one Alabama Indian village after another and culminated with Andrew Jackson’s massacre of the Indians at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa, bringing the Creek nation into submission and finally surrendering the Indians’ 20 million acres to the American nation.
Weatherford, who had convinced Jackson of his inability to stop the brutality of his warriors, was pardoned and allowed to live out his life as something of a celebrity in Monroe County. He lies buried next to his mother about a mile from the fort.
The Tensaw-Mobile Delta
Around a cat’s cradle of waterways strung between the Mobile and Tensaw rivers in a ten-mile-wide swath lies 2,550,000 acres of the second-largest river delta in the nation (only Louisiana’s Atchalafaya is larger). It is the last refuge of the state’s black bear population and home to endangered species including the Alabama redbellied turtle. If you eat seafood from the Alabama gulf coast, chances are that it was born here in the delta. Comprising only the 135th part of the state’s total area, the delta shouldered half of the state’s 20th century extinctions. What will the 21st century lose? Hopefully, for all our sakes, not the other half.
History along the Mobile and Tensaw Rivers
Ft. Stoddard, an American outpost north of Mobile in the early 1800s, was located at mile 43 on the Mobile River at the present-day town of Mt. Vernon. The fort happened to be a convenient place to store its two most illustrious inhabitants, US Vice President Aaron Burr and the Apache leader Geronimo.
Burr was running from the law after killing Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel that began with an insult from Hamilton about Burr’s family. Burr was in the area disguised as a trapper. He was trying to make his way to Florida where he could take a ship to London, but a local sheriff discovered him on a farm a few miles upriver from Ft. Stoddard.
Burr was acquitted of Hamilton’s murder and went on to serve under president Thomas Jefferson, during which time a plot was uncovered whereby Burr and others would invade Mexico and Burrr would become king. Jefferson charged him with treason. He was found to be innocent of the charges, but his political life was beyond saving by that time.
The great Geronimo was imprisoned here for a time when he was being transferred from his place of capture in Arizona to Ft. Pickens in Pensacola in 1886.
The city of Mobile was founded in 1702 by D’Iberville as Louisiana’s first capital. Mobile Bay was discovered in 1519 by the Spanish Explorer Pineda. The famous Cabeza de Vaca survived a shipwreck which some—but not all—historians say was off of Ft. Morgan. Whether his famous shipwreck was here or not, he did spend time in Mobile Bay and on a small island off Dauphin Island in search of water. He was subsequently captured by the Indians. His journey on foot from Alabama to Spanish Territory in Vera Cruz, Mexico—naked, starving, and still handcuffed by his captors—is one of the greatest feats of survival of all time.
The Bartram Canoe Trail
Once you pass under the power lines at mile 7.5 you’re in the realm of Alabama’s Bartram Canoe Trail, a peaceful maze of Alabama jungle designed for the paddling naturalist and outdoor-seeker. Travelers on the Trail can go out for the day from a number of landing for one-day, two-day or longer trips. You may never get closer to wildlife than you can in the trail’s intimate creeks and bayous. Floating and land-based campsites and platforms have been established to provide canoe and kayak travelers with accommodations for eight or less, though at Dead Lake Island the platforms can accommodate larger groups. Reservations must be made online at www.bartramcanoetrail.com. Excellent maps with detailed preparation information are free by request by calling or writing Alabama’s Delta Five Rivers Resource Center, 30945 Five Rivers Boulevard, Spanish Fort, Alabama 36527. The telephone number at the facility is 251 625 0814.
Click here to see ASRT's complete guide to the Bartram Canoe Trail here. Complete with all trip information and downloadable, printable maps.
The Mobile County River Delta Marina
New access to the delta’s waters by powerboat is underway near Mobile. Paddlers are welcome, too, and paddleboats are rented there. Known now as the Mobile County River Delta Marina, it’s on one of the last bodies of water you’re near when heading south on I-65 and it provides great access to the Mobile and Tensaw Rivers and all the spidery waterways that connect them across the delta. It was formerly known as Dead Lake Marina, and in fact is located near Dead Lake (one of them, anyway, as there are several in the region) and Big Bayou Canot not far from the Mobile River. The marina offers launching, full service camping, covered docks, open docks, canoe rentals and more. A new, clean delta welcome center is soon to open. The marina is not far from the Mark Reynolds North Mobile County Airport. To find the Mobile County River Delta Marina, take exit 22 from I-65 towards Creola and follow the signs. The Marina is about four miles from the Interstate. Contact the marina by calling 251 574 2267
On the trail of William Bartram—literally
William Bartram was the son of an English naturalist living in Philadelphia in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The elder Bartram, in fact, designed that city’s botanical gardens and was co-founder with Benjamin Franklin of the American Philosophical Society. William, no doubt through his father’s influence with King George III, landed the job of traveling though the American southeast and cataloging every new botanical species he could find, and sending many to his father and the King in the many trunks and boxes he traveled with. Young William turned out to be more than an apt botanist. He was a keen observer, a man cut out to adapt to travel through the rough and wild country and a skillful dealer with the Indians he encountered. His book, The Travels of William Bartram, is still a well-loved treasure over 230 years after it was written. Readers of the book Cold Mountain will remember that the book was the sole comfort for the main character’s tour of duty with the Confederate army. William’s observations of the Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee Indians he encountered offer some of the most enlightened glimpses into their cultures that we possess. His diligence in seeking details of the local flora earned him is Indian name Puc Puggy, or Flower Hunter, a title that must have made some of William’s introductions falling-down funny to his hosts.
Bartram traveled the old roads to Natchez and then returned to Charleston where his journey began, passing through the beautiful Stockton area with its spreading oaks which no doubt elicited the same response from Bartram as they do from us. It is near Stockton that he discovered the evening primrose. He surely traveled these streams by canoe, and the trail that leads through them today is an appropriate namesake for this great figure.
The tides of the Delta
To inlanders, the tides seem to be the most mysterious and vexing part of coastal boating because they are its least understood component. Many have heard the stories and lore of kayakers whisked out to sea, pursued by rescue craft unable to catch up with them for a frighteningly long while.
These stories are true enough in other parts, but the tides don’t exert so much influence on the waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. In fact, the most dangerous aspect of low tide in the bay—especially near the causeway—is the chop set up by winds in the shallow waters.
And not only does the tide vary by time of day, it varies by depth. Tides everywhere are caused by the tug of the moon’s gravity on the earth’s water. Tides are apt to be greatest nearest a full moon and less when the moon is darker. There is about a 20-30 minute difference between the times of the tides from one day to another. In other words, if high tide is at 4:00 on Monday, you can expect the water to start going out at about 4:20 to 4:30 on Tuesday, the day after.
The farther up the Delta, the Alabama, and the Tombigbee Rivers you travel (there are no dams on the Alabama below Claiborne and no dams on the Tombigbee below Coffeeville), the less the water is affected by the tides from the Gulf, but the effect is there. No matter where you are below these dams, you need to be aware that whatever obstacles are exposed to snag your boat at normal water, the effect will be worse at low tide. When water is running high because of rain, high tide can kick in an element of danger that would otherwise not be present.
Is there a magic tide depth number to look for when planning to get on the water? According to Officer Jeremy Doss, the State Lands Division employee who’s out nearly every day with a boat and a chainsaw to see that the Bartram Canoe Trail area is kept clean and safe, the answer is no. He advises to watch local TV weather before you go out because the coastal stations show the tide as part of the weather. If those numbers don’t mean much to you because if your inexperience with tides, Officer Doss strongly suggests stopping in at local stores, bait shops and marinas. You’ll find the best-informed opinions there.
Another angle is suggested on the tour maps issued for the Bartram Canoe Trail. The maps list the number for the US Army Corps of Engineers lockmaster at Claiborne Dam (1 888 771 4601), where river depth at the dam is logged. The maps list the optimum range of depth at Claiborne as it affects each segment of the Canoe Trail. This is a roundabout way of knowing the general water level, not limited to tidal levels, but above or below which the waterway is considered unsafe.
The Internet offers a number of options for those who just want the numbers without the advice (search “Alabama gulf tide” or similar). The website tbone.biol.sc.edu offers a tide chart for hundreds of sites from Florida to Texas. Two-day information is presented along with sunrise, moonrise, sunset and moonset. The site also features a tide predictor for each area that shows the expected tides in time windows up to a month, with calculations extending out for quite a few years. The predictor allows you to customize various colors for day or night tides, rising or falling levels, and other elements. I found a listing for Lower Bryant Landing on the Tensaw River that looked just like the kind of information you could plan a good trip around.
While the site offers no tide predictor, the accuracy and easy-to-read format provides a chart of the water levels during different times of the day over a three-day period at the National Weather Service’s www.tidesonline.nos.noaa.gov/geographic.html (or simply go to www.noaa.gov and search for “tides”).
The most direct route south through the delta without taking a side trips on the Bartram Canoe Trail is to follow the Alabama River to mile zero at its confluence with the Tombigbee and the beginning of the Mobile River. Powerboats with adequate fuel may be happy to continue the Mobile River into Mobile Bay but paddleboats will not. There is no place to get in or out of your boat here, and the closer to Mobile the closer to the traffic of the shipping channels. Rather than follow the Alabama to the Mobile, most boaters will want to take the few miles of the Mobile that lead to the mouth of the Tensaw, then follow the Tensaw or waterways such as Middle River, Bottle Creek, Big Lizard Creek, Little Lizard Creek and others leading to the eastern shore of the bay.
As mentioned in the section covering the Bartram Canoe Trail, this area is already networked with many places to camp and sights to see, with more on the way. Ultimately, canoe, kayak and powerboat trips will begin at the northern end of the Bartram Canoe Trail near Stockton and end at the Five Rivers facility near Spanish Fort, a distance of thirty miles over the delta.
The area between the turnoff onto the Tensaw and the eastern bay shore is rich with opportunities to see and experience some of the wildest places on the continent.
Continuing though Bartram Canoe Trail territory are Rice Creek Landing, Upper Bryant Landing, Cliff’s Landing and Hurricane Landing (all accessible from the river and Highway 225) to the bottom of Gravine Island in the Tensaw. Below Gravine Island are Cloverleaf Launch and Landing, Blakeley State Park, Scott’s Landing, Five Rivers Delta Resource Center and Meaher State Park before passing under the causeway and into Mobile Bay.
Of these potential stops along the rivers between the Alabama and Mobile Bay, three—Historic Blakeley State Park, Five Rivers Delta Resource Center, and Meaher State Park—deserve special consideration.
Historic Blakeley State Park
About a mile south of the southern tip of Gravine Island on the Tensaw River is Historic Blakeley State Park, a stopover that is among the most history- and botanically-rich along all the state’s rivers. Founded in 1814, the deep-water port of the town supported a population and economy that boomed following its designation as an American Port of Entry. The town, in fact, was considered to be part of Mobile until a separate Baldwin County was created in 1820. The town fell into decline after several yellow fever epidemics.
The town saw vicious fighting during the last battle of the Civil War. The breastworks, redoubts and headquarter left behind are virtually untouched and remain some of the finest examples of earthen civil war fortifications in the nation. A an oak near the town still stands whose open trunk once sheltered fleeing confederate soldiers for a brief part of the night after the battle before they were found. Civil war re-enactments are an important part of the park’s activities. There is enough to see at Blakeley State Park that a modest survey could take several days.
Plenty of walking and nature trails are to be found beneath the parks breathtaking live oaks; two trails lead to the enormous Cockleshell Indian Mound, built of the remnants of centuries of occupation. A quarter-mile-long boardwalk traverses the town’s old waterfront. Fifty species of plants are identified along one marked nature trail along the Tensaw riverfront alone.
The dock near the riverfront is home to the 50-passenger eco-tourboat Delta Explorer. Licensed Coast Guard captains operate the craft from Blakeley State Park and offer a wonderful introduction to the delta’s waterways.
All powerboats (including airboats) are prohibited from operating out of the park. Experienced paddlers coming downstream on the Alabama Scenic River Trail are welcome to put-in and re-launch from Blakeley Park’s concrete ramp at the stern of the Delta Explorer. Advance reservations are required by calling 251 626 5581. Visa and Mastercard accepted. Day use rates are $6 for boat and $3 per passenger. Paddlers may tent camp right at the riverfront for $15 for up to two boats and two persons. Paddlers are welcome to use park facilities. Spacious primitive campsites with fire rings and picnic tables are available at the same rate a half-mile walk from the waterfront. For special permission use of the Blakeley ramp and waterfront for group activities or recognized organizations of experienced paddlers, call 251 626 0798.
Five Rivers Delta Resource Center
Five Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort is one of the finest representations of what a state has done for its citizens and its natural capital. Lying almost in the afternoon shadow of the buildings of downtown Mobile, the complex of buildings and water access was created by Alabama State Lands Division as a gateway to outdoor recreation, conservation education and land stewardship in the delta. Five Rivers provides unprecedented access to the delta’s public lands and underscores the efforts of the Alabama Forever Wild program, which has purchased over 50,000 acres in the delta over the past ten years.
There are docks aplenty at Five Rivers. Coming down the Blakeley, Sardine pass will appear on your right. The position of the pass may make it necessary to go a bit past the mouth to make sure you’re looking up it. Across the Blakeley to your left is the inlet to Bay Minette.
Paddling or cruising up Sardine pass, the facility’s imposing motorboat docks appear on your left with the lodge-like buildings above them. A short paddle around the bend is Bartram Landing, the floating canoe and kayak dock connected by a walkway to a paved loading zone and public restrooms. The dock is Americans Disabilities Act-compliant.
Visitors to the facility can climb the steps to the spacious decks that connect the three buildings of the Nature Center Complex containing the gift shop, exhibit hall, theater (90 seats with HD video and surround-sound) and administrative offices. The Longleaf Room at Delta Hall, a spacious and attractive entertaining facility, is rented for private functions. Flyfishing programs, canoe and kayak lessons, wilderness survival training and seafood cooking demonstrations are typical Five Rivers outdoor opportunities that the public can enjoy.
Of all the things that this one-of-a-kind facility provides, the best may be access to the delta itself. Driving into the facility will lead first to the Shellbank Visitors Center where the staff introduces new visitors to the delta and will assist in planning your delta experience. Spend an informative few minutes inside to know what opportunities away you through the Five Rivers programs as well as other nature-based tourism throughout coastal Alabama. Get on the water in minutes by renting your choice of paddleboat or explore the delta from a seat on the facility’s eco-tour boat or and airboat ride.
Heading west from Spanish Fort on Highway 98 (the causeway, it’s called locally) the entrance to Five Rivers will be seen soon on the right after a small development. The entrance is directly is across the road from Meaher State Park. For information or to rent a boat call 251 625 0814.
Meaher State Park
Above: Meaher State Park pier. Photo by Charles Seifried.
When you ask local in the region of the eastern shore of Mobile bay where the most popular takeout is for folks paddling downriver—because with the tide and the current together, that’s all most people should attempt—they almost always say “at the causeway.” That means Meaher State Park.
The park provides convenient access to the open bay and its shore. Here you can see pelicans slowing to a landing, crossing over the bow or your boat with one eye on you and the other on a potential landing site. They sometimes come so close that you can almost feel on your face the air under their wings canted for braking; you can observe every feather. Pelicans trust a boater much more than a landlubber. You can paddle all the way to the causeway and still see your car parked on the shore.
Beware of the park's unusually early closing hour of 4:00 pm (No, that's not a typo) when both gate access and the campground host become unavailable.
Even if you don’t get to spend the night here, the day use aspects of the park are an outstanding value for paddlers. For a mere dollar, you can drive right in, take the blacktop road to the right onto the grassy park by the pier, and slip your boat into the water without even getting your shoes dirty. Paddle all day in the bay without worrying about your car or finding your way back. Leaving the launch area, head around to your left and paddle under the elevated birding boardwalk. Once under the pilings, watch to your left for the best pelican feeding action on the gulf as the huge birds dip mechanically into the clear, shallow water for a seafood smorgasbord.
From this area you will see double concrete ramps with a short piece of pier between them. This ramp and its spacious parking lot is the place to launch a powerboat. And it’s free. The entrance is the road that runs adjacent to the park’s RV storage nearest the causeway. Boater launching from this ramp will pass under the elevated boardwalk to enter the waters of Mobile Bay.
Above: The facilities at Five Rivers Delta Resource Center and Meaher State Park are nearly adjacent, divided by the Causeway (Highway 98/90). ASRT has established a campsite on Meaher property with the permission of the State Park. If you decide to stay there, know the rules.
Meaher State Park is easy to find. Just head west from Spanish Fort on Highway 98 (the causeway, it’s called locally) and it’s the first left turn. Five Rivers is across the road on the right. Contact the park for information or reservations at 251 626 5529.
From Mobile bay, Spanish River leads up into the magical worlds of Chuckfee Bay, Grand Bay and Delvan Bay. Chacaloochee Bay and Big Bateau Bay are accessible from the causeway and lie about halfway between Mobile and Spanish Fort. The Apalachee River and the Blakeley River split the Tensaw at bell-shaped Big Island where the causeway crosses it near Spanish Fort and empties into the bay below the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center and Meaher State Park.
Fort Morgan and the end of the trail
If you’re traveling on the Alabama Scenic River Trail, you’re paddling the last miles of a trip that may have brought you from as far away as the Georgia state line some 600 miles away. To finish the trail at its terminus near Ft. Morgan on the tip of the Ft. Morgan peninsula, the paddler will need another night or two to sleep and rest before climbing out at the Ft. Morgan Public Landing near the ferry terminal. Accommodations on the eastern shore of Mobile bay are difficult to come by, but assistance can be had from the paddling community who can help you at www.alabamascenicrivertrail.com. The association’s guidebooks provide reasonably up-to-date information, but the web and the contact you will find there will have the up-to-the-minute last word on the subject. The problem for the paddler is that the coastal towns south of Spanish Fort don’t bother to provide adequate access for boaters not owning their own dock or having membership in a yacht club. Virtually no land suitable for put-ins or take-outs has escaped the intentions of coastal developers. That said, there are places to stop and even to stay. You just have to check in with www.alabamascenicrivertrail.com to discover them.
Beyond the end of the trail...
East of Fort Morgan, in Orange Beach, the Parks and Recreation Department has created a very nice trail that provides a great tour of the area. The Parks and Rec website is here with a downloadable PDF of the trail, and another interactive website with a live map can be found here.
Float under a canopy of trees and discover the legendary “ice box” on the Bon Secour River where you can park your boat and take a refreshing swim in cool waters. Glide along bays and bayous. See Bald Eagles in flight, Osprey along the shore, and Dolphins playfully breaking the water’s surface. With over 250,000 acres of wetlands, woodlands and waterways, kayaking throughout Gulf Shores is an experience like no other.
For a fantastic self-guided tour, the Orange Beach Kayak & Canoe Trail includes 10 official launch points around Orange Beach. To download online maps, go to: www.orangebeach.ws and www.cityoforangebeach.com.
Guided tours are reasonably priced with kayak and safety equipment included. Here are three popular choices:
The Chocatwhatchee River
from Browns Crossroads in Dale County, Alabama to Choctawhatchee Bay in Florida to the Gulf of Mexico
The town of Ozark does not lie directly on the river, but is near its floatable headwaters, is close to the river, and has the amenities that travelers to a distant region would want. In addition, the lower section has little access but plentiful sandbars, and flows into Florida where it ends up in the Choctawhatchee Bay, which provides access to Santa Rosa Beach, Destin and Ft Walton Beach among many other destinations. The bay is about as far from the Florida line as the Florida line is from Ozark.
On the accompanying map, I have located the places where I visited and took waypoints. The stretch of river it outlines is that from Browns Crossroads to Highway 84 Bridge, with John Hutto Park in the town of Newton the halfway point between them. From Browns Crossroads to Newton is about a day; from Newton to Highway 84 is another day. Below Newton, sandbars are plentiful. Above Newton, they are not really needed.
Numbers that precede entries in this report match locations marked on the accompanying map.
1. Browns Crossroads, (31.410974, -85.534957) where County Road 27 crosses the Choctawhatchee, is not the uppermost point of entry to the river but it is the uppermost public access that I know of. About 800 feet above this slablike ford across the river (I am told that in low water the river bottom is a popular playground for onroad and offroad four-wheelers. The entire area is obviously a gathering place for partiers but is not secluded enough to make any real troublemakers happy) is a two-to-three foot drop. The West Fork Choctawhatchee and Judy Creek come together just above the drop to form the Choctawhatchee.
From the CR 27 crossing, a nice fast shoal begins the trip downstream.
Above: Choctawhatchee below the confluence with Judy’s Creek, viewed from the put-in at Browns Crossroads where County Road 27 crosses the river.
From there, it is a day’s paddle to Newton. Town is close enough to walk to. There is water, electricity, portable toilets and camping in John Hutto Park on the river. From just driving around, there looks to be other places to access the river, but not to camp. The park has a boat ramp access to the river.
2. Highway 231 Bridge.(31.394737, -85.554258). Between Browns Crossroads and Newton is the Highway 231 Bridge, whose theoretical access is not recommended for two reasons. One, access from the four-lane highway to the river involves one of the most dangerous maneuvers I have seen in Alabama. If you have to do it, make sure you have a roof rack and not a trailer. Second, the access itself is riprap to the river, about as steep as it can be stacked. There is no real landing at the water level. You have to be fit and have good balance to even make the walk without a boat and gear. No real matter though; unless there needs to be an emergency exit here, there is no reason to use it. Newton is close enough.
Above: The ultra-steep takeout at below Highway 231, plus the tortuous access road, makes the site OK only when a matter of lie and death.
3. Newton, John Hutto Park access.(31.343739, -85.616149). I met with Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper and Dothan Paddle Club organizer Mike Mullins and we visited Mayor Irby of Newton to determine the disposition of John Hutto Park, mentioned above. We found the mayor more than enthusiastic about developing paddling in the region and invited ASRT to install one of our camping signs in the park. The park has access, free camping, water and electricity. A phone number to have the water turned on will be noted on the signs for John Hutto Park—abuse of the water system by locals makes this necessary.
Above: View from near the ramp at Newton’s John Hutto Park.
Above: Spacious John Hutto Park grounds.
4. Highway 84 Bridge.(31.275602, -85.678201). The next stop, so far as I have been able to determine, is Highway 84 Bridge with its spacious white sand beaches. The river on both sides of the highway is reachable from access roads on the west side of the highway. The access road for the westbound lane (toward Clayhatchee) is in fairly good shape with ways around the low wet spots. Be careful to park on this hard sand; the transition to deep soft sand is sudden, and an extraction may be required even for 4 wheel drive vehicles. The road on the eastbound side, towards Dothan, is in very bad shape but is hard-packed nearly all the way to the river.
Above: The big sandbar at Highway 84 Bridge. Don’t travel the road far enough to see this; stop your car on the hard sand if driving here. There is ample parking that is not soft sand. AAA will not extract a car from here, and you will need it.
Above: Below Highway 84 Bridge.
4a, 4b. The Little Choctawhatchee.From its origins near Dothan, the Little C. comes into the Big C. between Newton and Clayhatchee. The smaller river is important for two reasons in addition to its serene natural beauty: first, it contains water for more of the year than the larger river and offers more opportunity to paddle during the summer months; its close-together bridges offer a fine afternoon trip when time is limited.
The Little Choctawhatchee flows west to east, with the farthest (so far explored) access on the Little C. is below the Highway 123 Bridge. Not a bad access.
4a. CR 123.(31.274387, -85.619604). Paddlers on the Little Choctawhatchee with more than an hour or two on their hands may travel the little river to its confluence with the big one just above the Highway 92 Crossing. The distance from the Highway 123 put-in and the Highway 92 take-out is about ten miles, or half a day without dawdling as these two rivers move along pretty well.
Above: Below the 123 Bridge.
4b. Old Powerdam access to the Little Choctawhatchee.(31.272495, -85.647572). In about three miles, the paddler launching from Highway 123 will arrive at the Old Powerdam Road site at the CR 121 Bridge. The towering hulk of the abandoned dam’s powerhouse can be seen from the road and can’t be missed from the river. If paddling from Highway 123, keep your boat to the right where the river splits around a small island to avoid the hazardous dam. If you are putting in at CR 121, the only put-in available will start you off below the danger. This spot is a rough one and is a prime candidate for a small grant for easy improvements that would make it an excellent point of access. Anyone wanting to take out here should hang to the right as explained above, paddle around the end of the island under the bridge, and then against the current to the takeout.
Above: Keep far right approaching this dam from upstream to take the far side of the island in the next image. There is a hole in the dam there that makes for an easy landing after paddling the short distance around the island seen at left in the image above.
Above: Keeping right of the island in the picture will allow you to double back around the point under the bridge in this picture in the direction of the camera, where they takeout will be found.
Above: This obstacle at the otherwise decent takeout at Powerdam Road could and should be removed.
5. Highway 92 access near Clayhatchee (31.235796, -85.689929) is an amazing one. In the broad panorama before you standing on the Alabama State Ramp aside the immense unpaved parking lot, the view takes in generous sandbars—popular camping spots across the wide bend of the river—and locally-popular swimming holes.
The run from Highway 123 on the West Choctawhatchee down to Highway 92 on the Choctawhatchee is a good one.
Above and below: The Highway 92 ramp near Clayhatchee.
Highway 167. Below the Highway 92 access at Clayhatchee the big river passes under Highway 167 in about ten miles. Sandbars abound, there is no further need for a campsite. But those wishing to leave the river here should treat this as an emergency exit only. It would be the rare vehicle and skilled driver that could actually make it to the river.
Highway 52 Bridge.The next stop, some 21 miles below Highway 167, the Highway 52 bridge crosses the river just outside of the town of Geneva, so close that there would be almost no point in taking out there for only a mile beyond lies Geneva City Park.
6. Geneva City Park(31.024684, - 85.857342). The town of Geneva has an interest in paddling. The Pea and Choctawhatchee rivers come together at the park. There is a good powerboat ramp and a smaller, paddle-boat-only access not far from each other. The City Clerk has been an avid paddler in the past.
Camping is permitted for a fee only on designated sites in Geneva City Park, which was established primarily for RV camping. The Alabama Scenic River Trail has been tentatively invited to install a campsite sign in the park.
South of Geneva there are sandbars for camping at nearly every bend.
Above: The ramp at Geneva City Park, the confluence of the Pea and the Choctawhatchee.
7. East Pittman Public Ramp.(30.947607, -85.843413).. Just a few road miles south of Geneva is the Florida-Alabama State Line and just below that is the next Choctawhatchee access, East Pitman Ramp off Florida County Road 2. East Pittman is a spacious public ramp with parking. Road access east bank westbound lane.
Above: Excellent East Pittman Park Ramp under Highway 2 in Florida just south of Geneva.
8. Choctawhatchee at Highway 90 Bridge.(30.755402, -85.827047). This public launch is adjacent to a small park with pavilions. Ramp access is on the west bank on a paved road. Railroad and road bridges stand together so this access is unmistakable from the water.
Above: Sandbars under Highway 90 serve as an excellent access.
Interstate 10.There is no apparent way to access the river under Interstate 10 is it is completely fenced in.
8a. Holmes Creek Canoe Livery and Water Park, Vernon, Florida. (30.630230, -85.710379). Holmes Creek seems to be a more important part of the Florida Water Trail than is the Choctawhatchee. The outfitters serves the area near Venon, Florida up to or beyond the Alabama-Florida line on the Choctawhatchee. The park is on State Road 79 in Vernon, Florida. 850-210-7001. www.HolmesCreekCanoeLivery.com or www.WaltonOutdoors.com.
Family-oriented business on scenic Holmes Creek which connects with the Choctawhatchee River as it runs between Ozark Alabama and Choctawhatchee Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.
Trips are planned and priced anywhere from Pittman Creek Landing on Highway 2 (just south of Geneva, Alabama) to Cowford Bridge on Highway 20 in Ebro.
All trips are priced for two adults. Children under 12 $5.00. Youth groups, churches and military call for discounted rates.
Water park $5.00/person. Water park is free with canoe rentals.
Zip line $10/person.
Guided River Swamp Tours for hunting, fishing and photography.
Drop off and pick up services available.
Above: Holmes Creek livery in Vernon, Florida.
8c. Seven Runs Recreational Area.(30.539247, -85.920510). Seven Runs is a beautiful tributary to the Choctawhatchee. The site is a pavilion, fishing platform and handicap access on a clear yellow creek right on Highway 81. Portable toilet. Put in here (parking is limited) and paddle approximately seven miles to an astounding cypress swamp. Or, make the same trip in an hour or less from the other direction:
8b. Seven Runs Campground and Cypress Swamp.(30.542409, -85.890449). South of Seven Runs Recreational Area on Highway 81 is Dead River Road. A cemetery occupies the northwest corner of the intersection, and the cemetery is easier to spot than the road sign at highway speeds. Turn east to follow Dead River Road to its end. The road is a smooth and safe dirt surface. At the end, you will find an as-yet unnamed and very well developed campground with about ten camper sites and a couple of pull-throughs. Facilities are primitive but there are toilets. The site has a ramp, fishing dock and several nice pavilions with tables.
Leaving the ramp to the left takes you upstream to one of the finest cypress swamps you may ever encounter. Some of the knees are five feet high, and the enormous swollen trunks are breathtaking. The place is quiet and serene and flowing with the same clear water found upstream at the Seven Runs Recreational area mentioned above. The entire trip would take less than two hours if you wanted to tour the cypress swamp.
Above: Magnificent cypress swamp with old-growth trees just a 15 minute paddle from Seven Runs Park (official name not known, but locations and directions described in narrative).
9. Choctawhatchee Public Ramp at Florida 20 (Cowford Ramp). (30.451295, -85.898915). Spacious public boat ramp with sand and concrete launch adjacent to the bridge. River is wide and winding here. Beautiful old growth cypress woods nearby. Adjacent to Cowford Ramp where there is spacious parking and a pavilion. The area is called Cowford Bridge by locals in is close to the community of Ebro.
Above: The ramp below Florida 20, adjacent to Cowford Park and also called Cowford Ramp.
10. Choctawhatchee River confluence with Choctawhatchee Bay (30.396135, -86.120991). The paddler on the Choctawhatchee will find a lonely entrance to the bay. There are no communities around as the river winds through and near Lone Pine State Forest and finds its several routes into the bay through a low delta. The most prominent channel is marked with the waypoint above, called locally South Mouth. There are other mouths, but this is one of the main ones and is just a few miles above Point Washington, Florida.
Once a paddler has reached Choctawhatchee Bay, famous beaches like Miramar, Santa Rosa, Ft Walton and many others are at hand, is the night life, food and accommodations along well-loved vacation destination 30A. The 331 Bridge and causeway run north and south just five miles west of the river’s entry into the bay.
Above: A map of the Choctawhatchee from Dale County Alabama to Choctawhatchee Bay in Florida. Holmes Creek, Seven Run and Little Choctawhatchee are included. Click here to download a larger version for trip planning.
Click here to download a multi-page PDF of this article.
Summary.The Choctawhatchee River offers an experience commensurate with its length and many of the better paddles already in the catalog of the Alabama Scenic River Trail. As far as I know, there is not impediment to paddling its entire length from near Ozark Alabama to Choctawhatchee Bay, Florida. Camping and access is adequate or better. Promoting the river as part of the ASRT could be the first significant multi-state initiative we have undertaken, and could draw a number of paddlers from Florida as well as attract paddlers from Alabama. I would like to see its development as part of ASRT set the stage for similar adoption of the other isolated rivers of southeastern Alabama.
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The Chattahoochee River
Whitewater on the Chattahoochee in Phenix City, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia
Things have gotten wild in Phenix City, Alabama. In fact, you'll be lucky to survive a trip through the middle of town without getting a good soaking. It's almost impossible. But consider the situation: the Chattahoochee River between Phenix City, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia is now a series of roaring whitewater events with an outfitter to help you get wild safely.
The Chattahoochee Whitewater project was begun as an environmental restoration of the river to its natural state by removing the two dams that had impounded the river—preventing fish passage— since the times when water-powered cloth mills wove millions of miles of thread into the fabric of the local economy. The dam removals restored two miles of river habitat for listed endangered species, creating a fish passage for American shad, striped bass and herring. A bird habitat was also created, as was a habitat for humanus recreatus which seems to be flourishing in these waters.
Since its opening May 25th, 2013, the outfitter Whitewater Express has sent down 10,000+ participants in the course's first season. A Columbus State University Economic Impact Study estimates 60,000 – 100,000 participants a year will enjoy the course which is expected to yield $4 - $7 million per year for the twin cities of Phenix City, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia.
The coming seasons are expected to see the addition of ziplines, ropes courses and climbing walls to the experience. The Phenix City side of the river is the site of the outfitter now serving the course, and the shade and easy egress into the river from that side makes Phenix City a desirable location for whitewater access.
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