Twenty-three years ago, the Alabama Environmental Council (AEC) ushered in one of the greatest periods of conservation in Alabama history. What did designating 10 Natural Wonders across the state achieve? Take a look.
Shortly after shining a spotlight on Natural Wonders like the Cahaba River, Talladega Mountains, Little River Canyon, Monte Sano Mountain and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, legislators, conservation officials and conservationists racked up an impressive list of accomplishments in those special places.
- Establishment of the Dugger Mountain Wilderness by Congress
- Establishment of the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge and Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge by Congress
- The state’s largest conservation land acquisition, located in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta—fueled by the recently enacted Forever Wild Program
- Expansion of Monte Sano State Park, Historic Blakeley State Historical Park and Old Cahawba
- Creation of nature preserves such as the Sipsey River Swamp and much more
2020 Natural Wonders List
Can we repeat history? We think so.
In this, our third and final installment about Alabama’s Natural Wonders, we asked Ken Wills, the AEC staffer who helped create the original 1997 list, to provide us with a list of 10 new Natural Wonders for 2020.
Along with his list, we have included “friends” groups and organizations dedicated to protecting and preserving these special places to help you get involved now.
Here is a map that notes locations of the Natural Wonders you can join us on our journey.
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge—Winter Home to one of the Rarest Birds in the World
“Wheeler is the flagship National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama and it is the oldest,” according to Ken Wills, co-author of the book Exploring Wild Alabama: A Guide to the State’s Publicly Accessible Natural Areas. “It was a New Deal experiment to see if wildlife would use a manmade reservoir.”
The area is home to almost every kind of duck imaginable, each year the ducks are joined in the winter by 10,000-15,000 sandhill cranes. Recently, the refuge’s biggest celebrity has been the whooping crane, one of the rarest birds in the world. How rare? There are only a little over 400 whooping cranes in the wild. About 100 of the “whoopers” winter East of the Mississippi River. Out of that number, 25 more or less annually reside at Wheeler during the winter—that makes Wheeler key to the whooping crane’s survival.
Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve—A Family Shares their Garden of Eden
Located just outside the city of Tuscumbia in Colbert County, Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve is a 700-acre private nature preserve that was opened in 1986 and is owned by Jim and Faye Lacefield. For anyone who has ever visited the place, it truly is Alabama’s Garden of Eden.
“This is a really special place,” said Wills, who has known the Lacefields since his days at the University of Alabama. “The Lacefields have a real public recreation and conservation mindset. They have opened the property up to the public, created a series of trails and nice bridges. There are rare plants everywhere including French’s ‘Shooting stars.’ He has even got some native cane stands.”
If Jim Lacefield’s name sounds familiar, he has written one of the most popular books about geology in the state, titled Lost Worlds in Alabama’s Rocks. A must-read.
Granted official status as a nature preserve through a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy of Alabama, Cane Creek Canyon is:
- Open to the public year-round Friday – Sunday and holidays (other days by appointment) 7 AM until 5 PM.
- There is no charge for hiking and other outdoor educational and recreational activities.
Walls of Jericho and the Paint Rock Forest—A Mythical Place
Wills listed the Walls of Jericho and the Skyline Mountains/Paint Rock watershed as his third natural wonder in North Alabama.
“The walls are a mythical place,” described Wills. “Forever Wild bought it several years ago, and if you take the trail down into it you better be prepared.”
The trail to the walls is rated difficult by AllTrails.com. As many of the commenters say on their website, enjoy the steep hike down (even though it can be tricky), because traveling back you face a 1699-foot elevation gain.
Wills called the Walls a “big bowl with sinkholes.” He said one of the highlights is to see the place after it rains, when “water goes shooting out the walls.”
Along with the Walls, the Skyline Mountains and Paint Rock watershed are natural wonders all to themselves. Bill Finch, Executive Director of the Paint Rock Forest Research Center said in an interview with Bham Now in October 2017, “the Paint Rock Forest is the center of deciduous forest diversity in North America and that it is probably one of the richest forests in the world.”
Livingston Lake “Lake LU” at University of West Alabama—Genuine Black Belt Prairie
Once one of the richest soils in North America if not on planet earth, over 350,000 acres of Back Belt prairie stretches from Alabama to Mississippi. Today, less than 1 percent of the prairies have survived.
“If you want to go show your family what a Black Belt Prairie looks like, go to the University of West Alabama, and there is an area called the Livingston Lake.” directed Wills. “They have taken old hay fields and restored them to Black Belt Prairie. It is not a huge natural wonder but it is significant.”
Unbeknownst to most Alabamians, much of our state was prairie at the time of statehood. Lost to over-cultivation and cotton fields, there is a movement afoot to bring back Alabama’s original landscape.
Flat Rock Park—From Rough Hangout to Park
Thanks to Alabama Power, Flat Rock in Randolph County, formerly a rough local “hangout” has been turned into a park. Located near Lake Harris, a few years ago the Alabama Glade Conservation Coalition sponsored a bioblitz in the backcountry area of the park. It was there, they surveyed some of the last remaining pristine isolated granite outcrops in Alabama.
The coalition, for which Ken Wills is one of the founding members, aims to work cooperatively with Alabama Power to conserve this rare place. Their goal: conserve the first granite outcrop plant community habitat in Alabama.
Splinter Hill Bog—Just Right Off I-65
Want to see one of the most biodiverse places in Alabama, where plants eat bugs?
Wills tells you how to visit Splinter Hill Bog.
“If you are going to the Gulf Coast there are more places to stop than Peach Park, Priester’s Pecans and Bates House of Turkey. One of the places to stop is one of the largest intact seepage bogs—pitchers plant bog in Alabama. Just three miles east off I-65 at the Raburn/Perdido exit, you can visit the Forever Wild land on one side and the Nature Conservancy land on the other side. You will see thousands of these carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews.”
How diverse is the place? Pull out that beach blanket you were going to use. For an area the size of the blanket there are 40-50 different kinds of species of plants and insects.
Conecuh National Forest—Home of the Gopher Tortoise
When you think of National Forests in Alabama, the Bankhead with Sipsey Wilderness and Talladega with Cheaha and Dugger Mountain Wildernesses tend to get all the publicity. Not any more, according to Wills. People are discovering the importance of the Conecuh National Forest.
“When you talk about Covington County, which the Wiregrass region is part of, that region was named after the flat plains of wiregrass and scattered pine, like a pine savannah. Some of the original cowboys in the south were in this region. It stayed that way until the advent of fertilizer after the civil war. They found the soils were easy to till, and started growing cotton. After the boll weevil, they grew peanuts. Due to cultivation and fire suppression, wiregrass is basically extinct in the wiregrass region.”
Fortunately, one of the few places you can find wiregrass today is in and around the Conecuh National Forest and Geneva State Forest. It’s one of the last strongholds. The forest also provides great habitat for the declining threatened gopher tortoise. It is the only place you can find known gopher frogs in the state. And just recently, biologists have been reintroducing the endangered indigo snake.
Advocates on behalf of the Conecuh National Forest: Friends of Conecuh National Forests
Red Hills of Alabama—Like being in a hardwood forest in the Appalachians
Pop quiz! What is the state salamander of Alabama?
Answer: The Red Hill Salamander
Despite its location on the Coastal Plain, the Red Hills of Alabama have big deep ravines and hardwood forests that make you feel like you are in the Appalachians.
For years, this unique landscape which is primarily in Monroe County, has been unprotected until this year when the Forever Wild Program purchased over 4300+ acres of Red Hills habitat for recreation and yes a home for our state salamander. Forest-wise, like Paint Rock in the northern part of the state, this forest is an undiscovered biological hotspot that we are beginning to understand.
“If you are a first-time visitor, the easiest parcel of public land to go see this type of habitat is at Haines Island Park. It is a Corps of Engineers park on the Alabama River,” added Wills.
Advocates on behalf of the Red Hills: Alabama Birding Trails
Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge—Ducks and Alligators
Years ago, on my first visit to the city of Eufaula, I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt that said,
“Support your local hookers.”
Of course, they meant the local sport fishing businesses.
Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge is like the Wheeler Refuge in South Alabama,” Wills said. “What’s kinda neat is in the uplands in the refuge. They are taking old pine plantations and thinning them out. They are trying to create a pine savanna. The area was renowned as ‘quail country’ in Alabama. Now, they don’t have much of that land on the public lands, so they are trying to restore that too.”
The entire region is an outdoor recreation paradise. In addition to the National Wildlife Refuge there is Lakepoint State Park, Forever Wild’s Wehle tract and the Barbour Wildlife Management Area.
Lots of birds, fish and yes, alligators! They do like to hang out in the sun in the summer, according to Wills.
Dauphin Island—Finding Sanctuary for Birds
The last natural wonder Ken Wills added to his list was Dauphin Island.
“Everybody thinks about Dauphin Island developing back in the 1950s, but that is part of its charm—it didn’t become part of the condo coast. It is an extremely significant region for birds for several reasons.”
According to Wills, when songbirds fly across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan, they need a place to land. They need that coastal forest.
“Even vacant lots on Dauphin Island have value to those birds.”
In fact, Dauphin Island has been officially recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. Over 350 species of birds have been recorded on the Island.
Locally the “go-to” group is Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries. In a nutshell, the organization works with partners to protect bird habitat on the island. The Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries is the key to their survival.
2020 is the Year of Natural Wonders
This past April 22nd the Alabama Tourism Department declared 2020 the Year of Alabama Natural Wonders.
Are your favorite natural wonders on the 1997 Alabama Environmental Council, Ken Wills or Tourism’s list? Let us know your special places in Alabama.
Visit Alabama’s Natural Wonders and get involved. Let’s usher in another “greatest era” in Alabama conservation history.