Alabama's Best Kept Secret Is Its Highest Point: Cheaha
Alabama's Highest Point
The Cheaha Wilderness is located in the Talladega National Forest in Alabama. Despite it's close proximity to the Talladega Speedway, those periodic events cannot rival the beauty that quietly spans the Talladega Mountain range every single day of the year. And there is plenty to keep you entertained - hiking, backpacking, a swimming & fishing lake, mountain bike riding, waterfalls, camping (primitive, RV, cabins, chalets), and more.
Cheaha, which literally means high place, is in the foothills of the Appalachians and represents the highest point of elevation in Alabama. While 2,413 feet may pale in comparison to the highest points of other States, the views Cheaha has to offer are breathtaking. In part because Cheaha is not part of the Cumberland Plateau like most of north Alabama. It is part of the Blue Ridge and therefore boasts Blue Ridge views. It is also the highest geographical point in the eastern Sun Belt (south of I-20 and north of the Gulf of Mexico.)
Notably, not all of the trails in the Cheaha Wilderness are found within the Cheaha State Park or can be found on the State Park Trail Map. Be sure to obtain both a map of the Cheaha State Park trails, AND a map of national forest trails from the Talladega National Forest Ranger District. Links to both can be found below.
For those of us who have hiked this area frequently, trail overlaps are well understood, but it is very easy to get lost in this wilderness without a guide or a detailed trail map due to the large number of connector trails and side trails. A missed turn cost me a two hour detour one day and was a source of great embarrassment since I was leading the hike!
Which Trails are the Best?
While every trail offers something different, my favorites are the Chinabee Silent Trail and a short 2.5 mile out and back to McDill's Point. While I appreciate the Rock Garden Trail in the State Park area which is a 1000' arduous scramble of about 1.5 miles to the State's Highest Point, I think the views at McDill's Point are jaw dropping and it's a much more pleasurable hike. There is no serious elevation gain until you reach the top 1/4 of the trail. There is also an old plane crash along the trail to McDill's Point which adds an element of mystery to the hike.
If you do choose to do the highest point, it's wise to stay at one of the State Park's bluffside cabins (numbered 1-4). They are nearby and you can enjoy a nice shower after your rock scramble. Alternatively, you can take the stairs at Bunker Tower which some still claim is the highest point (NOT).
Nestled toward the south end of the wilderness area, and far less frequented, is a nice waterfall at the High Falls Trailhead and another trail I enjoy called the Odum Scout Trail. Depending on how much hiking you want to do in a day or a weekend, this trail will take you to the north side of the wilderness via connector trails. The Pinhoti Trail essential draws a straight line north to south down the center of the Talladega Forest map banking west at Adams Gap, another great trail not mentioned here.
McDill's Point (the Gemstone)
There are not an abundance of trail maps to get you to McDill's Point. In fact, it's not even shown on the Ranger's District Map. However, you will see it on the kiosk at the trail head. McDill's Point climbs to 2,126 feet and the continental drift is sure to cross the summit in the evenings. There is limited camping at the peak, but plenty within a short distance. You can access the trailhead from County Road 281 about 3 miles past the State Park Office. Just hike in and up to the right about a tenth of a mile. Then be sure not to miss your turn to the left to follow the trail up to the Point. The hike is 2.5 miles and there is only one sign. (If you miss your turn to the left, you will find yourself on the Pinhoti.) You can hike out the same way, or alternatively, take the Cave Creek Trail out. It's slightly longer, but offers a change of scenery. If there has been rain, there will be water along this trail, but it's close to the trail head..
Chinnabee Silent Trail and Cheaha Falls
The Chinnabee Silent Trail is 4 miles through the national forest and can be done as a through hike to Cheaha Lake (or vice versa) or an out and back. Along the Chinnabee you will see Cheaha Falls which should be distinguished from Cheaha Lake located in the State Park.
To reach Cheaha Falls, a cascading three-tiered fall with unique rock features, you can do a moderate 3-mile hike from the lake on the Chinnabee Silent Trail, or do what I recommend - a very short (less than 1 mile) hike from the Turnipseed Hunting Camp on Highway 281.
The Falls may present a lot of water after a big rain and navigating across the top can be dangerous. Otherwise, Cheaha Falls is a favorite swimming hole for locals so you can expect to see more than hikers there.
There are many stunning photographs, much better than my own, to be found on the web. Likewise, there are many trail maps and recommendations online. If you're new to the Talladega National Forest, I would just recommend that you have both trail maps from the State Park and the Ranger at your disposal in the event you do wind up on a connector trail you didn't anticipate. Godspeed and Happy Hiking!
- Cheaha Trail Map | Alapark
Click on small blue link to .pdf file in top left corner
- National Forests in Alabama - Maps & Publications
Click on Cheaha Wilderness Area Map