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Alabama Adventure: Exploring The Heart Of Dixie By Dirt

Posted in Features on May 9, 2017
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Every year, the Florida Adventure Rigs (F.A.R.), plan about a week of adventure exploring the backroads, dirt tracks, and trails of some area in the Southeast. The trip planner devises a travel route and destinations for the group, however, drivers are simply instructed to meet at the starting point, not knowing where they will be headed over the next few days.

The idea is typically to spend days seeking sites of interest and history combined with 4WD exploring. For 2017, the group consisted of a dozen vehicles and everyone carried all their supplies in their vehicle. Gas and grocery stops were made periodically, and they usually tent camped along the way. Planner Robert Keller instructed everyone to meet in southern Alabama for the latest expedition.

The Gees Bend Ferry shuttled our rigs across the Alabama River. The current ferry was placed in service in 2006, but this location was originally serviced by a cable ferry.

Day 1

Crossing Water & Exploring An Alabama Ghost Town

We started our trip early and loaded all our rigs onto the Gees Bend Ferry near Camden, Alabama. What started here as a cable ferry gained some notoriety during the Civil Rights Movement when local authorities discontinued ferry service to discourage black residents from taking the boat to the county seat to vote. Ferry service was restored in 2006 to enable autos to cross the Alabama River.

We visited Old Cahawba where the first capital of Alabama was constructed in 1819 at the site of an abandoned Indian village in the middle of the wilderness. The capital was later moved but the town grew anyway, given its rich soil, artesian spring flows, and the fact that it was surrounded on three sides by the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers. The Confederacy held thousands of Union prisoners here during the Civil War and had one of the highest survival rates due to the clean water. Following the war and later flooding in the town, it began to die out and today it’s a historic relic of the past.

We wandered around the ghost town of Old Cahawba, which once boasted a population in the thousands. Today most of it is gone, but some artifacts remain such as the Crocheron columns from 1843. These were once part of a large home and a connected brick store dating back to 1821.

We followed Skyline Drive, a scenic dirt two-track near Chandler Springs, through the forest. Our destination for the evening and our place to camp was at Cheaha State Park. It’s one of Alabama’s earliest state parks as it was opened in 1939. Cheaha Mountain within the state park is the highest point in Alabama, which is 2,407 feet above sea level. We’d had a great day exploring, and we settled into our tents as rainfall came to our camp.

Day 2

Finding Wet Challenges At Morris Mountain

Our second day dawned with continued showers sprinkling on our tents. We arose and packed as the morning fog slowly dissipated. Leaving Cheaha State Park we wound our way just a bit east to Morris Mountain ORV Park. The park offers trails rated Level 1 to Level 5, so there are trails available for all skill and vehicle levels. There are also rock garden areas and a mud pit.

We found more recent rainfall at Morris Mountain and started our way into sloppy, wooded trails.

We entered the park and headed onto the Turner Over trail. The previous night of rainfall left the rock slick and we found a few sloppy patches in the forest. We sloshed our way up and down some of the milder hill trails, and then made our way over to The Good, The Bad & The Ugly trail so some of the better equipped rigs could play on the steeper rock faces. Lastly, some of the crew played on Rock Garden, an uphill boulder field that proved to be a good challenge with the soaked soil.

Terri Brendle, and son Eric, inched their way down one of the rocky trails at Morris Mountain in a ’12 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.

Leaving Morris Mountain in the afternoon, we headed north through parts of the Talladega National Forest near Pine Glen. It’s located at the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains and covers almost 400,000 acres. Some OHV access is allowed in areas of the forest. We ended our day arriving to camp at Choccolocco Mountain ORV Park in Jacksonville.

Day 3

Tackling Choccolocco Trails

The weather was clearer at Choccolocco and we prepared to explore some of the 450 acres of trails there. It’s a wooded park with a wide variety of trails for anything that moves on dirt. We locked hubs and rolled onto the entry trails to see what the park had to offer.

At Choccolocco, some of the heavily-built rigs played on some good-sized rock ledges. Ricardo Olavarrieta pushes his tubed ’00 Nissan Xterra forward on 42-inch Pit Bull Rockers.

We found some challenging, rocky hills quickly and even pulled a winch cable on a rig fairly early into the day. Not wanting to turn back, most of the others that followed lay on a little more throttle to crest the loose hills. We crawled across trails with names like Groundhog, Arsenal, and Cherry Bomb. We followed Spectator 2 down a winding hill to the bottom of Boat Ramp. Here, a couple of the drivers played on this solid rock slab which has a constant flow of water down its face. Several completed the trail to the top but not without winch assistance at the wet slab.

With awesome weather cooperating, we enjoyed a great evening in the Choccolocco campground under stars and beside a campfire. We’d had a full day of wheeling but all admitted we’d only experienced a small sample of what this awesome park has to offer. We’d have to return some day for more.

Day 4

Exploring Underground Wonders

The next day we packed our dry camping gear and travelled northwest over backroads and highways. We’d discover that we would not lock our hubs that day but enjoy some interesting local sites. Keller took us to Cathedral Cavern. This cavern was initially called Bat Cave. Now a state park attraction, it was privately owned up until three decades ago.

Cathedral Caverns are amazing. Inside we spotted this aging wooden bridge above the Mystery River. As we were contemplating possible wheeling lines in the cavern, our guide mentioned that the private owner used to drive his army Jeep across this bridge in the ’50s.

The entrance to the cavern is wide at 126 feet across and we took the walking tour that takes you almost 3/4-mile into the mountain underground. Signs exist here of Native American habitation and of occupation by a family during the Civil War period. The formations inside are extraordinary, and they include large stalagmite forests and the Mystery River that flows inside the cavern.

After leaving Cathedral Caverns, we journeyed further west below Huntsville following the smaller backroads. The terrain began to change to fewer hills and more sprawling farmlands. We crossed the mighty Tennessee River and headed towards Tuscumbia.

Our end-of-trip dinner was at the Rattlesnake Saloon. It’s a unique eating place under a natural rock shelf. It’s the kind of attraction we seek on these trips, aside from the actual four-wheeling.

Day 5

Wheeling Hawk Pride Offroad

Our final trip day would find us back in the forest and back in four-wheel-drive mode. Keller revealed our target for the day was Hawk Pride Offroad. Boasting over 1,000 acres and some 120 trails, Hawk Pride has a substantial network of routes. They have onsite camping, plus RV and cabin accommodations.

We found plenty to challenge us at the park and quickly realized we could spend days here playing and not run the same trail twice. We dropped onto Valley View, which was an easy dirt trail, then transitioned to Lucky’s which was a fun intermediate trail with moderate changes in elevation. The ground here was wet but in most places the loose soil was more sandy than muddy. Diamondback and Timber Rattler were both great, rocky hill trails and we got a good fill of Hawk Pride crawling in its forest.

Petiet led the group up Diamondback. It was a great rock trail, combined with water flow coming down the hill.

As is our tradition, we had a final trip dinner to cap off the week and recount all our many trials and accomplishments. Keller surprised us with yet another cavern, with this one holding a restaurant. The Rattlesnake Saloon sits under a large, natural rock shelf below a scenic bluff. As our trip wound down we celebrated and agreed the trip was a success. We’d be ready next year for the call to pack for the next adventure with destinations unknown.

The oldest remaining building is the Fambro/Arthur home. It was owned by both a judge and a former slave during its history which dates back to 1841.
One interesting backroad we followed was Skyline Drive near Chandler Springs. Supposedly it was meant to be a paved scenic road. Thankfully for us they left the scenic part intact and never got around to paving the road. Rick Connerly tows a restored Bantam trailer with his 5.9L-powered Grand Cherokee.
The observation tower in Cheaha State Park sits at Alabama’s highest point and offers commanding views.
Our night at Cheaha was a wet one and we broke camp early, stuffing wet tents and gear into our rigs so we could head down the road.
The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly trail offered Tim and Michelle Lowry the chance to try some climbing in their ’98 Jeep TJ Wrangler. Tracking wet soil up the rock faces killed much of the traction.
Jack Sloan crawls his way up Rock Garden in his modified ’93 Ford Explorer.
We tried to transition day-to-day on dirt where possible and found this picturesque two-track through the Talladega National Forest.
Mark Wells wheeled his ’09 Hummer H3 up Cherry Bomb. You won’t often see these vehicles out on the trails.
We favored some of the Choccolocco hill trails that were interspersed with imbedded boulders. Jary McNeil was feeling out his recently installed dual-transfer case setup so he was on a quest to go slow.
This is the Boat Ramp obstacle. It’s perfectly named for a sloping rock slab that has constant water flow across it. Anibal Garcia tried aggressively to summit this slab in his ’14 supercharged Jeep Wrangler, but there was no traction to be had. He finally winched up the wet slab and drove the remaining difficult hill to the top.
At Hawk Pride, we left the main camp area and rolled onto Valley View, which offered us a great view off the mountain.
Aaron and Pat Arnold inch down the steep Too Easy descent in their ’07 JK Wrangler shod with 37-inch Nittos.
Melvin Petiet and Molly Austin led us on the trail at Hawk Pride in their ’12 Jeep Wrangler. Lucky’s trail turned out to be a fun intermediate trail with some off-camber stretches and rocky sections.
Mike Marrero’s solid-axle ’99 Nissan Frontier tackles Lucky’s. The weather was fairly warm in late March, but here many of the trees had not yet regained their leaves.
Robert Keller tries to climb one of the hills off Lucky’s in his ’89 GMC 3500 truck. Moisture made the loose, sandy soil break away under its tires and confound attempts to make it to the top.
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