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Celebrating 75 years of Alabama state parks

By John N. Felsher

In March 1939, the Alabama Legislature passed the Department of Conservation Act, creating the Department of Conservation and abolishing the Commission of Forestry. Frank Dixon, then governor of Alabama, signed the act with the goal of setting aside special lands in the state for the enjoyment of the public. Thus, the Alabama State Park system officially began 75 years ago.

“The Alabama Tourism Department declared 2014 as the Year of the Parks to recognize the significance and importance of parks to our state,” says Greg M. Lein, the director of the Alabama State Parks Division. “That not only includes state parks, but municipal parks, historical parks, national parks and others.”

However, parks in Alabama go back even further than 1939. In 1927, the legislature passed the State Land Act, which provided for the administration of any lands owned by the state and created a Bureau of Parks and Recreation. Unfortunately, the state didn’t own any park lands at the time. The act did set aside 940 acres between Double Oak Mountain and Little Oak Ridge near Pelham as a park administered by the Forestry Commission. Over the years, Oak Mountain became a state park and grew to include about 9,940 acres. It remains the largest park within the Alabama state park system to this day.

In 1930, the state acquired Cheaha Mountain, the highest point in Alabama. From the Creek Indian word for “high point,” the peak tops out at 2,407 feet above sea level in Clay and Cleburne counties. In 1933, the new park opened to the public in conjunction with the National Park Service. In 1939, the park became Cheaha Mountain State Park, the first official state park in the system and the oldest continuously administrated park.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built or enhanced several state parks currently in the system including Cheaha. They built cabins, lodges, hiking trails and other projects for people to enjoy. Many remain in use. In the 1970s, the state conducted a major building and renovation program to modernize many parks and build new ones.

Today, the system encompasses 22 state parks totaling more than 48,000 acres. These parks preserve and maintain just about every habitat type found in Alabama as well as some historically and culturally significant areas. Habitat types include southern Appalachian mountaintops, forests, caves, river and lake shorelines, wetlands and Gulf Coast beaches.

“The mission of the Parks Division is to acquire and preserve natural areas; to develop, furnish, operate and maintain recreational facilities, and to extend the public’s knowledge of the state’s natural environment,” Lein says. “From the mountains to the coast, we have a park system that captures a lot of ecological systems and unique wildlife habitats. Two primary cave parks, Cathedral Caverns and Rickwood Caverns, illustrate the geology of Alabama and the diverse cave formations in the state. Desoto State Park is on a wild, free-flowing river.”

These parks welcome between four and five million visitors annually. About half come from Alabama with the rest visiting from out of state. The visitors enjoy a wealth of recreational options. Lakepoint, Guntersville and Joe Wheeler parks sit on the shores of outstanding fishing lakes. Many major tournaments run out of the park marinas. Other parks offer fishing at small ponds, rivers or streams within their boundaries or close to them. Some parks rent boats. At Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, people can tempt redfish, sheepshead, Spanish mackerel, cobia and other large fish off a 1,540-foot long pier that juts into the Gulf of Mexico.

Many parks exist in remote, wilderness locations where visitors can escape from modern life for a time. Almost all parks provide extensive hiking trails and wildlife or bird viewing opportunities for visitors. Many parks permit horseback or bike riding. Increasingly popular, some parks offer treasure hunting geocaching experiences in which visitors use a Global Positioning System, or GPS, to hide and seek containers. Two parks permit visitors to access some of the most spectacular cave formations in the southeastern United States.

Stay in a tent, cabin, your RV or cottage

At nearly every state park, visitors can enjoy an array of lodging options. Facilities range from primitive tent camping to spaces for recreational vehicles to rustic CCC cabins or modern cottages equipped with many conveniences. Many people from up north stay at Alabama state parks all winter long, particularly at Lakepoint on Lake Eufaula and Gulf State Park, to escape the cold in their home states.

“Gulf State Park is our most popular facility,” Lein says. “About 40 percent of our annual visitation takes place there. It gets a lot of out-of-state visitors. People visit the parks to relax and get back in touch with the great outdoors. We see a lot of family activity at parks. We might see three generations of a family enjoying a park. Some families have been coming back to the same parks for many years over several generations. Every year, they make new friends. We have a lot to offer folks and it gets better each year.”

Six parks operate deluxe lodges and hotel facilities. These resort parks offer visitors first-rate golf courses, conference centers, tennis courts, 5-star restaurants and other amenities one might find at any commercial resort, but for significantly less cost. These resort parks host many business conferences, family reunions, weddings and other special occasions each year.

“State parks are a very affordable way to enjoy a vacation or just a day trip,” Lein says. “Most of these resort facilities go back to the 1970s. Most of them were the first such facilities built in these rural areas. When these park systems were developed, they helped put those communities on the map.”

Shrimpfest and barbecues planned

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the park system, the state teamed with Bob Baumhower, a former All-American football player from the University of Alabama under Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and five-time All-Pro who played for the Miami Dolphins, to host a series of “low country shrimp boils and barbecues.” As a restaurateur, Baumhower will provide the food and plan the events in conjunction with parks officials. The first Baumhower’s ShrimpFest and Barbecue of 2014 will be March 29 at Gulf State Park. Others will follow throughout the year at Lakepoint, Joe Wheeler, Oak Mountain and Guntersville state parks. See sidebar or Alapark.com for more specific details.

“We’re lucky that we’ve got a partner like Bob Baumhower,” Lein says. “He’s done shrimp boils on his own for years, so we’ve got a partner who not only has great name recognition, but he also knows what he’s doing when it comes to throwing parties like these. It will be a lot of fun. These are family friendly events with food, music and entertainment. The events are free, but people just need to pay the park entrance fees. We’ll also have smaller events at various parks throughout the year.”

Not just looking back, the park system also plans many renovations, enhancements at various facilities in coming years in addition to acquiring future properties. Parks officials will also hold a series of open house events at various locations throughout the state this year to obtain feedback from customers and local communities surrounding the parks.

“We want to help people understand how the park system operates,” Lein says. “I appreciate the people who come out to the state parks. We want to listen to what the people say about what they want from their park system. When people visit a state park, we want them to have a positive experience and come back to visit again. They are partners in what we do. We would not exist without our customers.”

Contrary to what most people think, the state parks receive very little money from the general state treasury. The parks pay for themselves through fees they charge for lodging, equipment rental, food and other services. Sometimes, a park partners with a local business to provide a service, such as the zipline operation at Gulf State Park in which the business owner pays a percentage of the profits to that park for the privilege of operating on state grounds. Occasionally, a park will receive a grant for a specific program, to buy a piece of equipment or to perform maintenance.

“State parks pay their own way,” Lein says. “Parks are nearly self-sufficient. The day-to-day operation of the parks is paid for by the customers. The park system has been serving the public for quite some time. We plan to continue serving the public for many years to come. State parks are a great place to start for anyone looking for an Alabama adventure.”

For information on Alabama state parks, call 800-ALA-PARK (800-252-7275) or visit www.alapark.com.

Baumhower’s ShrimpFest and Barbecue 2014 Schedule

 March 29 – Gulf State Park, Gulf Shores

May 31 – Lake Point State Park, Eufaula

July 26 — Lake Guntersville State Park, Guntersville

August 9 – Joe Wheeler State Park, Rogersville

October 11 – Oak Mountain State Park, Pelham