Dating to the 1930s, Cheaha State Park is Alabama’s oldest continuing operating park and home to the state’s highest point
By John N. Felsher
In the valley below, lush green vegetation indicates a land still wrapped in summer splendor, but foliage thins as the elevation increases. At mid-level, leaves begin to change, but at the crests, foliage glows with a rainbow of fall colors. When heading up something like Mount Cheaha in the foothills of the Appalachians, visitors can go through multiple seasons after travelling just a few miles.
In the forest
The 392,567-acre national forest at the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains preserves a wilderness that looks very similar to when Native Americans hunted these hills 200 years ago. Now, only names on maps, undiscovered relics in the ground and items in the Indian Relic Museum recall these once thriving native cultures. Some map designations, like Shinbone Valley and Chinnabee Trail, recall great chiefs of the Creek Nation. Even the word “cheaha” comes from the Creek word “chaha,” meaning “highest point.” The name fits; Cheaha Mountain rises 2,407 feet above sea level and marks the highest point in Alabama.
“Long before Europeans settled here, Creek Indians lived here,” says Tammy Power, the Cheaha State Park lodge manager who grew up in the area and traces her lineage to Chief Shinbone. “The Creeks called the mountain ‘the sleeping giant.’ It’s as close to Heaven as anyone can get in Alabama.”
To the mountaintop
On the Cheaha Mountain summit, Cheaha State Park covers 2,799 acres in Clay and Cleburne counties near Delta, Ala. The oldest continuously operating park in the state dates to the 1930s. With the country gripped by the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps and chartered it to build parks and other public facilities throughout the nation. The state acquired the property in 1933 and the CCC established a quasi-military camp atop Cheaha Mountain to build roads, structures and trails. The completed park officially opened in 1939, but the state added the 30-room hotel, adjacent restaurant and five chalets in 1973.
“These young men in the CCC, most in their late teens or early 20s, left home to come here and work,” Power says. “Many were supporting their families during the Great Depression. They learned trades and a way of life. They made Alabama a better state. These are also the same young men who won World War II.”
The CCC teams used rocks they found in the area to build 16 stone cabins, the Bald Rock Lodge, the Bunker Observation Tower and many other structures. Most of these structures still exist today, albeit upgraded with modern facilities. Guests may pick from four cabin types including some that face into the setting sun and overlook a thousand-foot drop to the valley below.
Guests selecting Cabin 16, one of the oldest stone cottages in the park, can take a step back in time. Dubbed “the museum cabin,” it offers rustic comfort reminiscent of the 1930s. People can bring their pets into Cabin 16.
Most cabins can accommodate two people. Chalets can sleep four or more people in two bedrooms, each with a queen-sized bed. Chalets feature everything cabins offer. Some allow pets.
Visitors may also camp in the park. The park offers recreational vehicle spaces with water, electric and sewer hook-ups, plus semi-primitive and primitive campsites. The primitive campground sits on the original CCC encampment.
The highest point
Built of available local stone like most other park buildings, the Bunker Tower opened in 1934 and originally housed the park gift shop. It also provided lodging to people watching for forest fires. Atop the tower, the old Forest Service observation deck provides a spectacular 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside.
The CCC also built the original Bald Rock Group Lodge from stone found on the mountain. No longer used as the main hotel, the lodge can accommodate wedding parties, business conferences, family reunions, scouting events, church groups and others who want to remain close to each other, but somewhat separate from other park guests. The lodge offers 12 modernized rooms that can accommodate up to 32 people.
The Bald Rock Group Lodge no longer operates a restaurant, but guests can use the full-service kitchen to prepare their own meals. Large groups can also arrange for the park restaurant to cater events at the lodge or elsewhere in the park.
Saying ‘I do’
Many wedding parties book the Bald Rock for lodging, the ceremony or reception. Wedding parties can also hold ceremonies in the Wedding Chapel or hold the reception on the restaurant deck overlooking the valley. The chapel can accommodate up to 75 guests and offers pew seating, a dressing or storage room, a piano, an organ and a fireplace.
“Many people come here to get married, hold family reunions or to enjoy the hiking and biking trails,” Powers says. “Many weddings take place on the restaurant deck because it overlooks the Talladega National Forest. The restaurant deck can accommodate up to 200 people and is the number one requested wedding spot in the park because it offers such a breathtaking view.”
Besides catering, the Cheaha Mountain Restaurant staff prepares three meals per day for park guests and day visitors. Many bikers ride up the mountain just to eat in the restaurant and enjoy the panoramic view. The restaurant serves outstanding steaks, desserts, sandwiches and other country cuisine. Don’t forget to sample the fried green tomatoes!
Take a hike
Behind the Bald Rock Group Lodge, the ADA Bald Rock Boardwalk Trail runs less than half a mile. Accessible to people in wheelchairs or with difficulty walking, the elevated trail terminates at one of the most scenic overlooks in Alabama. Along the way, hikers can stop to read signs describing the area flora and fauna.
Several other trails wander through the park, offering various degrees of difficulty. The most difficult trail in the park, the Lake Trail eventually leads to Cheaha Lake after making a thousand-foot descent off the mountain. People wishing to make a longer hike may explore the Pinhoti Trail, which connects to the Appalachian Trail.
“We are the southern connection to the Appalachian Trail,” Power says. “From here, people can hike all the way to Maine. The total length is approximately 2,200 miles. We get people come through here who have been on the trail for months. They just want a room, a bath, a nice meal and to talk to someone.”
The CCC dug the six-acre Cheaha Lake by hand using shovels in the 1930s. Anglers can rent johnboats or paddleboats to fish the lake. In the forest a few miles from the park, anglers may fish in the 17-acre Lake Chinnabee. The park does not allow hunting, but many sportsmen camp in the park or rent a cabin to hunt the adjacent national forest.
“Many local people drive up for the day and spend time swimming, fishing or picnicking at the lake,” Power says. “In the fall, many people come up just to see the leaves. During race season at Talladega Superspeedway, about 25 miles from the park, we’re wrapped up with people. Many race fans stay here because they like the quiet and serenity of the park after the hubbub at the track. Some people pass their tickets and annual reservations here to their children in their wills.”
On the road
Within a short drive of the park, area visitors may also wish to tour the White Oak Vineyards where the park restaurant buys many wines. The Anniston Museum of Natural History displays prehistoric artifacts including dinosaur bones and Egyptian mummies. The Berman Museum exhibits various artifacts from World War II and earlier times.
“I grew up in this area,” Power says. “It gets in your blood. My first memory of this park was coming here on a field trip to hike Bald Rock Trail. We sat out on Bald Rock and looked at the view. It made an impact. Now, I’ve worked in the park 31 years.”
For more information on Cheaha State Park, call 256-488-5115 or 800-846-2654. Online, visit www.alapark.com/CheahaResort.