Cheaha State Park Is the Low-Key Mountain Getaway Not Enough People Know About

Soak in vista views and explore ancient artifacts in and around “the island in the sky.”

Sunset At Cheaha Overlook In The Cheaha Mountain State Park In Alabama
Photo: Getty/JimVallee

As my car winds its way from Anniston, Alabama, up to the top of Cheaha mountain, I keep my eye not only on the odometer but on the temperature gauge too. The sun might be shining, but I've lost 10 degrees in the last thirty or so minutes as I pull into the Mountain Store, Cheaha State Park's central hub where guests can do everything from purchase a souvenir to retrieve their room key. I'm greeted by Mandy Pearson, the Cheaha State Park naturalist, and park manager Bill Sykes. We hop into the park Durango to begin our tour. "We don't have very many places [in the country] where people can just listen to the voice of nature, and tune out all of the noise and all of the distractions, and reset to get back to what is important and what is essential. That's one of the biggest things about Cheaha," says Pearson.

At 2,407 feet above sea level, Cheaha State Park in Delta, Alabama, is the state's highest point. It's this proximity to the clouds that has landed Cheaha its nickname of "the island in the sky." While a trip to the North Alabama destination offers quite a different itinerary than the state's true coastal vacation hot spots, we have a feeling you'll just as easily find your niche.

What To Do

Connecting with the great outdoors is the main attraction at this state park. Purchase your all-day adventure admission ($5 for adults; $2 for kids 4 to 11; children under 3 and veterans are free) at the Mountain Store and get a lay of the land. Before making your way through the gate to head towards the various trails and overlooks, stop into the Walter Farr Native American Relic Museum where you'll find over 4,000 artifacts in a humble 400-square foot building. Next, drive up the mountain to the Bunker Tower where an X on the floor marks the tallest point in the state. Draw a deep breath and climb 62 steps to the top of the observation deck to spot places like Birmingham and the Talladega Superspeedway.

At the base of the tower, peek into the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum. Objects and photos line the walls, a salute to the men of companies 465 and 468, ages 18-25, as well as company 2420, World War I veterans, who devoted their lives to building the park. Across from the tower, let your four-legged friend frolic in the gated, off-leash Bosarge Memorial Dog Park, or take your kids through The Leave No Trace Bigfoot Challenge. This 0.5-mile trail encourages all ages to learn more about leave no trace manifestos and techniques. There are interactive stops and even Bigfoot cutouts throughout the trail for kids to spot.

For those wanting an easier stroll, find Bald Rock Boardwalk, an ADA-accessible trail. As you walk the boardwalk, be on the lookout for the Old Glory Retirement Vault to your right. It's one of the park's only vistas with an eastern view, but it also holds a special memorial. Here, a steel vault encased in native Cheaha quartzite holds the ashes of retired American flags.

Where To Stay

To truly escape, including from cell phone service, plan to stay within the park. There are 77 improved campsites, 55 primitive sites, 30 hotel rooms (nine of which are dog friendly), 11 cabins, five A-frame chalets, and one group lodge that can accommodate up to 32 sleeping guests. If resting in a little luxury is more your style, book a room at Hotel Finial near downtown Anniston—the just-over-30-minute drive is worth it for those looking for something a little less rustic. There are five suites inside the hotel's historic Victorian house and 56 well-appointed exterior-entry hotel rooms. Breakfast, held in the main house, is included and features everything from a hearty grits buffet to chicken and waffles. Hotel Finial is a short walk to many of Anniston's shops and restaurants as well as the Freedom Riders National Monument, making it an excellent choice for those seeking city exploration.

Where To Eat

Thanks to Cheaha's own resources as well as its distance to surrounding towns, there is no shortage of dining options. Long-distance hikers who need fuel for a few days can pick up beef jerky, dried fruits, and nuts in the Mountain Store. Likewise, picnic-goers can grab ready-made sandwiches or salads. From late spring to late fall, there's also Vista Cliffside Restaurant for lunch and dinner which serves kid-friendly favorites like chicken tenders and pizza, and according to Pearson, "The best hamburgers you'll ever have." If you're looking for local eats, hop in the car for a 22-minute drive to Lineville, Alabama's Partner's Pit BBQ where enormous baked potatoes are stuffed with pulled pork and loaded with all the fixings. Or try The Peerless Saloon and Grille in Anniston, Alabama's oldest operating saloon dating to 1899.

Where To Wander

While there is plenty to do at Cheaha State Park, a short drive to neighboring towns will reveal even more worthwhile stops. There are loads of antique stores in the area, and historic Oxford has several cute, contemporary shops to peruse too. Matter of a Pinion has a bevy of cheeky knickknacks ranging from vintage planters to television and movie-inspired artwork. A few doors down, find Onyx and Opal, a hip clothing and home decor store. Nearby Anniston boasts the Berman Museum where guests are privy to fascinating artifacts such as Napoleon Bonaparte's cased dressing set and one of Catherine the Great's swords which glistens with over 1,200 diamonds, 31 rubies, 3 pounds of gold, and one 10-carat emerald.

As I wrap up my tour with Pearson and Sykes, Pearson poignantly reminds me of the origin of the word recreation. From the Latin word, "recreare", it means to create again. "When you recreate in Cheaha, you have the space, the freedom, and the opportunity to recreate yourself. It's a reset button."

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