Alabama is one of the most geographically diverse states in the South. Depending on what zip code you’re in, the surrounding terrain could be lowlands, swamplands, or highlands. Monte Sano, and Monte Sano State Park, is a good example of the latter. Back in the day, and by that we mean the 1880s, many people came to Monte Sano to escape diphtheria and cholera outbreaks. Today, many visitors still come to Monte Sano State Park, but for very different reasons.
About fifty years after its “mountain of health” days, Civilian Conservation Corps workers arrived and beautified the Park significantly. Many signs of their labor are evident today, mostly in the hiking trails and other facilities that these workers built. There are a number of other activities as well, such as a challenging disc golf course and a cool planetarium. Park facilities also include some of the nicest RV campsites in the state.
From Huntsville, take Governors Drive Southwest (Highway 431) east to Monte Sano Boulevard Southeast. Then, turn right on Nolen Avenue Southeast. That was easy, wasn’t it?
From Chattanooga, take Interstate 24 west to Kimball (Walmart, Cracker Barrel, and El Toril). Turn south on Cedar Avenue (Highway 72). This route basically follows the Tennessee River until you pass Scottsboro. Then, Highway 72 turns west toward Huntsville. Just pass Brownsboro, take Dug HIll Road south to Highway 431. Go west on Highway 431 for a bit until you reach Nolen Avenue Southeast. Yes, it’s a little roundabout. But if you prefer the scenic route, start from Chattanooga.
Parking is generally available in the developed center section of Monte Sano State Park and generally nonexistent in the not-as-developed northern and southern sections. That layout works well. Pretty much all the campgrounds, trailheads, and points of interest are near parking areas, and the rest of the Park is largely undisturbed.
Eighty-five sites; fifty-nine are water/electric hookup sites. Most are back-in sites; a handful are pull-through sites. Campground amenities include a dump station, play area, large pavilion, two bathhouses, and a camp store.
The campsite itself is shaded by tall trees, and while this may have a negative impact on satellite TV reception, it helps to keep the site delightfully cool in the summer. It also helps to maintain a sense of privacy between the sites. Sites 49, 51, 53 and 57 are 'double' sites - two sites in a V formation. If you have one to yourself, it's plenty of space. If not, you'll be close to your neighbor. But if you're doing a multi-family trip, that could be a good thing.
They wouldn’t call it a “family” trail if it was not easy to traverse. This trail is one of the flattest and most stroller and wheelchair-friendly trails in the Alabama State Park system. Most of the three-mile trail is almost arrow-straight, and there are very few roots or rocks along the well-marked pathway. There are some natural and man-made sights along this trail. The wildflowers are usually pretty in the spring and the foliage is quite nice in the fall. Close to the southern terminus, there are a few man-made bike ramps, so you can show off your mad skills. The trail ends near a 1930s firetower. Try to imagine pulling a shift a day in this thing.
This overlook is not very well-maintained. Lots of trees obscure the view. But that’s one of the best reasons to visit O’Shaughnessy Point. It’s almost completely unspoiled. Moreover, there’s a rather steep drop to McKay Hollow, which basically runs southwest not far from O’Shaughnessy Point. So, for the best views, look to the south and west. That means arrive near sunset if you can. To reach it, take the South Plateau Loop Trail or the Rocky Nightmare Trail. And don’t let the name intimidate you. The RNT is difficult, but it’s not the hardest one in the Park and it’s only about a mile long.
One of the highlights of this five and a half-mile moderate-to-difficult trail is a Civil War-era cistern. Why someone would want a water source out here in the wilderness is a matter of some speculation. The trail is quite rocky and steep in some places. But for the most part, it’s relatively flat, very well-marked, and not prone to muddiness after rainstorms. The rockiest place is probably Big Cat Creek Tract. This part of the trail is also a little windy as it navigates around some cool rock formations. Don’t be embarrassed to take the flat bypass if you want. Lots of people do that.
Except for the fee booth, the Dic Golf Course is the first thing you pass in the Park if you enter on Nolen Avenue. The eighteen-hole course opened in 2009. It’s rather hilly and densely wooded. It has carpeted tees and DISCatcher holes. Six of the holes are shorter than 300 feet, but the course plays much longer since the fairways are so narrow. Watch for fallen limbs, especially after a bad storm.
A two-mile trail that’s quite nice, especially in the spring, summer, and fall. Perhaps more importantly, this loop is basically the hub trail for most of the other hiking trails in the Park. So, it’s a good way to judge trail conditions and just how “difficult” a difficult trail really is. This loop is pretty much a moderate-to-difficult trail. The Sinks Trail goes through the more underdeveloped Park areas. Highlights include a stand of sassafras trees and some sturdy park benches that have been there for who knows how long. The North Plateau trail includes a picturesque footbridge and a rocky area that leads to a nice observation point.
Wernher Von Braun was the controversial German scientist who designed the V-1 and V-2 rockets and later gave the U.S. space program a big push in the right direction. There’s a public planetarium show every Saturday night. If the night skies are clear, visitors can use VBAS telescopes to examine the night sky on their own. The observatory is located a short distance from the Monte Sano Lodge.
The largest room in this lodge accommodates up to 112 people in a banquet setting and 175 in a conference configuration. There are also three smaller meeting/party rooms. Other Lodge amenities include a cool outdoor terrace.
As mentioned, back in the 1880s, people came to this flat-top mountain in large numbers to escape disease outbreaks. Once scientists learned what really caused diseases like cholera and yellow fever, the people basically stopped coming. During its heyday, the Hotel Monte Sano was a 223-room resort which attracted the likes of Jay Gould, John Jacob Astor, and William Vanderbilt. To reach the mountain, take the Nature Well Trail. Be advised that it’s a difficult trail that has no easier bypasses.
Monte Sano State Park’s sole hiking-only trail runs through, you guessed it, a bog. These mountain wetlands are very important to the overall ecosystem. If you want to see something you can’t see elsewhere in the Park, the Bog Trail is for you. The trail also includes an outdoor classroom.
We had to include this one. It’s rated difficult mostly because it is a narrow, single-track trail. It’s also the best way to reach O’Shaughnessy Point, which is one of the best overlooks in the Park.