By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

From a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk atop Alabama’s highest mountain at Cheaha State Park to heart-pumping hikes on one of the 52 miles of trails in Oak Mountain

State Park, the Alabama State Parks trails system has a hike that can provide stress relief or produce a beneficial workout for your cardio system.

And that’s only going to get better with a renewed commitment to make that trails system the best it can be.

The first step happened when State Parks Director Greg Lein tapped Ken Thomas to become the State Parks Trails Coordinator.

“Ken Thomas, our newly appointed Trail Coordinator for the park system’s North Region, will now begin the process of building a formal program that will inventory our existing trails, survey our trail users’ interests, plan for the development of a trail construction/maintenance crew to manage our park trails, coordinate with existing clubs and volunteers, and address existing and future grants intended to better our trails,” Lein said. “It’s a first step for Alabama State Parks and a potential giant leap for trail lovers in the Southeast. With the creation of the State Parks Trails Coordinator position, the Parks system is reaffirming its commitment to the number-one user activity within its parks, trail use.”

Ken Thomas, who also is the Desoto State Park Superintendent, has been in the State Parks system for 27 years and views the trail network as the bedrock of activities offered by State Parks.

“A huge majority of our guests are going to use a trail in some form or fashion,” Thomas said. “It might be 15-20 minutes on a boardwalk or a hike from sunup to sundown, but visitors value this staple of our Parks system.”

Trail use has seen a significant upswing in recent years as Alabama citizens and visitors reconnect with nature. According to the nonprofit research group, The Outdoor Foundation, the number of Americans who use multi-use trails has grown steadily over the last decade. More than 100 million Americans aged 6 and up have participated in hiking, trail running and mountain biking in the last three years alone.

Greg Lein grew up hiking the trails at Monte Sano State Park just west of Huntsville in north Alabama. He said the trails coordinator position was created to increase the effectiveness of attracting visitors to the state’s growing trail system. Lein said one of the goals for Thomas is to focus on the volunteers who can take the trail system to the

next level with the aid of a State Parks crew dedicated to the trail network.

“Volunteer groups have been instrumental in building and maintaining trails in our parks since the parks have been in existence,” Lein said. “However, the growing use of our existing trails and demand for new trails is outpacing the support that volunteers can provide. We hope to add a dedicated trail crew that is responsible for building and maintaining trails throughout the State Parks system in the near future. The trail coordinator will supervise that crew and conduct outreach to the various volunteer trail groups.”

Groups like the Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers, Central Alabama Mountain Pedalers, Alabama Trails Commission, Alabama Hiking Trail Society and other groups have assisted State Parks with the creation and maintenance of several trails within the parks for years. 

“We couldn’t do half the stuff we’ve been able to achieve without these partnerships,” Thomas said. “That is a tremendous service as well as a cost savings for Parks. They don’t just give their time in the form of labor; they also give their expertise and career skills. Our new trails program will take some of the workload off these volunteers and allow them more time to enjoy the trails.”

State Parks has also developed a way for anyone to get involved in the support of the trail system. A $25 annual “Dirt Pass” would support trail users’ access to the entire State Parks trail system. The “Dirt Pass” bracelets will be sold at all park and campground offices.

“Just like any program and the park system itself, financial support and stability are a key to success,” Lein said. “All the future work on the trails system will have real costs, and require a sustainable means of funding. To address that need, we have developed a new voluntary mechanism for trail users to be able to financially support this trail program. Much like how the sale of hunting and fishing licenses support our state’s hunting and fishing programs, our new Alabama State Park Trails Pass bracelet will serve in a similar capacity.” 

State Parks is also currently pursuing every avenue for funds through grant-writing programs and other funding sources.

The good news is the Alabama Legislature passed a budget earlier this spring that level-funded the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

More good news is that another piece of legislation that recently passed the Legislature will place an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot in November that protects State Parks funding. If that amendment passes, State Parks can establish a path to improved recreational opportunities throughout the system.

Lein said trails have always been a fundamental part of the State Parks system’s mission to provide and maintain outdoor recreational opportunities. The trails system not only provides recreation but benefits trail users with health benefits.

Meanwhile, Thomas will start by setting priorities for existing trail maintenance and the development of new trails that include equestrian and Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) trails in select locations. He also realizes he will be blazing a trail in his position.

“Alabama has never had a professionally managed State Parks trail system,” Thomas said. “We’ll begin that process with a thorough survey of our trails to determine where

we should focus our efforts. We’ll also be surveying our trail users to better understand what their interests are, and studying the best trail-building techniques and technologies in order to build trails that will last a lifetime.”

 “Trail use improves quality of life and serves as a gateway activity to the outdoors,” Lein said. 

Although the new initiative will improve and expand the trail system, State Parks visitors can take advantage of the existing 285-plus miles of trails highlighted on the State Parks system’s website at alapark.com. Also, while you’re online, check out alabamarecreationtrails.org, the new website of Alabama Recreation Trails.

All this trail news from Alabama State Parks is just in time for American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day, which is set for June 4. Visit alapark.com for events related to National Trails Day and other trail-use opportunities.

PHOTOS: (Billy Pope) Alabama State Parks visitors can take advantage of a variety of trails in the system from mountain biking, hiking the scenic backwoods to horseback riding.

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