Mountain biking seems, at times, to be for thrill-seeking risk takers. Four trails at DeSoto State Park are perfect for those with a more casual approach to the sport.
Since being established in the mid-1930s, people have flocked to this state park near Fort Payne and Mentone in northeast Alabama to enjoy all kinds of outdoor adventures. In the 21st century, mountain biking has become one of the top activities.
The densely wooded park on Lookout Mountain has over 30 miles of trails. Mountain biking is allowed on about 16 miles of trail. Some trails have been established in recent decades with mountain bikers in mind, and the mountain-biking community does a lot of the work to improve and maintain them.
While many mountain bikers seem to be daredevils craving speed, difficulty and danger, others just want to enjoy getting from one point in the forest to another while taking in nature more quickly than they could on foot. For the latter group, three beginner-friendly, easy or casual, mountain-biking trails are located on the south side of DeSoto State Park where it borders the Little River Canyon National Preserve Wildlife Management Area. A fourth is on the north side.
First, let’s take a look at the three that share a trailhead on the south side.
Gilliam Loop and Chalet Trail
All the roads open to automobile traffic in DeSoto State Park are paved including the road that leads from the lodge to 17 rental cabins and chalets south of the lodge. The trailhead these trails share is at the spot where the paved road ends (map). There’s plenty of room for 12-14 vehicles on the gravel parking area found there. You will see mostly hardwood trees in this part of the forest.
Running parallel to the paved road, the 0.7-mile Chalet Trail provides a way through the woods from the trailhead to a spot near the lodge parking lot. For the four chalets found on its side of the road, it is indeed both a path through the trees to the lodge and restaurant and a trail connecting them to Gilliam’s Loop.
Gilliam’s Loop literally loops around the CCC Road. About 1.8 miles of the loop are on the east side of the road, and about 1.4 miles are on the west side of the road, for a total of 3.2 miles.
A Mountain-bike skills area is located on Gilliam’s Loop.
It includes dirt ramps for jumping and a wooden skinny which highly skilled mountain bikers use to test their balance. Also for skilled riders, a large wooden teeter-tooter is found at another place along Gilliam’s Loop. Hikers and casual mountain bikers can easily bypass these features.
The Chalet Trail and Gilliam’s loop are beginner- and casual-biker-friendly because they have no tough climbs and no technical terrain. Their surfaces are mostly smooth.
All users should be careful crossing the small wooden bridges, as they can be extremely slippery at times.
The CCC Road
Both hikers and mountain bikers should have this 82-year-old path on their north Alabama trail checklist. An out-and-back bike ride is about 3.5 miles.
Sometimes referred to as Unfinished Bridge Road, it goes from the trailhead to Straight Creek where some tall rock bridge components built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s are found. The narrow steel and wood bridge you see there today was constructed since 2010.
A Great Depression-era work program, the CCC built a great deal of rock structures found at state parks across Alabama. One of their small rock buildings at DeSoto is now used as a CCC museum, and the quarry where they got the rock is on the same side of the park.
In the case of the CCC Road, they were originally going to build it all the way to the Little River Falls area of Little River Canyon, but the CCC program was discontinued when the U.S.A. entered World War II after the attach on Pearl Harbor. So the bridge was not finished.
The bridge is your top reward for venturing out on this trail. It’s also the logical turnover spot. In June-July, you will see wild hydrangea at the bridge. The creek, which is more of a mountain stream, is dry a large percentage of the year.
When you start back, you will be reminded that mountain biking and hiking in hilly terrain can be hard. An elevation change of about 180 feet is found in the 0.7-miles nearest the bridge. One part is pretty steep. The other mile is much flatter.
The CCC road is a beginner- and casual-biker-friendly trail because of its lack of difficult turns and obstacles. It’s easy to walk your bike if you find the steep section too tough for riding. The road is wide enough to allow you to see greater distances. It’s also pretty smooth for much of its length. Your chance of hitting a tree is much lower than typical mountain-biking trails. Be aware that there are some washed out rocky spots where you need to be careful not to crash, especially on downhill stretches where you gain speed easily.
Those participating in wildlife management activities are not allowed to use the CCC Road to access the WMA, but occasionally, you will see folks with their fishing tackle using the road to access one of the side trails that lead to the riverside DeSoto Scout Trail.
The CCC Road is one of the best places at DeSoto and the WMA for spotting turkeys, hawks, woodpeckers, foxes, bobcats, deer and other wildlife common to this region. There’s a bear information poster at the trailhead for a reason.
You can see the Gilliam Loop from the CCC Road in a few spots. It crosses the road 1.3 miles from the trailhead. This makes it easy to combine the two trails for some zig-zagging and alternate ways back when doing laps.
This path is surprisingly flat considering how hilly the other trails are on the north side of the park. The trailhead, called Lost Falls Trailhead on Google Maps, is on higher ground on the northwest side of the park (map). You can get to five different trails from there. The parking lot is right off the road and will hold six or seven vehicles. A bathroom is also there.
The name Family Loop is fitting. The 1.9-mile is an easy singletrack with mostly smooth surfaces. Children who are good at riding a bicycle can make their way around the loop. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun trail for bikers of any skill level. Both hikers and bikers use it to get to the fabulous White Trail.
There are a lot of roots in a couple of areas. You will notice that the trail was designed to provide mountain bikers some exciting twists and turns, as it rarely takes the straightest, shortest possible path between two points.
You will see an area on this trail where most of the trees are young — only about 22-23 years of age and younger. A big ice storm in 2000 was followed by a Southern pine beetle infestation. The park removed thousands of pines including a grand stand of tall ones here on the north side of the property.
Nevertheless, the forest you go through on this trail has some great trees in some spots, and a lot of deer.
Find these trails on the state park’s map brochure
The trails described above are available on paper brochures at the state park and online on the their hiking page. Click below for the online version:
DeSoto State Park Color Trail Map (Page 1) — shows all trails
DeSoto State Park Color Trail Map (Page 2) — shows the southernmost portion of some trails that doesn’t fit on Page 1
You don’t have to be a daredevil to enjoy the DeSoto State Park trails that are used most often for mountain-biking. Trails like the Never Never Land, the Knotty Pine and the White Trail have features that only experienced mountain bikers should take on. But the beginner-friendly multipurpose trails provide something for everybody, and are also good for hiking and trail running.
Remember, being beginner-friendly doesn’t mean hazard-free. While mostly smooth, the Chalet Trail, Gilliam Loop, CC Road and Family Loop still have rock- and root-filled areas. So wear a helmet, and take it easy on your first loop or two. And to prevent errosion, avoid mountain biking on any trail when it’s muddy.