From picturesque valley to timbered mountaintop: Hiking at Cathedral Caverns State Park
Best known for its gigantic cave entrance and astounding underground wonders, Cathedral Caverns State Park also features some fantastic trails where hikers can explore one of northeast Alabama’s easiest to get to mountain forests.
If walking among tall hardwood trees on gentle slopes, along the edge of a creek or through a grassy meadow appeals to you, I’m sure you’ll enjoy these trails.
The park sits in one of the picturesque small valleys found along the ridged southern edge of the Cumberland Plateau. For hikers and trail runners from the Huntsville area, the park is only 21 miles from the Hampton Cove Walmart Supercenter. It’s only 16 miles from both Scottsboro and Guntersville.
One trail leads to another
Four of the five trails at the state park share one trailhead. It’s across the road from a small gravel parking lot directly on Cathedral Caverns Road. Click here to view the location on a Google map.
The trails are named simply for the colors that are used to mark each path: Green, Yellow, Gray and Blue Trail. You’ll find all four colors on the pole at the uphill start of the trail.
Less than 100 feet from the trailhead shown above, the Blue Trail will go to the left. A small cave is also found just off the trail in that area. About 700-800 feet further, and the Green Trail will also go to the left. If you don’t go left on one of those, you’ll come to the place where the Gray Trail forks off to the right about 300-350 feet up the trail.
With almost every step, you are ascending Pisgah Mountain. Consider the Green and Yellow trails to be easy climbs, as they both take you to parts of the small mountain where the elevation is near to 1,100 feet above sea level. The rise is gradual and there are only a couple of places that would be considered steep. In contrast, the Gray and Blue trails stay in the small valley between the mountains, and below 750 feet above sea level.
Reach the park’s high northwest corner along the Yellow Trail
From the trailhead of many colors, if you continue to the north past all the trail intersections, you will reach the point where only the color yellow remains. The trail that has only yellow paint is about 1.5 miles long.
Taking you along the eastern slopes of the mountain before turning to the south along its western slopes, the Yellow Trail will eventually bring you back to another intersection with the Green Trail.
Highlights of the Yellow Trail include the likelihood of spotting wildlife and three or more small caves that are found just a few feet from the path. You will cross the spine of the small mountain at the northern edge of the park.
Here in the northwest part of the park, the hiking is great for enjoying the sights and sounds of the forest. Any occasional traffic noise is faint, and you will feel like you’re far away from civilization. The surrounding areas of Marshall and Jackson County are, indeed, very lightly populated.
See more of the mountain on the Green Trail
Like the Yellow Trail, most of the Green Trail is on the eastern slope, and part is high up on the western slope, of Pisgah Mountain. Both paths also take you right to the edge of the park property in a few places.
The Green Trail is used by tent campers to get to Beech Camp, the upper backcountry primitive camping area.
The portion of trail that is marked with only green paint is also just over a mile in length. Views of nearby mountains and valleys are possible from some spots, but only when the trees are bare between November and March.
Explore a cove filled with evergreen trees on the Gray Trail
One of the first things that I noticed on my first hike at Cathedral Caverns was how the forest was dominated by tall hardwoods. There are places where you see an amazing mixture of trees such as oak, beech, elm, poplar and maple, but there will be zero evergreen trees. On the slopes and spine of Pisgah Mountain, only an occasional cedar or longleaf pine can be found. But, the Gray Trail takes you to the south end of Wright’s Cove where you’ll find a significant stand of pines.
Staying at an elevation of around 640 to 700 feet above sea level, the Gray Trail, which is just under a mile in distance, will keep you in the narrow area between the mountains. It’s used by tent campers to get to the lower backcountry camping area, but beyond that area, the trail goes to the south and loops around the creek and back. A pair of mountain streams feed into the area, forming the creek.
Don’t want to venture too far into the wilderness? Try the Blue Trail.
Surprisingly flat, the Blue Trail provides the opportunity to circle through the center of the park without getting very far from your car. You can start at the trailhead of many colors near the small parking lot, and complete a 1.2 mile loop that returns you to the same spot without any backtracking. The elevation ranges from about 600 to about 700 feet above sea level.
The loop allows you to enjoy a little bit of Pisgah Mountain, some grassy areas, plus the woods where the north fork of Little Paint Creek flows. The east part of the loop is only a few hundred feet from the RV camping area. If you want to do a clockwise hike on the Blue Trail, you don’t see a marked trail. You walk past the fence and across the grass for a couple hundred yards to reach the woods (see the three photos below).
Along the loop, you will cross Cathedral Caverns Road once, Cavern Cove Road twice, and Cave Road once. You will not travel deep into the woods like you will on the Yellow, Green and Gray Trail, so expect a good bit of traffic noise, especially during cavern tour business hours.
Blue Trail highlights include the sights and sounds of a mountain stream at the foot of Pisgah Mountain, and walking right up to the edge of the creek at the foot Gunter Mountain. You’ll also see a stand of cedars on the Pisgah Mountain side of the loop.
Warm up for your guided cave tour on the short but intriguing Red Trail
Why not explore a little bit of jungle while you’re waiting for your guided cave tour, or gem-mining activities, to begin? Or, maybe you just want to see more natural wonders after completing a cave tour.
Located just down stream from the big cavern on the slopes of Gunter Mountain, the fifth marked path — the Red Trail — is an ideal place to do either. It’s very short at less than 900 feet in length. You’ll find it behind the welcome center.
The whole family should enjoy the setting provided by a foot bridge with steel beams that are painted red, a rock cliff and a cathedral-like hollow. You’ll need to walk about 100 feet on the park shop’s steep chert driveway at the midway point of the loop.
You could consider the 0.8 mile subterranean cave tour path to be trail no. 6. Learn about touring the cave and see a 3-minute video tour at alapark.com/parks/cathedral-caverns-state-park/cave-tour.
The perfect three hour hike
My last hike at Cathedral Caverns State Park was in early spring. I was the only human being on Pisgah Mountain. But, I as not alone. A multitude of warblers sang to me almost every step of the way. That, and the ominous creaking and popping sounds that 100-foot tall trees make when they’re swaying in the wind, will be things I’ll not soon forget.
Before causing a whitetail deer stampede near the top of the mountain, I got a closeup look at a pair of pileated woodpeckers and a chipmunk. It would be difficult to find a place in the park that would not be good for birding, looking for wildflowers, or simply enjoying the tranquility a forest provides.
It’s easy to recommend the same hike I took that day. The following Yellow, Green and Blue Trail loop is about 3.25 mile long:
- Start at the trailhead of many colors;
- Go straight, ascending the mountain, until the trail is marked with only yellow;
- Stay on the Yellow Trail until it reaches the Beech Camp;
- Take the Green Trail back down the mountain;
- Before reaching the trailhead where you started, take the Blue Trail as it turns to the south;
- Stay on the Blue Trail as it leads away from Pisgah Mountain, crosses the meadow and the main road, follows the creek to the north and then leads back to the start.
Faster hikers will find it easy to complete the route in two hours while average hikers should expect it to take three hours or more, especially if they are taking a lot of pictures, spotting birds, checking out the small caves or taking more than one good break.
Whatever your pace, you’ll see that a large percentage of the trails are wide enough for the park’s staff to pass through in their ATVs and pickups. Old logging paths are followed in much of the forest. It does make it easy to clear trees that have fallen across the trails.
For someone who is used to the other state parks in northeast Alabama, Cathedral Caverns can seem like a small state park. It is much smaller than DeSoto State Park, Lake Guntersville State Park and Monte Sano Mountain State Park. But, after hiking for two or three hours on rugged terrain, it feels plenty big. At only about 500 acres, this state park still offers hikers a great place to do what they enjoy.
As with the region’s other public lands, the five trails at Cathedral provide great variety whether you want to take a short walk in the woods with your family, or hike for two or more hours in the mountains.
See more photos on my article: State parks of northeast Alabama.
Cathedral Caverns State Park official home page
Interactive Alabama State Park map
Cathedral Caverns State Park hiking page
A hiker’s guide to the trails at Lake Guntersville State Park
A hiker’s guide to DeSoto State Park’s best trails
A guide to the trails at Buck’s Pocket State Park