Sustainable Travel

Enjoying Endless Nature: Hiking the Pinhoti Trail

Covering two states, the Pinhoti Trail offers a premier long-distance hiking experience that takes hikers through forests, streams, and state and federal parks. — by Pamela Grant

In February 2020, Outside Magazine called the Alabama-Georgia Pinhoti Trail one of the best long-distance hikes to take in the world. What an amazing endorsement for a trail that many people have probably never heard of. It is an adventure any environmentally-friendly person can embrace for many reasons, including wilderness flowers that bloom throughout the year, the protection of endangered plants, trail sections to challenge any level of hiker, and state and federal parks and forests.

The trail is relatively new, started in the early 1970s, but now it offers an eco-friendly opportunity that almost seems like a secret at times. People think of hiking the Appalachian Trail or the South Rim Trail in the Grand Canyon National Park. They do not think of the trail gem called the Pinhoti Trail.

Stretching from Alabama to Georgia
The work “Pinhoti” is derived from the Creek Indian word meaning “turkey home.” This is a long-distance trail – 335 miles to be exact.

Trail construction began in the 1970s by the U.S. Forest Service in the Talladega National Forest in Alabama, and through their efforts and the hard work of volunteers, youth service groups and other organizations, the trail became a reality and was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1977.

Then in 1983, Mike Leonard of the Alabama Wilderness Coalition proposed connecting the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail – at the point where the Appalachian Trail begins its northbound trek to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. For over a decade, the U.S. Forest Service and Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust acquired the necessary tracts of land where the new section of trail would go. During this time, volunteers donated thousands of hours of hard work to make the trail a reality. At a ceremony on March 16, 2008, the connection of the Pinhoti Trail with the Appalachian Trail was officially announced.

Along the Way
Now the full trail runs from the Flagg Mountain Trailhead in Alabama (60 miles from Birmingham) to the Pinhoti Trail Northern Terminus in northern Georgia, where it joins the Benton MacKaye Trail. Flagg Mountain is the southernmost mountain in the Appalachian mountains and the southernmost Appalachian mountain higher than 1,000 feet. For birders, it is also part of the system of Alabama Birding Trails, where you can spot red tail hawks, bald eagles, red-cockaded woodpeckers and Cooper’s hawks.

Travelers really do not have to go any further to enjoy the splendor of nature because the Pinhoti Trail now goes to the summit of Flagg Mountain with its wonderful views of the mountains and valleys. Since the Pinhoti Trail takes hikers to the top of the mountain, rather than around its base, one can now walk the entire Appalachian Mountain chain from Alabama to Canada by hiking the Pinhoti Trail and then picking up Georgia’s Benton MacKaye Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the International Appalachian Trail (5,400 miles in total).

One could simply hike the trail loops around Flagg Mountain and not go any further for a wonderful eco-experience, but miles more trail beckon to head toward the north terminus in Georgia. Along the way, hikers will go through Cheaha State Park, cross over Oakey Mountain and the Alabama-Georgia state line, pass by Santa Claus Mountain and Cave Spring and Keown Falls, and eventually reach the Pinhoti Trail Northern Terminus. The trek takes one through two federally designated wilderness areas – the Cheaha Wilderness and the Dugger Mountain Wilderness – as well as the Talladega National Forest in Alabama and the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia.

Making a Plan via Snail Trail
Many sections of the Pinhoti Trail present rugged, mountainous terrain. For this reason (and due to the trail’s length), the Alabama Pinhoti Trail Alliance divided the Alabama trail portion into 13 “snail trail” sections. The same is true for the Georgia Pinhoti Trail Alliance for the Georgia trail portion, which designates further sections 14 to 31. Information for each section provides details about the trailheads, elevation, landmarks, hike services such as primitive cabins, reliable and seasonal water, and more.

The ambitious can of course walk the entire 335 miles, but most people divide their hikes up over multiple trips.

Some sections are much tougher than others. The most difficult hikes have challenging climbs and steep descents, rocky slopes, switchbacks, stream fords and rock fords. Most hikers familiar with the Pinhoti Trail say the Stairway to Heaven, section 6, is the most challenging. Just to give an idea of the difficulty, this section includes a half mile climb through a rock garden which consists of little uphill switchbacks. Some parts of this climb require hand-over-hand climbing.

If that sounds too challenging, there are plenty of other sections that are flatter and relatively easy. Just plan before embarking, to avoid getting into a situation too difficult to handle.

Keeping an Eco-Hiker’s Paradise
There is a wide variety of nature to see along the Pinhoti Trail at any point along the way. The mountain views, variety of flora and fauna, and opportunities for primitive camping offer respite from the hectic, tech-filled life most people are forced to manage each day.

Many sections of the trail are not usually crowded because of its length and the difficulty of some of the sections. As mentioned, some sections are also home to endangered plants. For those who enjoy hiking and are looking for an experience that was only made possible due to environmentalists and nature lovers with a vision, then this is the trail to add to their plans. It will challenge and delight.

Many online organizations offer information about the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama and Georgia. They include the Alabama Pinhoti Trail Alliance, the Alabama Hiking Trail Society and the Georgia Pinhoti Trail Association. Take advantage of these resources and spend time planning the hike, as this is not a hiking trail that one should want to tackle without preparation.