As the forest trail gently ascends, traffic noise fades to nothing, replaced by the rustle of wind in the foliage overhead.
Farther ahead, trees give way to rocky promontories with sweeping views of the valley below. Nearby, other routes lead through old-growth forests and past wet-weather waterfalls.
Pausing on his return trek, Kansas native Douglas Doonan says easy access to nature has been one of the best parts about his move to Huntsville nearly a decade ago. “I’ve always found the mountains to be enchanting, and you have all of that right here around Huntsville,” he adds.
This particular oasis—the 1,086-acre Blevins Gap Nature Preserve less than 10 miles southeast of downtown—is just the beginning. Nestled into the Tennessee Valley and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the rivers and ridges surrounding Rocket City are an outdoor lover’s dream.
For the quickest getaway, locals head to the Monte Sano Nature Preserve, among the largest urban preserves in the nation and a 2-mile drive from downtown. There, 25 miles of hiking and biking trails link up with 2 other trail systems on the mountain. Like Blevins Gap, the preserve is part of the 9,000 acres under the stewardship of the Land Trust of North Alabama.
Those who prefer a boat to a boot also have a wealth of options among Huntsville’s many navigable waterways. Kayak or float fish the lower reaches of the Flint River to the east. Stand-up paddleboard in the calm waters surrounding Hobbs Island just downstream of the bustling Ditto Landing marina.
Or head west and boat through the tupelo swamps and glassy backwaters of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, keeping a lookout for sandhill cranes and their endangered whooping brethren.
In the back room of Trailhead Incorporated bike shop, owner Tommy Reagh tunes up a skinny-tired road bike. Out front, bikes of all kinds—and their accoutrements—are for sale. And rentals, temporarily stymied by COVID-related supply issues, are set to resume soon.
Among the most popular destinations for the city’s 2-wheeling tribe are the Chapman, Wade, and Monte Sano mountains, Reagh says. “There’s a pretty strong cycling community here, too.”