The 12 Best Casual Adventures in Chattanooga

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Taking an epic, all-day trip into the great outdoors is one of the best things you can do—when you have the time and energy. All too often, though, busy schedules mean that micro-adventures requiring little to no preparation are more realistic.

And with manageable excursions around every corner, Chattanooga makes it easy to get your outdoor fix in small doses. Here are a few of our favorite effortless ways to get outside in Chattanooga—no maps or gear required.

1. Signal Point

Tucked into the cliffside in Signal Mountain’s historic district, Signal Point is the perfect destination for nature lovers and history buffs alike. From the parking lot, it’s only about a hundred yards down a gradual staircase to the first overlook, a spot was used by the Union to send communication signals during the Civil War. From here, you’ll have a clear view of the Tennessee River as it cuts through the steep gorge. Raccoon Mountain is also visible to the west.

2. Riverwalk Cycling

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The Riverwalk is an easy way to enjoy a smooth bike ride.

Kathryn Crouch

Chattanooga’s Riverwalk is impressive both for its length and its scenery. The wide, paved path spans from St. Elmo to the Chickamauga Dam, passing directly through downtown along the way. The Riverwalk is almost entirely flat, making it manageable for all skill levels and ages, and it offers amenities such as restrooms, playgrounds, and picnic tables. A popular access point to the riverfront path is from the Bluff View Art District in the heart of downtown. Don’t have a bike? Pick one up at one of over 30 bikeshare docking stations and pedal to your heart’s content.

3. Reflection Riding Nature Center and Arboretum

Take a trip to this hidden gem for a relaxing day in a beautiful natural area. Located at the foot of Lookout Mountain, Reflection Riding offers 14 miles of hiking trails, a 3-mile scenic drive, calm water, wildlife, and much more. With more than 300 acres of beautiful meadows and forests—plus a native animal exhibit and vibrant gardens—Reflection Riding is a lovely place for people of all ages to spend a day outside.

4. Walnut Street Bridge and Coolidge Park

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The Walnut Street Bridge, as seen here from Coolidge Park, offers excellent views of the Tennessee River.

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Connecting the trendy NorthShore neighborhood to the lively downtown area, the Walnut Street Bridge is one of Chattanooga’s signature attractions. The blue-trussed bridge was constructed in 1890 and was once the longest pedestrian bridge in the world. Though it no longer holds that title, the beautiful bridge remains a favorite place for both locals and visitors to enjoy walking, running, and biking. Coolidge Park, located just below the Walnut Street Bridge on NorthShore, is a great spot to relax and cool off on the Tennessee riverfront after your stroll.

5. Outdoor Bars and Restaurants

For breakfast, lunch, dinner, or anything in between, Chattanooga restaurants are teeming with fantastic outdoor seating areas. For coffee, pastries, and café fare, visit the European-style cobblestone patio at Rembrandt’s Coffee House in the art district. At lunchtime, grab a seat outside of 1885 Grill for southern coastal cuisine and premium people-watching experience in the St. Elmo neighborhood. In the evening, have beers, burgers, and fried pickles on the rooftop deck of the Pickle Barrel, which overlooks the busy downtown Market Street. Or, for a slightly swankier outing, stop in at Beast and Barrel for cocktails on the back porch, which looks out over Coolidge Park.

6. Chattanooga Ducks

For a one-of-a-kind tour of the Scenic City, take a spin on the Chattanooga Ducks. The Ducks are amphibious military vehicles that offer a two-for-one tour of downtown and the Tennessee River. After an informative ride around some of the city’s main attractions, the Ducks coast right into the river for a trip around MacLellan Island and a unique view of the Tennessee Aquarium, the Hunter Museum, and the riverfront parks.

7. Sunset Rock

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You only have to go a few steps for amazing views at Sunset Rock.

Kathryn Crouch

Another of Chattanooga’s most well-loved natural features, Sunset Rock is an easy-to-get-to panoramic overlook on Lookout Mountain. The parking lot is tiny, but if you manage to get a spot, it’s only a few steps to catch a gorgeous glimpse of Lookout Valley from Sunset Rock, which was also a key site during the Civil War. While it’s arguably the best place to watch a sunset in Chattanooga, this overlook is worth a visit any time of day.

8. Chattanooga Market

Every Sunday from May to November, vendors and artisans from around the region set up shop at the open air First Tennessee Pavilion for the Chattanooga Market. You’ll find gourmet cheese, local produce, craft beer, unique art, fresh popcorn, and much more among the market’s many aisles. Each week, there are an array of food trucks and local musicians, so you can easily make a day of your trip to the Chattanooga Market.

9. SUP on the Tennessee River

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The Tennessee River has become a very popular place to go stand-up paddleboarding.

Jake Wheeler

If you’ve always wanted to try stand-up paddleboarding, there’s no better place than Chattanooga. With the Tennessee River flowing right through downtown, getting on the river couldn’t be easier. And because of this easy access, there are several places around town to rent gear and get instruction. Rock/Creek Rentals and Outpost on the Riverwalk offers a variety of SUPs and kayaks, and their knowledgeable staff will make sure you’re comfortable and confident before getting on the water. Similarly, L2 Outside on NorthShore offers SUP rentals and weekly guided paddles on the Tennessee River.

10. Montague Park

This little-known park on Chattanooga’s Southside is part green space and part outdoor art museum. As the largest sculpture park in the Southeast, Sculpture Fields is home to more than 35 pieces of gigantic outdoor art from sculptors around the world. With walking paths and acres of grass, Montague Park plays host to festivals, yoga classes, school field trips, and much more. It’s perfect for a picnic or a casual stroll among the sculptures.

11. North Chick Blue Hole

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Take a dip at the North Chick Blue Hole on a hot summer day.

Kathryn Crouch

One of Chattanooga’s favorite swimming holes, the North Chick Blue Hole is an easy walk from the parking area near Soddy-Daisy. Large boulders in the creek act as natural dams to create several deep plunge pools, perfect for cooling off on a hot day. Though the area is heavily trafficked, especially in the summer, its location in the valley between Mowbray and Signal Mountains makes the North Chick Blue Hole feel like an oasis.

12. Southside Coffee Shop Crawl

Enjoying a cup of coffee at one of Chattanooga’s many cafés is always great, but enjoying it on the porch of one of the Southside’s quaint coffee shops is even better. Take a little tour of the coffee scene and experience the variety of relaxing patios at each one. Treat yourself to locally roasted coffee and fresh-baked bread on the stony patio at Niedlovs, sandwiches and a view of the bustling Chattanooga Choo Choo at the Frothy Monkey, and biscuits and house-roasted coffee at Mean Mug.

Written by Madison Eubanks for RootsRated in partnership with Chattanooga CVB.

Featured image provided by Kathryn Crouch

Spring Skiing Checklist: Are You Ready?

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For some skiers, spring is a tragic emergence of tulips and aspen leaf buds. In a fairer version of the universe, as they may see it, winter powder days would still be going strong. But other skiers embrace spring skiing as the last on-snow hurrah before summer sets in.

Spring skiing is its own particular art to master and enjoy. Go in with rookie moves, and you’ll trip all over yourself on the sticky snow and get a flashy red raccoon-eye sunburn. But approach the event with a few tricks up your sleeve, and you’ll be primed to give the last days of the ski season the respect the sport deserves. Here, a checklist to get you perfectly primed for spring skiing, in Salt Lake City and beyond.

1. Do you have a fresh coat of wax on your sticks? (And more in your bag?)

And if you don’t, do you like the awkward start’n’stop of hitting warm slush pockets? Nobody likes that. So hit up your local ski shop and request a warm-weather wax job, and at the checkout counter, make like a smartypants and buy a little container of rub-on wax to keep in your pack or car.

2. Do you have sunscreen—the good stuff?

So here’s the scoop: If you live, work, and play among fellow ski bums, a goggle tan is totally unremarkable. If you have a day job or associate with more cleanly groomed, nine-to-five humans, you’ll be asked about your goggle tan about 27 times per day. So unless you want every coworker and bank clerk to say “Gee, been skiing?”, just keep your fair-skinned mug unburnt and un-racooned. Keep high-SPF sunscreen in your pocket and refresh regularly.

3. Are you dressed for the occasion?

Many folks seek attention (and get sunburns in unmentionable places) by skiing underdressed or even in their birthday suits. Great for funny photos, but horrible when you inevitably crash. (Someone inexperienced enough to ski in a bikini or shorts probably also doesn’t have spring wax on their skis.)

Spare yourself the indignity of grating all the skin off your backside when you fall, and choose an ensemble that covers your skin but perhaps has a dash of seasonally appropriate flair, like a funny shirt or tutu. Then trade your beanie for a ballcap, and you’re ready to go.

4. Have you adequately researched on-snow beer-toting methods?

‘Tis the season to swap your Thermos of hot toddy for a nice cold tall boy. A small backpack or oversized coat pockets will do just fine for carrying a PBR for yourself, plus one for the most attractive person you share a lift ride with during the day. With a little smidge of booze in your system, you can forget that powder and corn really aren’t quite the same thing.

5. Have you adjusted your ski schedule from mid-day to early-bird?

Spring snow is a fickle, shape-shifting temptress. First thing in the morning, you’ll carve pleasant, fast corduroy. Then you hit a brief window of consistent corn snow, now softened from its overnight freeze. Then, the fun ends abruptly when temps heat up just enough for the slushmonster to come out and stop everyone’s skis in their tracks. This is when everyone goes in for lunch … then never goes back out.

So don’t show up at the resort at your usual post-brunch hour. That’s a quick recipe for missing the fun boat. Show up for first chair and enjoy the corduroy and corn, then transition to tailgate mode.

6. Have you selected a suitable party posse?

Since spring days are a little light on quality skiing and heavier on the social and sunshine aspects, you’ll want to choose the right people to spend the day with. Your spring ski posse doesn’t have to shred hard as much as they need to be fun to giggle and throw slushballs with.

7. Is your vehicle prepped for parking lot shenanigans?

Spring calls for the two-hour ski day and four-hour tailgate program. At many resort parking lots and base areas, this means you'll want to come ready with a portable barbecue, grillables, a cooler full of drinks, camp chairs, and snacks. Bonfire supplies would not be inappropriate.

It’s hard to top a premium winter powder day. But if winter insists on going away each year, you may as well give it a hell of a sendoff.

Written by Beth Lopez for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by flexrider

Demystifying Nordic Skiing at the Frisco Nordic Center

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Could there be anything more peaceful than gliding along on your skis among towering pine trees with views of the Dillon Reservoir glistening in the sunlight and snow-capped mountains in the distance? While downhill skiing or snowboarding is all about getting from Point A to Point B as fast as possible, Nordic skiing is gaining in popularity for those looking for a change of pace. And there’s no better place to soak in the scenery than in the mountain town of Frisco, Colorado.

"Nordic skiing is not only fun, it’s great exercise too," says Linsey Joyce, Recreation Programs Manager for the Town of Frisco. “It’s a great alternative to downhill skiing or snowboarding. The Frisco Nordic Center offers solitude and breathtaking views.”

Located just a few minutes away from Main Street, the Frisco Nordic Center offers options for skiers of all ability levels. "The main goals of the Frisco Nordic Center are to be a community hub for cross country skiers," explains Joyce. “We aim to provide a variety of programs and events for our community while welcoming skiers of all ability levels.”

Whether you’re looking to take a break from a nearby resort or have been inspired by the recent Winter Games in Pyeongchang, now is a great time to try a new snow sport. Here’s everything you need to know about getting started at the Frisco Nordic Center.

What’s special about Frisco?

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Nordic skiing is fun for all ages.

Todd Powell/Town of Frisco

Frisco’s Nordic scene is uniquely situated to make cross-country skiing accessible to all ages and abilities. Unlike most other Nordic centers, Frisco actually produces man-made snow, just as a downhill ski resort would. As a result, even in otherwise low-snow years, Frisco makes considerable effort to open a 2.5-kilometer loop to Nordic skiers.

"They already have the infrastructure there because of the tubing hill," explains Whitney Hedberg, director of the Summit Nordic Ski Club. “But [the ski trails] aren’t in one centrally located place, so they have to take front-loaders and physically move snow onto the trail—it’s a huge operation. The town has gotten behind it and is willing to do that. That’s what makes us stand out.”

The Summit Nordic Ski Club is a huge part of the Frisco Nordic Scene. The club is for kids as young as six on up through post-high schoolers and uses the Frisco Nordic trails. (They also compete nationally under the direction of head coach Olof Hedberg.) In addition to the youngsters, you’ll see plenty of hardened locals hitting up the trails even on the chilliest mornings—these folks are dedicated.

Where do I start?

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The Nordic Center offers lessons and clinics to help you get started.

Todd Powell/Town of Frisco

"The Frisco Nordic Center offers beginner ski terrain right out our back door, creating a welcoming experience for anyone who is new to the sport," says Joyce. “I would highly recommend taking a ski lesson if you really want to learn tips and technique that will create a positive experience for you.”

Luckily, the Frisco Nordic Center offers budget-friendly lessons for new skiers, along with regular clinics and events for those looking to improve their skiing. There’s at least one block of lessons every weekday during the season (two blocks a day on busier weekends), so a knowledgeable staff member will give you the tools to have a great time on your first outing.

"A lesson will make the difference between it being a one-time thing and something you come back to," Hedberg adds.

Once you’ve gotten yourself ready for a day on skis—dress more like you’re going for a run in cold, wet weather than like you’re downhill skiing, since you’ll work up a sweat—it’s time to decide what kind of skis work best for you.

Cross-country skiing encompasses both classic and skate skiing. Classic skiers have slightly wider skis, often with a fish scale pattern on the bottom to help with kick and glide. These are the folks you’ll see in the classic track, which are the two parallel lines on any groomed cross-country trail. It’ll take some time to develop a solid technique, but this is a great way to take in the sights and, if you’re eventually so inclined, explore more backcountry trails.

Then there’s skate skiing, classic’s speedier cousin. Skate skiers are the Olympians you see double-poling and getting a serious upper-body workout on the groomed track. It’s a fantastic full-body exercise and definitely requires some fitness to get the hang of.

Fortunately, the Frisco Nordic Center rents both types of skis.

Where are the best Nordic skiing trails in Frisco?

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Once you get into Nordic skiing you might want to take up racing!

Todd Powell/Town of Frisco

The Frisco Nordic Center boasts 27 kilometers of ski trails. They start making snow as early as November, so even in the early season, you’ll have the 2.5-kilometer loop near the Nordic Center to ski.

Those 27 kilometers include beginner, intermediate, and advanced trails, which are marked like an alpine ski area (green circle for beginner, blue square for intermediate, and one or two black diamonds for advanced and expert trails). On intermediate and advanced trails, you won’t find cliffs or moguls as you would at a downhill resort—more like steeper or more sustained ups and downs and sharper turns. Keep an eye out for one-way signs, too.

Before you head out onto any of the trails, check out the Frisco Nordic Center’s Trail Conditions page.

Fees and Season Passes

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Grab a season pass if you plan to spend a lot of time at the Frisco Nordic Center.

Todd Powell/Town of Frisco

Day passes for the Frisco Nordic Center are $20 per day for adults. If you’ll be hitting the trails ten or more times this season, invest in a season pass or, better yet, pick up a season pass that includes the Breckenridge and Gold Run Nordic Centers. Frisco Nordic also offers discounts for residents and families. Rentals at Frisco Nordic Center are $20 per day for skate or classic setups and include skis, boots, and poles.

Written by Emma Walker for RootsRated in partnership with Town of Frisco.

Featured image provided by Joe Kusumoto/Town of Frisco

Winterplace Ski Resort- Skiing & Snowboarding

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Intro

There's no better place for you to learn the ropes of the slopes. Winterplace Ski Resort has a comfortable teaching environment with eager instructors ready to help make your introduction to skiing or snowboarding fun. Boasting 27 trails, 9 lifts, 2 terrain parks, and the state's largest snowtubing park, Winterplace has something for everyone.

If you would like to spend a day or a weekend, you can stay at the resort’s on-site lodging, which includes cabins. The resort also has agreements with other fine lodging partners in the area. There are plenty of dining options as well, including Mountain Mama's Food Court, The Mountain House, Mickey's Mountain Cafe, and The Snowdrift Lounge, where you can try your hand at karaoke on Saturday evenings, and maybe even win prizes.

What Makes It Great

Winterplace is inviting and family-friendly. It’s ideal for beginners wanting to learn the fundamentals without feeling intimidated or overwhelmed. In fact, it was voted “The Best Place to Learn How To Ski and Snowboard in the Southeast” by Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine.

It’s also very affordable. You can join their 5-week program, which includes an all-area lift ticket, equipment, and a 90-minute lesson for 1 weekday evening per week, for only $109. The goal is to give you everything you need to get started. So, no more excuses; it’s time to hit the slopes.

Winterplace has one of the most elaborate snowmaking systems around, so even when Mother Nature is not dependable, the slopes here will still be ready and waiting for you. And, they have the longest skiing day in the southeast—slopes are open 9am–10pm weekdays and 8am–10pm weekends.

Who is Going to Love It

Winterplace is committed to developing lifetime skiers. No matter your age, this is the ideal place to hone your skills. Though some trails may not meet the level of more seasoned skiers and snowboarders, mountain veterans will still enjoy the clean lines and smooth runs.

There is also a focus on family fun. With terrain that is not too technical, you can ease your way in. A day of skiing or snowboarding is very affordable, especially during the week, when you can sometimes get specials for up to 50% off. Buying online also saves money and time. Rentals are available.

If you have people in your group who may not be interested in skiing or snowboarding, then perhaps the largest snow tubing park in the state will pique some interest. There are 20 lanes of tubing at an affordable rate.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

The resort is easily accessible, located immediately off of I-77 in Ghent, and within a few hours’ drive of many metropolitan areas. There is plenty of free parking.

Written by Angela Sundstrom for RootsRated in partnership with West Virginia .

Featured image provided by Winterplace Ski Resort

6 Must-Do Adventures in New York’s Southern Finger Lakes Region

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Verdant rolling hills, shimmering waters, and a lively culture make New York’s Southern Finger Lakes the perfect adventure destination. Soak up the sun while lounging on the shores of Keuka Lake, spend an afternoon sampling craft beverages, or get out in nature—you really can’t go wrong when it comes to how you spend your time here.

Known for its sprawling vineyards and wishbone-shaped lake, the Corning and Finger Lakes area is the perfect summertime playground for water sports, fishing, biking, hiking, and so much more. Start exploring with this list of the most iconic outdoor adventures and things to do in the region. (Don’t be surprised if you find a new summer tradition!)

1. Get on the Water at Keuka Lake

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Keuka Lake is perfect for stand-up paddleboarding.

Photo courtesy of Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes

Almost endless opportunities abound on the clear, cool waters of Keuka Lake. Rent a motorboat and cruise the 22 miles of undulating shoreline or get the family out on water skis, boogie boards, or in a tube. For a more hands-on experience, kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards are all widely available for rent. While not exactly a watersport, another not-to-be-missed Keuka Lake experience is a seaplane ride that offers an overhead look at the famous Y-shaped lake as well as views of the vineyards stretching into the horizon.

2. Cast a Line in the Chemung, Cohocton, or Tioga

The fish are jumping and the waters are flowing year round for both experienced and novice anglers alike on the Chemung, Cohocton, and Tioga rivers. More than 30,000 stock trout are released into area waters, helping create some of the best fishing in the northeast. The Chemung and Tioga Rivers are known for their muskie fishing, but the jewel of Steuben County fishing is the Cohocton River, which is home to both wild and stocked trout. A nice stretch of the waterway where you can drop a line is off State Route 415 and Wentworth Road, where there is a special angler footpath for river access.

3. Cycle Through the Countryside

Breathe in the crisp air as you explore the lush, vine-covered hills while biking through the Southern Finger Lakes region. Of course, a couple of winery stops and a picnic along the way is always a popular option, but for a real heart-pumping adventure, try the Hammondsport Circle Tour. This 36-mile route takes you through some of the most breathtaking scenery in Steuben County.

If riding for a cause is appealing, sign up for the Tour de Keuka, an annual charity bike ride around the lake region in July that benefits the Food Bank of the Southern Tier. There are several scenic routes and distances to choose from including 16-, 45-, 60-, or 100-mile rides.

4. Chase Waterfalls at Stony Brook State Park

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Take a hike through Stony Brook State Park for some of the prettiest views in the region.

Photo courtesy of Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes

Stony Brook State Park in Dansville is a go-to destination for waterfall lovers, and three moderately challenging trails are the best way to explore the park. The Gorge Trail is the easiest, following Stony Brook as it winds past picturesque rock formations and three waterfalls, ending at a stream-fed pool at the North Entrance. Wear brightly-colored clothes during your visit to attract the grey petaltail dragonfly, often seen landing on arms and hats.

5. Tour the Craft Beverage Scene

It’s well-known that the Finger Lakes region produces great wine, period. But the area also has a thriving—and growing—craft brewing and distillery scene. With almost 30 brewers to choose from, you’re sure to find a beer, cider, vodka, gin, or whiskey to suit even the most discerning palate.

Four Fights Distilling in Corning is Steuben County's oldest distillery. This "one-man show" produces small-batch vodka, gin, bourbon, and a variety of specialty products, including the intriguingly named Imperial Apple Pie. Find out first-hand just how many options you have on the self-guided Craft Your Adventure* *tour and sip into some of the most innovative craft brews and spirits on the East Coast.

6. Explore the Finger Lakes Trail System

A true labor of love, the Finger Lakes Trail system was born in the 1960s and has grown to almost 580 miles of trails winding their way across the Finger Lakes Region. (When you consider neighboring trails off the FLT, the total system reaches close to 950 miles.) About 70 miles of the trail twists across Steuben County, with the expanding network growing thanks to a dedicated band of volunteer helping to create and maintain trails. You’ll find multiple access points for getting onto the trail, including many hikes starting at most of the area state parks.

The trail system is perfect for day hikes or weekend-long adventures, and highlights include crashing waterfalls, treks through vineyards, a wide range of diverse habitat and ecosystems. The well-maintained and marked trails make access easy—the biggest decision will be where to start! One of the more unique places is the Huckleberry Bog Nature Trail on the Bristol Hills Branch Loop near Hammondsport, which is great for families and anyone interested in the history of the area.

For even more ideas of things to do on your next trip to the Corning and Finger Lakes region, download our Experience Guide and start planning!

Written by Lisa Collard for RootsRated Media in partnership with Steuben County CVB.

Featured image provided by Photo courtesy of Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes

An Ode to Alabama’s National Wildlife Refuges

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Long before groups like the Nature Conservancy were established to protect lands and waters in the United States, the federal government set up agencies and programs to protect fragile landscapes, wildlife and wildlife habitats.

The first “reservation” was established in 1869 in the Pribilof Islands of Alaska to help protect fur seals. That reservation led to the birth of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), which now includes more than 560 refuges, 38 wetland management districts, and other protected areas that total over 150 million acres, all managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

In Alabama there are 11 National Wildlife Refuges, and they protect a great diversity of wildlands, from the deep caves in the northern sector of the state to the barrier sand dunes on the Gulf Coast. Thanks to these refuges, Alabama remains one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the South, and in the country. Plus, the refuge system ensures that the state’s abundant forests, streams, lakes and coastal ecosystems will be enjoyed by generations of Alabamians. If you’re not familiar with the various refuges in Alabama, this quick guide will get up to speed on the wildlife and landscapes they protect, and what you’ll encounter when you visit them.

Protecting the Geology

In north Alabama, where the geology is primarily made up of limestone, you’ll find a remarkable geologic phenomenon called karst topography. Because limestone is very soft, wind and water dissolve it easily. What’s left behind is what cavers will tell you is a fascinating labyrinth of sinkholes, caves, and underground streams.

Alabama is part of the TAG Area (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia), which has an extensive karst topography. In 1997, in aptly named Limestone County near Florence, the 1,060-acre Key Cave NWR was established to protect this fragile geologic area and in turn the habitat it provides for two species of sightless crayfish and the Alabama cavefish, a small, sightless fish that can only be found here. The cave is also the home of 40,000 endangered gray bats.

Protecting Gray Bats

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The Sauta Cave NWR was created in Jackson County in 1981.

Alan Cressler

Gray bats were placed on the endangered species list in 1976, but their numbers began to dwindle long before that. The reason for the decline? Gray bats tend to live in large numbers in only a few caves. Because of this, they are highly sensitive to any disturbance, which causes them to use a lot of energy during hibernation, and many die because of it. In recent years, gray bats have also faced the deadly virus known as white nose disease.

Shortly after being placed on the endangered list, USFWS established the Fern Cave NWR near Gurley, Alabama. This 199-acre refuge is the gateway to an intricate underground cave system that is the home of the largest wintering colony of gray bats in the country. The refuge gets its name from the rare Hart-Tongue Fern that grows here.

In addition to Fern Cave, the Sauta Cave NWR was created in Jackson County in 1981. It was once a Civil War saltpeter mine, then a prohibition nightclub, and then a 1960s fallout shelter. Now, the cave is the summer home and breeding habitat for more than 300,000 gray and Indiana bats. It’s an awesome sight to see hundreds of thousands of these nocturnal creatures swarm out of the caves around sunset en masse.

Protecting Fish, Reptiles, Birds & Mammals

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Established in 1938, Wheeler NWR near Decatur and is the oldest wildlife refuge in the state.

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Among Alabama’s 11 NWRs, five really stand out, including the state’s largest, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

Located near Decatur, Wheeler is the oldest NWR in the state, having been established in 1938. The location was selected because it’s on a major waterway, the Tennessee River, but also because it’s on the eastern boundary of the Mississippi Flyway, a major migration route for birds. Thousands of wintering birds call the refuge home each year, including the rare Whooping Crane.

The watercress darter, a colorful but small, 2-inch long fish can only be found in a few natural springs in the state. In 1988, USFWS opened the Watercress Darter NWR near Bessemer to protect the quarter-acre Thomas Spring.

On the Gulf Coast in northern Mobile County, more than 4,200 acres in the Choctaw NWR have been set aside to protect a winter habitat for migrating wood ducks.

On the eastern side of the state, the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge has over 11,000 acres of what has been called a “mosaic of habitat” – impoundment ponds, wetlands, streams, and, of course, Lake Eufaula – that hosts an incredible 300 species of birds, including wood storks, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons, as well as 40 different species of mammals

And then there is the Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge in West Blocton. The Cahaba River is arguably one of the most ecologically significant rivers in the South, and perhaps the entire country. In fact, the Cahaba has more species of fish in its waters than in the entire state of California.

The Cahaba NWR protects five federally listed species of fish, snails, and darters, plus 64 endangered animals and rare or imperiled plants like the famous Cahaba Lily that grows in only a few places in the world.

Protecting Habitats

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Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge protects many migratory songbirds and endangered or threatened species.

Stephanie Pluscht

Since President Theodore Roosevelt established the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903, the refuge system has served one main goal—to to protect wildlife habitats.

Three other NWRs in Alabama showcase that effort nicely, including the Mountain Longleaf NWR near Anniston. This refuge was created to restore the region’s longleaf pine ecosystem so it can regenerate and return to Alabama the prime habitat for many of the birds and mammals that live in the state. The refuge also provides scientists and educators a chance to study this intricate ecosystem first-hand as it matures.

On Alabama’s Gulf Coast you’ll find the Grand Bay NWR, which protects one of the last remaining expanses of Gulf wet pine savanna. And just down the road from Grand Bay across Mobile Bay is the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, which protects the state’s natural barrier sand dunes and in turn the home of many migratory songbirds and endangered or threatened species of wildlife, including the Loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.

Opportunities for You to Explore

The best part of the National Wildlife Refuge System is that it’s yours. USFWS has opened many areas so you can hike, canoe, bird watch, or do photography. Visit each of the NWR websites for information on planning your visit to Alabama’s amazing wildlife refuges.

Written by Joe Cuhaj for RootsRated Media in partnership with BCBS of AL.

Featured image provided by Stephanie Pluscht

6 Most Instagram Worthy Spots in Salt Lake City

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Utah is filled with some of the most scenic landscapes in the country. But you don’t need to travel to the national parks to find some wow-worthy spots for taking pictures. Salt Lake City has plenty of destinations that are sure to impress those on your Instagram feed. Here are six of our favorite spots in close proximity to the city that provide excellent opportunities for great photography.

1. Bonneville Shoreline Trail

A quick jaunt from downtown puts you on this incredibly scenic hiking trail with views of the skyline, lake, and mountains. The full route is more than 100 miles, covers a variety of terrain, and offers endless photo-ops. The short section just east of the city is simple to access and perfect for cityscape and landscape photos. Access the trail from any one of many trailheads, including Dry Creek Trailhead at the Jewish Community Center, Red Butte Garden on Red Butte Creek Road, Emigration Canyon at Hogle Zoo, and Arcadia Trailhead on Devonshire Drive.

2. Temple Square

As one of the most-visited attractions in the entire United States, Salt Lake’s historic center is of course worthy of more than a few photo posts. The magnificent architecture and gardens make it easy to take good pictures here. The Salt Lake Temple is one of the most iconic church buildings in the world. Inspired by medieval Gothic cathedrals, its arched windows and pointed towers are reminiscent of any age-old European city, though it was erected right here in the American West, over the course of 40 years in the 1800s.

In this 10-acre complex at the heart of downtown, there are plenty of other photo spots you won’t want to miss. The 26th floor of the ChurchOffice Building includes a public observation deck with fantastic views of the temple and outstretched city. The Conference Center supports one of the most unique gardens, which is found on the rooftop. The Tabernacle, home to the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, also houses a beautiful 11,623-pipe organ that begs to be photographed.

3. Great Salt Lake

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Any spot along the lake’s shoreline is picture worthy, especially at sunset. Westward views from the city are famous for prismatic sky and iridescent water as the sun sinks behind the distant mountains. Many spots along the shore are picturesque, but a few specific locations deserve mention.

The Great Saltair is a former luxury resort and current music venue off I-80 that stands as a prominent outpost on an otherwise featureless landscape. It’s the most recent iteration of several, and ruins from past buildings are still evident as wooden pilings extend out into the lake in some places.

Antelope Island is a preserved state park just outside the city, where wildlife like pronghorn antelope and bison still thrive. Rocky outcrops dot the shoreline and textured hills form the skyline. Flowers bloom brilliantly in summer and the desert tinges orange in fall. Explore any of the numerous hiking trails to find many different viewpoints and search for animals.

4. Capitol Hill

Utah’s State Capitol dramatically overlooks downtown from atop a low hill. Visit the grounds during open hours to photograph the building inside and out. The building itself is a beautiful subject for photos, but if you can capture the backdrop along with it you’ll have a truly stunning image—skyscrapers and urban streets juxtaposed with snow-capped mountains in the winter. The secret to gaining this panoramic view is to head for the hills just north of the capitol. Be respectful of private property, but look for the perfect vantage point from Capitol Boulevard, 11th Avenue, or any of the other streets in this area.

5. The City Library

The public library’s main branch, located downtown, is a surprisingly photogenic and lively building. At the front, a huge curved atrium fills with sunlight, illuminating spiral staircases, balconies, and of course rows upon rows of books. Businesses on the first floor add to the variety with art stores, gift shops, and cafes. Don’t miss out on the rooftop terrace, which provides peaceful seating and a 360-degree view of the city and Salt Lake Valley.

6. Big Cottonwood Canyon

Many people drive Highway 190 through Big Cottonwood Canyon on their way to ski resorts, but this scenic gorge is worth a trip any time of the year. Anywhere along the road is spectacular for fall colors, when aspen trees turn gold. Big Cottonwood Creek babbles among verdant foliage and dappled sunlight, with many hiking trails that follow alongside it. Donut Falls is a pretty waterfall that drops through an inexplicable hole in the rock. Shadows and moving water make this a tricky photography endeavor, and the 3.5-mile round trip means you have to work a bit to get the perfect shot.

Now that you have a taste of what Salt Lake has to offer your photo appetite, check out the rest of Utah in our 7 Most Amazing Views in Utah blog post. Make sure you have plenty of room on your camera for all the pictures you’ll be taking because you won’t be able to stop. Enjoy!

Written by Jesse Weber for RootsRated in partnership with Utah Office of Tourism.

Featured image provided by Andrew Smith

A Hiker’s Guide to American River Canyon

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The allure of Placer County, California, comes in part from its friendly locals, rural charm, and growing foodie scene. But before people settled in places like Auburn and Foresthill, the area was known for its oak and manzanita laden hills. Here, the sun shines brightly on tall grasses and shade trees offer welcome respite on a hot day. At the heart of the region, you’ll find the American River Canyon. Home to hundreds of miles of trails, it’s one of the region’s most loved hiking destinations, with scenic vistas and challenging climbs. The American River Canyon is filled with great options for every level of hiker—and plenty of opportunities for enjoying your time off the trail as well.

Where to Fuel Up

Before hitting the trails, get a good breakfast at Awful Annie’s in Auburn. Known as a comfort food hotspot, it has a name that couldn’t be less true. This breakfast-and-lunch spot is the local favorite for folks looking to dine on eggs bennies or huge breakfast scrambles to fuel them up for a day outside.

Where to Hike

The American River Canyon is a dry, riparian landscape. If you meander along the river, expect cool breezes, shade from oak trees (and the occasional ponderosa pine), and the sound of fresh snow melt tumbling through rapids. Or opt for a hike in the hills above the river, where you’ll find sweeping vistas of the snakelike American as it winds its way through yellow and green grasses. Regardless of where exactly you travel in the American River Canyon, you can always expect panoramic views that look out over the horizon without a building in sight for miles and miles. Here are some of your top trail options:

Auburn State Recreation Area: A classic destination in the greater Sacramento area located just outside Auburn on your way into the canyon, the Auburn State Recreation Area features more than 35 trails and is popular for trail running, hiking, fishing, swimming, and mountain biking. It's a must-see in the American River Canyon.

Stagecoach Trail: A moderate 3.6-mile trail with sweeping views of the American River and the world famous Foresthill Bridge, the Stagecoach trail features 744 feet of elevation gain and is used by hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers. It was initially a gold-rush era toll route that connected miners to the Foresthill area.

Lake Clementine Trail: The Lake Clementine Trail is a mellow path that offers panoramic views of the North Fork of the American River. It’s an ideal hike on a hot day thanks to the shade provided by the conifers and oaks that line the trail. You’ll also find easy access to the river for a quick dip via several side trails. Be cautious of the current here, however, as it’s colder and swifter than it looks. Hikers who stick with the trail will be rewarded with views of a deep pool beneath the North Fork Dam, where they can admire the cascading water over the dam’s rim from below.

Western States Trail: Famous for the iconic 100-mile race from Squaw Valley (elevation 8,500 feet) to Auburn (elevation 2,000 feet) that draws world-class ultramarathon runners each year, this trail is a great place to log many miles. But you don’t have to be a long-distance hiker to make this route worth your time. Several parts are very manageable for shorter day hikes, including the Railroad Bed Section. The lower elevation part of this trail is accessible year-round. From Auburn, the trail crosses the Middle Fork of the American River several times as it ascends up toward Foresthill.

Foresthill Divide Loop Trail: The Foresthill Divide Loop Trail is a longer route, totaling 8.2 miles, but shorter loops are possible. The scenery is beautiful, especially in the spring when wildflowers cover the rolling green hills and oak trees offer an occasional respite in the shade. Farther along the loop, the manzanita and shrubs thicken as the trail becomes more wooded. It’s common to see bikers and horseback riders here as well as hikers.

Where to Eat

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Find the best places to eat in Placer County.

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After some time on the trails, there’s nothing better than sitting down to a good meal. Here are some of your best dining options in the region:

Maker’s Mountain Eatery, Foresthill: For those ending their exploration of the American River Canyon closer to Foresthill than Auburn, this fun tap house and wine bar is where the locals will steer you if you ask for a recommendation. Try the beer batter fries—you likely deserve a hearty and filling reward after hiking along the American River.

Old Town Pizza, Auburn: If you are looking for a cozy, classic pizza parlor, you would be hard pressed to find a better fit than Old Town Pizza. It’s located in the heart of historic Auburn, a place that’s as fun to explore as well, so save some energy after your hike to stroll up and down the street. And be sure to try their breadsticks at Old Town Pizza—you won’t regret it.

Tre Pazzi Trattoria, Auburn: Another fantastic place for local fare that will fill you up post-hike is this casual but classy Italian restaurant. The warm, brick-wall establishment has a fun atmosphere, excellent entrees, and classic pasta dishes.

Where to Stay

Day trips are nice, but you can’t see everything that Placer County has to offer without spending some time here. Spend the weekend (or more) and enjoy a good night’s rest at these area lodging options:

Park Victorian, Auburn: The Park Victorian is, in short, a gem. If you want plenty of character, class, and comfort, you’ll find it here. As its name suggests, it’s located in an old 19th-century villa. The rooms are bright and offer a surprising modern vibe that will have you falling in love with this tried-and-true establishment at first glance.

Holiday Inn, Auburn: If you want a comfortable place to stay that’s low-key and friendly, the local Holiday Inn in Auburn fits the bill. It offers all the charm of the city’s small-town vibe with all the amenities you could want.

Miner’s Camp, Foresthill: A nostalgic retreat center, Miner’s Camp offers a wide variety of cabins, which are rustic, quaint, and full of charm. The camp plays up the area’s gold rush history, and the cabins are named after local mines like Blue Eyes Mine, Bogus Thunder, and Hidden Treasure. It’s popular for weddings, retreats, or simply fun family getaways.

Written by Jill Sanford for Matcha in partnership with Visit Placer County.

Featured image provided by Ray Bouknight