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Share Memories from Alabama State Parks

By DAVID RAINER

Visiting Oak Mountain State Park for the first time many years ago, I’ll never forget the scene that unfolded as soon as we rolled through the entrance gates. A big, eight-point buck bounded across the road no more than 30 feet in front of our vehicle. I looked at my wife and said, “Wow, you can’t get any more of a realistic welcome to nature than that!”

The sight of that buck so close will never fade, although I have fond memories from plenty of other visits to Alabama State Parks over the years.

For those of you with lasting memories from the Alabama State Parks, there is a great way to share those in a way that could possibly pay off handsomely.

Alabama State Parks has a website promotion for 2011 called “Alabama State Parks…..Where Memories Are Made.” Visitors can share their memories in two categories – written or video – with a chance to win a $250 gift card in each category. Photos may be attached in the written memories categories, although not required for entry. Visit www.alapark.com/ParkMemories/ for instructions on how to enter a video or written memory. Those who submit entries will qualify for a random drawing for a $250 “Stay and Play” gift card. A gift card in each category will be awarded every three months beginning June 1. A person may submit one entry for each of the three-month periods. The final drawing will be in December. Also, grab a “Where Memories Are Made” bumper sticker when you visit a park.  If one of the park managers sees it on your bumper you could win a prize.

April is a busy month for State Parks with Easter celebrations planned at Cheaha and Oak Mountain on April 23. At Oak Mountain, the fourth annual Easter Egg Hunt will have youngsters searching for 10,000 eggs. Plenty of other activities are scheduled, as well as the festivities continue from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 23. At Cheaha, the annual all-day event begins at Bald Rock Lodge at 10 a.m. Activities include an Easter party, dancing, pictures with the Easter Bunny, as well as an egg hunt. The traditional Easter buffet will be available at the Cheaha Restaurant from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. on April 24.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has also declared April 23 as “Picnic in the Park Day” at the Alabama State Parks. Facilities throughout the parks will be open to give visitors a chance to view the many of the beautiful accommodations and meeting spaces now available.

Mark Easterwood, State Parks Director, said with gas prices so high, it just makes sense to visit one of Alabama’s 22 parks.

“We know that with the spike in gas prices, a lot of people may not have the money to take a long trip for vacation,” Easterwood said. “We encourage people to visit the parks because they are so close. No matter where you live in Alabama, you’re within an hour’s drive to one of our state parks. And we’ve got a huge range of overnight accommodations from campgrounds to cabins to cottages to lodges. We’ve got golf courses. Several of the parks are on large freshwater lakes. Some of the parks have smaller lakes. Of course, we’ve got the hiking and biking trails, and several parks even offer horseback riding.

“We feel like it’s a real value for what they get. They can spend a weekend or several days at a park and spend a lot less money than what they would if they were traveling to any of the out-of-state destinations.”

In 1998, Alabama voters passed a referendum that eventually provided $110 million for the State Parks system. The money was used to refurbish some parks, while several resort parks have undergone major renovations. The so-called “flagship” of the system is Guntersville State Park on the Tennessee River east of Huntsville. More than $24 million was spent on Guntersville for what basically turned out to be a new lodge and hotel. The golf course also got a Jerry Pate (former U.S. Open winner and University of Alabama alumnus) makeover. With its multi-level view of the river and riverine habitat, Guntersville now rivals any lodge in the Southeast.

On the southeast end of the state, Lakepoint Resort, which sits on one of the top bass fishing lakes around in Lake Eufaula, completed a $12 million makeover last year. The interior of the Lakepoint Lodge was gutted and upgraded. The facilities were renovated to meet any number of social functions from weddings to family reunions to large meetings. The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board will hold its final meeting of the year on May 14 at Lakepoint.

Although the Gulf State Park lodge and convention center is still on the drawing boards, the park’s fishing pier juts 1,540 feet into the Gulf of Mexico and offers some of the best fishing around. The park also completed a $4.5 million renovation and upgrade of campground facilities, which includes a 5,000-square-foot swimming pool and splash pad. A new nature center was built after Hurricane Ivan.

“We’re doing an addition to the nature center at Gulf State Park,” Easterwood said. “We built a new nature center with CIAP (Coastal Impact Assistance Program) money, and we’re doing an addition with an outdoor amphitheater and classroom setting for students and adults.

“For our resort areas, I think the setting within the natural resources we have is what sets us apart from a lot of destinations. Obviously, Guntersville is the most upscale hotel we have. Lakepoint is close to that scale. This past year was the first full year of operation since the renovation at Lakepoint and it’s done real well.”

Easterwood recommends making reservations early if you’re planning to visit near a holiday or during spring breaks and summer vacation. The parks are also busy during the fall colors season.

Visitors have numerous options when it comes to overnight accommodations. For the adventurous sort, primitive camping sites are available. For those who prefer the amenities of home, several resort parks offer new plush cottages.

Gulf State Park has 11 of the new cottages on Lake Shelby that will accommodate large families in luxurious style. Meanwhile, Joe Wheeler State Park, just west of Decatur, has 10 luxury cottages adjacent to the lodge with wood-burning fireplaces for those cooler nights. Lakepoint also has 10 lakeside cottages on par with those at Gulf and Joe Wheeler.

Visit www.alapark.com to explore Alabama’s 22 State Parks and plan an adventure right here in Alabama. You’ll be amazed at the variety of options available.

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) From the view of a Tennessee River sunset from the deck at Guntersville State Park Lodge to the sun-splashed recreation available at the Gulf State Park Pier, Alabama State Parks offers myriad vistas and adventures for young and old alike.

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Read previous columns by David Rainer


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