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Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail Takes First Place in USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards

Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail Takes First Place in USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards

Photo courtesy of Gulf State Park.

The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail in Baldwin County, Alabama, has been chosen as the top recreational trail in the country in the 2023 USA TODAY 10Best Readers' Choice Awards. The south Alabama trail took first place over nine other trails located throughout the U.S., including Missouri’s 240-mile Katy Bike Trail – one of the longest Rails-to-Trails projects in the country – and the Great Allegheny Passage that connects Cumberland, Maryland, to downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The awards were announced Friday, February 17.

“We are excited for the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail to receive this award,” said Greg Lein, State Parks Director for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). “We’ve worked together with our partners in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores to offer access to some of the most unique habitats and recreational opportunities along the Gulf Coast. Thank you to everyone who voted for the Backcountry Trail as the best recreational trail in the country.”

Established in 2003 as a multi-use recreational trail connecting Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Gulf State Park, the trail is a system of paved and unpaved paths and boardwalks providing trail users with access to several distinct ecosystems and outdoor recreational opportunities. Named in honor of Hugh Branyon, who served as superintendent of Gulf State Park for more than 30 years, the Backcountry Trail system features 29 miles of trails that are located within the park.

Recreational opportunities along the trail include biking, hiking, wildlife watching, playgrounds, fishing, camping and more.

“This recognition from USA Today puts a spotlight on just how important recreational trails are to our communities,” said Chris Blankenship, ADCNR Commissioner. “Trails like the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail help connect cities and residents with the natural environment and provide recreational opportunities that are important to our well-being and economy.”

Bobcats and are just some of the wildlife trail users might see along the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail inside Gulf State Park. Photo by Stephanie Pluscht.

In the past few decades, trail use has become more popular as a form of outdoor recreation. Approximately 44 million people use hiking trails each year in the U.S. Mountain biking has also gained popularity with a dedicated user base willing to travel to well-planned trails. Hikers and mountain bikers contribute millions of dollars annually to the U.S. economy through the purchase of footwear, bikes, hiking gear and travel-related expenses.

ADCNR’s State Parks and Forever Wild tracts are home to hundreds of miles of multi-use trails located throughout the state. Some of the most popular examples include mountain biking and hiking trails at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham and the Forever Wild Coldwater Mountain Nature Preserve and Recreation Area near Anniston. Both trail systems have been recognized by the International Mountain Biking Association as offering some of the best mountain biking in the Southeast.

ADCNR also offers a variety of horseback riding and paddling opportunities such as the horseback trails at Wind Creek State Park on the shores of Lake Martin and the State Lands canoe trail system that includes a 19-mile stretch of the Perdido River and the Bartram Canoe Trail on the Mobile-Tensaw Delta – the second largest river delta in the country.

Outside of the ADCNR trail system, the state is home to many of the top hiking, biking and paddling destinations in the Southeast.

The Alabama section of the Pinhoti National Recreation Trail – one of the top backcountry hiking trails in the country – stretches 171 miles from Coosa County to Cherokee County and continues into Georgia before connecting with the Appalachian Trail.

Beginning near Anniston and traveling 33 miles through Calhoun and Cleburne counties to the Georgia state line where it connects with the Silver Comet Trail, the paved Chief Ladiga Trail was Alabama’s first extended Rails-to-Trails project. This trail intersects the Pinhoti and offers a unique way to explore the various trail towns along its path.

In north Alabama, the planned Singing River Trail is a 200-plus mile greenway system that will connect the town of Bridgeport in the northeast part of the state with Sheffield near Muscle Shoals. Plans for the trail include access to outdoor recreation as well as state and natural history education opportunities.

“It’s an exciting time for the development and improvement of recreational trails in Alabama,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “They are one of the best ways to explore the varied landscapes of our beautiful state. From the mountains of northeast Alabama to our coastal habitats, there is a recreational trail suitable for all skill levels from beginners to the most experienced trail users. We encourage everyone to take advantage of the recreational opportunities Alabama’s trails have to offer.”

To view the results of the 2023 USA TODAY 10Best Readers' Choice Awards for best recreational trail, visit

For more information about the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail at Gulf State Park, visit

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Parks, State Lands, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. Learn more at


The Backcountry Trail system features 29 miles of trails that are located within the park. Photo courtesy of Gulf State Park.

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