We came for a ride on the Chief Ladiga Trail, rolling through towns with nicknames like “Gem of the Hills” and traversing the depths of the Talladega National Forest. We felt the fusion between small-town charm, southern hospitality, and natural beauty. Keep reading to see the 3-day/2-night itinerary that introduced us to the area’s rich culture, unique and comfortable lodging, and delicious culinary offerings, and of course, world-class biking.
Calhoun County Alabama Bike Getaway Map
Below is our map of all the places we mention in this article. If it doesn’t load right away, don’t be afraid to hit the refresh button 🙂
Sharing Sunset on Mt. Cheaha
Technically, Mt Cheaha is in Cleburne County, but Anniston is most certainly the gateway to Cheaha over neighboring Heflin. It’s a 30-40 minute drive from either city, but Heflin has a population under 4,000′ and Anniston has a population over 20K. We choose to come in from Anniston because there were more restaurants and accommodations for the same length drive.
Mt Cheaha is the highpoint of Alabama at 2413′ where you’ll find a beautiful state park loaded with wonderful hiking that worthy of a full weekend of exploration in and of itself. However, we were only stopping in for sunset before our weekend of cycling.
Once we were in, we choose between the two highest-rated, short hikes in the Cheaha State Park- Pulpit Rock and Bald Rock. They are both .6 mile, out-and-backs (.3 miles each way), but we choose Bald Rock because of the boardwalk, so it was easy to hike out at twilight. Of course, you could always come a little early and do both.
Pro-tip – bring $5 cash so you can pay at the gate instead of waiting in line at the store.
Dinner at Classic on Noble
Since we were only eating one dinner in Anniston, we had to try Classic on Noble. It’s the highest-rated and most reviewed restaurant in Anniston on TripAdvisor. It’s also the most expensive, so we didn’t want to show up in our hiking attire.
Walking through the doors, we felt like we were traveling back in time. The building dated bates back to 1894, and recent restorations brought it back to its former glory. One could only imagine the stories these walls could tell; in a word – scandalous. However, this one-time speakeasy and brothel now glistens with elegant southern charm.
Drinks in the Green Olive Bar
Upon arriving at Classic on Nobel, we realized there was an Army ball completely occupying the main dining room. We felt a little out of place in our civies until we were ushered upstairs to the Green Olive Bar. There we had a cozy nook for not only our culinary delights but rounds of delicious drinks. Our bartender preferred spirits from the John Emerald Distillery, which is just down the road in Opelika. Amongst our favorites were the Cosmopolitan and Old Fashion, but they were all delightful.
We felt obligated to try their shrimp and grits, one of the “100 dishes to eat in Alabama before you die” from Visit Alabama. We haven’t loved everything from this list, but Noble on Main earned its place. The fresh gulf shrimp was sweet and succulent, and the grits were flavored perfectly with collard greens, Andouille sausage, tomatoes, and bacon, all topped with shaved parmesan cheese.
An Evening at Hotel Finial
The Hotel Finial stands tall amongst other options, for more reasons that it’s an 1888 Queen Anne Victorian mansion built on the highest hill in the city. The property was completely remodeled in 2015, creating 61 deluxe guest rooms and five specialty suites complete with all modern amenities. There’s even a bike washing station for people who come for a weekend on the neighboring Cold Mountain Trails. We enjoyed a good night’s sleep and woke to a boxed breakfast in the morning.
We woke to a misty morning and realized that we needed to pick up some biking essentials, so we headed to Wig’s Wheels, the closest full-service bike shop to the Chief Ladiga Trail. While we were in town, we decided to check out the Freedom Riders National Monument and explore downtown Anniston.
Exploring The Civil Rights Trail in Downtown Anniston
One of Anniston’s dubious footnotes in history is the infamous KKK orchestrated attack on the Freedom Riders. Early in 1961, the Supreme Court struck down the Jim Crow laws that segregated public transportation. However, integration required riders to claim their newly granted rights.
In May of 1961, a small group of students planned a ride from DC to New Orleans. They never made it. On May 14, an angry mob attacked the bus in Anniston’s streets and followed it outside of city limits. Once beyond police jurisdiction, the mob torched the bus and assaulted the riders. They managed to stop to ride, but the pictures and stories of the event launched a movement. By the end of that summer, the entire bus system was filled with inspired and motivated students taking to the roads to integrate and heal America. The location of the attack is now the Freedom Riders National Monument. It’s a surreal experience to look at the pictures, and realize that you’re standing right there.
Anniston was founded as a “Model City” and never deviated from that dream. The progressive citizens refused to let their town be intimidated by the KKK and formed the Human Relations Council consisting of five white men and four black men to stand up to mob rule. They succeeded in integrating the public library, and the spirit led to the conviction of Hubert Strange in the murder of Willie Brewster.
The Hubert Strange sentence was the first time a white man was convicted of murdering a black man in Alabama, and by an all-white jury, no less. The city erected a plaque for Willie Brewster around the corner from the Freedom Riders Monument. It bears the following passage from the Anniston Star “We, as a community, are determined that those who advocate and commit secret acts of violence will not control this country. We are determined to fight with the weapons of law to retain the dignity of this community and to punish those who struck down a respectable and industrious citizen.” It’s essential that we remember our past, so that we can choose our future.
Preface About Riding the Chief Ladiga Trail
We decided to ride for two days, with a 28-mile out-and-back to the Georgia state line the first day and a 38-mile out-and-back to Anniston on the next. We’ve written an excellent Chief Ladiga Trail Guide already, as well a beautiful narrative about what the this ride meant to us. This piece will complement it by focusing on what we did and how we felt.
Lunch at Elevated Grounds
We left Anniston and made the short trip to Piedmont to start our ride on the Chief Ladiga Trail. Piedmont made an excellent trail hub because it sits at mile 19 on the 33-mile trail and has plenty of cute shops for weary travelers like Elevated Grounds.
We heard the rave reviews for Elevated Ground’s cruffins (muffins made from croissant dough) and figured we were burning enough calories cycling to indulge. We also heard that they were closed on Sunday mornings for church, so Saturday was our day. The cruffins were as yummy as promised, but the paninis and coffee looked so good that we ordered those too.
We were eager to get riding and burn off our gluttony, so we parked in the back lot and headed out on the trail. However, the rain set in, so we quickly returned to our car and drove just up the road to the Eubanks Welcome Center to check it out and wait for the rain to subside.
Eubanks Welcome Center
The Eubanks Welcome Center is right on the Chief Ladiga Trail and has the last flush toilets for at least the next 15-miles. It also has some snacks and commemorative trinkets for sale. For us, we enjoyed the porch and sat for about 2-hours waiting for the rain to clear. Finally, about 2:00, it stopped raining long enough that we thought it was now or never. We knew we’d be chasing daylight with sunset at 6:00. We set our turn-around time at 4:00 and pushed out.
Eubanks North to the Georgia Line on the Chief Ladiga Trail
For the first couple of miles, we just felt the joy of motion and finally being on the trail. We rolled by small farms with their cotton ripe and ready for fall harvest but soon left civilization behind and entered the Talladega National Forest.
There’s something special about riding bike trails or entering the deep forest at any time. However, cycling on the trail through the forest was nothing short of magical. The rain never fully stopped but instead turned into a misty twilight that filled the valleys and settled low into the streams. A few times, magnificent bucks wandered out of the fog and onto the trail, only to disappear again into the hazy woods.
Cycling Through the Talladega National Forest
Riding through the National Forest was the sort of ride where all of your senses come alive. The mists felt like some unseen hand draped a cool blanket over the countryside, but it filled our lungs with the most unusual smells. We couldn’t quite put a finger on it, like a cross between apple cobbler and pine boughs. It felt warm and homey, despite being in the depths of a chilly fall forest. The trees were a mix of pines, oaks, and maples. In particular, the maples blazed orange and red in their fall colors, like a fog light shining in the distance.
We ended up having to choose between reaching the state line and riding at night because of our late start. We chose the state line, only because we had good lights for our bikes. Our 400-lumen headlights had a hard time cutting through the fog, which set in heavy at sunset, but we pushed on. As we got back into civilization, we could smell the aroma of campfires and enjoyed their orange glow muted by the walls of mist.
Dinner at Shell’s Downtown
We returned to Piedmont chilled and desperately in need of a shower. We checked into our room (more in the next section) and got ready for a night on the town. We never expected Piedmont to have a nightlife, let alone what we found at Shell’s Downtown.
To be fair, we came for the wings and burgers, which were as delicious as promised, but we were thrilled with the live music. It was just a local band playing a lot of country music, but the energy in the room was undeniable. Saturday night at Shell’s showed off what’s special about Calhoun County – the people. Everybody was out having a good time and filled with positive energy.
A Night in the Museum at Roberts Home
The Night in the Museum experience at Roberts Home thrilled and delighted us. It was kind of like staying at grandma’s house if she had really good taste. The Roberts Home dates back to the 1880s and is one of Piedmont’s oldest and best-preserved houses. Inside, there’s a mixture of authentic curios and bike-themed accouterments.
Even though we aren’t history buffs per se, the hosts’ thoughtfulness completely floored us. They thought of everything. If we happened to have forgotten any toiletry or amenity, they had it waiting for us. Plus, like any grandma of exquisite taste, there were plenty of snacks to make sure we had enough calories for the ride.
True to a home of the 1880s, we had separate twin beds to sleep in, which was a bit odd, but the entire experience was just so delightful. Best of all, it’s less than a mile off the Chief Ladiga Trail, so it’s an easy bike in and bike out. It is close walking distance from Shells, just in case you have one beer or libation too many while enjoying the live music.
Eubanks South to Anniston on the Chief Ladiga Trail
The Roberts House was so well stocked, we didn’t need to go out for breakfast. Day three weather cooperated perfectly, with hardly a cloud in the sky. We probably could have started out nice and early, but we found ourselves photographing the exterior of our B&B as well as the Depot Museum just down the street, so it was late morning by the time we hit the trail again and headed south to Anniston.
The first ten miles were pleasant enough, with vivid fall colors and a couple of stream crossings, but it didn’t compare to rolling onto the Jacksonville State University campus. The entire scene oozed with college-town charm, complete with a ride-by of fraternity row while being serenaded by a drumline practicing in the field. No wonder they start the Cheaha Challenge bike race from Jacksonville State.
Exploring Small Town Alabama
The towns of Weaver and Jacksonville engulfed and embraced the trail; however, the southern terminus stopped about six miles outside of Anniston. We reached the end of the trail at about 2:30 in the afternoon and had another decision ahead of us. We didn’t have enough daylight to enjoy lunch and still make it back to Piedmont. We were disappointed we had botched the timing because we were looking forward to lunch at a fun, local taco place called Heirloom Tacos. On the plus side, we have one more excuse to return.
I decided to sprint back and get the car while Jenn could take her time and photograph whatever caught her fancy. I ended up rejoining her at the Jacksonville Station rest stop. She had the drone up, capturing shots of the sunset over the trail.
Dinner at Effina’s Tuscan Grill
It was bittersweet loading our bikes back onto our car, knowing that our weekend on the Chief Ladiga Trail was coming to an end. However, we had one last treat in store for us, dinner at Effina’s Tuscan Grill.
Effina’s is a locally owned eatery that offers casual but sophisticated food. We felt very comfortable dining there with a quick change out of biking clothes and running a comb through our hair. The food didn’t disappoint, with large, flavorful servings and a very reasonable price-point. They even had the second-best Voodoo Pasta we have ever had (and yes, finding good Voodoo Pasta is a thing for us). We were full and content by the time we left the restaurant and began our trip home.
Wrapping up our Romantic Bike Getaway to Calhoun County Alabama
We ended up riding about 70-miles in a weekend. There are some people who would crank this out in a day. Others might be intimidated by the mileage. Don’t be. Anyone can enjoy this ride because you don’t have to complete the entire trail to have the full experience. Suppose you ride north from Piedmont to experience the Talladega Forest and in-between Jacksonville and Weaver to experience small-town Alabama. In that case, you will get 80% of the experience for 40% of the distance. You can still enjoy Mt Cheaha, the area’s rich history, delicious food, and delightful accommodations.
Perhaps the best reason to come to Calhoun County is the people. Everyone we met was wonderful. There is an entire cottage industry based on taking care of trail riders. We could tell from the decorations at the Roberts Home or watching the owner of Elevated Grounds checking to see if the rain would let up that these local businesses need riders. Need or not, their Southern hospitality shows through in everything they do. What’s more, getting outdoors in Calhoun County provides natural social distancing as well as a weekend of exploration.
As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.
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