All Hail the Trail
Alabama tourism promoters were quick to master the development of the trails package. It began big with golf but rolls on to include brisket, birds and the biggest tour track of rivers in the country.
Webb’s Bar-B-Q in Midland City
It has been said that the journey is more important than the destination. But what if there are numerous destinations within a single journey? What if getting from point A to point B requires an entire alphabet of stops along the way? In that situation, wouldn’t the destinations become the entire reason for the journey?
That is the basic thinking behind tourism trails. Instead of promoting sites and attractions individually, the goal is to link them together either physically or conceptually. Take a specific subject such as barbecue restaurants or bird watching, and then give people multiple places to go and things to see that are connected to that topic, all along one organized route.
“A place like a museum or a park is a single destination. It’s just one point to go to,” says Nisa Miranda, director of the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development. “But if you create a trail, you’re actually connecting several points. So the tourists and outdoor recreationalists come for a longer period of time.”
In Alabama, this concept became popular with the creation in the early 1990s of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a series of 26 championship-caliber golf courses at 11 sites across the state. Vacation packages have been created that enable golfers to travel from course to course over several days, spending money on food, lodging and entertainment along the way. More than 500,000 people play golf on an RTJ Trail course every year, many of them from out of state.
Officials with the Alabama Tourism Department liked this idea so much that over the years they have created an entire series of tourist trails, with links to 16 of them on the department’s website at alabama.travel/trails.
“We started packaging different venues together for people who have strong interests in certain niche topics,” Alabama Tourism Department Director Lee Sentell says. “It’s a way to tell people if they like this one thing, then they’ll probably like these other nine things as well. The word ‘trail’ gives it the appearance of more mass, and therefore more of an allure to a person who is going to travel 100 miles to get there.
“The thing we like to do in tourism marketing is make it easy for somebody to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to buy that experience.’ So if someone has already put together all the different components of a trip for them — what to see, where to eat, where to stay, what else is there to do nearby — and connects things in some way, then people are more likely to visit.”
Here is a quick look at some of the tourism trails to be found in Alabama:
Civil Rights Museum Trail — The trail features Civil Rights sites in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, Tuskegee, Scottsboro, Anniston, Greensboro and Marion. Highlights include the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (site of the famous 1965 Voting Rights March), Brown Chapel in Selma (where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the Voting Rights Movement), Montgomery’s Rosa Parks Museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (where four girls were killed in a 1963 bombing).
Food Trail — Details for this trail can be found at ilovealabamafood.com. It features popular restaurants that represent the tastes in different regions of the state. Included are the North Alabama Trail, Taste of the Magic City Trail, Alabama Heartland Trail, Lower Alabama Trail and the Coastal Cuisine Trail. The trail is part of the Alabama Food marketing campaign that includes the popular brochure “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” There is also a smartphone app based on the brochure, as well as the book “Alabama Food: Classic Dishes, Restaurants & Chefs.”
BBQ Trail — Yes, this could be part of the Food Trail, except that barbecue in Alabama is an experience all its own. “Rural barbecue restaurants have a mystique about them,” Sentell says. “The harder it is to find, the better. It has to be a pilgrimage. You have to travel some distance, and hopefully you will shed some stress along the way. It’s sort of a transformative experience.” The BBQ Trail is an app that can be downloaded at alabamabbq.com. The free app has information on more than 75 barbecue restaurants in 52 cities across the state. The app includes history of each of the restaurants, as well as their most popular dishes. It also will allow users to set an alert so their phone will notify them when they are within 20 miles of one of their chosen barbecue spots. The app is based on the book “Alabama Barbecue: Delicious Road Trips.”
Birding Trail — This is one of the most inclusive trail projects in the state, with 270 sites along eight trails in 64 of Alabama’s 67 counties. More than 430 bird species have been documented in the state. The birding trail was first established along the Gulf Coast in the 1990s and expanded to include north Alabama in the early 2000s. The Alabama Tourism Department partnered with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development in 2010 to organize and manage trails throughout the remainder of Alabama. The website alabamabirdingtrails.com features a searchable online database with photos, mapping and in-depth descriptions written by naturalists, and a list of local bird walks and statewide bird festivals.
Hank Williams Trail — This trail highlights sites where important events took place in the life and career of country music star Hank Williams. The 20-page brochure provides information about sites in Georgiana, Montgomery, Alexander City, Birmingham and Tuscumbia. Highlights include the official Hank Williams Museum, as well as his grave at Oakwood Cemetery, both in Montgomery.
Garden Trail — Seven botanical gardens across the state are featured in the trail brochure and on the companion website alabamagardentrail.com. Stops include the Huntsville Botanical Gardens, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Aldridge Gardens in Hoover, Jasmine Hill Gardens in Wetumpka, Dothan Botanical Gardens, Mobile Botanical Gardens and Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore.
Scenic River Trail — At 631 miles, this is the longest water trail within any single state in the country. It starts at the Georgia state line near Cedar Bluff and winds across nine lakes, seven rivers and two creeks before ending at Fort Morgan on the Gulf Coast. The Alabama Scenic River Trail Association publishes five guide booklets, each describing in detail the route through a specific portion of the trail. The booklets also provide information regarding campgrounds, marinas, put-in and take-out locations and points of interest along the way.
Chief Ladiga Trail — Using the existing path of a former Seaboard/CSX Railroad line, this was the first rails-to-trails project completed in Alabama. The 33-mile trail stretches from the town of Weaver near Anniston to the Georgia state line. There it connects to the Silver Comet Trail and continues to just outside Atlanta, making this 90-mile corridor the longest continuous paved rails-to-trails path in the country.
Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail — The one that blazed the way for the trails that followed. “We wanted something that would make people stop in Alabama as opposed to passing through Alabama,” said Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner, who helped create the RTJ Golf Trail. The trail has grown to a total of 468 holes of golf, including three courses considered to be of such high quality that they have hosted national professional golf tournaments: The Senator course at Capitol Hill in Prattville, The Crossings course at Magnolia Grove near Mobile and The Grand National course in Opelika.
Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Estes and Meripol are based in Birmingham.