Escape to the Majestic Three

Editor's note: This post is part of the Eighth Day Escape adventure series and contest by Parks Explorer. Throughout this year, Parks Explorer will share trip ideas, staff stories, activity suggestions, and much more from each Alabama State Park. These monthly posts will be personal accounts of traveling Park Naturalist Emily Vanderford, where she details her park adventures and experiences in the unique natural areas across the state. While reading about park adventures is not nearly as meaningful as experiencing them first-hand, Parks Explorer wants you to know just how many opportunities there are for you to enjoy Alabama the beautiful.

The Eighth Day Escape Contest began January 8, 2016 and will conclude January 8, 2017. Monthly winners will be randomly selected each month and the grand prize winner will be drawn January 8, 2017. Click here for contest entry forms and more information, and check out January's Adventure also.

Marshall County Majestic Three

My second monthly getaway took me to the Marshall County Majestic 3. I spent a long weekend exploring Buck’s Pocket, Cathedral Caverns, and Lake Guntersville State Parks. January was a busy month, so I was grateful for the ready-made M3 adventure package featuring a picnic at Buck’s Pocket, cave tour at Cathedral Caverns, and overnight accommodations with a breakfast buffet at Lake Guntersville. As much as I love trip planning, a ready-made escape was just what I needed. If you can relate, be sure to enter this month’s drawing for a chance to win an M3 Package plus additional passes to Cathedral Caverns.

Blueberries, Boxed Lunches, and a Bald Eagle
(Buck's Pocket Adventure)

I stopped in at the Lake Guntersville State Park Lodge on Thursday morning, January 28, to pick up my boxed lunch for a Buck’s Pocket picnic. Amanda Glover, assistant naturalist at Lake Guntersville, joined me for the adventure. There are many things that I love about my job, but the people I work with rank near the top of that list. If you have ever met Amanda, you know she can spot a soaring raptor before anyone else has even had a chance to look up. As we drove to Grove Oak, she pointed out several American kestrels and red-tailed hawks stalking their prey from roadside powerlines.

Once we arrived at Buck’s Pocket, we quickly settled on a table in the day use area and chowed down on lunch. Have you ever heard the saying that potato chips taste better from the bag at grandmother’s house? Well, I think the same can be said of my Buck’s Pocket lunch. I’m nearly certain my ham and cheese hoagie tasted better because of my vista view from the canyon rim. It’s not just anywhere that you can watch a bald eagle soar over while you picnic.

After lunch, Amanda and I moseyed down the boardwalk overlooking the pocket below. While we were walking, I couldn’t help but look forward to spring. There were so many Rhododendron plants along the path that will be screaming with color in several months. Another shrub flourishing beside the boardwalk was sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum), sometimes called farkleberry or tree huckleberry. I can always spot this one because its leaves are the same shape as Shrek’s ears, a factoid that has stuck with me from dendrology class (and probably always will). Another way to spot sparkleberry is by its fruit – a blueberry that can hang on through winter. We finished off the after-lunch walk by taking in the view from the overlook at the end of the boardwalk. The view was well worth the short walk, and really gave a cool perspective of the full escarpment from the edge of the rim to the valley below.

Exceeding Expectations
(Touring Cathedral Caverns)

After lunch at Buck’s Pocket, I dropped Amanda off at Lake Guntersville and headed toward Cathedral Caverns for a cave tour and gem mining. I always look forward to the cave tour at Cathedral Caverns, no matter how often I go.

I was a new parks employee the first time I visited Cathedral Caverns, and I was on a mission to learn as much as possible about as many parks as possible (in as little time as possible). My enthusiasm often caused me to hurry through park visits. That strategy came to a screeching halt the moment the lights came on in the Cathedral Room during my first cave tour. That first breathtaking view of the formations in the Cathedral Room is something I don’t intend on ever forgetting.  

I was talking with Park Naturalist Randall Blackwood during my latest visit and he said this about the cave, “Everyone has some preconceived idea of what it will be like to go through the cave, but this place is nothing like what people imagine. It surpasses everyone’s expectations every single time.” Randall, I could not agree more. My expectations were far surpassed, and continue to be. I have yet to visit when I didn’t see some kind of cave-dwelling critter or learn something new about the many fossils in the cave, and I am always fascinated by the underground river flowing below the pathway.

While I was at the park this time, I also picked up a bag of mining dirt so I could pan for gems as part of my Cathedral Caverns adventure. Gem mining is such a fun, family friendly activity – I love the fact that you never know what you might find as you let the water in the flume help you sift through the soil, rocks, gems, and fossils in the tray.

I realize I work for parks and I am supposed to say things like this, but please, please, visit Cathedral Caverns State Park. It is such a gem in our state and the cave is ACCESSIBLE BY ALL. The smooth concrete pathway that extends through the cave makes it stroller- and wheelchair-friendly. You can even take the tour by staff-driven golf cart if you are unable to walk long distances, and the temperature in the cave stays near a comfortable 60 degrees year-round.

Cathedral Caverns

Finishing the Weekend with Eagle Awareness
(Lake Guntersville State Park)

Some might say that Eagle Awareness at Lake Guntersville State Park is just an annual event, but to me it is so much more. Eagle Awareness was the first event that I worked as a new parks employee, and it shaped me as a park naturalist and taught me what Alabama State Parks are all about. Like the Alabama State Parks system, Eagle Awareness has a rich history and serves an important purpose for both the people who visit and for our natural resources. Needless to say, I was excited to finish out my weekend at Lake Guntersville with Eagle Awareness festivities. As a bonus, my family came up to join me for the remainder of the weekend. Here are a few of the details from my favorite moments.

Saturday morning started with a field trip to the TVA Guntersville Lock and Dam to watch a pair of Bald Eagles as they tended their newly hatched eaglets. After visiting this nest site weekend after weekend during last year's Eagle Awareness programs, I admit that I began to take the viewing opportunity for granted. During this trip, I was reminded of why I shouldn't ever take it for granted. I was leading a group of Eagle Awareness participants towards the viewing area when everyone started pointing up. Directly overhead, a mature bald eagle soared by and found a hunting spot on a nearby electrical tower. The look on my face and the looks on the faces around me reminded me just how special it is to see eagles so close! Elmo Belcher, longtime Eagle Awareness participant and contributor, was there with his spotting scope. He was quick to set the scope up for a few children who were there to see the eagles. Watching their faces light up when they found the eagles in the spotting scope was priceless! Meaningful moments like that make my job fun.

On Saturday afternoon, January 30, Bob Tarter of the Natural History Educational Company of the Midsouth (NHECM) presented a great program featuring live birds of prey. The crowd favorite always seems to be Elliot, a Eurasian Eagle-owl. I've had the pleasure of learning from Bob's program on several occasions, and my favorite part is watching the crowd of folks stick around after the presentation so they can capture a perfect photo of the birds. Saturday was a beautiful sunny day, so Bob took time to take a couple of his birds out on the lodge balcony for photo opportunities. While it may not be the most adventurous thing I did all weekend, spending time with park guests as they had the chance to take great photos of the Harris' Hawk and Eurasian Eagle-owl still earned its place as one of my favorite weekend moments. 

On Sunday morning, my sweet family joined me for a delicious buffet breakfast before we headed home. Breakfast in the Pinecrest Dining Room has always been one of my favorite parts of Eagle Awareness, so I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that. This year was extra special, though, because now I have to ask for a high chair for my new family addition! 

As I was checking out of the lodge, Scottie Jackson of the Alabama Wildlife Center was returning from the Sunday morning field trip to the Guntersville Dam. I asked her how the trip was and her face lit up. She said, "Emily, it was ah-mazing!" Considering Scottie works with birds of prey at the AWC on a daily basis, I was impressed. She said they were standing at the nest viewing site when momma or poppa flew over just above the tree line with a bass in its talons. Her excitement was contagious, and was the perfect ending to a great weekend in Marshall County

Winter at Lake Guntersville State Park


  • M3 Promotional Package for Two + Eagle Awareness Water Bottles (valued at $250)
  • Additional Family Pass for Cathedral Caverns + a bag of mining dirt (valued at $65)


JANUARY WINNER (entries received 1/8 - 2/7): Cathy Struntz
FEBRUARY WINNER (entries received 2/8 - 3/7): 
MARCH WINNER (entries received 3/8 - 4/7): 
APRIL WINNER (entries received 4/8 - 5/7): 
MAY WINNER (entries received 5/8 - 6/7): 
JUNE WINNER (entries received 6/8 - 7/7): 
JULY WINNER (entries received 7/8 - 8/7): 
AUGUST WINNER (entries received 8/8 - 9/7): 
SEPTEMBER WINNER (entries received 9/8 - 10/7): 
OCTOBER WINNER (entries received 10/8 - 11/7): 
NOVEMBER WINNER (entries received 11/8 - 12/7): 
DECEMBER WINNER (entries received 12/8 - 1/7/17): 

GRAND PRIZE WINNER (all entries received 1/8/16 - 1/7/17):


Monday, February 8, 2016

Home Sweet Winter Home

It doesn't take much exploration to realize Alabama is rich in natural resources. The diversity of both plant and animal species is incredible, and can be experienced year round from the northernmost places in Alabama to the Gulf Coast. Did you know there are 420 bird species on the

Alabama Ornithological Society (AOS) State List?  As we move into late fall, most of the neotropical migrants (e.g. Cerulean Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, etc.) have already departed or passed through Alabama on their journey south. Neotropical migrants are birds that breed in North America and spend their winter in Central or South America or the Caribbean. While we won't be seeing these birds anymore this year, 

there will certainly be plenty of birds to enjoy watching through the winter. Over 40 percent of the 420 bird species in Alabama are known to spend their winter here! That makes winter the perfect time for both the novice and experienced birder to pull out the binoculars and enjoy looking for the nearly 175 species of winter birds. Alabama State Parks provide nearly 

endless opportunities for birding and all the parks are proud to be part of the Alabama Birding Trails. Many of the parks are featured in the article, "Bird-watching Hot Spots in Alabama." 

As you make plans to explore the parks this winter, consider visiting Lake Guntersville State Park to see wintering waterfowl and enjoy an Eagle Awareness Weekend. Cheaha State Park is sure to please with its stunning views and opportunities to see birds in the most southern parts of their range. In the Wiregrass region, you can visit Lakepoint State Park and double-up on birding opportunity because Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge neighbors the park and provides fantastic opportunities to enjoy shorebirds, waterfowl, and sparrows. Learn more about each of these stops along the Alabama Birding Trails by checking out their links below:

Cheaha State Park-Alabama Birding Trails
Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge-Alabama Birding Trails
Lakepoint State Park-Alabama Birding TrailsLake Guntersville State Park-Alabama Birding Trails





Go Explore!


Thursday, November 12, 2015


For many people, the month of January is a time to return from the holiday schedule to work, school, and the normal routine. For the folks at Lake Guntersville State Park, January represents the return of the esteemed Eagle Awareness weekends. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Eagle Awareness, and there is a sense of excitement in the air with each of this year’s programs. Not only is the celebration in honor of the founders and participants who have made the program successful through the years, but also for the achievement of bald eagle restoration in Alabama.


The word “return” implies that there must have been a departure. Unfortunately, there was a time when spotting a bald eagle in Alabama was a scant occurrence due to serious population decline. This decline was caused primarily by the effects of the pesticide DDT, habitat degradation, and poaching. In 1984, the Nongame Wildlife Program of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources began a bald eagle restoration project. Eagle Awareness was created to coincide with these efforts, and to promote the importance of conserving our natural resources. Between 1985 and 1991, 91 juvenile bald eagles were released in Alabama as part of this project to restore Alabama’s nesting population. Researchers now estimate there are more than 77 nests in the state, and the restoration efforts are revered as a true conservation success.

This success can be seen firsthand during one of the eagle watching field trips during Eagle Awareness Weekends at Lake Guntersville State Park. While seeing photos and watching nest cameras can cause you to pause and appreciate our nation’s symbol, there is something very special and almost indescribable about seeing these powerful birds in flight over the beautiful landscape of Lake Guntersville. On January 4, 2015, a handful of folks witnessed quite the display as nearly 30 bald eagles flew over the Town Creek Fishing Center in less than an hour and a half. An early morning showing like that is not easily forgotten, and one that is sure to trigger a sense of pride in the conservation efforts that caused the return of nesting bald eagles to Alabama.



Great eagle watching opportunities along with exciting (and free!) programs featuring live birds of prey are just a couple of the reasons folks come back to Eagle Awareness each year. Return guests are yet another success of the Eagle Awareness program.  Not only is their support of Alabama State Parks deeply appreciated, but their excitement over conservation efforts is to be applauded. Passing conservation education from one generation to the next is a task of utmost importance to Alabama State Parks, and seeing it in action during Eagle Awareness weekends is truly humbling. During the opening weekend of Eagle Awareness this year, there was a family in attendance who first starting participating in the Eagle Awareness programs nearly 25 years ago! They faithfully made the drive this year from the southern part of Alabama with their (now college-aged) children, and spent time reminiscing over one of their first visits when their oldest child was but a toddler. What special memories! Their story is just one of many of the longtime friends of Eagle Awareness at Lake Guntersville State Park.


Whether you are an Eagle Awareness pro or would be a first time guest, you are invited to experience the excitement of the 30th anniversary of Eagle Awareness. Come celebrate the return of the bald eagle to our state and enjoy watching them as they soar above the beauty at Lake Guntersville State Park during one of the many field trip opportunities. There are still lodging and dining packages available, but hurry before they are gone! Also be sure to check out the schedule of presenters and hop on over to Outdoor Alabama Weekly to read the weekly column by David Rainer with more information about this year’s Eagle Awareness events.

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