MOUNT CHEAHA — The upper campground at Cheaha State Park was almost filled to capacity with recreational vehicles and campers Tuesday afternoon as an unseasonably cool breeze carried the unmistakable scents of campfires throughout the hardwoods.
The campers went about their business of relaxing and practiced being socially distant at Alabama’s highest peak.
Business is booming at Alabama State parks since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year according to Tim Haney, North Region Operations and Maintenance Supervisor for Alabama State Parks.
Haney — a longtime state park employee — was at the park Tuesday to help Cheaha State Park Superintendent Renee Raney and Kelly Ezell, State Parks central district superintendent, interview candidates for park ranger.
“I’ve been working 43 years, our campgrounds and our golf courses are busier right now than I think I’ve ever seen them,” Haney said.
“People are wanting to get outside, they can social distance, they can come out for fresh air and enjoy the park,” said Haney.
“We’re seeing a lot of new faces we’ve never seen before and they come to the park, fall in love with the park and we feel like that's people who will continue to come back,” he said.
Another reason for the increase in park guests, according to Raney, is all of the U. S. Forest Service’s recreation areas are closed due to the pandemic and people want to get outside and reconnect with nature.
Ezell said that at Oak Mountain State Park a plethora of new bicyclists has invaded the park. However, she noted, the newbies really don’t understand the rules of the road — they pedal on the wrong side and typically don’t wear protective helmets.
“They’re getting lost in the woods and those kinds of things. Due to this, we’ve made a lot of friends,” Ezell said.
The increase in park visitors equates to extra funding since Amendment 2 was passed by voters in 2016.
Amendment 2 allows the state parks system to keep the revenue it raises instead of seeing the Legislature spend it on other purposes.
For Raney the park is moving in the right direction as many infrastructure projects have already been finished, including repaving and renovating campgrounds, installing new HVAC systems and making other improvements.
Raney has a vision for the park to become an education and research park.
“Not only on an interpretive level but on a green energy level,” Raney said.
Raney said that herself and other park officials are working with the park’s electric power providers — Power South, Tallapoosa River Electric Cooperative and Alabama Power — to install an energy source if a winter storm knocks out the power.
Solar power and wind energy are options to provide electricity when the power grid is compromised according to Raney.
“Because being the highest point in Alabama we may be able to utilize wind energy, but we also want to be very careful with that because we’re very aware of the impact some wind energy resources have on migratory bird patterns,” said Raney.
Raney said an electric car charging station has been installed next to the park’s store by Tallapoosa River Electric Cooperative.
Haney said that there are plans to bring a municipal water source to the park. The park uses a well for its water source now which includes an expensive filtration system.
On Tuesday workers were installing new shingles on the roof at the Bald Rock Lodge which Raney said are a sustainable plastic product with a longer lifespan than the clay shingles they are replacing.
Haney said that the storm which brought the tornado to Jacksonville State University produced hail at the park which damaged all the old clay tile roofs. Since then, the roofs on the cabins have been replaced with the newer and more robust shingles.
Raney said another project the park will undertake is to replace the boards of the Doug Ghee Accessible Trail to Bald Rock this August.
“It’s an exciting time for us,” said Raney.
Raney said that the park guests have been very understanding during the pandemic.
“I’m commending our guests because they have been practicing social distancing, they’re very courteous to one another and they’ve been incredibly generous to the state park,” said Raney.