Back to Nature: A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain

Ruffner Mountain

Review by Susan Swagler and photos by Bob Farley

Birmingham’s past, present, and future come together in the most satisfying, family-friendly way on Ruffner Mountain. That’s been the case for more than 40 years, and now a new book, Back to Nature:  A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain written by Mark Kelly, with photographs by Bob Farley and design by Melanie Colvin, celebrates the vital connection between that land and our city and its people.

Author Mark Kelly says the book was more than a decade in the making. But it was worth the effort because this place is important. He writes:  “Every aspect of Birmingham’s existence—geological, anthropological, social, economic, political, technological—is encapsulated in the Ruffner story.”

Ruffner Mountain is, in fact, one of the largest urban forests in the entire country. And it’s right here in our own backyard—mere minutes from just about anywhere in our metro area.  

The Ruffner Mountain book is coffee table-worthy—filled with historic, old photos of miners, company housing, and city founders as well as vivid contemporary photography by Bob Farley showing brilliant fall foliage on the mountainside: a delicate butterfly in the Habitat Garden, a red-tailed hawk at the Nature Center, an old L&N Railroad culvert in the woods, the huge rock crusher at Ruffner Mine No. 2, volunteers at work, children at play.

The book is informative in an engaging way that will take you from the mountain’s prehistoric beginnings (more than 500 million years ago during the Cambrian Period of geological time), to the important role it played in Birmingham’s more recent industrial past of coal and iron interests (from the late 19th century through the 1950s), to ongoing efforts of the Ruffner Mountain Nature Coalition to preserve this place for generations to come.

And, perhaps just as importantly, this book will lure you outside to explore the mountain with its gorgeous and varied terrain that is crisscrossed with well-maintained trails and marked with remains of mining sites and equipment. In the back of the book, a map and a guide to 14 miles of trails (ranging from easy to difficult) will show you the way.

You’ll follow the footsteps of generations of nature lovers as you hike to the top of the Overlook Trail with its incredible, panoramic views of the city; wander along paths strewn with wildflowers on the Trillium Trail; appreciate the shifting shafts of sunlight dappling the forest floor through the branches of oak, hickory, and sycamore trees all along your journey; take a break at Turtle Rock; and literally walk through eons of earth’s history in the quarry with limestone boulders embedded with fossils of brachiopods, bryozoans and crinoids (marine invertebrates from when this area was part of a shallow inland sea).

You can see and learn about native animals in the attractive Visitor Center or occasionally enjoy local brews and live music on the Pavilion or go on a guided night hike. Maybe you’ll even become a regular at Ruffner’s annual plant sales, with native plants large and small dug straight from this land. Hundreds of visitors come to these fundraising sales, and, as a result, some of the best parts of Ruffner have taken root all over Alabama.

Kelly has a deep, personal connection to Ruffner Mountain, which he first visited as a college student new to Birmingham. His love for this place comes through in his prose. “Looking back,” he writes, “it’s clear to me that those early encounters with Ruffner Mountain—its tactile juxtapositions of prehistory and the recorded past and present, of the unceasing variegation of nature and the near-indiscernible graduality of industrial decay—helped shape my understanding of Birmingham and instill my affinity for it.” Years later, he came back to the mountain with his children. Because of their shared experiences, he says, “my own connection to Ruffner Mountain has been renewed and strengthened and made perpetual.”

Expanding the view, though, Kelly draws upon writings of other local historians like Leah Rawls Atkins to explain how industrialists, recognizing that this is the only place on earth where all the ingredients of iron were in such close proximity, built the infrastructure to create a Magic City. “A railroad would bring the minerals of the hills … to the limestone valley to be manufactured into pig iron products, and a railroad could transport this iron and its products to the world.”

He interviewed people who worked at Ruffner and know it well. Marty Schulman was a naturalist at the Ruffner Mountain Nature Center for years. (Among staff and friends, trails on the mountain were ranked by difficulty:  the easy way, the hard way, the Marty way.) A chapter in the book is devoted to a hike with Schulman, and the description puts readers right in the woods. When asked about the uniqueness of this place, Schulman said: “… you can come out here and hike around and see how concrete and iron became part of the natural landscape. It’s a way of making contact with Birmingham’s history, marking the passage of time.”

Kelly also called upon people who, like him, truly love this singular place—people like longtime Ruffner supporter Cameron Vowell who says that Ruffner Mountain has provided “a generational connection for so many people and families, with successive generations going there to hike and climb on the rocks and see the old mining structures. To this day,” she says, “there is no better place in Birmingham for kids to just go messing around outside.”

For more information about Ruffner Mountain or Back to Nature, go to

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