Story by Jennifer Andress and Photos by Brit Huckabay
“And we’re off!”
On a Tuesday night at Birmingham’s Red Mountain Park, trail runner Lisa Booher joins the “fun group” of runners, off to explore the park on foot at a leisurely pace. Booher is a regular at Tuesday Night Trails, held each week during Daylight Savings Time. Sponsored by Alabama Outdoors and Ponte Therapeutic Massage, every Tuesday night brings new adventures to runners and hikers alike, no matter the participant’s pace or experience level. Tuesday Night Trails has everyone covered.
This particular Tuesday night, like every week, the friendly and gregarious Steve Ponte—of Ponte Therapeutic Massage—gets the evening started. He addresses the crowd of 50-plus runners and explains there will be six groups trekking through the park, led by experienced runners/tour guides, with corresponding paces and abilities: fast, fast fun, intermediate, fun, beginner, walking.
Ponte asks if there are any new runners this evening, makes proper introductions, hooks runners and hikers up with their appropriate groups, and showcases the group leaders and sweepers. There are no runners or hikers left behind at Tuesday Night Trails. Ponte jokes that he counts the number of people before they go into the woods and after they come out. “A 90-percent return rate or better earns an A,” he laughs.
Tuesday Night Trails began when the park opened in 2012. Red Mountain Park is on land that was previously owned by U.S. Steel and was the site of the Wenonah and Ishkooda iron ore mines from the turn of the 20th Century until 1962. An estimated 305 million tons of iron ore was extracted from the mines by thousands of miners.
In 2005, the Freshwater Land Trust began planning for the future park with a donation from U.S. Steel. In 2006, the Alabama Legislature created the Red Mountain Greenway Recreational Area Commission. The park—located just six miles from downtown Birmingham off of Lakeshore Drive—opened in 2012 and is convenient to the over-the-mountain communities.
Park Ranger Don Parker and BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Society) Member Sonia Steely have been running trails at the park from the beginning and lead groups each week at Tuesday Night Trails. Parker says, “Tuesday Night Trails started as a group of random people brought together by their love of running in the woods. It has evolved to a weekly event where friendships are formed among runners. Everyone is accepted regardless of ability and encouraged by experienced ultra runners as well as those who are there for the health benefits running and hiking provide.” BUTS is a fast-growing organization of trail runners of all paces, experience, and abilities, committed to promoting the area’s parks and trails. Steely first brought BUTS to Tuesday Night Trails in 2015 and loves leading groups throughout the park each week.
And while running, these folks learn about Birmingham lore. As the park website proclaims, Red Mountain Park is “the spot where Birmingham began, where all men—no matter their race—worked side by side toward one common goal….the land where a common purpose was shared, where miners worked hard to take care of their families…to contribute to our growing city.” Evidence of the mines is seen throughout the park, on the very trails the runners and hikers explore each Tuesday night.
Ponte began leading the weekly trail event after becoming a sponsor two years ago. He learned about Red Mountain Park’s past from Parker in order to give tours. What strikes Ponte about running at Red Mountain Park is the juxtaposition of nature and industry. “Red Mountain Park was once a natural environment and then became heavily industrialized during its iron ore mining days. And now it has been returned to nature,” he says.
That nature is open and available for locals and visitors alike to explore, while learning about the city’s rich history. There are 15 miles of trails for runners, hikers, and mountain bikers, and on those trails, the story of the Magic City is told.
Red Mountain Park Executive Director T.C. McLemore is also a regular at Tuesday Night Trails, and like Steve Ponte, he marvels at the nature-machine connection that the park presents. Touring the park with McLemore, he showcases the mine entrances from 100 years ago that ushered miners into the earth and back out with iron ore. He points out the hoist houses, in stunning Spanish-style architecture, which lifted the iron ore out of the mineshafts. He highlights the drift mine entrances, exposed iron ore seams that offered miners easier access to their bounty, but today give a blast of cool air from below the earth’s surface to aid the runner, hiker, and biker. “This is nature and machine married together,” McLemore says. “To see the mountain is to realize it is arranged like a factory to get the iron ore out of the ground.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the parking lot of the brand-new park entrance, off of Venice Road on the northwest corner of the property, connecting to Fresh Water Land Trust’s new High Line Ore Trail, a former railbed. The new parking lot and north trailhead are under the giant hoist house for Mine No. 10, which is on the other side of the ridge. Visitors can envision the iron ore leaving from Mine No. 10, being lifted over the ridge and down the mountain by the hoist, along what is now the Wenonah Connector trail, and put in cars headed west by rail to Wenonah’s conditioning plant, along the new High Line Ore Trail. The stacks that were once Ensley Ironworks, where the iron ore was processed into steel, and the community where the miners lived—what is now Wenonah—stands in the distance. Even the lighting in the parking lot is reminiscent of 100 years ago. “The new north entrance completes the story the park is telling about our past,” McLemore says. “You don’t need a sign to instruct you, you can see it.”
And what better way to see the park than from its multi-use trails. McLemore says, “These same paths we hike and run for recreation, the miners would have taken to work every day. And because it is so close to downtown, it can be a part of your daily life.”
Booher—an experienced trail runner and current BUTS President—says, “Red Mountain Park gives residents of the Birmingham suburbs a safe place to spend time in nature. The trails are well maintained and easily accessible, and the location is central to work and home for a lot of people. I see people going before work, during their lunch breaks, or after work to spend a little time in the woods. With our go-go-go culture, people significantly benefit from taking time to just breathe and spend time surrounded by trees instead of staring into our screens.”
But you don’t have to be an experienced trail runner like Booher to experience Red Mountain Park. “I love bringing people into the woods on Tuesday nights, whether they walk, run, or crawl, I don’t care,” Ponte says. “I love teaching people about trail running, regardless of their background or ability.”
His favorite Tuesday night moment was from just last month. He was leading the “fun group,” and it was an unusually cool summer evening. The group headed up Smythe trail, climbing and pausing to catch its collective breath. An unexpected breeze picked up when they reached the top. Ponte could see the satisfaction from some first-timers. “And I discovered it all over again,” he says.
Jennifer Andress is an experienced runner and past president of the Birmingham Track Club. In July, she was appointed to the Commission that oversees Red Mountain Park.
Rundown on Red Mountain Park
By Rhys Ferguson
While Red Mountain Park is known to have some of the best hiking trails in the state, it’s also home to a plethora of other unique experiences for guests to enjoy.
Inside the 1,500-acre park, in addition to 15 miles of trails, Red Mountain boasts outdoor classrooms, a sensory trail, tree houses, swinging bridges, and a dog park for four-legged friends. “In less than 10 years, Red Mountain Park has become synonymous with hiking, biking, trails, and a dog park,” says T.C. McLemore, Red Mountain Park Executive Director. These amenities help the park stand out and encourage visitors to explore the area in a variety of ways.
The Butler Snow Sensory Trail is a .14-mile-long trail located near the entrance of the park. The trail is designed to help adults and children with developmental differences explore the natural world. Highlights of the trail include a comfort zone, a pergola with swinging benches, and sensory bags filled sunglasses, earplugs, and fidget toys.
Another highlight of Red Mountain Park is Remy’s Dog Park, the largest dog park in Alabama. Recognized in 2016 by Southern Living Magazine as one of the “10 Great Southern Dog Parks,” Remy’s Dog Park is a six-acre green space divided into areas specifically for large dogs, small dogs, and dogs with special needs—physically challenged, shy, injured, or elderly. Each area has pet waste stations and drinking water for the dogs. There are also benches for owners. Ken Jackson donated money to create Remy’s Dog Park in memory of his beloved dog Remy.