Imagine you are driving through an older residential neighborhood near a major metropolitan area. You turn right and start climbing a hill on a street lined with small houses when BAM! Suddenly a nature preserve surrounds you, complete with a state of the art education center. That was my first impression of Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve in Birmingham, Alabama, and it was a startling transition.

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Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve is located at 1214 81st Street South, Birmingham. Sharing the site of an iron ore mining operation that once delivered ore directly to the Sloss Furnaces in downtown Birmingham, the preserve covers 1,038 acres, making it the third largest urban nature preserve in the United States.

I went out to the preserve on a clear Fall day in November with the objective of photographing during the “golden hour” of sunrise. If you would like to follow along, click here for a nice map.

The official operating hours of the nature preserve are sunrise to sunset, but the sun was still slightly below the horizon when I arrived in the parking lot.  Anxious to make it to the quarry to capture that early morning light, I found the Quarry Trail and started hiking in the dark. I found the Quarry Trail to be a pleasant hike along the ridgeline, on a well-used path with only moderate elevation changes.

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After just over a mile of hiking, I came to a trail intersection and wanted to continue ahead on the Overlook Trail. There is a bit of a climb at this point, but it is not far until you arrive at the Cambrian Overlook above the abandoned quarry.  With perfect (lucky) timing, it was several minutes past sunrise, and the beautiful golden light I hoped for was hitting the sides of the quarry wall.

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Continuing further along the Overlook Trail, I scrambled over some rocks to arrive at Hawk’s View Overlook and I found a magnificent view of Birmingham.

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Mission accomplished! I retraced my steps and returned to the parking area. This was a short trip, but Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve deserves a return trip for further exploration. Notably, one would want to visit the Tree House visitor’s center. The visitor/education center, which opened in 2010, is LEED Gold-certified, and features a living plant roof and sustainable building materials. It also houses an information center, gift shop, and exhibits on native Alabama wildlife.

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Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve is owned by the nonprofit Ruffner Mountain Nature Coalition Inc. and is operated by a small staff helped by numerous volunteers. With over 12 miles of hiking trails, a picnic pavilion, and year-round guided hikes and nature programs, the preserve has something for everyone. This is definitely a hidden gem in Birmingham’s backyard.  Click here for more information.

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