Summer is officially here, and there’s no better way to savor the season than by spending a day at the lake. In Central Alabama, the lake of choice for mornings packed with watersports action or lazy afternoons packed with nothing but a nap on a float is Lake Martin. When Alabama Power created the 44,000 acres of liquid calm as part of the Martin Dam project in 1926, it gave the area a beautiful natural resource. This sprawling gem has 800 miles of tree-dotted shoreline fronting clean, green-blue water and was once the largest manmade lake in the country. It may not claim that title anymore, but its massive size still allows it to offer a plethora of options for fun that draw visitors by the thousands. They come to swim, they come to fish, they come to hike, they come to boat, and they come to eat.
Here are a few favorite spots:
Sunlight bouncing off the lake’s ripples creates a sparkling diamond effect, but underneath the shimmering surface is the lake’s true jewel. Its water is clean and, in many areas, clear all the way to the sandy lake bed. One of the best public-access points to the lake is Wind Creek State Park. This 1,445-acre park sits on the scenic banks and offers 626 campsites (187 are waterfront) along with a marina, a playground, and a fishing pier. The park also offers 28.5 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback trails winding along the shore and through the woods filled with dogwoods, wildflowers, and wildlife.
Another popular place is Chimney Rock. Folks anchor boats here and watch the “jumpers.” Splash around in the deep water while you decide if you’ve got the guts to take the plunge into the lake from one of the high cliff outcroppings on the rocky island that gave the spot its name.
If you’re looking to work up a sweat before a refreshing swim, take a hike along the rugged Smith Mountain Alpine Trail, which takes you to the highest elevation around the lake. The trek is short but steep both up and back but rewards you with stunning views from the craggy peak of Smith Mountain, with jagged rocks and boulders scattered across a series of plateaus. Crowning this natural formation is a historic 90-foot-tall fire tower that was built in 1939 as a lookout for forest fire detection.
At Russell Lands Adventure Center, rent a kayak or canoe to explore the lake in a more intimate way. The “big water” sections of the lake are a bit rough, thanks to a bevy of powerboat and jet-ski traffic. But the calmer waters in the many quiet sloughs and inlet hideaways that cut into the lake’s banks boast glassy, still surfaces perfect for paddling. The Center also offers bike rentals for exploring Russell Forest trails and guided horseback rides through the woods.
It’s also adjacent to two of the lake’s tastiest places: the casual Catherine’s Market, which includes a deli, a butcher and bottle shop, and a bakery, sells produce and other groceries too, and SpringHouse, a fine-dining restaurant that showcases James-Beard-award-semi-finalist chef Rob McDaniel’s upscale yet rustic dishes made with locally-sourced ingredients.
Chuck’s Marina is famous for its live music and fresh-baked pizzas. Try the Chimney Rock, a thin-crust pie piled high with pretty much every topping there is.
The Landing at Parker Creek promises the “burger of your dreams” as well as tasty fish tacos, dill pickle fries, BBQ chicken with Alabama white sauce, and more, all enjoyed on decks and under the shade of pavilions in the eatery’s outdoor setting that’s right on the water.
Kowaliga Restaurant is a Lake Martin legend. Though it has been through a few changes in ownership and even burnt to the ground in 1999, it’s back and better than ever and offers casual fare with an emphasis on Alabama food products served with a panoramic view of the lake. Don’t miss the Conecuh Sausage platter with pimento cheese, house-made pickles, and saltines. Wash it down with a “Branch Water” cocktail or an Alabama craft beer.
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