Metro Roundup: Spring recreation in Birmingham offers a much-needed break after a COVID-19 winter

It’s been a full year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all into quarantines, lockdowns,

It’s been a full year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all into quarantines, lockdowns, remote work and a variety of other means of fighting the spread of the virus.

And it’s doubtful that any of us dreamed in March 2020 that the pandemic would still be raging — and our attempts to keep ourselves safe still continuing — in March 2021.

But here we are, tired, frazzled, frustrated, and very much in need of a way to safely escape the stress and isolation brought by COVID-19.

With spring on the way on March 21, we naturally turn toward the outdoors and the recreation it provides as a healthy means of escape.

This is our natural urge even on the verge of spring in a normal year.

“Mentally, when it’s spring, people want to get out,” said Stanley Robinson, public relations coordinator for Birmingham Parks and Recreation. “It’s in the DNA.”

Spring is always “a beautiful time” in the outdoors, including Red Mountain Park, said T.C. McLemore, RMP executive director.

“Everything turns green again,” he said. “It’s so lush.”

And according to the administrators of several local recreation facilities, people in the Birmingham area have already been visiting our parks and nature preserves in large numbers since the pandemic began.

These sources talked to Iron City Ink about the number of people who have used their facilities in the last year, the benefits the users seem to be seeking and the ways that outdoor spaces can benefit us — emotionally and psychologically, as well as physically.

We also include a guide to some of the best spots in the Magic City — including Birmingham city parks and other facilities — to enjoy the outdoors for free or very low cost.

“Birmingham is richly resourced as far as greenspace and trails,” McLemore said.

GROWING DEMAND

Most facility administrators we spoke to cited a spike in use at their facilities the last year.

The ever-popular Railroad Park downtown has seen an increase in visitors since the beginning of the pandemic, said Camille Spratling, executive director of Railroad Park Foundation.

In 2019, 514,000 people visited Railroad Park, but in 2020 that number was more than 560,000, she said.

“This 10% increase in use highlights the important need for access to public greenspace now more than ever,” Spratling said.

McLemore said that RMP got a big boost in visitors during the pandemic in 2020.

“The park has never been busier,” he said.

In fact, RMP had about 148,500 visitors in 2020, surpassing the roughly 130,000 park visitors in 2018 and 120,000 in 2018, McLemore said.

The park had two back-to-back record months for attendance in 2020, he said. RMP drew 24,000 visitors in April and 20,000 in May.

The previous largest month had 19,000 visitors, McLemore said.

In addition, the park did record number seven without the usual lineup of classes and special events, which were canceled because of the pandemic, he said.

“Just running a really great park has value to the community,” he said.

That said, at press time, McClemore said the park staff was looking at some programming opportunities for 2021.

“It’s such a moving target as far as what you feel comfortable convening,” he said, referring to the continuing pandemic.

It seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to do things they haven’t done before to get a safe release.

“I think it has caused people to look for alternative recreation that might not be in a gym or a smaller city park,” McLemore said. “I think it has introduced Red Mountain Park to people for the first time.”

“I think at the time we get back to some kind of normality, some of these facilities will see increased numbers because COVID-19 allowed these people to find out about these other places,” Robinson added.

People are also visiting Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve in South East Lake in record numbers since the pandemic started, said Carlee Sanford, the facility’s executive director.

Since mid-March 2020, RMNP has seen a 21% increase in visitation, Sanford said.

“This increase doesn’t appear to be slowing down,” she said, with Ruffner showing over 6,000 visitors to the trails during the first 20 days of January.

Of course, the increased use of the preserve has brought some financial strain, with only a 5% increase in support through membership dues, Sanford said.

In addition, budget pressures caused by the pandemic caused the city of Birmingham to cut the operating funding in half through the first half of 2023.

“This budget shortfall coupled with soaring visitation means more work and expenses,” Sanford said.

Therefore, beginning in March, visitors to the preserve will purchase a day-use pass via the ParkMobile app, while members will receive yearly parking permits.

Ruffner also encourages visitors who frequently use the facility to sign up for membership, and not just at Ruffner but at other local greenspaces.

A lot of people have been using the city parks in Birmingham over the past year, Robinson said.

“Those numbers have really ticked up with people just getting into outdoor space,” he said.

“You will see a lot of people just getting out and enjoying the parks, walking and running and enjoying the grassy areas with the kids,” Robinson said.

GREAT OPPORTUNITIES

Not only is the Birmingham metropolitan area blessed with a nice range of outdoor attractions, but the hiking trails in the area, for example, are also more accessible than those in a lot of cities, McLemore said.

“You can be in downtown Birmingham and be at Ruffner or Red Mountain in 10 minutes,” he said. “You can be on a trail really quickly in Birmingham.”

Robinson, who is based out of Birmingham Botanical Gardens, said that he meets and talks to a lot of visitors to the gardens and often shares the good news of the other outdoor attractions in the area.

“I always try to give people other suggestions or other places to go and enjoy Birmingham,” he said. “I think a lot of people are discovering other places in Birmingham due to COVID-19.”

BOOSTING PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH

Outdoor recreation seems to have been a good way for people to get some relief from being quarantined and the general stress of the pandemic.

“People were looking for someplace to be outside their house but not in a crowded place,” McLemore said. “You could come to Red Mountain and be outside your home but be socially distanced.”

There may even be some emotional and psychological benefits to outdoor recreation.

McLemore, while stressing that he is not a public health expert, cited some recent UAB studies regarding the positive benefits of getting outdoors.

“There is a measurable quality-of-life impact from a certain proximity to trails and green space,” he said.

“We understand that spending time outdoors and being active can have great benefits for mental and physical health,” said Samil Baker, public relations and social media manager for the Birmingham Zoo, another area facility where people safely get outside and relieve the stress of quarantine.

Green spaces like the Birmingham Botanical Gardens “promote both physical and mental health,” said Mindy Keyes Black, director of communications and marketing for Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. “They also give us a chance to connect with others, and with our world, when distancing is the new norm.”

“You are getting out, and you’re moving, and you are seeing other people,” Robinson said. “We are very social animals. You don’t feel like you are just going out alone.”

During the pandemic, the staff at RMNP “has worked to be adaptable and to accommodate public use that is acceptable by health authorities and the safety of our staff and their families,” Sanford said. “We understand that the natural world, fresh air and exercise are a lifeline for many during this crisis.”

“Railroad Park provides a safe outdoor haven for exercise, relaxation and a sense of community,” Spratling added. “We’ve seen people of all ages and backgrounds turning to the outdoors for activity and respite.”

BIRMINGHAM PARKS AND RECREATION FACILITIES

The following are a few highlights of the many facilities maintained by Birmingham Parks and Recreation:

  • East Lake Park, 8101 Fourth Ave. N., is a 100-acre park with a 45-acre lake located in North East Lake. This spacious facility welcomes walkers, joggers, fisherman and birders. Adjacent to the park are public ballfields, tennis courts, a playground and a swimming pool. The 45-acre lake is stocked with catfish, bass and bream and is surrounded by a 1-mile walking track. There is an island in the lake where herons, ducks, hawks and other birds gather. The facility is “a quiet sort of oasis right in the city,” Robinson said. “I love that about East Lake.”
  • George Ward Park, 1901 Greensprings Ave. S., features a 100-acre recreational venue features a disc golf course, baseball fields and picnic facilities, as well as a dog park. There are some hilly sections of the park, making it a great place to take a walk and get some exercise, Robinson said.
  • Avondale Park, 4101 Fifth Ave. S., is a 37-acre tree-filled park, featuring a lake, amphitheater and baseball diamonds. The park includes a walking track that winds around a large pond where many ducks and Canadian geese make their home. Visitors can hike up the heavily wooded hill behind the park’s amphitheater and visit the historic Avondale Villa.
  • Crestwood Park, 5400 Crestwood Blvd., includes a playing field with bleachers and a field house, a jogging track around the field, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a barbecue pit with a picnic shelter. “A lot of people over there play tennis and pickleball,” Robinson said.
  • Highland Park Golf Course, 3300 Highland Ave., is an 18-hole, par-70 course measuring 5,801 yards. “Highland is a short course, but it’s beautiful and has great views of the city,” Robinson said. For information, call 205-322-1902 or go to highlandparkgolf.com.
  • Roebuck Golf Course, 8920 Roebuck Blvd., is 18-hole, par-71 course, measuring 6,509 yards from the longest tees. For more information, call 205-836-7318.
  • Tennis is available at several locations, including George Ward Park and Ensley Park, located at 2800 Avenue K. One highlight is the Highland Park Tennis Center, located above the golf course at 3300 Highland Ave. For details, call 205-251-1965 or go to academytennis.com.

COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS AT CITY PARKS

The city parks are open for walking, running, biking and exercising, though the city suggests that visitors put on their masks when near other park visitors.

However, restrooms and playgrounds remain closed, basketball goals have been removed, and all youth baseball and football remains on hold.

At press time, Robinson said that the Park and Recreation Department staff was looking at some programming they can do this year despite the continuing pandemic.

“We will have to come up with programming and activities that are safe and the public will look at and deem safe,” he said.

For a complete list of all city recreation facilities, go to birminghamal.gov/parks-and-recreation/parks.

OTHER AREA FACILITIES

  • Once the site of iron ore mining, Red Mountain Park, 2011 Frankfurt Drive, is now a 1,500-acre urban green space, one of the largest in the country. It offers more than 15 miles of trails, two city overlooks, the 6-acre off-leash Remy’s Dog Park and other amenities.
  • A 19-acre green space in downtown Birmingham, Railroad Park is on First Avenue South between 14th Street and 18th Street. Often called “Birmingham’s Living Room,” Railroad Park offers a number of opportunities for recreation. There are several walking and running trails, including the Magic City Loop (3/4 mile), Rail Trail (1/3 mile), Powell Avenue Promenade (1/3 mile) and Limestone Trace (1/2 mile). There is also outdoor gym equipment and a designated area for skateboarders. For more information visit railroadpark.org or call 205-521-9933.
  • An urban nature preserve in South East Lake with more than 1,000 acres, Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve offers 14 miles of trails and is a protected area for thousands of species of native plants. Due to COVID-19, the Nature Center is closed and all public, school and group programs remain on hold, according to the RMNP staff. For more information, visit ruffnermountain.org or call 205-833-8264.
  • Developed by Freshwater Land Trust, the ever-growing Red Rock Trail System is an ongoing effort to develop a 750-mile network of greenway trails and on-street walking and cycling paths in Jefferson County over the next couple of decades. For a guide to signature trails less traveled, accessible trails and an interactive map of the system, go to freshwaterlandtrust.org/find-a-trail.
  • The Kiwanis Vulcan Trail, 1701 Valley View Drive, is a 2.2-mile trail that stretches from the Vulcan Trail parking lot on Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard at the northside of Vulcan Park & Museum all the way to Green Springs Highway. The mostly flat trail, which opened in 2018, is open from sunrise until sunset to walkers, runners, cyclists and dogs on leashes. For more information visit freshwaterlandtrust.org/2018/03/kiwanis-vulcan-trail or call 205-251-0032.
  • Rotary Trail, First Avenue South, downtown, is a pedestrian greenway with a unique setting — the railroad cut running along the middle of First Avenue South between 20th Street South and 24th Street South. It is part of the 2-mile-long Jones Valley Trail, another piece of the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System that provides a continuous path from Railroad Park to Avondale. For more information visit facebook.com/rotarytrail or call 205-251-1995.

OTHER OUTDOOR OPTIONS

Magic City residents in search of an easy stroll in beautiful, calming surroundings should not overlook the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, 2612 Lane Park Road. The BBG operates as a partnership between the city of Birmingham and the nonprofit Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. In addition to the indoor conservatory, the gardens — covering 67.5 acres — offer numerous outdoor attractions. For example, the 6-acre Barber Alabama Woodland includes the facility’s oldest native trees.

The gardens have “miles of walking paths that provide a wonderful vantage point for exploring, imagining and dreaming,” Black said. Attendance at BBG was lower than normal in 2020 but still strong, Black said.

“For so many in our community, the gardens provide a peaceful and calm respite,” she said.

The numerous outdoor gardens at the BBG, including the Japanese Garden and the Southern Living Garden, offer a lot of variety because they change from season to season.

“The great thing about the gardens is you have the plant life, and as the seasons change, you have a different garden every time you come because different things are blooming,” Robinson said.

For more information visit bbgardens.org or call 205-414-3950.

You may not immediately think of the Birmingham Zoo, 2630 Cahaba Road, when you think of exercise or outdoor recreation, but it’s a great place to get out of the house during the pandemic, Baker said.

Covering about 122 acres, the zoo has both indoor facilities and outdoor areas where guests can socially distance, Baker said.

You can also get “plenty of fresh air, relaxation and walking to get your blood flowing and help clear your mind,” she said.

For more information visit birminghamzoo.com or call 205-879-0409.