Travel Guide : Discovering XTERRA Oak Mountain

Apr. 24, 2017

My 8 Favorite Things about Shelby County

A guide for those racing at XTERRA Oak Mountain & those who might!

Intrepid traveler Kirk Ermels, a long-time XTERRA traveling team member, recently spent a week in Shelby County, Alabama, home to the XTERRA Oak Mountain Championship races on May 20-21, 2017.

It’s not a new place for Kirk, as this will be XTERRA’s 12th year at the park, but it is one of his favorites.

Here he tells us why…

I remember 15 years ago hearing (XTERRA World Tour Managing Director) Dave Nicholas talk about scouting out a great new race course in Pelham, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham.  Of course, Dave’s description had a lot to do with his time at Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum and the Talladega Motor Speedway.  I thought “Great, we’re taking a race somewhere so that Dave can look at race cars.” We’d already modeled most of XTERRA’s racing structure after 1960’s car-racing, so why should this be any different?  But, like most of Dave’s ideas, this one grew on me and in the end, it ended up being a pretty great one.

The first time we hosted the XTERRA Southeast Championship at Oak Mountain State Park (2006) I had a good friend living in downtown Birmingham. I flew out the weekend ahead so I could spend some time with him and explore the city a bit.  Back then downtown Bham was a little rougher around the edges, but still I could tell there was something to the city that had more to offer, a lot of flavor underneath a little grit.

Then, a few days later I showed up and rode Oak Mountain State Park for the first time and my opinion of Alabama changed forever.  The riding was phenomenal!!

It didn’t take long for Pelham to become my favorite stop on the XTERRA tour.  It’s not just the riding (although that is a major highlight) that keeps me excited about coming back.  The culture, the people, and the nightlife are something you’re not likely to find many other places.  Every time I visit I find new places to eat and new things to do, and I’m always looking forward to my next trip!  Here are my 8 favorite things about Pelham:

Amazing Singletrack

People who’ve never been still look at me funny when I say my favorite place I’ve ever ridden is in Shelby County, Alabama.  But it’s true.  The dedicated bike course was awesome when we first rode it 12 years ago and it has gotten better with each passing year.  Oak Mountain State Park has more miles of (and more challenging) singletrack than we can fit into a single race.  It features a little bit of everything: tight corners, rolling trails, big rocks, heart-pounding climbs, little rocks, and now some fast-flowy descents.   Make sure you stop in and see our friends at Cahaba Cycles on Pelham Parkway -- they’ll take good care of you and are a great source for local riding info.

Oak Mountain State Park

The trails are phenomenal.  That’s why we’re here.  But there is also a lot more to do and see in Oak Mountain.  Hiking trails to waterfalls, remnants of an old plane crash, and prohibition-era moonshine stills.  Horse riding, archery, and freshwater fishing.  Campgrounds, cabins, and a great on-site restaurant.  BMX track.  Golf Course.  Wakeboard park.  Even a demonstration farm. You could spend a busy week in Oak Mountain State Park and still not see and do it all.

Gip’s Place

Gip’s Place in Bessemer is the kind of place that welcomes just about anyone, which consequently means it’s not the kind of place for everyone.  But for the adventurous, the seekers of raw experiences, and the lovers of original blues music, this is a one-of-a-kind experience.  Gip’s is an old juke joint operated out of a garage (some say chicken coop) behind a house at the end of a dark street.  It’s been hosting live music every Saturday night for more than 60 years.  It’s not an officially licensed business, so it’s byob and you make a “donation” in lieu of a cover charge.  Then sit back and enjoy one of the most unique American music experiences you will ever find!  Here is some more info from a 2011 NPR story.

Catch a Baseball Game

The Birmingham Barons moved downtown to Regions field several years back and while it’s not as close to Pelham as the old Hoover Met, it is a beautiful new stadium in a great locale.  The Barons are a AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox and have featured such superstars over the years as Frank Thomas, Bo Jackson, and even Michael Jordan.  This year the Barons are at home Thursday (Thirsty Thursday!) thru Monday of race weekend.  If you’re in town the following week check out the SEC Baseball Tournament at the Hoover Met Stadium starting May 23.


The South is barbecue country, and Shelby County and surrounding areas have plenty of options.  My personal favorite is Saw’s which is just as much a soul food cafe as a BBQ joint.  Whatever you order make sure you try some white barbecue sauce on it!  Dreamland is widely regarded as the best for pure BBQ and their ribs are world-famous.  They just opened a new location closer to Oak Mountain in Hoover..  There are plenty of other great BBQ restaurants around the area as well.  Odds are you won’t be disappointed with any of them -- or left hungry for that matter!

Other restaurant suggestions:  Big Bad Breakfast, Margarita Grill, Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken, 5 Points Public House and Oyster Bar, Pizitz Food Hall, Seeds Coffee Co.


Craft beer is relatively new to the Magic City and boy has it taken off! Not just in terms of quantity, but quality as well.  Good People sits across the street from Regions Field and is a great way to start or end a night at the ballpark.  Avondale is just down the Street from Saw’s Soul Food and BBQ and is a great way to wash down a meal.  Cahaba sits in an old cotton gin factory and features a wide open space for socializing or playing bar games -- including free skee ball!!

Civil Rights Museum

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a great place to learn about the people and movements that helped shape the fabric of America.  It’s a look into human experiences, a way to celebrate how far we’ve come, and hopefully an opportunity bring us all closer together as members of the same human race.


As you drive south on I-65 towards Oak Mountain, you see a giant 180-foot statue perched on a large ridge rising above downtown Birmingham.  That’s Vulcan.  It’s the largest cast iron statue in the world and a 112-year-old, 50-ton tribute to Birmingham’s industrial history.  Vulcan Park is a great visit for a piece of local history but also for an incredible view of downtown and the greater Birmingham area, and if you’re looking to catch a sunset, this is second only to Johnson Mountain at Oak Mountain State Park.

I hope you enjoy your trip!