Monte Sano Preserve

The Land Trust’s Monte Sano Preserve consists of over 1,120 acres with 18 miles of public trails.  Each and every acre is preserved for our enjoyment now and for future generations.

Monte Sano Preserve Bankhead Parking Lot:

From University Drive and Memorial Parkway, follow Pratt Avenue East, through Five Points business district.  Continue through Five Points on Pratt and continue straight as Pratt changes to Bankhead Parkway.  Parking lot is 1/2 mile past Toll Gate Road, on the right.  Access to Bluff Line, Toll Gate, Old Railroad Bed, Fagan Springs and Old Railroad Bed trails.

About Old Railroad Bed Trail: One of the first 500 Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Projects 1.5 miles, moderate skill level Good for new hikers or the whole family, history comes alive on Monte Sano (Mountain of Health).  The Old Railroad Bed Trail preserves what is left of the path of the steam locomotive that traved from the Huntsville Depot to the (no longer standing) Hotel Monte Sano from 1888 to 1896.   Hikers will enjoy a numbered tour of the remaining hand-hewn trestles.  Descriptive brochures are available at The Land Trust office.

Monte Sano Preserve

The words “Monte Sano” mean “Mountain of Health” in Italian. The summer months in the late 1800’s saw yellow fever, cholera and diphtheria in epidemic proportions. Clean water and sanitary living conditions were found on the mountain and visitors’ health did improve. However, because the causes of these diseases were not yet fully understood, many again would become ill after returning home.

The Hotel Monte Sano, a three-story 223 room wooden structure of Queen Anne architecture, was built in 1886 to serve as a health resort for hundreds of people from the South, particularly Memphis, Atlanta, and Nashville. Patrons traveled the eight miles from the Huntsville Depot to the hotel in four hours by horse and carriage. A person suffering from an illness was in for a very difficult journey.

To better serve guests, the Monte Sano Railway was created. Built between May and August 1888, five hundred workers were paid $1.00 per day for twelve hours of work, six days a week. The train made three trips per day and took twenty minutes to travel the eight miles. Patrons paid 25 cents each way. The engine was disguised as a trolley car so that horses in downtown Huntsville wouldn’t be frightened. Shortly after completion, the train’s brake sand pipes choked – the wheels jumped the rails – and the train came to a quick stop. There was no damage to the passengers or the train, but the incident frightened potential riders. The railway was then used primarily for hauling supplies, but it went bankrupt in 1896. The tracks were salvaged and the trestles and bridges removed for firewood and building supplies.

The Hotel Monte Sano charged $11.00 for a one week stay, including meals. Resort amusements included horseback riding, two bowling alleys, croquet, billiards, and lawn tennis. The grounds had beautiful gardens.

The popular resort’s register showed guests from every state in the union and from several foreign countries. Visitors included philantropist William H. Vanderbilt, Viscount William Waldorf Astor, composer Walter Damrosch, and railroad financier Jay Gould.

However, once the cause and cure for yellow fever and cholera were discovered, a trip to the “Mountain of Health” was no longer necessary. Transportation problems and lack of patrons doomed the hotel and its last season was 1900.

Green Print for Growth

Huntsville and Madison County, Alabama A Plan for Land Preservation

The Huntsville/Madison County area continues to be one of the fastest growing metro areas in Alabama. Madison County’s population has grown by almost fifty percent over the past two decades.  Undeveloped land is also being transformed at an unprecedented rate into subdivisions, shopping centers and other urban infrastructure.

Urbanization exerts heavy social, ecological, environmental and climatic pressures on surrounding lands. The area of developed land has doubled in just 16 years.  Through rapid urbanization our natural areas are shrinking as buildings take up open space. Madison County is facing the loss of wetlands, forests, wildlife habitat and agricultural lands forever.

The Land Trust has developed a “Greenprint for Growth” that identifies valuable undeveloped land it will work to acquire and preserve in perpetuity. Long-range benefits of preservation include increased recreational activities, wildlife habitat, beautiful views, clean air and water, flood control, and groundwater recharge.

As The Land Trust’s land holdings have grown, and with Madison County experiencing significant growth, The Land Trust’s Board of Trustees recognized the importance of an overall plan to guide land preservation efforts. In May 2000, State Senator Jeff Enfinger helped secure a $25,000 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs in order to help develop a long range land preservation plan for Madison County.

To determine development growth patterns in Madison County and to identify the types of land uses, The Land Trust solicited a research project from Dr. Charles Laymon at Universities Space Research Association with the National Space Science and Technology Center.

This research project analyzed data from the Landsat series of satellites, which provide one of the most intensive and continuous terrestrial imagery archives. Madison County is entirely contained within a single Landsat scene.         Dr. Laymon quantified the information and created a set of georeferenced maps. These maps show the changes in land cover and land use from the mid 1980’s through 2000 with projections to the year 2020.

Historical and Project Land
Figure 1: Historical and Project Land Use Change, Madison County, Alabama


Madison County Overall:

In 1984, thirteen percent of the total land area of Madison County was developed. In 1990, 21 percent of the County was developed.         By 2000, thirty percent of the County was developed. In just sixteen years, the amount of developed land has doubled.

City of Huntsville:

For the City of Huntsville, only forty percent of lands were developed in 1984. Between 1984 and 1990, half of the total land had been developed.         The City of Huntsville now comprises seventeen percent of the area of Madison County.

Redstone Arsenal:

In 2000, developed land at Redstone accounted for 2.5 percent of the developed land area of Madison County.

The rest of Madison County:

In 1984, only six percent of Madison County excluding the City of Huntsville and Redstone Arsenal was developed.

From 1984 to 1990, the area of developed land increased to 14.3% (or by an astounding 136 percent).  By 2000, the area of developed land increased another sixty percent: nearly one quarter of the total area of the County has been developed.

Two specific areas of interest also exhibiting dramatic changes are the City of Madison and the Flint River Watershed.  From 1984 to 1990, the area of developed land in the City of Madison grew from 17% to 47% in 1990 and to 65% in 2000.

In 1984, only five percent of the Flint River Watershed was developed. By 2000, twenty percent of the watershed had been developed – a four fold within 16 years. Today, the percentage of developed land in the watershed is nearly equal to that of the county as a whole excluding Huntsville.

Projected Land Development

Observations of developed land area for 1984, 1990 and 2000 were projected into the future and suggest that by 2010 developed land may total 38 percent and that 50 percent of the land in Madison County may be developed by 2020.

A Land Preservation Plan

The Land Trust developed this Land Preservation Plan as a means to provide balance to the urbanization of Madison County by identifying, acquiring and preserving valuable open space.  The Land Preservation Plan identifies areas of the county, including the Cities of Huntsville and Madison that are significant natural areas. These undeveloped areas represent the following categories:

* agricultural               * forest/woodlands               * geological features             * wetlands               * water

General areas of the county have been identified as targets for preservation; individual parcels have not.         Prioritization of areas is flexible and will change over time. Current targets have been established to include existing Land Trust holdings, City of Huntsville Greenway and Open Space Plans, and the City of Madison’s Greenway & Trails Master Program.

The Land Trust has identified the following areas as targets for acquisition and preservation:

1. Hale/Backbone/High Top Mountains –

(Cramer Hollow)

14. Indian Creek
2Bice/Nance Mountains – (Sharps Cove) 15. Banyon Swamp
3.Berry Mountain 16. Dyas Swamp
4. Sophies Hole, Falling Spring Sinks –

(Keel Mountain)

17. Webb Pond
5.  Meeks/Cloud/Mayo Mountains 18. Grayson Island Swamp
6. Green/Wallace Mountains 19. Trestle Swamp
7. Huntsville Mountain 20. Swancott Swamp
8. Monte Sano Mountain 21. Bradford/Betts Spring Swamp
9. Chapman Mountain 22. Byrd Spring Swamp
10. Wade Mountain 23. WEUP Swamp
11. Flint River 24. Hills Chapel Swamp
12. Rainbow Mountain 25. Hazel Green Swamp
13. Bradford Creek 26. Sulphur Spring Swamp
27. Agricultural lands

Next Steps

The Land Trust will prioritize targeted areas based on resource significance, threat of near-term development, links to adjacent green spaces, price and other factors.  Using Madison County Courthouse records, volunteers from The Land Trust will identify, locate and contact property owners within and adjacent to the target areas. Our objective will be to gauge the property owners’ receptivity to preservation of their land and explain the multitude of ways it could be accomplished (sale, conservation easement, donation, life estate, etc.)

Acquiring targeted lands through outright purchase will require substantial funding The Land Trust currently lacks. The Trust has begun a multi-pronged approach to raise those funds. In the near term, The Land Trust will approach individual and corporate entities for multi-year funding commitments with proceeds restricted to land acquisition.

State and federal funds will also be pursued. The State of Alabama’s “Forever Wild” program uses funds from oil and gas royalties to purchase land for recreational purposes.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department also grants funding for conservation easements and land acquisition.

Long term, The Land Trust will pursue a much larger source of funding through a bond issue or similar means to raise $5 to $10 million for property acquisition, preservation and maintenance. We estimate this effort will take three to five years and require a county-wide vote.

The Greenprint for Growth represents a major step in recognizing the rapid loss of open space in Madison County. It will serve as a guide for the preservation of important natural areas while recognizing appropriate development of other areas for commercial and residential endeavors.

It is the very mission of The Land Trust of Huntsville & North Alabama to make sure we are successful. Join us in building a legacy of preserved land!

Historic Three Caves

FREE to the public, The Land Trust of Huntsville & North Alabama hosts professionally guided tours each summer in historic Three Caves Quarry.

Private tours are available to civic groups and organizations.  Minimum charge is $25.

Reservations for all cave tours are may be made by calling The Land Trust at 534-5263.  Public Tour Reservations *must* be made by three days in advance of the event.  


Camping in the quarry is available for community youth organizations. A fee of $35.00 is required for each group.
Call The Land Trust at (256) 534-LAND (5263) for reservations.

Historic Three Caves


Three Caves Quest: a program for children 4th grade through 12th grade.

The Quest includes:

  • local geological history of this area;
  • pre-mining, mining and post-mining history of Three Caves;
  • ecological and environmental changes due to the mining of the quarry; and
  • an educational hike to learn about plants and animals in the area.

Groups that attend a Three Caves Quest receive a package including a manual and quizzes, along with adjunct classroom handouts.

Three Caves Quest is offered by reservation only Monday through Friday in the spring, summer and fall. There is a charge for this program.  Call 534-5263 for more information.


Going North on California Street turn right onto Hermitage Drive.  Go to the end of the street and turn left onto Kennamer Street; go to last gate at end of street.  Park in The Land Trust parking lot. Tour guide will meet participants at the information kiosk.


Three Caves is not a cave at all, but a former limestone mine.  The mine began operating on a small basis in the spring of 1945.  The site of Three Caves was owned by Madison County and leased to Madison Limestone Company for five cents per ton of limestone hauled away.

After the war ended, the demand for limestone for construction increased for a fast-growing Huntsville.  At its height, the quarry spawned tons of limestone that paved the majority of Huntsville’s original main streets and parking lots.  The Three Caves Quarry closed in 1952 due to skyrocketing operation costs and the growth of Huntsville.  Open pit mining was more efficient, and a mining operation in the middle of town was unsafe for obvious reasons.

Madison County designated Three Caves as a fallout shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Since the 1980’s, Three Caves has been used as a movie backdrop for films  including “Ravagers,” starring Richard Harris and Ernest Borgnine (using about 350 Huntsville residents as extras) and “What Waits Below” with Timothy Bottoms, as well as a rock video by “Kansas.”**  The locally produced “Like Moles, Like Rats” also prominently features Three Caves.  The former quarry was donated to The Land Trust of Huntsville & North Alabama in 1989.