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Tour Northeast Alabama

Assuming continuation from the North Alabama Part One – West Tour, we’re picking up from Athens. Let's explore Huntsville, Decatur, Cullman, Gadsden, Leeds, and finally Birmingham in our continuation of the northern region of the Yellowhammer State.

From Athens, it’s a brief ride east to northern Alabama’s largest city: Huntsville. Chock full of activities at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, Huntsville is a burgeoning city of 180,000 anchoring a metro of 420,000 – second largest in the state after Birmingham. It was founded in 1805 and six years later became the first incorporated town in Alabama.

Huntsville remained a fairly quiet textile and farming town until 1941, when the U.S. Army selected land on the southwest edge of town for arsenal and munitions facilities for the war effort. That brought thousands of workers to the area and then thousands more when the site was selected in the 1950s for further rocket and missile development for the Army. Many were equipped with engineering degrees; among the developments here were the Redstone Rocket (named after the local Redstone Arsenal), which set the stage for America’s space program.

Today, Huntsville is known as “the Rocket City,” home to the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center and the Huntsville Operations Support Center. They work with the Kennedy Space Center in Houston and Cape Canaveral operations in Florida; these people know propulsion. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center – often called “Earth’s largest space museum” – is located on the west side of Huntsville right along I-565.

The easily-spotted Rocket Garden out front includes the towering, thrusting Saturn V replica rocket that can be seen for miles around and glows in all directions at night. Inside and on the museum campus you’ll find more than 1,500 space artifacts and displays, among the largest collections in the world.

Rockets, real spacecraft, engines, spacesuits, simulators, and plenty of hands-on exhibits will hold the family’s attention. Major military rockets on display include MIM-23 Hawk missile, an early Hermes missile, a Pershing medium-range ballistic missile, a Patriot missile from the first Gulf War in 1991, and more. The Davidson Center for Space Exploration opened next door in 2008 and holds a large collection of modules, boosters, instrument panels, and more from the Apollo missions. Of course, it’s popular for Space Camp and Robotics Camp activities; bus tours of the facility are available. This could easily take up an entire day, so plan accordingly!

The science and technology emanating from all of this research has spurred economic growth in a number of tech industries; across I-565 from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center lies Cummings Research Park, the second largest such park in the nation.

Just east of the futuristic and busy space and military complexes via Bob Wallace Avenue, serenity can be found at the Huntsville Botanical Garden, filled with flora and plenty of paths connecting multiple themed areas. From there, cut north to Governors Drive and head east, where you can climb up into the foothills of the Appalachians for some views. Monte Sano Mountain (Spanish for “Mountain of Health”), is a mesa that rises just over 1,600 feet above sea level and about 1,000 feet above downtown Huntsville, framing the city to the east.

Monte Sano State Park is a great place for hiking, picnicking, giving the dog some room to let out energy, or taking in a view of Huntsville and surrounding foothills. Just up Monte Sano Boulevard a great place to check out is Burritt on the Mountain, a former mansion and estate willed by William Henry Burritt to the city for a museum. Burritt provides a beautiful view of the city of Huntsville on a spread featuring not only Burritt’s mansion but an historic park filled with 19th century-era houses, a barnyard complete with animals, waterwheels, nature trails, and other historic structures. There’s a good chance you’ll stumble onto a festival or event when you visit Burritt. Either way, it’s worth a visit for the view alone.

Down the hill, you can come back either via Governors Drive (on the south) or Bankhead Drive/Pratt Avenue (on the north) to connect to downtown Huntsville. Plenty of action happens downtown, including a complex known as the Von Braun Center, which consists of an arena, several concert halls, and a playhouse all offering a multitude of concerts, performing arts, and even events like Hamfest – so it basically runs the gamut. Across the street is the beautiful Big Spring Park, built around the eponymous spring that served as Huntsville’s original source for drinking water.

Walking trails surround the spring, framed by Huntsville’s tallest downtown buildings and a cultural center that includes the lovely Huntsville Museum of Art. The HMA features over 3,000 pieces in its permanent collection in a mix of local/regional and international styles. Water color pictures depicting Huntsville’s local prowess with rockets and space flight are one particular feature, including Moonwalk by Andy Worhol. The HAM also features the world’s largest collection of animal figures made from silver. A restaurant facing the spring and park is a popular lunch and weekend spot for locals and visitors alike.

Just to the north and west is an entertainment district with bars and restaurants, some doubling as live music venues. The Below the Radar Brewhouse brews several beers on-site and offers crafts from all over the country. Some of downtown’s older 19th century buildings in this district feature not only eateries, but some local retail shops and historic sites as well. The Weeden House Museum and Garden on Gates Avenue in the Twickenham Historic District dates back to 1819, the year Alabama signed its Constitution. The house was part of the Weeden family from 1845 to 1956; the gardens they maintained were a longtime draw for locals and today are part of a tour that also includes the house.

Trivia: A Jersey cow named Lily Flagg helped make the Huntsville area famous when she produced more butter than any cow in the world in 1892, with a record 1,047 pounds produced (she weighed 950 pounds at the time). This garnered national attention and got here an appearance at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago the following year. Her legacy lived on with Lily Flagg Village, a town that lasted until it was absorbed into Huntsville proper in the 1960s; it continues to live on with local street and team names, and even a locally-brewed beer named Lily Flagg Milk Stout.

For history, a fun stop downtown is the original Huntsville Depot Museum. Built in 1860, it’s the oldest surviving train depot in Alabama and one of the oldest in the United States. It remained an active depot until 1968 and today serves as a museum sharing the state’s railroad history, complete with graffiti from generations of travelers and Civil War prisoners, original locomotives and rail cars outside, and smaller working trains kids can ride.

The Depot Museum is part of the EarlyWorks Complex, which features two other museums nearby: the EarlyWorks Children’s History Museum, which calls itself the “South’s largest hands-on history museum,” and Alabama Constitution Village, designed to transport visitors back to life in 1819 when Alabama’s Constitution was first signed right on these grounds. For more railroad fun, the North Alabama Railroad Museum is nearby off Chase Road and features over 30 pieces of rolling railroad stock, the restored Chase Depot and a series of other projects.

Next to the Depot Museum, the Huntsville-Madison County Veterans Memorial on the north side of downtown near I-565 salutes and remembers veterans of all wars from the area with an impressive display and set of fountains amidst a park that showcases their sacrifices and provides areas for reflection.

While downtown has the Huntsville-Madison County Veterans Memorial, the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum south of downtown is one of the nation's premier military museums; it features more military history per square foot than any other museum in the country. Memorabilia, artifacts, and military equipment run the historical gamut from the Revolutionary War through the Civil and World Wars up to the present. Among the thousands of items on display is the world's oldest jeep, the Ford Pygmy.

From downtown Huntsville, follow U.S. 72 west and you’ll find the Sci-Quest Hands-On Science Center. Just north of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and Cummings Research Park in a bustling shopping district via AL Highway 255 at U.S. 72 you’ll find the Best Western PLUS Rocket City Inn & Suites. Further along I-565 on the west side, you enter the city of Madison, Alabama; within sight of the interstate is the ,Best Western PLUS Madison-Huntsville Hotel, which has excellent access to the Huntsville International Airport.

Once you’ve taken in all Huntsville has to offer, let’s hit the road!

Jump on I-565 west and head a few miles past I-65 to U.S. 31 and head south over the Tennessee River into Decatur. Known as “River City,” it was founded as Rhodes Ferry Landing in the 1810s before incorporating as Decatur in 1821. Transportation has always been key for Decatur; river traffic was complemented by the first railway built west of the Appalachians and more recently by U.S. 31 and I-65, all of which continue to make Decatur a transportation and logistics center. The city has 56,000 residents today working in all kinds of industries, including the making of “Meow Mix” (yes, cats ask for one of Decatur’s products by name).

Decatur knows how to celebrate. The Alabama Jubilee is the oldest hot air balloon race south of the Kentucky Derby’s “Great Balloon Race.” Over 100,000 attend the annual event, which features over 60 hot-air balloons; Decatur has been designated the “Ballooning Capital of Alabama” by the State Legislature. During Fourth of July, the Spirit of America Festival brings over 65,000 visitors to one of the largest free Independence Day celebrations in the South. Through its history, presidents and pageants have taken place there.

Downtown Decatur lies west of U.S. 31 and just south of the river. The north end of downtown is crowned by the Old State Bank, constructed in 1833 as a branch of the Bank of the State of Alabama – it now serves as a museum. Its majestic Jeffersonian design has been restored and history abounds within, including evidence of Civil War battles that took place inside the building. Down Bank Street is the Hartselle Historic District, more shops and a historic Depot from 1914 host a series of craft stores with everything from linens to furniture with a focus on work from local artists.

Also on Bank Street, the Blue & Gray Museum holds the nation’s largest privately-owned collection of Civil War items, with weapons, uniforms, medals, and other pieces from both sides. Just down the street, the Carnegie Visual Arts Center is housed in an historic Carnegie Library building and showcases local, regional and national exhibits across many mediums of visual art. Nearby, Cook's Natural Science Museum features exotic insects, mounted birds, animals, minerals, seashells and coral in over 2,000 exhibits and artifacts. The Old Decatur and Albany Historic Districts feature a large collection of “painted ladies” (Victorian and bungalow homes from the 19th and early 20th centuries), among the largest in Alabama. The Visitor Center on 6th Avenue was walking tour maps available.

Also downtown, the classic Princess Theatre has been hosting performances and movies since 1919, although the building actually opened as a livery stable back in 1887. The exterior Art Deco look and marquee movie sign were added in 1941.

Along the river on the north side of downtown is the Port of Decatur, the busiest river port on the Tennessee. Ingalls Harbor is a boat launch and recreation facility, hosting events and fishing tournaments; the Pickwick Belle Riverboat offers a real paddleboat experience up and down the Tennessee River offering meals, sightseeing, and events. Wheeler Lake, a widened portion of the river, extends northwest from downtown Decatur and provides some beautiful views; the Rhea-McEntire House along the shores of Wheeler Lake went up on 1836.

The Greek Revival mansion plays a role in Civil War history; in 1862, this house is where plans for the Battle of Shiloh were conceived. When Union forces burned much of the city, they spared, along with the Old State Bank, the Rhea-McEntire House. The home also served as a temporary courthouse along with many other functions. Tours of the history-packed home are available.

AL Highway 67 functions as “The Beltline,” a west and south bypass of the central Decatur. On the west side you’ll find the Best Western River City Hotel. East of I-65 you’ll find the Morgan County Celebration Arena On the eastern edge of town along the Tennessee River (and in season) fun outdoor recreation can be found at Point Mallard Aquatic Center, which opened the very first wavepool in the United States; it’s still in operation. Point Mallard is a nice complex with a number of other outdoor activities for kids and adults throughout the year.

East of Decatur – also along Highway 67 – the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge offers 35,000 acres of wildlife in a refuge. Start at the Givens Interpretive Center, which offers plenty of information along with exhibits and displays on the wildlife in the refuge. An observation building offers great waterfowl spotting while trails and boardwalks provide access throughout the refuge, which houses 115 species of fish, 74 species of reptiles and amphibians, over 250 species of birds, and nearly 50 species of mammals.

From Decatur, head south on U.S. 31 (I-65 is an alternate, but why not take the original road?) down through the rural Alabama countryside.

About ten miles down the road, you go through Hartselle, back across I-65 and about twenty miles into Cullman. Cullman is a city of about 15,000, seat of its eponymous county. Cullman has a strong Germanic heritage, which while suppressed a bit during World Wars in the 20th century, has re-emerged as a point of celebration to the point where the city hosts an Oktoberfest every year and one of the city’s historic districts is called “Die Deutsche Kolonie Von Nord Alabama,” which (of course, right?) stands for “The German Colony of North Alabama.”)

Downtown Cullman is filled with a mix of old and new buildings; a major tornado from the 2011 outbreak destroyed a number of buildings downtown and many have since been rebuilt. Stores like A Touch of German on First Avenue provide some unique crafts, items, and more.

The Cullman County Museum complex includes a replica of city founder Johann Cullman’s home that contains artifacts spanning two centuries and a towering statue of Johann Cullman. Across the street is the restored railroad depot, constructed in 1913 in Pueblo-style stucco; it was active into the late 1960s. The Best Western Fairwinds Inn is located just off I-65 on the north side of town, close to downtown and the through roads on our Tour.

From Cullman, follow U.S. 278 east from downtown and on the east end of town you’ll find the access point for one of the most picturesque places in Alabama, the Ave Maria Grotto. A breathtaking array of stone, glass, wood, and concrete, the Ave Maria Grotto is an amazingly beautiful landscaped park covering four acres that is sometimes known as "Jerusalem in Miniature.” In total, you can walk amongst and enjoy over 120 miniature reproductions of some of the most famous historic buildings and shrines of the world.

From the Grotto, head east on U.S. 278 through the countryside and through foothills that lead northeast to the Appalachians. Nearing Attalla, follow AL Highway 77 south. Cross U.S. 11 and, approaching I-59, you’ll find the Best Western PLUS Gadsden Hotel & Suites for a relaxing night’s stay.

Of course, that hotel is right on the cusp of the Gadsden area. Gadsden is a city of 37,000 anchoring a metro area of just over 100,000. Gadsden has a history of heavy industry including tires and steel; it has since diversified. A “must see” in Gadsden in the beautiful natural wonder in Noccalula Falls Park, with a focus on Noccalulu Falls, a 90-foot waterfall along Black Creek. You can observe the waterfall from up top or climb around the rocks at the bottom that are recessed slightly from where the water reaches the rest of the creek for its journey.

A statue named after the Cherokee maiden Noccalula towers above; the Park also features a botanical garden, petting zoo, and the historic Gilliland-Reese Covered Bridge, originally built in 1899 and moved to the park in 1968. It’s certainly Gadsden’s favorite natural gathering place and definitely worth a visit. Noccalulu Falls Park is just northeast of downtown along AL Highway 211, accessible from downtown or via the Highway 211 exit off I-59.

Downtown Gadsden is accessible via U.S. 278/411 or I-759. Along U.S. 411 across from the banks of the Coosa River near downtown you’ll find the Spirit of American Citizenship Monument. This obelisk, brilliantly lit at night, stands in salute of area citizens and their history. Walking around the monument, you can push buttons for taped messages about history, the National Anthem sung by Alabama band member – and nearby Fort Payne native – Jeff Cook, quotes, and more.

Across the street, you’ll get a nice view of some bridges spanning the Coosa River, including a graceful multi-arch bridge. Nearby, the historic Mort Glosser Amphitheater was built as a WPA project in 1935 with stone quarried from nearby Lookout Mountain. Seating 1,600, the amphitheater has hosted everything from USO shows to boxing matches, and today “the Amp” is still popular for outdoor concerts.

The heart of Historic Downtown Gadsden holds older and newer local shops, restaurants, and nightlife. On Broad Street, the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts and the Gadsden Museum of Art are adjacent to each other, and for kids Imagination Place offers “pint-sized” permanent exhibits that include medical clinics, grocery stores, and construction pits. Down the street, the Pitman Theatre opened in 1947 and still shows a variety of films and hosts plenty of shows.

For a local brew, the Back Forty Beer Co. is located on the east end of the downtown district (in clear view of former-but-still-embedded-streetcar tracks) and has been brewing locally since 2009. Today, their facility offers tours and tastings. If you want to swing the wrenches, the Silver Lakes Golf Course offers rolling terrain and plenty of water hazards at the edge of the Talladega National Forest along part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama.

From Gadsden, follow the Tour on AL Highway 77 south, taking you over hills and along the Coosa River, where it widens into Neely Henry Lake, formed from a dam in 1966. A popular lake for recreation, Neely Henry Lake offers terrific fishing – bass in particular. If you want get a little fishing in, the lake has three public access points and you can admire the hills, woods, and upscale homes that line its 339 miles of shoreline. Overall, this section of AL Highway 77 is a pleasant drive as you head south into Lincoln and reach Interstate 20.

Just off I-20 and Hwy 77 is the access point for Talladega Superspeedway. The Superspeedway opened on a former Air Force base in 1969 and has the longest oval in NASCAR at 2.66 miles. This tri-oval is famous for its steep banking; spectators get a great view from any one of the 80,000 seats or the infield.

Talladega is busy with races throughout the year, including Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series, and Camping World Truck Series. In front of the Superspeedway you’ll find the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, chock full of drivers, developers, engineers, and owners who have made significant contributions to auto racing. Plenty of cars and memorabilia can be explored and enjoyed throughout.

From Talladega, jump on I-20 west; it’s time to head back to where we started the North Alabama Loop Tour. Heading into suburban Birmingham, at Leeds you’ll find the Best Western PLUS Bass Hotel & Suites right off I-20 and U.S. 411/AL Highway 25.

Just west of Leeds off I-20 you’ll find a Bass Pro Shop, and right around the corner you can hit Barber Motorsports Park and everything the Birmingham area has to offer, and our loop is complete!

As you can see, northern Alabama offers a great variety of things to see and do. From major universities to legendary music studios, from mountain views to natural bridges, from roaring racetracks to soaring space vehicles, you can see and enjoy it all on the North Alabama Loop Tour. Enjoy the ride, and stay with people who care!