Alabama: 8 Hidden travel gems

Reader's Digest Editors

Whether exploring ancient caverns or space travel, visitors have plenty of activities to pick from in Sweet Home Alabama.

1. Madison County Nature Trail

Madison County Nature Trail

Set high above the city of Huntsville—atop the aptly named Green Mountain—this network of paths in a charming 72-acre park offers the opportunity to observe nature within the southern Appalachians firsthand.

On the north side of the 17-acre Sky Lake, along the walking trail, you will come across the original cabin of Charles Green, the homesteader for whom Green Mountain was named.

Overall, about two miles of well-managed trails circle the lake and lead beyond into a woods filled with loblolly pines and hardwoods, like white oak, mockernut hickory, red maple, and black locust.

Along the way, some 500 species of trees and shrubs are labelled and identified. You’ll also find the state’s largest and oldest champion elm tree. One side trail is marked in braille for the blind.

 

2. US Space and Rocket Centre

US Space and Rocket Centre

At this state-of-the-art interactive museum, people of all ages can experience zero gravity, manoeuvre through space, and travel with astronauts.

Out-of-this-world experiences include a step inside the G-Force Accelerator, where bodies actually rise up off their seats, and a genuine blastoff—140 feet straight up in 2.5 seconds—courtesy of the Space Shot. There is even a Mission to Mars, packed with astounding sights, sounds, and physical sensations.

The museum also features dozens of hands-on learning exhibits. Visitors can see inside an authentic Apollo Command Module and check out the $200 million Blackbird, the sleek US Air Force spy plane that flew coast to coast in less than 68 minutes. Or they can delve into the technology behind the world’s first ballistic guided missile and view the latest in high-tech weaponry, including futuristic soldiers armed with particle beam guns.

Davidson Centre shuttles on display

For the youngest aspiring astronauts, a tot-size space station offers rockets for crawling into. And for those who prefer to sit back and be awe-inspired, the Spacedome Theatre projects footage of planets, galaxies, and other cosmic amazements, filmed in space by astronauts, onto a 67-foot domed IMAX screen.

Outside the museum, visitors can stroll through what astronaut John Glenn calls the finest rocket collection in the world. Rocket Park boasts more than 1,500 pieces of space hardware, including a Mercury-Redstone rocket, like the one that launched Alan Shepard.

The new Davidson Center for Space Exploration is home to NASA’s first Saturn V rocket. Next door, Shuttle Park is home to the world’s only “full-stack” shuttle. 

 

3. Covered Bridges of Blount County

blount county covered bridge in summer

Lovers of old-fashioned covered bridges can find a trove of these historic spans on the back roads of Alabama, where ten 19th- and early 20th-century examples are still in daily use. Each wooden bridge is unique in style and size, and the oldest predate the Civil War.

A good place to start a tour is Oneonta, the county seat of Blount County and Alabama’s Covered Bridge Capital. From Oneonta, you can easily drive to three scenic bridge sites.

Easley Bridge (1927) is a single-span 95-foot-long tin-roofed bridge over Dub Branch creek in the community of Rosa. Swann Bridge (c. 1933), originally named Joy Bridge, crosses the Black Warrior River; at 324 feet it’s the longest of the covered bridges remaining in Alabama. Horton Mill Bridge (1935) also spans the Black Warrior. Rising 70 feet above the river gorge, it’s not only the nation’s highest covered bridge over water but also the first Southern bridge listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

4. Anniston Museum of Natural History

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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This remarkable museum includes outstanding collections of mounted animal specimens from North America and Africa. A bird collection was prepared by the 19th-century ornithologist William Werner, who was a pioneer in the cyclorama style of presentation.

The 400-specimen collection, which was assembled between 1865 and 1910, offers a rare opportunity to see now-extinct species, such as the heath hen and the passenger pigeon.

The even more striking African collection is the gift of a local resident who spent years collecting in Africa. Some exhibits concentrate on aspects of animal behaviour. Others are panoramic re-creations of the continent’s natural environments, such as a Sahara desert landscape complete with oryx, Barbary sheep, and desert snails, and a marshland scene with hippos and egrets.

The most outstanding display is a diorama of a grassland showing a giant baobab tree towering over an elephant, a rhino, a giraffe, and many smaller mammals and birds. The Ancient Egypt exhibit hall features 2,300-year-old Egyptian mummies and mounted specimens of animals representing deities.

 

5. Cheaha Resort State Park

Cheaha Resort State Park

This lovely 2,719-acre woodland park occupies the upper slopes of Cheaha Mountain; at 2,407 feet it is the highest point in Alabama. Although you can reach the summit via a short scenic park road off Rte. 49, you can take Rte. 281—Talladega Forest Scenic Hwy—17 miles to the park.

The narrow blacktop road crosses fields on the valley floor and then immerses you in pine-scented woods, passing small rushing streams. A stone tower at the summit offers a fine view to the distant farmlands, mountain ridges, river valleys, and lakes.

Five hiking trails, totalling 7 miles, reveal a diversity of wildlife and panoramic views. There’s also a 6-mile mountain bike trail, and the park is the halfway point in the Cheaha Century Challenge, a 110-mile touring bike race held every May. The Pinhoti Trail covers over 100 miles through the park and surrounding Talladega National Forest, eventually connecting with the Appalachian Trail.

A bronze plaque marks the trail as the end of the Appalachian Mountains. At and near the crest of Cheaha are picnic areas, campsites with hookups and magnificent scenery, a lake with a white sand beach, cabins, chalets, a hotel, a lodge, and several hiking trails, both short and long.

 

6. Montgomery Zoo

Montgomery Zoo

Spanning 40 acres of inviting landscape, this zoo is home to more than 200 distinct species, many of which are endangered. Five realms accommodate more than 500 animals from Africa, Asia, North America, South America, and Australia.

Throughout, natural and hidden man-made barriers replace the iron and concrete of conventional zoos. Lions and cheetahs intently watch their prey (and humans) from rock outcroppings, while tigers take a dip in their own backyard pool. Visitors can hop aboard a miniature train for a narrated ride, complete with a trip around the zoo’s eight-acre Crystal Lake.

Among other highlights, the zoo includes a reptile house, a monkey island, a bald-eagle exhibit, and a North American River Otters exhibit. Volunteers regularly provide live animal demonstrations.

The Montgomery Zoo is also involved in species repopulation programs—one of which has released more than 17 golden eagles—and offers educational and wildlife conservation programs.

Leave time to stop at The Mann Wildlife Learning Museum, where visitors can see more than 270 wildlife displays, hear animal sounds, feel bear fur, and wonder at fossils of giant prehistoric creatures.

 

7. Tuskegee National Forest

Tuskegee National Forest

In the mid-1770s one of America’s first artist-naturalists, William Bartram, passed through here on an epic journey recording the flora and fauna of the Southeast. Today the 81/2-mile Bartram National Recreation Trail is a major feature of this protected woodland.

It is fitting that the pathway was named for a naturalist since this is terrain that has been beautifully and successfully reclaimed by nature. Most of the path is former farmland, but the only visible signs of this are the nut and fruit trees that sit in the midst of the renewed wilderness.

With only 11,000 acres, this is America’s smallest national forest. The Forest Service has deliberately avoided building extensive recreational facilities so that it can be enjoyed primarily as a primitive experience.

The Bartram Trail is easily accessible from two trailhead parking areas and at several in-between points where it crosses forest roads. Hikes of various lengths are possible, and the terrain is gentle and rolling. At Tsinia Wildlife Viewing Area a boardwalk and blind allow close-up observation of songbirds, rabbits, turtles, frogs, and waterfowl.

Tuskegee National Forest has a sizable number of deer, turkeys, quail, and other wildlife, and they attract many hunters in season. The Taska Recreation Area, just off Rte. 29, has picnic tables and grills and the trailhead marker for the Pleasant Hill Trail.

 

8. Old Cahawba

Old Cahawba

A gift from President James Monroe to the new state of Alabama, Cahawba was built up from the wilderness to become the state’s first capital city in 1820. Political power then shifted northward, and Tuscaloosa captured the state capital title. Yet, thanks to its plum location as a distribution point for cotton, the town quickly recovered and thrived. On the eve of the Civil War, more than 3,000 people called Cahawba home.

During the Civil War, the Confederate government seized the railroad station and established a prison for captured Union soldiers in the station’s cotton warehouse. Between 1863 and 1865 more than 5,000 prisoners of war were housed there. In 1865 a flood overwhelmed the town, and businesses and families fled. By 1900 most of the buildings had burned or collapsed. Cahawba became a ghost town.

Today Cahawba is an important archaeological site and a place of picturesque ruins. Archaeologists from the Alabama Historical Commission are uncovering the town’s historic past. At the welcome centre, exhibits feature many historical finds, along with vintage photographs of homes and businesses once located in what is now called Old Cahawba.

Throughout, interpretive signs bring Old Cahawba’s fascinating remnants and forgotten people to life. Columns and chimneys recall distinguished houses. Water still flows through the old ornamental wellheads. Three cemeteries tell the stories of the diverse residents of this Southern antebellum community. Trails, canoe launches, and overlooks provide access to the Cahaba River and the Black Belt Prairie, two of Alabama’s greatest natural wonders.

 

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