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Alabama is one of America’s least-visited states, but it has a whole lot to offer, from pristine white sand beaches to lush mountain trails, cascading waterfalls, historic sites and even rockets. If you plan on spending time in this southern state, consider making a stop at some of its very best places, like these.
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Some of Alabama’s most beautiful scenery can be found in and around DeSoto State Park near Fort Payne in eastern Alabama. The park is renowned for its fragrant wildflowers and rushing waterfalls, like the 107-foot-high Desoto Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the state, as well as Lodge Falls, Indian Falls and Laurel Falls. Just 10 miles south of the park is Little River Falls and Grace’s High Falls, located in Little River Canyon National Reserve. Visitors can rent a kayak or canoe and take a guided tour around the peaceful, flat-water section just above DeSoto Falls. The park is also popular for climbing, biking and hiking, with 25 miles of trails. If you want to stay the night, there are improved campsites as well as cabins, chalets, primitive camping and backcountry backpacking sites.
This popular tourist destination managed to bounce back after the 2010 BP oil spill, and today, it’s back to its pristine state with stunningly white sands and crystal clear waters. Visitors can look forward to a host of activities at the beach, including all sorts of water sports like boating, sailing and fishing. There are also a variety of other attractions, like the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, a water park known as Waterville USA and two gorgeous golf courses. After dark, Gulf Shores is known for its nightlife, with lots of fun beach bars like Pink Tony, Tacky Jacks and Flora-Bama, many of which offer live music, some with stages right outside on the sand.
Huntsville is arguably most famous for its U.S. Space & Rocket Center. This is the birthplace of America’s space program, with Dr. Wernher von Braun adopting this northern Alabama city as the place to set up and refine the Apollo rocket. The Center, which opened in 1970 as NASA’s first visitor center, memorializes the event with a permanent exhibit. It also features a museum. Saturn V, displayed in the museum’s immense Davidson Center, was the first Saturn V to be displayed publicly and is the only one designated as a National Historic Landmark. The complex also hosts the highly popular Space Camp, a Robotics Camp and an Aviation Challenge Camp.
If you love a good sunset, don’t miss Dauphin Island, the sunset capital of Alabama. Just before nightfall, you’ll enjoy a panoramic vista of rich orange hues that reflect off the glistening Gulf Coast waters. Away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland, you’ll be surrounded by nature, including beautiful beaches and migratory birds as well as colorful butterflies and the occasional alligator among the maritime forest and marshes.
The Audubon Bird Sanctuary is a highlight with its picturesque woodlands and walking trails that wind through magnolias, live oaks, swamps and along Gulf beaches. At the wharf, reached by taking a stroll down a 1,000-foot boardwalk, you can gaze at the herons and egrets that lounge around Galliard Lake. It offers something for history buffs too, with Historic Fort Gaines, located right on the Gulf, built in 1821. known as one of the best-preserved examples of 19th-century brick seacoast fortifications in the east.
Cheaha State Park, located in the Talladega Mountains in eastern Alabama is a must-visit for nature lovers. It’s home to Alabama’s tallest mountain, Mount Cheaha, which rises 2,413 feet into the Deep Southern skies, and is renowned for its magnificent scenery, historic sites and recreational opportunities. You’ll find lots of scenic overlooks along with hiking and biking trails – the Doug Ghee Accessible Trail, a handicap-accessible boardwalk that terminates at Bald Rock, overlooks Anniston and Oxford, as well as Talladega Superspeedway. The park also hosts picnic areas, campsites, restaurants and lodges.
Park manager David Odom calls the park’s views and vistas “second to none in the state.”
Noccalula Falls is a gorgeous 90-foot waterfall that’s surrounded by a popular park of the same name. Located in Gadsden, about an hour and a half’s drive southeast of Huntsville, it’s one of the state’s most visited natural attractions. There is a statue of a young Cherokee Indian at the top of the falls that’s the subject of one of Alabama’s most beloved legends. Noccalula was the daughter of a Cherokee chief who lived with his people near the falls. She fell in love with a warrior from her tribe, but her father didn’t find him worthy enough due to a lack of worldly goods, and instead arranged for her to marry a wealthy chief of a powerful rival tribe. Just as she was about to marry him, she slipped away and leaped from the falls to her death. Afterward, her father decreed that the waterfall would always be known for his daughter, and it has.
The Shoals, a four-city area consisting of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Sheffield is renowned for its rich music heritage. The area also has lots of scenic beauty, much of which has been preserved by the Tennessee Valley Authority and ideal for hiking scenic trails. In addition to enjoying great live music at local venues, you can check out the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and visit Helen Keller’s birthplace in Tuscumbia. Since 1954, her home, built in 1820, has been a permanent shrine to the “miracle” that occurred in a blind and deaf seven-year-old girl’s life. Known as Ivy Green, it’s maintained to the smallest detail in its original state. The home and museum room are decorated with much of the original furniture of the Keller family, with each highlighted by hundreds of Helen’s personal mementos, books and gifts from her lifetime of travel.
Alabama’s largest lake is renowned for both bass fishing and bald eagle-watching, and thanks to the state’s conservation efforts, bald eagle sightings have been on the increase, soaring through the skies and perched up in the trees along the shore. The surrounding Lake Guntersville State Park is ideal for a weekend or longer stay, with accommodations that include everything from campgrounds and cabins on the lake to a resort-style lodge on the peak of Taylor Mountain and chalets that sit along the ridge tops. The recreational offerings are nearly endless, with the park hosting an 18-hole championship golf course, a beach complex, an outdoor nature center, miles and miles of hiking and biking trails, guided hikes, and, of course, the lake. In addition to great bass fishing, a variety of watercraft can be rented, including kayaks, canoes, pontoons, bass boats and paddleboards.
The Ave Maria Grotto is a unique roadside attraction, with the four-acre park housing 125 miniature reproductions of some of the most important Christian buildings and shrines. The project began in the 1930s, built by Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk who was born in Germany and emigrated to America as a teen. His buildings were designed mostly from pictures on tourist postcards, and made with concrete, stone, seashells and occasionally junk like old ink bottles and rusted birdcages. Brother Joseph continued to work on Ave Maria Grotto until he was 80 years old, when he built his last model, the Basilica in Lourdes. He died at the age of 83 in 1961, and today, a local handyman who worked with him during his later years, Leo Schwaiger, helps to make sure the miniatures are well-kept. Among the 125 miniature replicas, visitors can see Noah’s Ark and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Considered the “gateway to the majestic Tennessee River,” with its banks creating Huntsville’s southernmost boundary, Ditto Landing is a popular place to be during the warmer months of the year. The marina is tucked among lush greenery and surrounded by picturesque foothills, while catfish, bass and bream are abundant in the waters. It’s a great place to fish, swim or water ski in the summer, and there are multiple campsites spread across its 560 acres. When winter’s chill sets in, the Tennessee River Greenway, with its trailhead at Ditto Landing, is a perfect place for walkers to enjoy the beautiful view.