Sweet Home Alabama - so sang Lynyrd Skynyrd, and how right they were! Here in the deep south, between Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississipi and Georgia, Alabama has some great sights, cuisine, entertainment and so much more. You can explore everything from nature's wonders to man's achievements, a rich history and great beaches ... all within this welcoming, warm state. Here are our top ten places to visit, guaranteed to keep all the family entertained, with more than one or two "wow”s!
1. Russell Cave National Monument
Close to Bridgeport, this national park covers more than 300 acres ... but it's the seven miles underground that attract all the attention. Since prehistoric times, people have made the cave their home. It was formed more than 300 million years ago. Russell Cave is archaeologically very important, with evidence of occupation more than ten thousands years into man's history. People lived here from before 10,000 BC until the mid seventeenth century and the cave offers one of the most detailed and unbroken records of human dwellings anywhere in the world. Take a guided tour almost every day of the year with one of the rangers, who will explain the geology and history of this massive cave system as you walk through the boardwalks, watch the wildlife (including some very rare scorpions!)
2. The US Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville
Less than 70 miles away to the south west, in Huntsville is a great monument to the space program of the USA, with over 1,500 rockets and other exhibits chronicling the amazing advances in space exploration. You can see the Apollo 16 capsule, the Pathfinder space shuttle, moon rocks and spy planes. All the family will find this museum incredible, an kids can even come to space camp. There are five rides and simulators, in which you can have a brief, intense experience of what a launch is like and even feel the high G-forces that astronauts contend with. It's a fantastic, interactive center that is open seven days a week except for the major public holidays.
3. Cheaha Mountain
Right in the heart of the state, just an hour and a half east of Birmingham is the town of Cleburne and the Cheaha Mountain resort state park. Here, you'll find Mount Cheaha, the tallest part of Alabama at almost 2,500 feet, within the Talladega Mountain range. This is the southernmost end of the Blue Ridge Mountain chain and offers wonderful natural scenery. There are waterfalls and forest to explore in the clear, fresh Appalachian air, lakes and trails for both hikers and mountain bikers. At the very top of the peak is a prominent tower -Bunker Tower - which now acts as a resort with camping, hotel rooms, a restaurant and cabins. So you can spend as much times as you like at the top of Alabama. In the Fall, Cheaha rivals Vermont for its foliage displays - a splash of incredible colours laid on for visitors by nature herself.
4. Little River Canyon National Preserve
Just two hours to the north, straight up Route 9 to Fort Payne, is another wonderful, protected park. The river may be little, but it has a mighty history - carving out one of the deepest canyons in the south east, that extends for many miles. There are three impressive waterfalls left hanging high above the cliff walls: Grace's High Falls, Little River Falls and DeSoto Falls. You can be as adventurous as suits you and your family, either hiking the entire canyon or just picnicking and swimming in the many pools. You can kayak in season on Class III to IV rapids, camp here or take one of the many hiking trails through the beautiful forests of pine, hardwoods and azaleas. You may be able to spot beaver, deer and a whole host of birds. Once again, Alabama is very welcoming, with the park open seven days a week except for the Christmas and New Year period.
5. Gulf Shores
Maybe you don't think of Alabama as a beach destination, but it has a fantastic shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico, close to New Orleans to the west (just 200 miles away) and Tampa to the far south east, about 500 miles by road but much closer as the crow flies. Gulf Shores is very close to the Alabama-Florida border, along an incredible, thin spit of land that forms a barrier island with simply gorgeous beaches. Here and just along the bay to Orange Beach, you'll find soft white sands, superb fishing, dunes and crystal clear, lusciously warm gulf waters where the dolphins and turtles play. There are bayous and backwaters to explore or you could just relax on the beaches, enjoy the lively music scene and dine out on the finest of southern seafood.
6. Cathedral Caverns State Park
Were back to the caves and back north of Birmingham for our next attraction. Near Woodville and Marshall, just 81 miles to the south west of Chattanooga is a jaw-dropping cave system that lives up to its name. This National Monument boasts the widest natural entrance of any cave in the world that is open to the public. It's a real record holder, with the largest column, the biggest flow stone wall and some of the most incredible, improbable stalactites anywhere on the globe. Boardwalks take you through amazing caverns, frozen waterfalls and roofs of the caves over 45 feet above your heads. This place has the real wow factor.
7. Noccalula Falls
In Gadsden, not too far from Birmingham, Alabama's biggest city, is a public park that centres around one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the south. Set in 250 acres of protected parkland in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains is the 90 foot Noccalula Falls, with a spectacular trail taking you through the gorge, the caves and dams. It's a great place for all the family with a petting zoo, pioneer homestead and village, mini golf, covered wooden bridge, civil war carvings and a Native American fort. You can easily while away a day or more here at the park, maybe wandering through the thousands of azaleas in the botanic gardens, or taking the steam train ride.
8. Birmingham Zoo, Birmingham
In the south of the state's biggest city is the most visited tourist attraction in the whole state. Over 250 different species and 750 animals reside at Birmingham Zoo, drawing in half a million visitors a year. Set in 120 acres of landscaped grounds, the zoo gives you the chance to encounter animals from six different continents - many of which are endangered. There are lions, kangaroos, orang utans, sea lions, penguins and more to delight little and big kids alike. Interactive displays and keeper talks take place every day, with feeding sessions and the chance to get real close to some of the most entertaining and endearing animals.
9. Alabama State Capitol, Montgomery
Montgomery may not be Alabama's biggest city but it is the state capital and it's just over 90 miles south of Birmingham. Alabama is a great state for travelling around and seeing all the sites in easy, quick journeys. Nothing is ever too far away. One site not to be missed is the state capitol building. Built in the 1850s it dominates Dexter Avenue and is built in the Greek revival style. As you approach along the Avenue of Flags, you can't fail to be impressed by this historic building. Step inside and the grandiose, lavish styling just get better and better. The spiral staircases are awesome, and available for visitors to view from Monday to Saturday along with the rotunda and dome, the courts, senate chamber, supreme court library and the grounds.
Back to the coast of Highway 65, just fifty miles from Gulf Shores lies the bay town of Mobile. It's right at the head of Mobile Bay, protected by the long spit and Dauphin Island, making for calm waters and a natural harbour. It's the third biggest city after Birmingham and Montgomery and is a great, cosmopolitan and bustling town of almost half a million residents. This is Alabama's only seaport and is a major cultural centre. You can take in ballet and opera, art galleries and museums plus some wonderful old French-influenced buildings. Mobile has been shaped by many cultures and peoples, with creole and Spanish heritage to be found as well as the French. So enjoy carnival from November through to January, stroll through the parks and take in the history whilst overlooking the sea.
Alabama has so much to offer for all the family. Great, metropolitan cities, superb sand beaches, a warm climate year round, fascinating history and some of nature's most wonderful creations. It's well worth a couple of weeks of your time, touring round all these easily accessible top ten places to see. All with a sunny welcome and some of the most varied and tasty meals to be had in the south.
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