Spaced Out in Huntsville
Southern hospitality awaits in this north Alabama city that houses many of the state’s antebellum homes and America’s most extensive rocket collection
Huntsville, Alabama, is well known for its numerous historic sites and down-home attributes. The city’s downtown area is rich in Alabama lore, with several historic neighborhood districts, a 150-year-old railroad depot, the oldest hardware store in Alabama, world-class museums and living-history villages. Huntsville is also blessed with colorful botanical gardens, stately houses dating from the 1850s, nature preserves and sanctuaries, recreational lakes and parks, and a full array of visitor sites and services. But the city’s shining jewel is something else entirely — and definitely out of this world.
Huntsville’s U.S. Space & Rocket Center is a Smithsonian Affiliate and the official visitor center for the Marshall Space Flight Center. Open to the public 361 days of the year, the center contains more than 1,500 artifacts from America’s achievements in space exploration. Visitors can relive the dramatic Space Race by NASA and see a Saturn V rocket — one of only three on display in the world. Guests can also learn about the development and evolution of the space shuttle program and International Space Station (ISS), as well as NASA’s latest innovations.
The center houses America’s largest rocket collection, along with Apollo spacecraft, a space shuttle replica and a flight simulator. It is also home to Space Camp, where campers age 9 to 18 put their skills to the test as they train to live and work in space. During these weeklong overnight camp programs, young people can take command of their own simulated space missions to the ISS, the moon and beyond. Lastly, the center also offers IMAX movies, a bus tour to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and a number of group programs.
Although the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is definitely the gem of Huntsville’s tourist attractions, the city’s downtown historic sites are not to be missed. Twickenham Historic District, north and east of Courthouse Square, contains the state’s largest collections of antebellum homes, dating from 1841. The Old Town district contains federal and Victorian homes, and the Five Points district contains historic bungalows. The railroad runs through the Madison Historic District, and the Huntsville Depot is a restored 1860 passenger depot. Guided tours are offered at the depot, and it also displays Civil War exhibits, period locomotives and other vehicles.
Of special interest is Harrison Brothers Hardware store, the oldest operating hardware store in Alabama. Established in 1879, the store is run by the Historic Huntsville Foundation. Nostalgic items are displayed and sold within the store’s antique interior. Other interesting downtown sights include the Huntsville Museum of Art, the Children’s History Museum and Maple Hill Cemetery, dating from 1822. Just outside of town, you’ll find the Huntsville Botanical Garden, the State Black Archives Museum, the Veterans Memorial Museum, and Burritt on the Mountain, a living history museum on the former estate of physician William Burritt that includes a log cabin, a locksmith shop and a church.
For outdoor enthusiasts, the area around Huntsville is rich in recreational opportunities and spectacular scenery. About 35 miles southeast of the city lies Lake Guntersville and its adjacent state park. The 6,000-acre park offers swimming, boating, tennis, an 18-hole golf course, hiking, a nature center and a campground. Also in the area is DeSoto State Park, with waterfalls and wildflowers; Buck’s Pocket State Park, which offers 20 miles of hiking trails; and Cathedral Caverns, where visitors can take a cave tour or check out a gem mine.
During our visit to this area, we took in the Guntersville Museum and Cultural Center in the town of Guntersville. At the time, the museum was featuring a Wernher von Braun exhibit, a tribute to the scientist often credited as being the father of the modern rocket and a leading pioneer of space flight.
For a totally different experience, be sure to visit the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, a few miles east of Huntsville. Unclaimed Baggage is the only store of its kind. They buy truckloads of lost and unclaimed airline baggage, then refurbish and sell the contents to the public. At the store, shoppers will find CDs, DVDs, books, designer fashions, fine jewelry, name-brand luggage, digital cameras, sporting goods and more. The store also features a museum of unusual and bizarre items they’ve unpacked from lost luggage, and it even offers a café for when the shopping experience whets the appetite.
Further afield, a day trip north of Huntsville into Tennessee is well worth the miles to visit a bit of Southern history and tradition — namely, two of Tennessee’s most famous whiskey distilleries, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. The larger and more famous of the two, Jack Daniel’s is located in Lynchburg and makes every drop of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey from spring water on its property. The company has been making whiskey since 1866, and tours of the entire process are offered. Interestingly, Jack Daniel’s is located in a dry county, where alcoholic beverages cannot be sold. While the tour is free, for a moderate fee visitors can sample the product under a special agreement by the county.
Nearby, in Tennessee’s Coffee County, is the George Dickel Distillery. Located in the small town of Tullahoma, this distillery also offers free tours and a glimpse into its rich history of providing a special brand of Tennessee libation. Unfortunately, no tastings are offered at George Dickel.
Visitors to the Huntsville area can be assured that their time spent in this part of Alabama will be rich in history, with plenty of sights, sounds and tastes to fill the senses and delight the spirit. And for kids of all ages, the highlight of Huntsville, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, is definitely a soaring experience.
RV Parks Here and Near
Buck’s Pocket State Park
Grove Oak, Alabama
RV campsites with water and electric hookups (four with sewer service, five with free Wi-Fi), picnic tables and grills. Laundry and bathhouse.
DeSoto State Park
Fort Payne, Alabama
Full-hookup RV campsites with 30-/50-amp service, picnic tables and grills. Lodge and restaurant with free Wi-Fi. Country store, gift shop, laundry and two bathhouses.
Monte Sano State Park
Full-hookup campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis, including four pull-throughs. Two bathhouses and a dump station.
Mountain Breeze RV Park
Laceys Spring, Alabama
Campsites with full hookups and 20-/
30-/50-amp service. Laundry facilities. Pets welcome. Open year-round. Located 7 miles south of Huntsville.
Parnell Creek RV Park
Woodville, Alabama (about 25 miles
Campsites with 30-/50-amp hookups. Saltwater pool, LP-gas, playground, outdoor pavilion, minigolf, fitness center and dog run.
U.S. Space & Rocket Center RV Park
Back-in and pull-through campsites with 30-amp hookups. Laundry and shower facilities. Wi-Fi available for a fee.
George Dickel Tennessee Whisky Distillery
931-857-3124, extension 230
Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau
Jack Daniel’s Distillery Visitor Center
Unclaimed Baggage Center
U.S. Space & Rocket Center