Huntsville is the gem of Northern Alabama. Filled with rolling hills, beautiful views, trails, caves and more, it is situated at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains. During a trip centered around visiting Space Camp and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the Huntsville area provided plenty of adventure.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center (Huntsville, AL)
It’s an exciting time to learn about space exploration as we dive into a new generation of space travel with the Artemis mission. This mission aims to not only return to the moon for the first time in 50 years but put the first woman and person of color on the moon as well, eventually building a docking station for future visits and longer journeys in the future.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is home to Space Camp. The Multi-Axis Trainer is among the most famous attractions—spinning guests in every direction in a simulated space tumble. My kids loved it. In addition to the simulator, there are Virtual Reality experiences, a Planetarium, Flight Simulator, G-Force Accelerator ride, Underwater Astronaut Training Experience, and a Moon Shot ride we all loved so much that we rode it 10 times.
There is a lot to explore and learn about in the Saturn V building, including an authentic Saturn V Rocket, which is on display in partnership with the Smithsonian and one of only three in the world. If timed correctly, a day visit is enough for the average space enthusiast—although there are enough experiences to entertain two full days. Tip: Book Planetarium, Multi-Axis, Flight Simulator, SeaTrek VR and other VR experience tickets ahead of time to make your trip most efficient.
Noccalula Falls (Gadsden, AL)
Noccalula isn’t just fun to say, it was truly one of my family’s favorite day trips from Huntsville. We began the day with a hike to see the namesake falls. We chose the family friendly route via the Gorge Trail, which was manageable for all generations in tow, albeit a fairly steep downhill. The gorgeous towering trees and rockwall-lined path made it hard to keep an eye on the trail below. While we could eventually see the waterfall at the end, access to it and the pool beneath was a no-go without swimming. Still, it was a good hike, a pretty view, and earned us a guilt-free lunch.
After our trek back up the Gorge Trail, Blackstone Pizza across the street beckoned. We went for pizza, but left with bellies full of the best quesadillas we have ever enjoyed—so much so that we gave our compliments to the chef.
After lunch, we ventured back over to the park to check out the quaint petting zoo. We were introduced to each animal and taught about their funny quirks, as well as ways they preferred to be fed. “Georgie” the llama was our favorite. Her handler proudly shared, “She’s not a spitter and prefers to be fed all day, every day.” My kids really loved this one-on-one time with the animals and honestly could have stayed hours, although our time was cut short and some of the other animals stayed hidden due to the impending storm about to roll through.
Our time at Noccalula was excellent. Other park amenities include a train (new and improved, coming soon), pioneer village, playground, campgrounds, mini-golf and pavilions that we look forward to checking out next time. Tip: Before you venture into the park, consider getting a Blackstone Pizza takeout and make a picnic of it!
Cathedral Caverns State Park (Woodville, AL)
Cathedral Caverns was quite the pleasant surprise. A cave over 5,000 feet deep, with close to 3,000 of it walkable thanks to its preservation by Alabama State Parks, there was so much to absorb (no pun intended!). Although it’s been referred to as a dry cave, our tour was very wet, with mostly water-lined paths and puddles. Fortunately, it wasn’t too slippery due to the tread of the path and dew-drop-soaked handrails. We made our way down the very accessible path into the depths, learning the history of the cave’s discovery, seeing a “Christmas tree” (a formation over 25 feet tall that’s survived earthquakes), and finally seeing the namesake cathedral formations complete with columns, a bell and organ pipe-like formations.
Our two-hour tour culminated at the gift shop near the entrance with reasonably priced trinkets. As we sat on the porch with our pressed souvenir pennies and ate our snacks from the shop, a storm rolled through, creating a dancing fog cloud at the cave’s chilly entrance as it met with the hot, humid outside world that made for a magical send-off. Tip: Bring water and head to the loo before the two-hour tour begins. There are no bathrooms in the cave.
Spring Park (Tuscumbia, AL)
Small but mighty and admittedly a little run down, Spring Park was a great stop off for the kids to run around for a bit after lunch. With a sizable flock of ducks and geese, it was plenty entertaining feeding them some leftover bread before we wandered toward the manmade but beautiful waterfall. The waterfall was the impetus for the trip, but what we found when we arrived was the crowd pleaser. A pond circulating over 35 million gallons of water a day sported a fountain with a towering water spout reaching over 150 feet. The kids sat on the park benches overlooking the pond for quite some time trying to time the next water tower launch and “ooo-ed” and “aww-ed” at each occurrence. The mini-coaster and carousel were not in operation the day we visited, but the more natural side of the park was a great way to spend an hour. Tip: Bring some bread or crackers to feed the birds and you’ll make fast friends with dozens of them.
Ivy Green, Hellen Keller Birthplace (Tuscumbia, AL)
The Ivy Green historic site was informal for a museum, and the educational tour was short enough to captivate even the littlest in our group. The house was built in 1820 by Helen Keller’s grandparents and is full of antiques and photographs of Helen growing up.
We were anxious to see the water pump where Helen learned her first word as seen in The Miracle Worker. It was well preserved and felt spiritual. We learned some of the less-known stories—like the one of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, suggesting Helen would be more successful if given some distance from the family environment. She was given the cottage next door to use as a classroom, but, in order for Helen to feel it wasn’t immediately next door to her home and family, Anne drove her around the property for hours.
Walking around the grounds, my daughters gravitated to the outdoor pavilion, where a few videos of Helen speaking and audio tapes of her speeches were available. We sat on benches under the gorgeous trees and listened…in awe of her amazing life accomplishments. Ivy Green is definitely worth an hour of your time. Tip: Learn a little something before you go to better familiarize with her story so the visit has more impact. Here’s a short, easy to watch video for children.
Rattlesnake Saloon (Tuscumbia, AL)
This saloon was definitely an experience. Although only named after a rattlesnake den discovered when excavating and not home to any actual, live rattlesnakes that I saw at least, the saloon was full of wild charm. As we pulled up, we weren’t quite sure what we had gotten ourselves into, but were quickly greeted by a very friendly driver named Jack, who was ready to shuttle us down to the cave restaurant (saloon by night, no alcohol before 5 p.m.) in the back of a pick-up truck turned taxi. We hopped in and made our way down a short, steep drive to the entrance.
The cavernous area made for a unique dining experience. We ate a great lunch along with all the fried pickles we could handle, all at a reasonable price with a hospitable server. The property offers a lodge, miles of trails, and all kinds of entertainment including wet T-shirt and boxer contests if that’s your thing. I can confidently say the Rattlesnake Saloon is like no other saloon and made for a fun afternoon adventure. I invite you to learn about “Plain Owen,” “Chicken Owen” and “Mama Faye” and its hog pen and character-filled history. Tip: Get the brownie! It was HUGE. We ordered two and ended up splitting one between four of us, taking the other home to enjoy after dinner and it was still just as delicious. Also, in terms of portions, they are all large…a half-order of fried pickle appetizer could easily feed the table.