For more than a million people, Huntsville is less than an hour’s drive, and it’s an easy day trip for far more. In fact, Huntsville can be an easy day trip even as a stop along the way to another destination, and no matter which way you’re coming in, there’s something unique to see. And, chances are, there’s also something to see in Huntsville that will be the perfect complement to your en-route adventure!
Ardmore Welcome Center Rocket
From the North on I-65 – If you’re coming in to the Rocket City from the north, make a stop at the Welcome Center on the state line on I-65. You’ll know the one – there’s a giant rocket standing outside. And while you’ll be able to see rockets once you get to Huntsville, you won’t be able to see one like this one; in fact, there’s only one other place on Earth where you can. The rocket at the Welcome Center is a Saturn IB, like the ones used to launch the Apollo 7 mission, the three crews of Skylab, and the Apollo-Soyuz mission. There are only two remaining in the world (the other is at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center), and this is the only one displayed vertically, which, really, is the best way to see it.
US Space & Rocket Center
Once you get to Huntsville, of course, you’ll want to see even more rockets, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Their collection includes the previous rocket’s slightly-smaller sibling, the Saturn I, and its much bigger cousin, the Saturn V. There’s a horizontal display of a Saturn V of actual hardware inside the museum, and a full-scale replica on vertical display outside, because, again, there’s no better way to appreciate a rocket than pointy-end-up.
Ave Maria Grotto
From the South on I-65 – If you’re arriving in Huntsville from the south, stop in Cullman County for one of the more unique Alabama attractions you’ll see – Ave Maria Grotto. Located at St Bernard Abbey, Ave Maria Grotto is a collection of miniature buildings built over decades, primarily by Benedictine monk Brother Joseph Zoettl. Built in the former abbey quarry, the grotto features painstakingly detailed miniature replicas of buildings from around the world, including Jerusalem in miniature, as well as Brother Joseph’s own fanciful creations. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else.
Historic Huntsville Depot
In Huntsville, you won’t find anything to the scope of Ave Maria Grotto, but you can find something almost to the scale. At EarlyWorks Family of Museum’s Historic Huntsville Depot, you can see Huntsville in miniature, or at least the portion of Huntsville immediately around the Depot as it appeared more than 150 years ago. And if you still have a big taste for something small after that, visit Bigfoot’s Little Donuts, for a wide selection of donuts … in miniature, of course.
Unclaimed Baggage Center
From the East on Highway 72 – Coming into Huntsville from the east, obviously you’ve got to stop at the world-famous Unclaimed Baggage store in Scottsboro. If you’ve ever known someone to lose their luggage on a flight, or had the bad luck of having it happen to you, you may have wondered whatever happened to it. The answer is – it comes to Unclaimed Baggage in Scottsboro, Alabama. An interesting collection of great deals on items practical and eclectic, there’s nowhere else like it. My favorite display is the wayward statue of Hoggle from Labyrinth, but yours may be something else entirely.
After you arrive in Huntsville, keep making your way down Highway 72 to University Pickers. In one way, it’s the opposite of Unclaimed Baggage – rather than the merchandise making its way there from around the world, the goods you’ll find at University Pickers comes from right here in Huntsville. But like Unclaimed Baggage, it’s a fascinating mix of the practical and the eclectic, with everything from antiques to the work of local artisans, with some awesome bits of pop culture, and you won’t find anything else like it.
Fame Studio & The Shoals
Photo Credit: Chris Granger
From the West on Highway 72 – If you’re coming from the west, you’ll want to stop in the Muscle Shoals area and experience music history. Take a tour of any of three studios where artists like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Julian Lennon employed the “Muscle Shoals Sound” to craft hits. Visit the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and you’ll learn about Alabamians who changed the course of music history. You can also visit the cabin where WC Handy was born.
Photo Credit: Chris Granger
Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment
When you arrive in Huntsville, head toward Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, the largest, privately-owned arts facility in the South, for a couple more musical stops. Head to Cigar Box Guitar Store, where they make guitars, slide guitars, dulcimers, bass guitars and amps out of cigar boxes, and can teach anyone to play a song on the cigar box guitar in under a minute. If that still sounds too complicated, get your music pre-recorded and on vinyl at Vertical House Records.