About the Region
The northernmost portion of Alabama is shaped by the Appalachian foothills and the Tennessee River. With dense forests and high bluffs overlooking the river, the region is particularly scenic and many Alabamians consider it the most beautiful part of the state. The region is also dotted with numerous lakes and spectacular natural features such as waterfalls and deep caverns. As with the central and Gulf Coast regions of Alabama, tourism is a major part of north Alabama’s economy, although the region’s largest cities, Huntsville, Florence, and Decatur, are primarily dependent on manufacturing. Known by many as the Tennessee Valley, the northernmost part of the state is blessed with remarkable natural beauty and biodiversity and its cities—Huntsville, in particular—are younger, better educated, and more affluent than many other parts of the state.
Though Huntsville is one of the oldest cities in the state, it only became a major economic engine during World War II. In a stroke of remarkable good fortune, the US Army missile research program, eventually named Redstone Arsenal, was established in Huntsville during the war. By the early 1960s, Huntsville was a central part of the space program thanks to the location of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center at Redstone. Decades later, Huntsville is still an integral part of the space program and generations of children have spent part of their summers at the center’s “Space Camp.” With a high concentration of engineers and scientists, Huntsville is, on the whole, a youthful, well-educated, and more diverse than many cities in the state.
In addition to its world-famous Space Flight Center, Huntsville is home to numerous other attractions, especially for lovers of the outdoors. Nearby Monte Sano State Park is a great place to explore the natural beauty of north Alabama. Ditto Landing, in the city’s south side, is a great place to begin a day on the Tennessee River, whether boating, skiing, or fishing. Huntsville is also a city that appreciates the arts, and culture mavens can take advantage of the Huntsville Ballet, the Symphony Orchestra, and Lowe Mill ARTS and Entertainment, the largest privately-owned arts center in the United States. Huntsville may be a modern, technologically advanced city, but it hasn’t lost sight of its past. The history of both the city and the state can be explored at Alabama Constitution Hall Park and in the historic districts of Twickenham, Five Points, and Old Town. And if all of the city’s attractions and activities don’t leave you exhausted, it also boasts a vibrant nightlife with plenty of bars, breweries, and live music.
Located in a scenic spot along the Tennessee River and nicknamed the “River City,” Decatur has been shaped by the river. It began as a river crossing in the early 1800s and remains a hub of river transportation. These days, Decatur is known throughout the state for the Alabama Jubilee, one of the oldest hot air balloon races in the South, which draws tens of thousands of spectators and participants each year.
In the northwestern corner of the state are the “Quad Cities” of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield. It’s a particularly picturesque part of the state and an area rich in culture and history. The general Quad City area, which overlaps Lauderdale and Colbert Counties, is also sometimes referred to as “The Shoals,” which can be confusing for out-of-towners.
Of the Quad Cities, Muscle Shoals is arguably the most well-known, largely because of its role in the recording industry. FAME Studios opened in the 1950s with Muscle Shoals Sound Studio a few years later. Eventually a distinct “Muscle Shoals sound” developed. Some of the biggest names in popular music recorded in Muscle Shoals, including the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Otis Redding, to name just a few. These are still functioning recording studios but they are also open for tours.
Florence, a stone’s throw from Muscle Shoals, has its own proud musical heritage. W.C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues,” was born in the city and a music festival in his honor is held in the area each year. As is fitting for a city named after the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is regarded as a small town arts center, with numerous galleries and museums, as well as the boutiques of two highly-regarded Alabama-based fashion designers.
Things to Do in North Alabama
- Northwest Alabama has more music history than some entire states. Take a look through Alabama’s rich musical heritage at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia
- Unleash your inner science nerd at the Alabama Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville
- Get retail therapy at one of the country’s most unique shopping venues—the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro. If an airline has ever lost your luggage, you might just find it here.
- In Oakville, tour the museum dedicated to native son Jesse Owens, whose performance in the 1936 Olympics humiliated Hitler and the Nazis
- In tiny Phil Campbell, Alabama, hike down into atmospheric and eerily beautiful Dismals Canyon, a National Natural Landmark
- In Florence, see the Rosenbaum House, the only home in Alabama designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright
- In northeastern Alabama, make a stop at De Soto Falls, one of the state’s loveliest spots and home to a state park
- Who needs Aspen? Scenic Mentone, Alabama, is home to Cloudmont Ski Resort, the only ski resort in the state. Yes, there is a ski resort in Alabama.
- Get away from it all with miles of hiking trails and scenic wonders near Albertville.
- Enjoy boat life or take the family fishing on one of north Alabama’s pristine lakes including Guntersville, Wilson Lake, Lewis Smith Lake, Lake Martin and Lake Logan Martin.
- One of the state’s more unusual attractions can be found in Cullman. Ave Maria Grotto is a four-acre, miniaturized version of some of the world’s most famous religious sites, such as St. Peter’s Basilica. A few secular miniatures were included for good measure.
- Tuscumbia’s Rattlesnake Saloon has been featured in publications around the world, and with good reason. The watering hole is wedged underneath a large outcropping of rock, giving it a cave-like appearance. See what all the fuss is about.
- Florence has its own unique dining venue—head up to the 360 Grille, a rotating restaurant perched in a tower overlooking the city.
- Wander through north Alabama long enough and you’ll find all sorts of caves, gorges, and rock formations. Among the prettiest of these is Cathedral Caverns, home to the 45’ Goliath, reportedly the largest stalagmite in the world
- Ivy Green, the birthplace of author and activist Helen Keller, is located in Tuscumbia and is open to the public
- With waterfalls, caves, strange rock formations, and hundreds of miles of trails, Bankhead National Forest is a must for lovers of the great outdoors
- Escape civilization for a bit at Huntsville’s Monte Sano State Park
- Step back in time at the Alabama Renaissance Faire in—where else?—Florence, Alabama’s own “Renaissance City”
Things to do within 60 miles of north Alabama
- Tiny Pisgah, Alabama, is home to Gorham’s Bluff, an elegant Southern inn on a high bluff overlooking the Tennessee River
- Lake Guntersville, the state’s largest lake, occupies an expansive 69,000 acres and offers all manner of water recreation as well as hiking and camping
- A stone’s throw from the Tennessee line is a popular hiking destination known as the Walls of Jericho—a deep cave with a waterfall. Getting there involves a hike which is considered difficult.
- Nearby Gadsden is home to Noccalula Falls, a scenic 90-foot waterfall surrounded by a 250-acre park
- North Alabama is home to several covered bridges, including the Horton Mill Bridge near Oneonta, which is reportedly the highest covered bridge over any US waterway
- Chattanooga is an easy drive from northeast Alabama and offers numerous attractions, including Songbirds Guitars, Ruby Falls, and the breathtaking Lookout Mountain
- Take a tour of the Jack Daniels Distillery in nearby Lynchburg, Tennessee
How to get to north Alabama
- Numerous Southern cities are within easy driving distance to north Alabama. The region is easily accessible by Interstates 65, 22, 20, and 59.
- If you’re coming from farther away, north Alabama can be reached by flying in to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, Chattanooga Airport, or Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
- Numerous taxis and shuttle services operate in the region’s larger cities, as do Uber and Lyft, but transportation within rural areas will likely be scarce.
When is the Best Time to Go to Northern Alabama?
There really are no bad times of the year to visit north Alabama. North Alabama gets the high summer temperatures that the rest of the state gets, but without the humidity, making the summer months pleasant. This is especially true at higher elevations. With a proliferation of flowering trees and shrubs, spring is a particularly lovely time in any part of the state. While Alabama will never get the spectacular fall color of New England, the northern part of the state unquestionably sees more of a change in the autumn months than counties farther south. After what can seem like an endless stretch of summer, renting a mountain cabin in north Alabama as the leaves began to change color and the evenings get cooler is one of the best experiences you can have in the state. Winters in Alabama are generally quite mild, but the northern part of the state is a bit of an exception to that rule. You’ll probably never need snowshoes there, but if snow falls anywhere in Alabama, it will typically be from Birmingham north. turn this