Beyond Space in Huntsville
Without a doubt the most impressive, and the most notable, attraction in Huntsville is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. But with closer investigation, visitors will soon see that there is much more to see and do in this north central Alabama city – like seeing world-class museums, visiting a botanical garden with the nation’s largest open-air butterfly house, and getting a bird’s eye view of the city atop a mountain with even more surprises.
Huntsville is a city with many surprises. One does not normally think much beyond the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, but there are other attractions just as notable in their own way. Many of the city’s attractions are located in the downtown area, which is easily accessible from Interstate 565, the connector between Huntsville and neighboring Decatur. Within the downtown area, there are the Huntsville Museum of Art, the Early Works Museum Complex, consisting of the Huntsville Depot and Museum, the Early Works Children’s Museum and the Alabama Constitution Village, and the Huntsville Visitors Center.
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Also along I-565, the Huntsville Botanical Gardens is a 110-acre natural paradise. With its gardens and displays, the botanical garden could be a destination in itself. To go along with the space and rocket theme, there is also Sci-Quest, a hands-on science center for children. At Sci-Quest kids can explore the mysteries of many things usually taken for granted.
When it comes to nature and the outdoors, Huntsville is not left out. Besides the botanical garden, there are plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. The city has foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on three sides. Just a short drive up a mountain is Monte Sano State Park, which offers an incredible view of the city below. Hiking trails, camping, picnicking, and bird watching are very popular activities.
The first stop should be the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau just off I-565 at Exit 19A. Their facility is adjacent to the restored depot and has all information of sights, sounds, and great eating spots in the city. Plus, it is an ideal place to get assistance in planning your itinerary.
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The nationally accredited Huntsville Museum of Art has a permanent collection and traveling exhibits throughout the year. In addition to its exhibitions, the museum offers art classes for children and adults, and has special programs. The Huntsville Museum of Art is located downtown in Big Spring International Park. As well as being impressive on the inside, the grounds of the museum are beautifully landscaped with a lake and fountain with plenty of area for picnics.
Early Works History Complex, near the Huntsville Museum of Art, offers three venues to discover history. The Children’s Museum has displays and opportunities to interactively learn about the history of Alabama. The Huntsville Depot, built in the mid-1800s, has old locomotives on its grounds and a Civil War section with a wall of graffiti left by soldiers.
The Alabama Constitution Village is a living history museum. As the site for the 1819 Alabama Constitutional Convention, villagers dressed in period outfits enlighten travelers of the way life was in the early 1800s. There are eight Federal style buildings on one square block in Huntsville’s downtown area containing the Village.
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If there were not enough history at the Early Works Complex, Huntsville has five historic districts on the National Register. The Twickenham Historic District contains many early nineteenth century homes, many of which were used during the Civil War by the Union army. Fortunate for the district – this saved them from being destroyed. The Old Town District contains Victorian homes built in the 1870 – 1930 range. Stop by the Visitors Center for information on the walking tours and directions.
For the traveler looking for the natural side of Huntsville, he will not be disappointed. The foothills of the Appalachian Mountains that surround the city on three sides hold many opportunities for the hiker, bicyclist, bird watcher, or anyone just wanting to be outside. The most popular of these foothill destinations is Monte Sano, which contains a state park of the same name, 547 acres held by the Land Trust of Huntsville and North Alabama for recreational purposes, and a museum and living history site called Burritt on the Mountain.
The Land Trust holds and protects almost 4000 acres and maintains three major mountain preserves, which are open to the public. On Monte Sano the Trust offers ten different trails in the acreage they support. A parking area for the trailheads is along Bankhead Parkway on Monte Sano. One trail follows an old railroad bed of the Monte Sano Railway of the late 1800’s. The original eight miles of track were laid in approximately four months in the year of 1888 in order to connect the Huntsville Depot to the Hotel Monte Sano. Time was of the essence because the hotel was actually a health resort built during the period of yellow fever, cholera, and diphtheria. The thought was that clean mountain air might help visitors recover more quickly.
The current trail is along one and a half miles of the original route of the Monte Sano Railway. Along the trail, there are evidences of the supports for the trestles and bridges. Large stones used for those supports still hold their position. Markers along the trail describe the old railroad features at each marked point. It makes for an interesting hike.
Nearer the base of Monte Sano, Burritt on the Mountain offers equally spectacular views of Huntsville below. Originally the estate of Dr. William Henry Burritt, these 167-acres have the mansion for tours, an interpretive museum, and a recreation of a nineteenth century farm complete with livestock. The mansion is of a unique architectural style and is listed on the Register of Historic Places.
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For birders there is the North Alabama Birding Trail, an addition to the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. Fifty bird watching sites are scattered throughout eleven North Alabama counties with several in the Huntsville - Madison County area. A brochure and map is available at the Visitors Center.
Besides the Monte Sano campground, there are a couple others that are convenient to Huntsville and its attractions. Ditto Landing, with a campground and marina, is located north of the Tennessee River bridge just off Memorial Highway (US Highway 231). Another campground in the area is at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Its campground has full hookups and is within walking distance of the most exciting attraction in Huntsville. So this one should be a first consideration if the Space Center is in your itinerary.
Speaking of the Space and Rocket Center
The most visited attraction is the US Space and Rocket Center. The museum tour explains the history of the US space program and the part Huntsville and Dr. Werner Von Braun played in shaping that history. Museum pieces include a Space Shuttle, Saturn rockets, a lunar rover, several of the actual Apollo crafts that made the first missions in orbit and to the moon, and many rockets that propelled those crafts and our astronauts into space. Don't miss the Davidson Center, where a full size Saturn V rocket is housed. Another important feature and popular part of the Center is the Space Camp program, In this youngsters, teachers, and other adults enroll and get intensive astronaut training.
Huntsville has a lot more to offer its visitors than the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, but that is still the most popular attraction and the reason most people come to Huntsville. But after they visit the Center and venture off other exits, they will soon understand the amount of things to do in Huntsville.