Big Spring Park, Huntsville, AL
After 30 some odd years in town, you’d think I could show you around like a local. It could be I can. I moved here years ago with my now ex. I stayed, raised my kids and settled in pretty good. Huntsville has a lot going on. Worth a visit for sure. I’ll give you a dime tour of the area history, and then a rundown of my favorite must-see places if you are in town, or take a notion to visit.
First off, Huntsville is a high tech working town. It is in no way a tourist trap. If you are looking for run of the mill tourist activities, I don’t know. Well anyway. Among the top 25 most educated cites in the country, it routinely makes somebody’s list of best places to live and work. Known as “The Rocket City,” Huntsville is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the world famous Space Camp, and the Space and Rocket Center (i.e., The Space Museum), which is also host to the famous Moonbuggy Races. It’s a nerdy kind of town, and the folks here like it that way. Even the attractions are nerdy.
Huntsville is home to a research and development industry rivaled only by the Silicon Valley, and when I say rivaled, on any given day, there is some discussion as to which holds the current lead. The link has it second, this instant. So much for the illiterate redneck Alabama stereotype. We do so love our stereotypes though. It has been said that we are not really illiterate, we just talk like we are to annoy outsiders. It has also been said that if you work in science, engineering or high tech, sooner or later you are, at the very least, going be heading to Huntsville on business. If you are, this article will give you a few pointers to help you enjoy your visit as well.
It’s not just a high tech area though, there is actually a lot of history in the area, and a lot of it was of an economic nature. Big Spring was crucial to the early development of both the area and the city. In 1805, John Hunt, the founding father of Huntsville, built his house near the spring and the city grew up around him. Part of what was formerly known as Indian Creek Canal, now Big Spring, was at one time upgraded to transport cotton to the Tennessee River.
Child workers at Merrimac Mill
The mill town era came after the Civil War, and history was made/changed when a famous photographer traveled through the area and took pictures of some very young workers in the process. It wasn’t just in Huntsville, and it wasn’t just the mills, but his pictures were instrumental in changing the child labor laws in this country. One of the old mills, Lowe Mill, is now a trendy arts center. If walls could talk… It is sure worth a walk through that place.
In another era, Huntsville was known as the watercress capital of the world. All of my life, I had always associated watercress with fancy French restaurants. But watercress grows wild in these parts. It was cultivated here too, and shipped out to fancy restaurants around the world. To be the watercress capital of the world is going to take a whole lot more than a walk down to the nearest creek. To me, the sad thing is, although watercress was considered among the earliest health foods, highly nutritious, I am not sure the locals ate it that much. I never ever had it growing up. That era ended when the railroad route that transported the watercress was changed and it could no longer be shipped in a timely manner.
Not to worry though, Huntsville was in for an unprecedented period of growth when Von Braun and his group came (were actually brought in as POWs) to town, to help the US of A win the space race to the moon. Huntsville has been known as “The Rocket City” ever since.
Despite all the advances and economic efforts of the area, Huntsville has never been a wonderfully popular tourist destination. Not that it’s not a good place to visit. People are just much more likely to come here to work than to play, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time when you are here.
The other thing about a good solid working town is that, on the whole, it is pretty family friendly, which makes it a pretty good choice for a weekend family get-away and there is plenty to do for the families in the area too. I know, when our kids were small, sometimes we’d be on a trip somewhere, scratching our heads as to what we could actually do that was suitable for the whole family, you are not going to have that problem in Huntsville. And I like it that way.
Although this list is in no way comprehensive, it will give you some ideas as to what you can do while you are in town. If you are on business travel and there is an option for the family to travel too, the options are good.
- Huntsville Visitor Information Center — Start here, or at least visit their website. The center is well stocked, has ample information, brochures and sometimes special offers on area attractions. Click here for a visitor’s guide.
- Big Spring Park — Just a couple blocks down from the visitor center (on Church Street), Big Spring Park is pretty close to a must-see in the area, especially if you have kids. With cherry trees, a Japanese bridge, ducks, geese, and giant koi (goldfish), some consider it the best-kept secret in town. There is no admission, but make sure you bring change for the parking meters. This was an absolute favorite family outing when the kids were small.
- Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment Center — Making its home in one of the old mill buildings, Lowe Mill is the largest privately owned arts facility in the US. They are not open everyday, so check the calendar before you head out. Although the focus is on the visual arts, the performing arts can be a real treat there as well. Be sure to catch a ride in the old time working elevator, look around at the floors, walls, and ceilings, you can sure feel the history in that place.
- Monte Sano State Park — In the foothills of the Appalachians, there are incredible mountain views, picnic tables, playgrounds, hiking trails, and camping facilities. The trails are popular among the hiking crowd, as are the camp grounds. The park is definitely family friendly. When the kids were small, we’d pack up a picnic breakfast and head to the playground to start the day.
- US Space and Rocket Center (known as the Space Museum, not to be confused with Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), which is the NASA facility) — A whole lot of rocket history happened in Huntsville and the Space Museum does a world class job of telling the story. If you haven’t been there yet or it has been a while, plan to spend the day. I would suggest planning to see one of the IMAX movies about halfway through your visit. That will give you a break from walking around and then you can continue your tour. There is also a reasonably priced cafe and a museum store with all kinds of cool stuff for nerdy sorts.
- Early Works Museum Complex — This is actually a group of children’s museums, which include Constitution Hall Village, the Huntsville Depot & Museum, and of course, Early Works. This attraction is very popular with elementary school aged kids.
- Harrison Brothers Hardware — Up the stairs and down the block from Big Spring Park, on the courthouse square, Harrison Brothers is an antique hardware store. This may well be the oldest tourist attraction in Huntsville. Halfway between a hardware store and a museum, it’s a step back in time. Go there for your historic souvenirs.
- Burritt on the Mountain — With restored cabins and historical buildings, the Burritt Museum is a must for history buffs. The grounds offer one of the best mountain views in the area. There are also some interesting hiking trails. It’s a good place for a picnic and the trails are relatively family friendly.
Huntsville Botanical Gardens
- The Huntsville Botanical Garden — For garden buffs, the Botanical Garden is worth a visit. Over the years, they have added all kinds of kid friendly features, like playgrounds and water features (i.e., places to get wet), so the younger set can have a really good time, while their parents enjoy the gardens. In the scheme of things, it is rather pricey for a botanical garden, but if it is in the budget, the whole family will have a good time there.
- Twickenham and Old Town Historic Districts — Huntsville has long been popular with history buffs. There are guided tours at different times of the year. If you are in town when there is a tour, it is worth your time. Otherwise, they generally have self-guided walking tour brochures at the Visitor Center. On a side note, although history buffs will surely have a good time, the walking tours were not the most popular family activity I ever shared with the kids.
- Bridge Street Town Centre — You feel like you have stepped back into an old European town, actually it reminds me of a Disney town, sans the characters. There are street musicians, fountains, and water features that kids enjoy when the weather is warm. Bridge Street is a popular place to stay for those coming to town on business. It is close to Research Park, MSFC and Redstone Arsenal. There is a hotel, restaurants, shops, walking trail, and even a movie theater, all in walking distance, which can be really nice if you are on travel. I’ve never got into Bridge Street when it comes to serious shopping needs. But if you are in town on travel and have a choice, you will very likely both enjoy your stay there and find it convenient to your business needs.
- Craft Beers — In the last few years, craft beers have taken the town by storm, a veritable brew-lover’s paradise. If you are in town, wondering about what to do in the evening, hard day and you want to kick back with a good drink, try one of the local brews. On this, I am linking an article type guide with reviews of the various. The writer does a good job, although it is surely motivation for me to get out and do my own “research.”
Image Credit: Child Workers at Merrimac Mills by Lewis Hine, 1910
Image Credit: Saturn V, NASA Image
Image Credit: Botanical Gardens by Regina Garson
Image Credit: Big Spring Park by Regina Garson