Summer’s here, and that means it’s time for the big family vacation, right? Not necessarily. Due to time and budget constraints, plenty of families can’t always pull off a major trip while the kids are on summer break. Fortunately, in Alabama you have several great options for day trips that require a short drive and will entertain the whole family. Even if you do take a big-time family vacation, these days trips can fill up the remaining summer calendar when kids need additional activities to occupy their time.
Whether you and your kids like to hike, explore Alabama’s history or get an up-close look at fascinating wildlife, you’ll find plenty of rewarding excursions in the state. As you kick off your summer, consider these 10 great day trips.
It’s dark. It’s mysterious. It’s a lot of fun! The Dismals Canyon in Phil Campbell is a must-see stop for you and your family. A 1.5-mile trail winds through the bottom of the canyon where sandstone bluffs tower above you and giant boulders covered in brilliant green moss brighten the path. The trail leads you to the picturesque Weeping Bluff and the tumbling waters of Secret Falls and Rainbow Falls. Kids can let their imagination run wild as they wind through the stone passageways of the Witches’ Cavern and cross a swinging wooden bridge that looks like something from Tom Sawyer Island. After your hike, fill your bellies at the on-site old-time soda fountain and grill, and stick around for a nighttime tour of the canyon when the glowing Dismalities illuminate the rock walls.
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge
For a fun and educational day trip, head to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, where you’ll encounter swamps, a fascinating landscape of sinkholes and caves, and lots of wildlife. Throughout the year, the refuge hosts more than 2,000 geese, 75,000 ducks, and countless other rare and endangered birds, including the Sandhill Crane and the Whooping Crane.
The refuge has so much to offer that you might find a day won’t cover it all. There is year-round fishing (a state freshwater license is required), hiking five designated trails, more than 100 miles of old dirt roads to bike, regular staff-led nature programs, and the interpretive center where you can learn more about this amazing refuge. The Visitor Center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday from March to September, and it’s closed on July 4.
Monte Sano State Park Von Braun Planetarium
Monte Sano State Park is just an overall great park with a myriad of hiking and biking trails, great camping options, and a little something extra—the Von Braun Planetarium
The planetarium was the brainchild of famous rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who was instrumental in helping the U.S. land on the moon. Today, the planetarium is operated by the Von Braun Astronomical Society, which opens the doors of the planetarium every Saturday at 7:30 p.m. for a fascinating tour of the stars. Sometimes the presentations are given by actual NASA astronauts. Following the show, weather permitting, the Society takes you outside to view the night sky through telescopes. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students, and free for children under 6.
Cathedral Caverns State Park
Named for its cathedral-like appearance, Cathedral Caverns in Woodville is as amazing as its name implies. Originally opened in 1950 by the property’s owner, the cavern was sold to the state in 1987 and turned into a state park. The cavern’s opening measures 126 feet wide and 25 feet tall, which might be a world record, according to park officials.
Inside, you will be cooled by nature’s natural air conditioning that keeps the cave at 60 degrees year round. You’ll see a "frozen" geologic waterfall, stalagmite forest, and a stalagmite that is 27 feet tall but only 3 inches in diameter. The cave is also home to Goliath, one of the largest stalagmites in the world, measuring 45 feet tall with a circumference of 243 feet.
Zipline Red Mountain or Lake Guntersville
On a zipline, kids can imagine that they’re birds, soaring through the forest among the treetops. Requiring no real technical climbing skills, a zip line provides kids and adults a chance to get a unique perspective of the forest and enjoy a bit of a thrill ride. Adults and kids at least 6 years old will find great courses to "fly" at Red Mountain Park in Birmingham. The Vulcan Materials Zip Trip is a one-hour glide above and through the canopy of the park. Seven zip-lines, a sky bridge, and rope swing take you over the mining history of the city with incredible views. There is also the Mega Zip at Kaul that starts 80 feet high atop the park’s adventure tower, and then heads downhill at speeds up to 30 mph. You can run it solo or race your friend in a tandem run.
At Lake Guntersville State Park in north Alabama, the Screaming Eagle zipline system includes 19 ziplines, including one that stretches 2,020 feet across a forested canyon. A highlight is the 80-foot wooden tower that provides access to lines with unmatched views of the river valley and rolling hills stretching for miles.
If you want to zip with kids, the Level 1 course accommodates children at least 8 years old, and Level 2 allows kids 10 and older. Both courses last about two and a half hours, depending on the size of the group. While zipline tours don’t require a lot of strength or stamina, you’ll get some exercise on the Level 2 course as you pull yourself up and across a variety of metal and wood suspension bridges.
It’s not SeaWorld, but rather a chance to see playful dolphins up close and personal in their own environment. Whether you want to paddle with Flipper yourself, or take a guided cruise into the Gulf to see them, it’s well worth spending a day with them. However you want to visit with the dolphins, the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are lined with outfitters ready to help you have an experience you won’t soon forget.
Cheaha State Park
The state’s highest mountain, Cheaha, is the backdrop for a wonderful Alabama summer day trip, or maybe an overnight adventure.
Cheaha State Park has a number of easy walking and hiking trails that will take you to some of the most beautiful panoramic views of the Talladega National Forest from atop rock outcroppings like Pulpit Rock and Bald Rock. Then, when you’re finished hiking and biking, take in dinner and a show at the park’s Vista Cliffside Restaurant. The show? A dazzling sunset over the mountains. Then, finish the day with a dip in the adjoining swimming pool.
Alabama Nature Center
The Alabama Nature Center (ANC), a project of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, is located in Millbrook and sets the bar high for fun, educational learning. But don’t tell the kids it’s educational. They won’t even realize it.
ANC is known for its work with public schools and colleges, but the public is invited to visit and learn as well, especially on Saturdays when the park hosts a wide variety of talks and tours.
About 5 miles of fun interpretive trails crisscross the grounds of the nature center and lead you through forests and fields to visit creeks and ponds. There are informative presentations about nature, guided hikes with ANC’s biologists, and the hands-on Discovery Hall.
ANC is open to the public Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 per person, and free for children under 3.
Alabama’s Historic Gulf Forts
They were the centerpiece of one of the U.S. Navy’s most historic battles—the Civil War’s "Battle of Mobile Bay," during which Union Admiral David Farragut, after seeing one of his ironclads sunk with most of the crew onboard, uttered those famous words, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Today, the massive stone fortresses of Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines sit quietly at the mouth of Mobile Bay, almost as if they were still guarding it from invaders from the Gulf. You will feel the history as you walk the ramparts and pass the long-quiet cannons.
Summertime is the best time to visit these forts as both host regular guided tours and demonstrations. Travel between the forts is just as much fun for the kids and the kid in you, as you ride the Mobile Bay Ferry, which lands right next to each fort on opposite sides of the bay.
Five Rivers Delta Center
On the Causeway (US Highway 90/98) that spans Mobile Bay between Spanish Fort and Mobile, you will find the "Gateway to the Delta," the Five Rivers Delta Center.
The center is a fascinating educational tour of the country’s second largest river delta, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta (aka "America’s Amazon"). The exhibit hall highlights the wildlife of the delta and shows representations of life on the delta over the centuries. Also, the center’s theater regularly shows movies about the area.
When you’re ready to get outside for some fresh air, the center is your gateway to adventure. Kayak rentals are available so you can paddle a bit of the delta yourself. In addition, there’s an eco-tour boat that takes groups to see alligators. When you’ve worked up an appetite you can find plenty of seafood restaurants on the Causeway.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for RootsRated Media in partnership with BCBS of AL.