Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center was one of the only attractions in Huntsville that drew travelers. But these days, the “Rocket City” is soaring onto the radars of outdoor enthusiasts for an adventure scene that includes rivers worthy of a paddle, an improved climbing crag, and expanded trail system.
An impressive network of hiking and biking trails lie within minutes of a revitalized downtown that offers high-quality dining and a burgeoning craft beer scene. Just outside the city, the Flint River is now more accessible to paddlers, thanks to the addition of a local outfitter that provides boat rentals and shuttles. And, to the delight of climbers, conditions have improved as the local crag, Yellow Bluff, now that the Southeastern Climbers Coalition has made the area more accessible, cleaner, and safer.
Ready to see for yourself all that this charming Alabama city has to offer on the adventure front? From morning grits to a mid-day adventure and evening brew, here’s a guide to the perfect outdoor weekend in Huntsville.
Fuel Up for an Adventurous Day
Before a long morning hike or bike ride, head to A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard to carbo-load on French toast made with cranberry walnut bread and citrus or stout beer syrup. Located in uptown Huntsville, this refurbished lumberyard from the 1800s not only houses a restaurant, but also several bars and stages for entertainment, making it a good choice for dinner, too.
If you begin your morning with kayak trip down the Flint River, stop on the way for a New Orleans-inspired breakfast at Beignet Café (open Saturday and Sunday). The dirty grits with Andouille sausage and chicken will shake off the morning cobwebs. Grab a to-go order of donut-like beignets for a snack, and get blackened chicken po’boy sandwiches to pack in a cooler for lunch.
Paddle the Flint River
A tributary of the Tennessee River, the Flint River winds easily through Alabama’s Madison County, making for stress-free kayaking or a lazy float trip. The water doesn’t usually exceed Class I conditions, so beginners can paddle comfortably. To beat the crowds, get an early start and visit North Alabama Canoe and Kayak to rent boats and arrange a shuttle. For a 3-hour paddle down a quiet, forested corridor, put in at Alabama Highway 72 and take out at Little Cove Road.
Hike and Bike Monte Sano Mountain
Two of Huntsville’s premier outdoor destinations are located just minutes from downtown. Covering more than 2,000 acres, Monte Sano State Park has 22 miles of hiking, biking and running trails, while the Land Trust Monte Sano Preserve covers about 1,100 acres, with more than 20 miles of trails.
For a 2- to 3-hour loop hike over diverse terrain, begin at the Land Trust Bankhead Trailhead and take the gentle Bluff Line trail through a hardwood forest with small streams and falls. Then, turn on to the Waterline Trail to descend a single-track path or scramble down boulders in a creek basin to reach Three Caves. In the 1930s and 1940s, Three Caves operated as a limestone quarry; nowadays, hikers can now wind through its massive cave-like tunnels with ceilings more than 40 feet high. From Three Caves, The Alms House Trail weaves through remote woods to deliver you back to the trailhead.
A shorter loop (about four miles) in Monte Sano State Park explorers the Stone Cuts, one of the mountain’s most interesting features. From the biker’s parking lot, take the Sinks Trail to the Stone Cuts Trail, which passes through a lengthy hallway of stone. In these dark, rugged tunnels, you’ll forget that a city is a few miles away. From the Stone Cuts, return to the biker’s parking lot via the Mountain Mist and Sinks trails.
The Land Trust Monte Sano trails are also a big draw for mountain bikers. In Monte Sano State Park, beginners and kids will enjoy the relatively flat and winding Family Bike Trail, while intermediate and advanced riders can piece together several trails for challenging, long routes through mature hardwoods.
Intermediate riders can start from the state park biker's parking lot and head south on the Family Bike Trail for a couple of miles to O'Shaughnessy Point. Then, connect the Mountain Mist and Goat trails, eventually traversing north for about two miles to the Sinks Trail intersection at "three benches." Then, go right onto Sinks Trail for only 50 yards or so, and turn right onto Keith's Loop. This will take you to Logan's Point and the Mountain Mist Trail, which will carry you to a closed portion of Bankhead Parkway. Once there, take a left and follow the road up the mountain back to the eastern overlook and the biker's parking lot.
Climbing Yellow Bluff
In 2009, the Southeastern Climber’s Coalition started managing the Yellow Bluff climbing area 20 miles south of Huntsville. Their hard work is evident these days, as the bolts and general condition of the crag are better than ever. Easy to reach, with a half-mile approach, the 1,500-foot sandstone wall has more than 60 sport and trad routes ranging from 5.8 to 5.14a.
You’ll be fine with a 60-meter rope, and sport routes require a dozen quickdraws (plus a couple more to be safe). Also, review the rules of climbing at Yellow Bluff. Because the top of the cliff is private land, you can’t top-rope, top out, or set anchors at the top. Also, the far left of the cliff is on private land that’s off limits to climbers; camping is not allowed, either.
Cool Down with Craft Beer
While Alabama was the last state in the nation to lift a ban on home brewing, the Huntsville metro area is now flowing with craft beer. A handful of breweries have taprooms, and countless restaurants and bars carry local beers including the ubiquitous Monkeynaut, inspired by space-traveling primates. After a day of sweating outdoors, head downtown to the Old Town Beer Exchange , a modern watering hole where people gather at the wood and stone bar to enjoy local beer like Nom Nom Porter plus national favorites like Lagunitas Sucks from Petaluma, CA.
To sample more suds over a well-prepared meal, walk down Holmes Avenue to Below the Radar Brewhouse, which stocks a rotating selection of dozens of draft beers from all over the world. The dinner menu features healthy fare like grilled rainbow trout and spicy tofu stir-fry, plus more decadent offerings like the Brewmaster Burger with smoked gouda and Guinness bratwurst.
Savor a Locally Sourced Meal
A new addition to Huntsville, Farm Burger uses locally sourced, grass-fed beef to create arguably the best burgers in town. The basic Farm Burger comes with a lip-smacking sauce, plus Vermont white cheddar and caramelized onions. Vegetarians will love the Veggie Quinoa Burger with mixed greens, marinated beets, balsamic onions, and garlic aioli.
For a spot of morning or afternoon tea, head to Piper & Leaf at Lowe Mill, an old textile facility that now houses restaurants, small businesses, and working artists. Using ingredients from their own gardens, the owners of Piper & Leaf make custom teas like Summertime Chai and Front Porch Special.
Relax in A Mountain Cabin
Huntsville has plenty of great hotels, but the rustic cabins on Monte Sano will feed your outdoor soul. Built in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, each cozy cabin ($105 per night) has a stone fireplace, original wood flooring, and a screened-in porch. Cabins also feature a small kitchen, plus a bathroom with a shower. Be sure to secure your reservation well in advance, as they go quickly in peak seasons.