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Things to Do at the 8 National Parks in Alabama

Explore Alabama's history and culture at these national park sites.

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Alabama was the epicenter of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. A decade earlier, the Tuskegee Airmen formed the first black flying squadron in American history. But there is more to Alabama national park sites than profound history – there is also stunning beauty along scenic highways and tiny canyons.

Over a million visitors each year experience the history, recreation, and scenic drives in the 8 national parks in Alabama. Inside the parks, interactive exhibits and artifacts bring history to life. Outside, beautiful vistas patiently await your arrival.

Learn what you can do at one of these Alabama national park sites and read tips on making the most of your trip.

Note

The National Park Service lists 9 national park units in Alabama. The ninth unit I didn’t list here is the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. However, none of the five sections of the 60-mile trail are in Alabama.

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Map of National Parks in Alabama

How to use this map | Click the icon in the top-left corner to open the Map Legend, then click on any of the legend items to display more information. If you have a Google account, click the (very faint) star at the end of the map’s name to save this map to your account, then access the map from your smartphone during your trip.

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No. 1

Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument

The 1960s were a time of violent opposition to social change. In Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, Civil Rights activists were brutally attacked and black churches burned. Established in 2017, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument preserves historic sites and interprets the events.

Spread across four blocks downtown, the national monument includes the A.G. Gaston Motel, 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, and Bethel Baptist Church, about six miles away. Begin your visit at the A.G. Gaston Motel, where African-American travelers were provided first-class lodging starting in 1954. The motel hosted activists like Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy in 1963, converting Room 30 into the “War Room.”

Walk next door to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an educational center and museum. Permanent exhibits include several galleries depicting different moments of the civil rights movement.

Across the street, Kelly Ingram Park was the site of the first mass beatings of the Freedom Riders, a group of white and African American activists who booked public bus trips to protest segregated seating. Police frequently and violently clashed with peaceful protestors in the park. Today, the well-maintained park is a beautiful place to stroll in the national monument.

The 16th Street Baptist Church was the site of a firebombing by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. Exhibits interpret the Civil Rights movement and detail how African Americans lived in Birmingham in the 1960s.

Where to Stay

The Kelly Birmingham is a premium Hilton hotel in downtown Birmingham within walking distance of the national monument. Enjoy the spectacular city views in the spacious guest rooms and take advantage of the on-site restaurant and bar. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

The Fairfield Inn is the closest downtown hotel to the national monument. Guest rooms feature stunning city views. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

The Hampton Inn is a 20-minute walk to the national monument. The hotel features comfortable guest rooms and the best complimentary breakfast of any hotel chain. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

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Ernest “Rip” Patton, Jr. was 21 and a student at Tennessee State University when he joined the Freedom Rider Movement. (Top) Historic Greyhound Bus Depot. (Bottom) Photos Courtesy National Park Service

No. 2

Freedom Riders National Monument

In the early 1960s, groups of white and African American Civil Rights activists, calling themselves Freedom Riders, began booking rides on public buses, challenging the segregation system. On Mother’s Day 1961, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed a Greyhound bus six miles outside Anniston, Alabama.

When the Freedom Riders National Monument was established in 2017, the city donated the former Greyhound bus station to the National Park Service. The bus station is open on most weekends and features exhibits interpreting the local history of the Civil Rights Movement.

The National Park Service has preserved the site of the firebombing outside of town, but no interpretive signs have been installed yet.

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Where to Stay

Hotel Finial is a curiously spectacular hotel in a Victorian home. A few minutes from the national monument, it’s a great place to spend the night in cozy guest rooms. Take advantage of the outdoor swimming pool, walk through the garden, and enjoy the complimentary breakfast. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

Hampton Inn is fifteen minutes from the national monument in nearby Oxford. The hotel features an outdoor swimming pool, suites with a sofa bed, and the best complimentary breakfast of any hotel chain. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

La Quinta is a budget-friendly hotel with an outdoor swimming pool and comfortable guest rooms. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

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A reenactment cannon firing drill at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. Photo courtesy National Park Service
A reenactment cannon firing drill at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. Photo courtesy National Park Service

No. 3

Horseshoe Bend National Military Park

At the beginning of the American Revolution, British Indian Agents attempted to persuade Cherokees to join their fight against the Patriots. After the United States won independence, British agents continued to influence Native Americans. This ultimately led to the young country declaring war against Great Britain in 1812.

From 1813-1814, the Creek War – a local theater of the War of 1812 – dominated the area of present-day Alabama and the Gulf Coast. What had started as a territorial dispute between Native American tribes escalated when British and Spanish officials supplied the Creeks with weapons and turned them against the United States.

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On March 27, 1814, General Andrew Jackson utterly defeated the Red Sticks, a faction of the Creek nation. Over 800 Upper Creeks died during the battle, the largest loss of life for Native Americans in a single battle in history. The result of the battle created a new national hero and led to a vast expansion of the United States.

In 1959, the 2,040-acre Horseshoe Bend National Military Park was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Start at the visitor center with several interpretive exhibits detailing the local theater of the war and the everlasting results of the battle. The park’s official orientation film, The Battle of Horseshoe Bend, is 22 minutes long and plays throughout the day.

The 3-mile Tour Road that loops through the battlefield beside the Tallapoosa River is the best way to explore the park. A 2.8-mile nature trail winds across the battlefield and passes near Tohopeka Village, the site of a Creek village in the early 1800s.

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Mushroom Rock is an iconic place in the preserve. A small parking area offers a chance to get out of the car for a photo or two.
Mushroom Rock is an iconic place in the preserve. A small parking area offers a chance to get out of the car for a photo or two.

No. 4

Little River Canyon National Preserve

Lookout Mountain is a curious geological formation. At its northern end, the mountain rises suddenly above the Tennessee River and Chattanooga, the location of the infamous “Battle Above the Clouds” during the Civil War. But the long mountain stretches across the Alabama border almost as far south as Gadsden.

Near the southern end, the Little River Canyon National Preserve is one of the deepest canyons in the southeast, as much as 600′ deep. Established in 1992, the 15,288-acre preserve protects the river and provides outdoor recreation opportunities.

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The best way to explore the linear park is to go for a scenic drive on the 11-mile Little River Canyon Rim Parkway. The northern end of the route begins at Jacksonville State University’s Little River Canyon Center – the preserve’s official visitor center – on Alabama Highway 35. The route continues along the western rim of the canyon to Eberhart Point Overlook, where the road continues as Alabama Highway 176.

The scenic route features eight overlooks with spectacular views and the photogenic Mushroom Rock, a natural formation that resembles its namesake. Bicyclists enjoy pedaling along the two-lane road, but mountain bikers prefer the more rugged Wilderness Management Area with 23 miles of off-road trails.

Little River Fall is the most popular waterfall in the preserve, and it’s easy to see. From the parking lot near the visitor center, an accessible boardwalk leads to an overlook at the base of the 45′ cascading waterfall. For a more adventurous hike, the 1.5-mile out-and-back Little Falls Trail follows the canyon’s eastern rim before descending 137 stone steps to the canyon’s bottom at Little Falls.

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Where to Stay

Fort Payne is a 10-15 minute drive from the north entrance to the Little River Canyon National Preserve.

Hampton Inn is an excellent hotel with an indoor swimming pool and the best complimentary breakfast of any hotel chain. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

Holiday Inn Express features an outdoor swimming pool and a queen suite with a sofa bed perfect for traveling families. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

The Quality Inn is a nice hotel with an outdoor swimming pool on the north end of town, a decent budget-friendly place to stay. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

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Te-lah-nay’s Wall features a few short paths surrounded by the stone walls. (Top) A scenic overlook offers a chance to see the distant Pharr Mounds, one of several Native American burial grounds between Mississippi and Alabama. (Bottom)
Te-lah-nay’s Wall features a few short paths surrounded by the stone walls. (Top) A scenic overlook offers a chance to see the distant Pharr Mounds, one of several Native American burial grounds between Mississippi and Alabama. (Bottom)

No. 5

Natchez Trace Parkway

The 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway is the second-longest parkway in the National Park System after the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. The parkway preserves and interprets the Old Natchez Trace, a trading path traveled by Native Americans for centuries. The two-lane scenic road connects Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, cutting across a small corner of Alabama near The Shoals – the cities of Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, and Florence.

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About 100 sites on the Natchez Trace Parkway provide a glimpse into thousands of years of history. Some highlights include Native American mounds, stands, or inns where travelers could spend a night, sections of the old trail like Sunken Trace, and the Meriwether Lewis Site, where the famed leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was murdered in his sleep.

The fifty-mile section through Alabama includes the 2,000-year-old Pharr Mounds, Cave Spring, Buzzard Roost Spring, and Rock Spring.

But the most intriguing is Te-lah-nay’s Wall. From 1831-1850, thousands of Native Americans were forcibly marched across the United States to reservations in Indian Territory – present-day Oklahoma. Te-lah-nay and her sister, Whana-le, were two of the natives to lose their home in Alabama. After spending one winter in her new home, Te-lah-nay secretly returned home. Her great-great-grandson, Tom Hendrix, spent 30 years building a series of stone walls as a memorial to her strength and courage.

Te-lah-nay’s Wall is private property and not administered by the National Park Service. But the property is adjacent to the Natchez Trace Parkway and easily accessed near Milepost 338.

Did You Know?

In 2018, I began driving the Natchez Trace Parkway in Natchez, Mississippi. The National Park Service advises that it takes about 11 hours to drive the entire parkway to Nashville. But it took me thirty days. During that road trip adventure, I spent 2-3 nights in every destination and several nights camping on the parkway.

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Where to Stay

Muscle Shoals and Florence are about 35 minutes from the Natchez Trace Parkway, but it’s the best place to spend a night or two while traveling this section of the parkway.

Microtel Inn is an excellent budget-friendly hotel that feels like much more. Enjoy the outdoor swimming pool and comfortable guest rooms. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

Hampton Inn is about a 10-minute drive to downtown eateries. The hotel features a small indoor swimming pool and hot tub, rooms with a sofa bed, and the best complimentary breakfast of any hotel chain. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

Treat yourself to some luxury at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. Take a lap in the outdoor swimming pools and dinner at the 360 Grille – a revolving restaurant at the top of Renaissance Tower offering spectacular views of the Tennessee River. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

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No. 6

Russell Cave National Monument

In the 1950s, archaeologists discovered artifacts in an Alabama cave representing over 10,000 years of human existence, one of the greatest discoveries in history. In 1961, the National Geographic Society donated the cave to the National Park Service, and Russell Cave National Monument was established.

Begin at the visitor center with the 7-minute orientation film to learn about the Native American history of the cave, the early archaeological discoveries, and how the limestone cave was formed. Then, explore the museum to see artifacts collected from the cave.

A wooden boardwalk connects the visitor center to Russell Cave – and it’s free to walk! It takes about fifteen minutes to get to the cave to begin your self-guided tour. If you’re eager for another hike, the 1.2-mile nature trail winds along the hillside above the cave’s entrance.

Where to Stay

Finding a place to stay near Russell Cave National Monument is problematic. The remote national monument is about 45 minutes west of Chattanooga – and in a different time zone. That will make hotel bookings and dinner trouble, but not impossible.

Best Western in Kimball, TN, is the closest hotel. Enjoy the outdoor swimming pool and comfortable guest rooms at this hotel. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

The Hampton Inn in Scottsdale, AL, is a 30-minute drive along U.S. Highway 76. The excellent hotel features an outdoor swimming pool and the best complimentary breakfast of any hotel chain. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

La Quinta is located at the base of Lookout Mountain along Interstate 26. The affordable hotel features comfortable guest rooms in a great location. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

The Chattanoogan Hotel is not quite within walking distance to downtown, but there is plenty to do along Broad Street near the hotel. Cozy furnishings in the guest rooms and common areas will have you feeling right at home. Take advantage of the on-site restaurant and bar. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

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Museum hangars at Moton Field site. (Top) A full-size reproduction P-51 Mustang fighter plane in the park’s museum. (Bottom) Photos courtesy NPS/Aaliyah Jones

No. 7

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

African Americans were not allowed to pilot aircraft during WWI. But, by WWII, Congress authorized funds for an African-American pilot training program. In 1941, the Army Air Corps created the 99th Pursuit Squadron – later called the 99th Fighter Squadron. Initially located in Illinois, the unit transferred to Alabama. In 1943, the first all-black flying group was the first air squadron deployed overseas.

The five airfields where the pilots trained surrounded Tuskegee, Alabama.

In 1998, the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site was established at Moton Field, the original training facility built in 1941. Hangar One was restored in 2008 and opened as a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Hangar Two Museum was completed in 2014 and features a 27-minute award-winning film about the elite WWII fighting squadron.

Outside, over twenty exhibits continue the story of the airmen. A scenic overlook provides a great place to watch small private planes take off from Moton Field Municipal Airport.

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Where to Stay

Without hotels in Tuskegee, you’ll have to drive about 20 minutes into Auburn to spend the night.

The Hampton Inn features an outdoor swimming pool, rooms with a sleeper sofa, and the best complimentary breakfast of any hotel chain. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

The Holiday Inn Express also features an outdoor swimming pool and rooms with a sleeper sofa, but only a continental breakfast is included. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

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The Carver science classroom is located in the visitor center. (top) The history classroom is used for curriculum-based education programs or formal interpretive programs. (bottom) Photos courtesy National Park Service

No. 8

Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site

In 1881, 25-year-old Booker T. Washington arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama, as the newly hired president of the Normal School for Colored Teachers. The school’s curriculum included construction, domestic services, and farming methods. The following year, Washington purchased a 100-acre former plantation to give the fledgling school a permanent home.

In 1896, Washington asked George Washington Carver to lead the new Agricultural Department. Moving to Tuskegee, Carver taught courses at the university for the next 47 years. During his tenure, Carver developed new farming techniques that revolutionized the industry.

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Today, the Tuskegee Institute is a historically black college with a 5,200-acre campus, over 2,000 full-time students, and offers 43 bachelor’s degrees, 17 master’s degrees, and five doctoral degrees.

In 1974, the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site was established on the university’s campus. The historic site, located on the eastern side of campus, includes the George Washington Carver Museum and the university home of Booker T. Washington.

Visit the museum to explore the exhibits on Carver’s life and contributions. Then, take a free guided tour of The Oaks, the home of Carver, during his years at the university. Finally, take a self-guided tour across the historic campus to see additional interpretive displays and monuments.

Where to Stay

Without hotels in Tuskegee, you’ll have to drive about 20 minutes into Auburn to spend the night.

The Hampton Inn features an outdoor swimming pool, rooms with a sleeper sofa, and the best complimentary breakfast of any hotel chain. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

The Holiday Inn Express also features an outdoor swimming pool and rooms with a sleeper sofa, but only a continental breakfast is included. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com

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Frequently Asked Questions

How many national parks are in Alabama?

There are no national parks in Alabama. However, there are 8 national park sites: Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, Freedom Riders National Monument, Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Natchez Trace Parkway, Russell Cave National Monument, Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, and Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site.

What is the most popular national park in Alabama?

The Little River Canyon National Preserve is Alabama’s most-visited national park unit, with over 400,000 annual visits. By comparison, about 1.3 million people visit national park units in Alabama each year.

What can you do at Alabama national parks?

More than anything else, Alabama national parks are about history – thousands of years of history. Explore ancient archaeology at Russell Cave National Monument, visit the final battlefield of the War of 1812, learn about the first African American air squadron at Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, and see the historic sites pivotal in the 1960s at the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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