Alabama's top tourist attraction, based on paid admission, is the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, according to the Alabama Tourism Department. This summer the center will step up its offerings with the addition of the nationally recognized exhibit "Stars Wars ... Where Science Meets Imagination." The center, recognized as one of the most comprehensive U.S. manned space flight hardware museums in the world, is one of many attractions in North Alabama that will be featured in the Rocket's summer series called Traveling Wonders.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Summer season is here.

Have you filled up your activity calendar yet'

In North Alabama, that's not a difficult task. Summertime is ripe with plenty of things to see and do within just an hour or two of Huntsville.

Here, at the Redstone Rocket, we're going to try to help you plan your summer just a little bit. Beginning next week, we will offer you a glimpse at the travel destinations of North Alabama and southern Tennessee in a summer series called Traveling Wonders.

So, in our quest to find you fun info on things to see and do, we made a visit to the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitor Center in downtown Huntsville on Church Street, where we discovered lots of brochures on sites, festivals, attractions, restaurants and hotels in the area. We also discovered a welcoming tourism staff willing to help sightseers plan their outings. They even provide some discounts to attractions.

"We have lots of brochures to share with visitors," said Roianne Little, visitor information assistant at the center. "We can even help them plan an itinerary. We have a lot of people coming in here every day, both local residents and visitors to our area. And we love to tell them about all the attractions they can enjoy."

Planning will be key if you want to make the most of summer weekends and holidays as you travel throughout the area.

"There are 186 events between Memorial Day and Labor Day," said Charles Winters, executive vice president of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"There are activities, sporting events and exhibits as well as special events at our attractions. It's a wide open, huge summer this year."

The 2010 summer tourist season in North Alabama will be big for many reasons. But two that stand out - the continuing trend for residents to save money by visiting "backyard" destinations that save on travel expenses and the plethora of "big city" special events that will be offered in Huntsville this year.

"We want local residents to stay here and enjoy themselves," Winters said. "This area is very, very blessed with lots of offerings. For the outdoor enthusiast, there is sailing, boating, hiking and biking. We have professional and semiprofessional sports teams. We have eclectic and art-based activities. Our community is very fortunate to have a diversity of attractions so that you can plan a vacation right in your backyard."

This summer the U.S. Space & Rocket Center will be stepping up its offerings with the nationally acclaimed "Stars Wars ... Where Science Meets Imagination" exhibit, June 25 through Sept. 6.
Traveling Wonders:
A Summer Fun Series

"The Space & Rocket Center expects 100,000 to 150,000 visitors for the exhibit. You will see people visiting here just for the exhibit and then you will also see local people who maybe haven't visited the Space & Rocket Center for 10 years," Winters said.

"Sci-Quest will have a blockbuster exhibit as well with their 'Space ... A Journey to the Future' where people will actually get to touch moon rocks and a rock from Mars."
The Sci-Quest exhibit will run June 19 through Sept. 6.

"Both of these exhibits are next door to the nation's largest butterfly house at the Botanical Garden. Or you can go up Monte Sano to Burritt Museum and see the original greenhouse built in the 1930s and a home where straw was used as insulation," Winters said.

"We have such a wide variety of all kinds of attractions right here in the Huntsville. It would take quite some time to explore all of them. At the same time, you can get to any attraction in Huntsville and Madison County in 15 or 20 minutes. We have a lot of those large city amenities and services, but with small town convenience."

In fact, Huntsville can claim two of the state's top tourist attractions. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is ranked as the number one tourist attraction based on charged admission, according to the Alabama Tourism Department. It had 470,000 visitors last year. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which includes the Hampton Cove golf course in Huntsville, was ranked second with 465,539 visitors.

Huntsville/Madison County attractions also include Constitution Hall, Earlyworks Museum, Flying Monkey Arts Center, Veterans Memorial Museum, Harrison Brothers Hardware Store, Huntsville Museum of Art, Merrimack Theater, Ditto Landing, Green Mountain Nature Trail and Sharon Johnston Park.

But, there's even more outside of Huntsville, which can be thought of as the hub of a wheel with many "spokes" - or attractions -- branching out throughout the area, such as Point Mallard Park in Decatur (the state's number one seasonal attraction with 138,562 visitors), the Helen Keller Museum in Florence, Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Guntersville State Park, Smith Lake in Cullman County, Cathedral Caverns near Scottsboro, Spring Valley Beach in Blountsville and the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn.

"We are a local and regional site for attractions," Winters said. "We cross promote many attractions in North Alabama. A lot of times we are the hub and we encourage folks to travel out of Huntsville to various attractions. We want visitors - and our residents - to stay here, enjoy what we offer, and take advantage of the region's best selection of lodging, restaurants and shopping. But we want them to also experience the area as a whole."

Besides "city" attractions offered in Huntsville, Decatur and Gadsden, North Alabama offers a lot of diversity at its state parks, said Kay Donaldson, vice president of marketing for the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association.

"We have the luxury of having five state parks within an hour's drive of each other," she said. "Those are great for the outdoor enthusiast who likes hiking trails, canoeing and zip lining. This region offers a great opportunity for people who want to enjoy cool places like Sci-Quest and the Space & Rocket Center, but who also enjoy the outdoors."

Those attractions are augmented by festivals and concerts offered in the region during the summer months. Those festivals include the Summabamma Jam at the Von Braun Center, City Lights Concert Series at Burritt Museum, Daylilly Festival at the Huntsville Botanical Garden, Downtown Summerfest in downtown Huntsville, Armed Forces Celebration in Huntsville, Spirit of America Festival in Decatur, Helen Keller Festival in Tuscumbia,W.C. Handy Festival in Florence and Blue Grass Festival in Rogersville. Some festival offerings are quite unique to the character of North Alabama's towns, such as the Sand Mountain Potato Festival in July and the Fyffe UFO Festival in August.

"There are a few things that people will travel for, and that's music and food, and a place to get away," Donaldson said. "We have so much for people to do and you wouldn't believe the number of people who don't even know what's right here in their backyard. You would be amazed at what you can find here for your backyard vacation."

The region offers affordable alternatives to pricey vacations that include high travel costs.

"There are tons of things people can do to get out and enjoy themselves and still have a vacation. But they don't have to spend a fortune to get there," Donaldson said.

"And the added benefit is it helps you to learn about North Alabama, its history, culture and people."

In the next few months, the Rocket will share some of those regional destinations with readers. If you have suggestions of attractions you would like the Rocket to feature, send them to

But, if you can't wait to plan your "backyard" vacations, information on the region's attractions and special events can be found at the Convention & Visitors website at or at the Alabama Mountain Lakes website at You can also visit the Convention & Visitors Bureau's visitor centers in downtown Huntsville on Church Street and on the downtown square in the historic Regions Bank building, at the Huntsville International Airport and at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center during the Star Wars exhibit. Attraction brochures are also located at the Redstone Arsenal visitors center at Gate 9.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16