Our Top Picks for Outdoor Fun in Northern Alabama
Who’s ready for some out of state fun?!
We recently took a trip to Northern Alabama for my birthday (because when the waterfalls aren’t flowing in Arkansas in August, you’ve gotta go chase them somewhere else!).
I’ve gotta say, I was absolutely shocked in the best kind of way!
When I go to Alabama from Arkansas, I’m either going to the beach or driving through from Orlando. I had no idea what else Alabama had besides some pretty amazing SEC football teams, and quite frankly, I was blown away by the natural geological wonders and beauty!!
DISCLAIMER: We were compensated for our visit, but our opinions are completely our own.
We did this trip over the course of about three and a half days across the northern quarter of the state and it was only about 6 hours from Little Rock…the perfect weekender!!
Whether you are a nature lover, an adrenaline junkie, or simply looking for a fun-filled family getaway, Northern Alabama has something for EVERYONE. From hiking through picturesque trails in the stunning mountains to exploring the crystal-clear waters of its waterfalls, there is no shortage of outdoor activities to indulge in. Check out all the fun we had when visiting!
A must-visit attraction in Northern Alabama: Rattlesnake Saloon
Our first stop in the state took us to lunch at Rattlesnake Saloon! I had been reading about this place for weeks and it was high on my list of destinations to eat. We caught the “saloon taxi” at the top of the hill and as we came around the corner headed down into the hollow, the beauty of how clever they were in adding a full restaurant to the cave was apparent. Offering both indoor and outdoor seating, there was plenty of room to spread out and I especially loved the sound of water falling as we enjoyed the unique atmosphere. At night, they have live music from local artists, but be aware, no alcohol service until after 5:00pm. The menu was expansive and we enjoyed The "Duke" Burger with onion rings, fried pickles and the "Snake Eyes and Tails" basket…aka fried green beans and jalapenos. It’s definitely one to check off the Alabama bucket list!
Next stop…Dismals Canyon
Talk about walking straight into Jurassic Park! This 85-acre Nature Conservatory is adorned with lush greenery, towering rock formations, and crystal-clear streams that meander through the landscape. As we hiked along the well-marked trails, we were greeted by the lovely sounds of nature, creating a serene atmosphere that soothes the soul. It started storming about 30 minutes into the hike and that created a whole new experience, in the best possible way. We hung out in a cave until it passed and the changing temperatures created a mist that was absolutely spectacular to witness…one of those unforgettable moments that could be viewed as a hiccup, but instead, created a beautiful memory (and the photos were amazing too!!)
One of the highlights of Dismals Canyon is the “Dismalites”, also known as glowworms. These unique creatures radiate a soft blue light, illuminating the canyon walls and creating a magical ambiance. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see them this trip…the heat keeps them from coming out in August. But it’s top of my list for when we go back!!
And before you leave Dismals, make sure you stop by the Soda Shop in the giftshop…we had the strawberry shake and it was divine! A decadent sweet treat to end your stay.
The perfect ending to a perfect first day
We stopped for dinner at a little place as you’re leaving Dismals called Backwoods Grill.
I LOVE finding places like this and we were not disappointed. I was so ready to eat, I didn’t take any foodie pics, but I got the catfish with coleslaw, hush puppies and mashed potatoes (because I’m a weirdo like that) and Paul got the ribeye. We loved every bite and I cannot recommend this place enough!!
Our stay the first night was at the Stricklin Hotel in downtown Russellville. They’ve converted the upstairs of a historic building into hotel suites and, with the exception of a little stair climbing, it was a very comfortable and quiet stay.
We like to squeeze as much as possible into our trips and Day Two was the day we went non-stop! We were crossing the state in a very natural progression as we went though, so it never felt like too much. We started early to beat the heat and it definitely paid off…we had several of the places completely to ourselves even though it was a Saturday!
First stop…Natural Bridge Park
No visit to Northern Alabama would be complete without a visit to the longest natural bridge east of the Rockies, a geological wonder that will leave you in awe of nature's creations. And this isn’t just one bridge, there are actually several sections coming together to form a towering cave ceiling.
The trail also includes a bluff line that looks like a native American face and a waterfall. The trail is very easy to navigate, except inside the cave…it gets a little slick in areas, so watch your step! But the photos and memories are worth it!!
Take a trip to the “land of 1000 waterfalls” at Bankhead National Forest
Fun fact, this wasn’t on our list of places to go, but our server at Backwoods was telling us about this natural waterfall slide her and her family go to and it just sounded so cool and it was on the way, so why not! The waterfall she was talking about turned out to be Kinlock Falls and what a beauty it was! Just seeing such heavy water flowing in August knocked my socks off!! There happened to be a church group there doing a scavenger hunt (shout-out to Haleyville Methodist!), so we got to see the slide in action too.
I wanted one more waterfall before we left Bankhead, so we tracked down Mize Falls and enjoyed an easy walk through the woods to an overhead view of the falls. And we had the place completely to ourselves…nice.
A step back in time at the Clarkson Covered Bridge
As we were driving to Cullman to find some lunch, we happened to see a sign that said Clarkson Covered Bridge and I remembered seeing something about it in my research. So, off we went on a spontaneous backroad adventure and I’m so glad we did!!
Talk about picturesque!!
The bridge itself is a testament to the craftsmanship of a bygone era. Built in 1904, it’s the only remaining covered bridge in Cullman County. Stepping onto the wooden planks of the bridge, you could feel the echoes of the past. The covered bridge exudes a simple charm, with its weathered wood and unique architectural details. As you walk through the bridge, it's easy to imagine the countless stories that have unfolded within its walls over
The park is also home to a Dogtrot log cabin, now converted to restrooms, as well as a working grist mill and it’s a photographer’s dream come true
At this point of the day, we were starved…
and Hank’s Sports Bar & Rumors Deli in Cullman served up the perfect mid- day meal! We enjoyed the BBQ Brisket Panini with potato salad and the Cuban. The sweet tea was on point too!
Another world awaits at Ave Maria Grotto
It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or not, Ave Maria Grotto should be top of your list of places to see in Alabama!! Created by Benedictine monk, Brother Joseph Zoettl, the Grotto is a fascinating collection of miniatures built in a former abbey quarry from found and donated items. Structures include everything from Jerusalem and Bethlehem, abbey’s from around the world, Noah’s ark, and even a castle of the fairies (with a hidden dragon).
The attention to detail and use of found items like broken glass and marbles is just stunning! It’s an easy path to walk (and ADA accessible!) and takes 45 minutes to an hour depending on how much time you take at each display.
Time to “wine down” at Jules J Berta Vineyard and Winery
If there’s a winery in the area, y’all know I’m going to find it and how could I pass up one that’s been voted Best Attraction in Northern Alabama and has multiple wins for Alabama Winery of the Year. Their motto is “Get Slushed” and for good reason, they’re known for their wine slush and even have a flight featuring all the flavors. Sign me up for that!!
We enjoyed a couple different types of pizza and even picked our own cheese (garlic herb) for our charcuterie board. The best part…it was sunset perfection in the vineyard and made for a beautiful photo op.
Stay – ReTreet
Stay in a Harry Potter themed safari tent?!? Oh yes, we did!!
This entire property was such a fun surprise! When you arrive, you find a luxury golf cart in the parking lot with your name on it. I’ve never been to a property that offers an amenity like that! Each tent is delightfully themed with a heavy attention to detail and they’re so comfortable, it definitely doesn’t feel like a tent with its solid walls and climate control. I especially loved the back porch area overlooking the forest. And I bet, after it rains, there’s water flowing through there too!
There are several types of stays at ReTreet, including tiny homes and cabins, and there’s also a “Tree Store” for snacks and drinks, as well as a spa with sauna and hot tub.
After all the non-stop activities of yesterday, it was time to slow it down just a bit! It was also storming off and on, but we definitely didn’t let that stop us from exploring…and rain makes waterfalls!
Brunch me, baby!!!
One of our favorite things to do is sit at the bar. The service is always great and we end up meeting all kinds of new people. Rock House Eatery was absolutely impeccable…from the service to the incredible food, they truly went above and beyond to make our experience memorable.
We started with a mimosa and a giant bloody mary with full accoutrement…I’m talking shrimp, bacon, the works!! Our appetizer was friend green tomatoes with bacon and the most delicious sauce. I don’t even know how to describe the taste, but it was REALLY good. For our main meal, we dove into Chicken & Waffles and a Savory Trio consisting of a 3-cheese and bacon quiche, tomato pie, and banana pecan French toast. I had never had tomato pie before, but it ended up being my favorite thing on the plate!
And we topped everything off with Pina Colada Cake. As soon as she said the word coconut, I was sold!
Tell the Tale of Noccalula Falls
Located less than 100 yards from the parking lot, the scenic view of this waterfall from the top is easily accessible and absolutely stunning. Legend has it, a tragic tale of forbidden love that has been passed down through generations. Once called Black Creek Falls, the legend of Noccalula imagines a folk tale steeped in Native American imagery and myth. Embark on a journey through time as you learn about the legend of Princess Noccalula and explore the historic sites within the park.
The park is free to enter and also includes a train, expansive biking trails and a campground…an easy one to check off your Alabama bucket list!
Detour to Wills Creek Vineyards
Since we were right there and I saw the sign, Wills Creek Vineyards was an easy decision. We had just missed Sunday brunch, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to taste all the things…in total, about 14 different wines!! Our favorites and the ones we brought back home…Strawberry Wine and the Noccalula Screamer!
Finding hidden treasures at DeSoto State Park
There are so many amazing places we have on the list for next time in this area, but we couldn’t pass up a stop by DeSoto State Park. Just a short flight of stairs down, you get several views from the top three sections of this stunner and the lake below. And when we turned around to climb back up, I was surprised to see the beautiful glass mosaic done by the Little River Arts Council on the front side of each step with a favorite quote from John Muir…”Everybody needs beauty as well as bread. Places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
Stay – Blueberry Falls Farm
What a hidden gem this place is!! We LOVE staying in unique places, so when I saw a tiny home on a blueberry farm with its own waterfall, I booked it immediately. It started storming right when we got there, so we just soaked it all in and enjoyed leftover pizza from Jules J Berta. Pure peace and quiet.
Next time, I’m going to save an entire day for downtown Mentone. It’s the cutest little mountain town and it’s so close to so many natural wonders, it’s the perfect hub for exploring the northeast corner of the state. We were planning on wrapping up our trip sooner, but I couldn’t get a permit to Stephens Gap over the weekend, so we decided to stretch out our trip just a little bit longer and, man, am I glad we did!!!
Tea in Wonderland at The Hatter Café
Walking into The Hatter Café, you’re immediately transported through the looking glass to another world. It’s whimsical and delightful and over the top, but not in an obnoxious way…more in a way that makes you feel like a kid again.
The second we walked in the door, I was impressed. The hostess greeted us by offering us the table of our choice and invited us to walk around and explore the restaurant, take pictures and take it all in. She didn’t know we were travel vloggers and I heard her give the same invitation to other guests, so it was obviously something they do on a regular basis and it was a true joy to walk around and take it all in.
There are also two Airbnb suites in the back….one modern and chic, the other is fit for a queen…the Queen of Hearts that is. Details, details, details from the red satin pillows and memorabilia, to the flamingos framed in ornate playful revelry on the wall.
So, let’s talk about food…
We ordered the special of strawberry cream cheese fluff stuffed waffles and they came out with little heart shaped strawberries (I’m telling you, this restaurant could write the book on those small touches!). There was a full tea menu (I got the birthday tea, of course!), the hashbrown casserole should be on everyone’s plate and and even the biscuits and gravy were heart shaped!! This was one of those epic experiences I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Absolutely divine…I can’t wait to go back for lunch!!
Pure wonder at Stephens Gap
Our last stop of the trip was probably the most anticipated. We had secured our permit and read every blog and Alltrails to learn as much as we could on what to expect. This was one of those last minute additions, so we were completely unprepared on the hiking attire/equipment side. We made it work with Chaco’s (hey, they had the most traction and actually did really great!), but I would definitely recommend taking the time to properly prepare for this hike.
When they email you your permit, they also send you the address and the gate code, but you should know, this area is completely unimproved and un- manned. When we arrived, there were three other cars in the parking area and ours was the only car left on our way out…you’re truly alone here. BRING WATER…a Camelbak if you have one! The hike in is about ¾ of a mile in a gentle uphill through the woods and every rock is wet and slick.
When you reach the mouth of the cave, the path disappears and it becomes a rock scramble down about a hundred feet. Don’t be afraid to sit on your rear. YOU WILL GET DIRTY and that’s completely ok, because you’re getting to experience a place few will ever see. There are a couple waterfalls to explore in the cave, the view looking back of both openings is super cool and there are plenty of photo opportunities, so bring your tripod!
Again, EVERYTHING is slick and it’s a long way down…this is not the place to be a willy-nilly daredevil, but I did climb up on the pedestal and felt super brave and proud of myself for going for it.
Northern Alabama, you were the biggest surprise in the best kind of way. I would repeat every single part of this trip and probably add in a few more that we missed…sounds like the perfect excuse to start planning our next visit.
Are you ready to visit Northern Alabama?
Get tons of amazing experience suggestions at bit.ly/AlabamaTravelGuide. Whether you're a nature lover, history enthusiast, or simply seeking an adventure, Northern Alabama has something to offer for everyone. So, pack your bags, grab your camera, and get ready to embark on an unforgettable journey through this hidden gem of a region. Don’t forget to tag Arkie Travels, and Happy Adventuring!