By: Sarah Blizzard Robinson

The four of us researched our maps, googled the stops, and were ready to make room on our busy schedules to explore North Alabama in the middle of May.

“I’ve never been to Auburn or Huntsville,” I said.

“We haven’t either. Ron has always wanted to see Mt. Cheaha,” said my friend Paula. 

“Wonder how far it is to Mentone? And Jim wants to tour Muscle Shoals.”

We’d taken a road trip together along Route 66 and knew we made excellent traveling companions, remaining flexible enough to let the road take us where it wanted us to go. 

Excursion Day One

Jim took the driver’s seat of his four-door truck, Ron next to him, as Paula and I chatted away in the backseat. Using both a paper map and our GPS, we departed Fairhope at 7:00 a.m., arriving in the village of Auburn four hours later. We found the college town’s wide sidewalks and classic architecture to our liking. Toomer’s Corner, the place where coeds are known to gather to show their spirit after the big games, was relatively quiet, students having departed for their summer break. Strolling along Magnolia Street, we followed the Tiger Trail: Names of former players and coaches are etched on the sidewalks. We searched for the name Bob Davis, my mom’s cousin and a former Auburn basketball coach from the 1970s. Though we never could find his name, we enjoyed talking about him with the friendly folks at BurgerFi.  Auburn (

Next, we drove to remote Cheaha State Park, an elevation of 2400 feet, the highest in Alabama, and cooler by twenty degrees. Cheaha State Park | Alapark provided incredible views of neighboring states Georgia and Tennessee at the overlook. It was good that we wore our hiking shoes, as the enormous boulders we navigated at the end of the trail to get to the overlook were rugged.

Next, we drove to Gadsden where we had overnight reservations at The Hampton Inn. Gadsden provided views of the Coosa River surrounded by lush, green hills. Dozens of anglers and fishing boats were in town for a fishing tournament. We chose dinner at Top of the River, a plentiful plate of delicious seafood. Top O' the River ( Our bubbly waitress told us all about her plans for college and beyond. The four of us decided dining out is much more enjoyable when the server enjoys their job.

Day Two was Jim’s birthday. He chose to ride shotgun while Ron drove. Guntersville Park on the top of the hill was our next stop. Views were amazing of the vast Guntersville Lake. Plush green islands dotted the river. The cicadas (locusts) were swarming the trees all around us, and we had to talk over their buzzing.

Next, we drove to Scottsboro to the Unclaimed Baggage store. A bit out of the way, and really not worth the trip unless you love bargain shopping for nice clothing, jewelry, sunglasses, and whatever else had been left inside the thousands of pieces of luggage that end up there.

Next, we drove up to Mentone, near the Georgia line. Ron navigated some very mountainous roads to the Wildflower Café, Welcome to the Wildflower ( perfect for lunch, like a hippy hangout with antiques and repurposed objects. The building itself looked like it was a hundred years old, maybe a former mountain home. The rooms were small with wood floors until you actually walked through a dining room and noticed the floor was a stone slab…must’ve been built on an outcrop. The food was superb. Jim enjoyed their carrot cake for his birthday. We asked our waitress about what we’d seen on the drive: It looked like tornado damage along Rt. 40. So much debris and destruction. Sure enough, an F3 tornado had hit there the week before. 

A slight drizzle fell while we were at lunch, and Ron drove down the mountain mist to Huntsville. The sites we saw around Huntsville were modern buildings built on large acreage, housing high technology and industries supporting the space program. We settled into our hotel at the Space Center Marriott, then drove a short distance to a new development called Stovehouse. Welcome - Stovehouse Formerly a factory, it has been modernized with wide, outdoor hallways in a grid fashion; a destination with several restaurants and retail shops. Families relaxed on the lawns that form a sunken court-yard style play area. A live band played country tunes from a small stage facing the crowd. We enjoyed a light dinner and a visit to their ice cream shop while feeling a part of Huntsville’s family-friendly atmosphere. 

Day Three of touring, we drove to Florence and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Jim, my music enthusiast, had recommended we reserve tickets for a tour of the F.A.M.E. Studios. 

When we arrived in the area, it was around 10:00 am so we had time to do a small tour before we drove to Muscle Shoals for our studio reservations at noon. We navigated through an old neighborhood in Florence, to the birthplace of Mr. W.C. Handy, known as the Father of the Blues. The renowned composer had introduced a new sound that caught on all over the world and was played by the greats, like his dear friend, Louis Armstrong. The museum that was his childhood home, a rustic but well-constructed log cabin, held many of his personal objects, instruments, and letters he had written. Before he became famous, Handy would sit down at the Tennessee River bank and create music. After he became a success, he wrote many letters to his family. One of them on display conveys what it meant to him to be an American. His patriotism, love of family, and his Christian faith were all in evidence.

On to Muscle Shoals. Before we toured the famous recording studio, we went for a quick bite of lunch at a delicious deli that boasted homemade chili, right next door. 

F.A.M.E. Studios stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprise. The man who founded it is legendary in the music business for creating state-of-the-art sound in a building he refashioned. Rick Hall had two friends who invested with him. They started small and word got out, that it was the place to record. Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Clarence Carter, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Paul Anka, Ronnie Milsap, Duane Allman, and so many other artists extolled the praises of this special sound, one they could only achieve in FAME Studios. Our tour guide was a brilliant young man who called himself a Junior Engineer. He was excited about a band called War & Treaty, and he played us one of the songs they’d recently recorded, straight from his iPhone on Spotify. Our small tour group of twelve people was impressed by the over-the-top, quadraphonic sound. Our guide was able to answer all of the questions posed to him by folks in our group who were knowledgeable musicians, and he expanded on the types of microphones, speakers, and instruments. Though many bands have recorded in much posher surroundings, still today they prefer FAME for recording their unique sound. Tour groups are kept small; exploring the main floor was followed by an upstairs “backstage” visit where a speakeasy and more memorabilia like Aretha Franklin’s piano are located adjacent to Rick Hall’s original office. His family still runs the place today.

On to our last hotel. The sister property of The Grand Hotel in Fairhope, the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa - Hotel Near the University of North Alabama is undergoing an upgrade. All of the spaces we were in were modernized and quite lovely. The hotel décor displays the integral part the area has played in the music industry. Platinum and Gold albums are framed along the hallways, and the plush rooms have huge maps for wallpaper, highlighting “The Shoals” area that includes Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield. A vintage lighted jukebox, no quarter required, is located just off the front desk. It plays songs recorded by a variety of famous artists, all recorded in the local studios. 

After unpacking, we met back in the lobby to take a walk around the grounds. A new Heritage Trail, located just beyond the hotel, is easy to access and has a wide sidewalk that snakes around and down the hillside, with views of the impressive Wilson Lock and Dam on the Tennessee River. Walking back up was a bit of a challenge but perfect for giving us good appetites that evening for a celebratory dinner at the 360 Grille Restaurants in Florence AL | Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. Book your reservations well in advance. 

The restaurant is easy to access from the hotel lobby, but you enter the Renaissance Tower by an elevator that takes you about twenty floors up to the revolving room. If you’ve ever enjoyed the revolving restaurants at places like the Space Needle in Seattle or the Rockefeller Center in NYC, you have an idea of the grandeur of the space where you dine next to floor-to-ceiling windows. The weather was changing as we took our seats, so if the window was facing SE, for example, we noticed some heavy cloud formations. In the next fifteen minutes or so, we were facing SW. We could watch boats waiting for the locks to open on the dam. And in the next rotation, we watched a tall rainbow forming. The room took exactly one hour to make a complete turn, so movement was subtle, the views enthralling. Our meals were excellent, and we lingered afterward, not wanting the magic of North Alabama to end.

Jun 12, 2024
Day Trippin'

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