The Sweet Home Alabama Road Trip
Looking for your next adventure? Here's how to make the most of your next (or first) Alabama road trip!
Hi, I’m Abby, and I’m an out-of-state student.
(“Hiiii Abby,” says the support group.)
I’ve been in Auburn for four years now, and I still feel like I know nothing about the state I live in. I’ve done a fair amount of local exploring, but I’ve spent little time in the other 52,000 square miles of the state. Part of the problem is that many of my Alabama-native friends have been to all of the classic “Alabama” places so many times that the novelty has worn off. Attractions like The Space Center in Huntsville and the Botanical Gardens in Birmingham have lost their luster. They’ve moved on to more obscure attractions.
I, however, have never been to any of these places or done any of these things. I’m new here (is it obvious?). So, I set out to create the perfect, touristy, Alabama road trip. After consulting Alabamaians and numerous Alabama tourism companies, this is what I came up with.
1. Auburn, Alabama
Our road trip starts where we are, in Auburn of course. If you haven’t done much exploring around here, now is the perfect time to start! Even if you have, it ‘s still fun to play the tourist in your own town.
Start the day with breakfast at Big Blue Bagel. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more “college” breakfast. Then head over to Chewacla State Park for a light hike and maybe a swim in the lake. Don’t forget to post an Insta of the waterfall! Once you’re sufficiently worn out, head back into town to grab some Toomer’s lemonade (or some ice cream!) and relax on Samford Lawn. Watch the sun set over campus and exhale a satisfied “war eagle,” because you know you go to the greatest university in the world.
The one negative thing I can say about Auburn is that it splits our road trip route in half. Even on our “ideal route” you’ll end up doubling back. If you look at our map (above), the obvious way to avoid this dilemma is to swing through Tuscaloosa. Not exactly “ideal,” but you could do that … if you’re into that sort of thing. (I’ve provided an alternative route below if you’d like to wade through enemy territory.)
2. Childersburg, Alabama
On day two, we embark. No matter which route you choose, your first move is to head down Highway 280 W to Childersburg. What’s in Childersburg, Alabama? Desoto Caverns and some dang good barbecue.
Stop for lunch before you head to the caverns to avoid steep park food prices. I highly recommend Good Ole Boy’s BBQ on 280 E in Sylacauga for a true highway dining experience. This restaurant is attached to a gas station, but don’t let that deter you! Their pulled pork will melt in your mouth and their sauce is to DIE for. Portions are hearty and very reasonably priced. Try the porky fries. You won’t be disappointed.
Once your taste buds have accomplished a spiritual awakening, drive fifteen minutes on 280 back toward Auburn to Desoto Caverns. The turn is on your left and sneaks up on you, so watch out. While the park is a great outdoors attraction, it has something for everyone, too. In addition to hourly cave tours, the park has twenty other attractions ranging from gem panning to anti-gravity experiences. Tickets into the park start at $29.99 for a cave tour and a five-attraction-pass package. To be honest, the attractions are more geared toward young kids. The caverns are what we’re here for, so I recommend the low-end package!
3. Birmingham, Alabama
Of all the places on this list, Birmingham is probably the most commonly visited. But I felt it was important to include because it has SO much to offer. Hit up The Summit for some shopping, the Birmingham Zoo for your wild animal fix, or the McWane Science Center to unleash your inner nerd.
Author’s Choice: the McWane Science Center. There is such a wide variety of things to try, so it’s a completely unique experience. There are hands-on interactions for every age. I’m a kid-at-heart type, so I’m all over exhibits like the Shark and Ray Touch Tank and the Bubble Room. Admission for adults is $13.
The great thing about Birmingham is that you can cater the day to your budget. If you’re looking for more of a low-cost, high-reward situation, Birmingham offers lots of free parks and museums such as the Birmingham Museum of Art, Railroad Park, and Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
If you want to have the nicest meal of your life, dine at Highlands Bar & Grill. It’s definitely a formal experience, and pretty pricey, but it is SO worth it. The menu hits a harmonious chord of southern classics, French flavor and bold creativity. The grilled venison is amazing.
4. Huntsville, Alabama
Stereotype confirmed: Everyone from Huntsville goes to space camp. If you’ve ever met a Huntsville native, you’ve probably heard a handful of “One time at space camp” stories. This is what they’re talking about.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is the top-notch tour spot on our visit to Huntsville. (Please geek out with me about how crazy space is!) The Space Center is the birthplace of America’s space program. It’s where our country developed the technology for our first successful trip to the moon. I mean come ON. That is amazing. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center includes a museum area showcasing the past, present and future of space exploration along with interactive attractions that give visitors a firsthand experience in space training. SpaceshotTM, G-Force Accelerator and Hypership–Motion Based Simulator are just a few of the coolest attractions. Admission is $24 and worth every penny.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Huntsville if you didn’t eat at least one meal at Little Rosie’s Taqueria. It’s pretty much your basic Tex Mex place, except it is somehow WAY better than every other Tex Mex restaurant in the world. It’s affordable and portions are generous. Perfect college kid food.
(4 ½. Tuscaloosa, Alabama)
This is our optional stop on the trip. As an out-of-stater, I am inclined to make this stop, just so I know firsthand what I think of T-Town. But I understand if the thought of touring through Bama country is too unsettling.
As it turns out, there’s not much to do in Tuscaloosa unless you’re an Alabama Fan and plan on taking tours of their excessive football relics.
5. Fairhope, Alabama
Today is the perfect day to slow down our road trip and enjoy the ride.
Fairhope is a romantic snapshot of Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Everything about the town looks like it was pulled right out of a movie where the main plot point is nominating someone to change the batteries in the clock on the square. I recommend a nice long day at the beach followed by a stroll through Fairhope’s picturesque historic district and a fresh seafood dinner on the patio of Sunset Pointe.
6. Montgomery, Alabama
The last stop on our trip is just 45 minutes outside of Auburn. In season, hit up a Montgomery Biscuits baseball game. They are a great time and tickets are no more than $15.
For a more unique experience, check out the set of “Big Fish,” the 2005 Tim Burton film starring Ewan McGregor. An entire town was built for this movie, and the crew never torn down. Though the set has largely fallen into disrepair, privately-owned Jackson Lake Island draws a small tourism crowd and charges $3 per day for entry into the Town of Spectre. In addition to exploring the town, visitors are free to fish, kayak and camp on the island. Visit their Facebook page for more information.
Don’t forget to stop by Chris’ Hot Dogs before heading back to Auburn. It’s a local favorite and Montgomery’s oldest family owned and operated restaurant. They serve a mean chili dog that is cheap enough to be purchased with the change you find in your car. Perfect for when you’re at the end of a road trip and you’ve blown all your money! It’s also delicious.
On the short 45-minute home stretch, reflect on all the touristy things you’ve done on your “Sweet Home Alabama road trip.” Share your favorite stops with us! And let us know if you find your own stops along the way! Making it your own is part of the fun of road-tripping.
Be well, Auburn.
Photography: Julia B.