Travelers seeking value will find attractions, parks and beaches in Alabama for the entire family to enjoy.
By Lynn Grisard Fullman

Gas prices make your head hurt, not to mention scorch your wallet? What’s a traveler to do?

Science Museum

In Title: The First White House of the Confederacy is open for free tours and was the executive residence of President Jefferson Davis. Montgomery CVB photo

Above: Cook’s Natural Science Museum in Decatur offers exhibits about animals, plants and minerals found in Alabama. Decatur CVB photo

Below: There is no charge to explore the trails and enjoy beaches at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf Coast Alabama Gulf Coast CVB photo


Simple: explore on a shoestring–and what better place than in Alabama where countless attractions charge no admission, state parks are playgrounds for fishing, hiking and playing, and many places offer packages and discounts.

“For children and their families, Alabama is a wonderland when it comes to places to play, learn and explore,” said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department.

“During these tough economic times,” he continued, “it’s a bonus that Alabama has so many attractions that do not charge admission or that offer discounts.”

North Alabama

A gaggle of attractions in North Alabama do not charge admission.

One of the most intriguing is in Decatur where kids love seeing all the critters at Cook’s Natural Science Museum filled with insects, mounted birds and animals, rocks and minerals, sea shells and coral, live and interactive exhibits.

Children can learn of adversity and triumph at the Jesse Owens Memorial Park in Oakville where memorials to the Olympic track-and-field star include a museum, statue and a 1936 torch replica. (For groups of 10 or more, cost is $2 per person.)

Take your camera and binoculars when you visit Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge that has trails and observation areas. Between Decatur and Huntsville, the refuge is home to the state’s largest wintering duck population and supports Alabama’s only concentration of wintering Canada geese.

Two railroad depots-cum-museums–one in Stevenson, another in Fort Payne–offer looks at earlier times. Stevenson’s depot holds Museum exhibits detailing area history and its role in the Civil War. (For groups, cost is $2 per person.)

In Hamilton, watch Jerry Brown, a ninth-generation potter at work. On certain days, his mule powers a clay mill. Brown’s works are in museums, folk-art galleries and the Museum of History in Washington, D.C.

Capital Ideas

Montgomery has several free attractions to enjoy.

The Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery is an ornate building where Jefferson Davis in 1861 was sworn in as President of the Confederate States of America. Look on the Capitol steps for the star that marks the place of his inauguration.

Across the street from the Capitol is the First White House of the Confederacy, formerly the executive residence of President Davis. The house is filled with many Davis artifacts.

A studio for kids (ARTWORKS) is what initially intrigues young visitors to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts whose permanent collection includes examples of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings and sculpture, Southern regional art, Old Master prints and decorative arts.

In the only museum dedicated to either of them, the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum is in a house the Fitzgeralds rented in the early 1930s. It’s a good place to learn about the flamboyant couple and his genius. Donations of $5 for adults and $2 for children will be requested.
North of Montgomery is Wilderness Park/Bamboo Forest inside Prattville’s city limits. Look around to see 60-foot tall bamboo with trunks six inches in diameter plus hundreds of varieties of plants, including one of Alabama’s largest beech trees.

South Alabama

More than 4 million people last year visited the beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, where it costs nothing to frolic on white sand, bask in sunshine and build sandcastles. The possibilities are almost limitless, including stays along 32 miles of gulf water and sugar-white sand. Play golf, sunbathe, fish and build sandcastles.

Take to the miles of hiking trails at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, some 7,000 acres of wildlife habitat for migratory birds, nesting sea turtles and the endangered Alabama beach mouse. Trails lead to sparsely used beaches.

In Dothan, drive around to spot the dozens of four-foot tall

Peanuts Around Town which have been decorated by local artists. Look for Elvis Nut, Violin Nut and Mr. Peanut Head. Murals on downtown buildings detail much of the area’s history. Visit Porter Hardware, one of the state’s oldest operating hardware stores. Virtually unchanged inside and out, the store, dating 1889, still carries a vast inventory of hard-to-find hardware. A few blocks from Porter’s, the G.W. Carver Interpretive Museum, housed in what was Dothan’s first Greyhound Bus Depot, focuses on contributions of African and African-descended cultures. Donations are accepted.

In Mobile, check out Fort Conde where costumed guides lead tours in a structure that is a replica of the original 18th-century French fort that once stood on the same site. Imagine earlier days at Phoenix Fire Station filled with steamers and fire engines from the 19th century.

Here and there

Early life in east Alabama is the focus at the Museum of East Alabama in Opelika where some 4,000 artifacts range from dolls to items from the area’s World War II POW camp.

On the campus of Tuskegee University, Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site includes the George Washington Carver Museum (Carver discovered some 300 uses for peanuts) and the family home of Booker T. Washington, the university’s founder and first president.

In and around Birmingham

In Birmingham, you’ll find no admission charged at Aldridge Botanical Gardens, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Birmingham Museum of Art, Ruffner Mountain Nature Center, Sloss Furnaces, and the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, on the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham where it holds equipment, instruments and objects representing the history and development of the health sciences in the U.S., with special emphasis on Alabama.

Miles of trails are etched into the 250-acre Moss Rock Preserve in Hoover where you’ll feel a world away as you roam among trees, plants, rock outcroppings, sandstone glades, streams and waterfalls. (Takes your camera; leave only footprints.)

South of Birmingham in Columbiana, the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington holds one of the nation’s largest privately owned collections of George and Martha Washington artifacts. Located in the Mildred B. Harrison Regional Library, artifacts — dating from the colonial period through 1865 — include paintings, letters, furniture, porcelain, glassware, silver, jewelry and busts.

State Parks

Alabama has 22 state parks scattered from the mountains in the north, south to the Gulf of Mexico. The parks offer affordable places for golf, boating, fishing, birding, camping, swimming, hiking, canoeing, paddling, biking, picnicking and more. While not free, many of the parks have lodges, cabins, chalets and/or campsites in picturesque settings and at competitive prices. (Wind Creek State Park on Lake Martin near Alexander City has the largest campground with more than 600 sites and Gulf Resort State Park offers more than 400 campsites.)

The bonus for exploring in Alabama is that some days you’ll need only a picnic and your camera.

Lynn Grisard Fullman is a contributor from Birmingham, Ala.

May/Jun 2009 Issue


For more information, contact Alabama Tourism Department (800-ALABAMA;; and Alabama State Parks (800) ALA-PARK, or

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. List of offices

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