“Do you see that dark triangle up there?” Our guide kept his flashlight fixed on the same dark spot overhead. “That’s a shark’s tooth.”
I chuckled for a moment, until I realized he was completely serious. There, in the northeastern corner of Alabama, in a vast cavern in the foothills of Appalachia, was a fossilized shark’s tooth—along with other evidence that our current ceiling was once an ocean floor.
It was just the first “dash of the unexpected” I’d encounter on my journey through Northeast Alabama, a region with pleasant surprises, views, and experiences at every turn, it seemed (and there were a lot of turns!).
If you have the chance to visit this part of Alabama with kids, here are the top 4 activities I suggest you squeeze in, along with my recommendations for 1 great place to eat and 1 great place to stay during your trip.
Activity 1: Explore Cathedral Caverns
If you thought the shark’s tooth was intriguing, consider this: Archaeologists have found evidence of humans using the vast cave entrance to Cathedral Caverns as many as 8,000 years ago. You might want to pause and let that soak in a moment before venturing on deeper into the caves because the rest of the 90-minute tour will be no less impressive. Sprawling room after room awaits, each with its own otherworldly collection of stalagmites and stalactites and the occasional flowstone wall. Along the way, you’ll also see a frozen waterfall and one of the world’s biggest natural columns. “Goliath,” as it’s called, extends up 45 feet, connecting the cavern floor to its ceiling, and it measures 243 feet around. Yes, you can bring your camera—and unlike many cave tours, this one allows tripods. The entire tour is 1.5 miles and is wheelchair accessible. Cathedral Caverns 637 Cave Road, Woodville, AL www.alapark.com/cathedral-caverns-state-park
Activity 2: Picnic and Play at DeSoto State Park
If you get bored in DeSoto State Park, it’s your own darn fault. This 3,502-acre park on Lookout Mountain offers kayak and canoe rentals on the west fork of the lovely Little River, 25 miles of hiking trails among wildflowers and waterfalls, around 12 miles of mountain biking trails, cycling, geocaching, rappelling, bouldering, and even golfing. And it’s not just a summer haven. The park’s fireplace-equipped cabins draw snow-loving families in winter as well (and it just so happens to be near the United States’ southernmost ski resort). Tip: Check the website for family adventure packages (some age restrictions apply). DeSoto State Park 7104 DeSoto Parkway NE, Fort Payne, AL www.alapark.com/desoto-state-park
Activity 3: Get Enlightened By Tigers for Tomorrow
“Chuffing” is the relaxed greeting among tigers that says, “I’m cool, I’m cool…no worries here,” and at Tiger’s for Tomorrow, you will hear a whole lot of chuffing among the 30+ resident tigers. But what’s more significant, and moving, than the goose-bumply greetings of the big cats are the storied journeys that led them here. For example, when Tigers for Tomorrow got a call about an abused circus lion in Central America who needed a new home, the entire community rose to the challenge of raising the funds needed to safely transport him to the preserve—and to build a suitable home for him there. The local elementary school that helped raise $1200 for the cause proudly adopted “Kazuma” as their school mascot.
Like Kazuma, nearly all of the lions, tigers, bears, black leopards, mountain lions, and wolves you’ll see here have never lived in the wild and would never be able to. But even as a “last stop” preserve, the visit inspires hope rather than despair. In addition to providing the necessary and specialized care these magnificent creatures need for the rest of their lives (not an easy or inexpensive undertaking!), Tigers for Tomorrow provides environmental education—and invaluable awareness—for the local community and its visitors. To get the most from your visit, I strongly recommend scheduling a private tour for your family. Hours vary by day and by season, so be sure to check online for the current schedule. Tigers for Tomorrow 708 County Road 345, Attalla, AL www.tigersfortomorrow.org
Activity 4: Blow an Ornament at Orbix Hot Glass
Kids 5 years and older will love it because they don’t just get to see how breath can turn a molten blob into a glorious bowl or pitcher. At Orbix, they can have the rare chance to blow their own glass souvenir (yes, grownups can do it, too!). On Saturdays from September 12 through December 19 (2015), you can visit the “hot shop” between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., choose your colors, and learn to blow your own glass ornament ($38/ornament, no reservation required). Orbix also offers workshops year round, such as a paperweight class and sculpt-your-own flower workshop (minimum age is 13 yrs for both). Check their site for additional hours and the latest schedule of events. Tip: Bring along a picnic to enjoy afterward—the setting is lovely and visitors are welcome to linger. Orbix Hot Glass 3869 County Rd 275, Ft. Payne, AL www.orbixhotglass.org
1 Great Place to Stay: Mentone Inn
Usually “bed and breakfast” is synonymous with “no kids under 12,” but it’s just not so at this 1928 B&B perched on Lookout Mountain. The Mentone Inn not only offers two family bedrooms with two double beds and en suite bathrooms, but they’ll also happily provide an extra single bed ($10) or pack ‘n play (complimentary) if needed. In fact, just the week before my visit, a big family was situated in my same room with two pack ‘n plays for twin tots. All Queen and Double rooms here also have their own private bathrooms, and many can accommodate an extra single bed or pack ‘n play. Early risers can grab a cup of coffee and a comfy chair right in the hallway upstairs or slip out to a rocking chair on the porch to read the daily news, but late risers better be warned: the “southern comfort” buffet breakfast in the dining room is not to be missed (homemade apple turnovers, tomato pie, bacon and grits, and then some). Mentone Inn 6139 Alabama Hwy 117, Mentone, AL www.mentoneinn.com
1 Great Place to Eat: Carlile’s Restaurant
With a tomato pie that’s been declared one of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die,” you’d be silly not to stop at this third-generation family-owned restaurant, just 45 minutes east of Huntsville. But when you find out they also smoke all of their own meats, whip up every sauce from scratch (including their Original BBQ Sauce from the family’s first restaurant in Birmingham), and hand-batter all things crispy, you’d be downright crazy not to stop and see if their motto holds true: “Food so good, you’ll thank the Lord for taste buds.” Coming from the West Coast, gorging myself at Carlisle’s was indeed a near-religious experience! Kids will be equally glad they came when they land upon the homemade macaroni and cheese here (they can even order it by the “plateful” from the kids menu!) or get to pick and choose as they please from the plentiful buffet. Carlile’s Restaurant 23730 John T Reid Parkway, Scottsboro, AL www.carliles.net
If you’ll be traveling in this area, you might also want to check out The 411 on Huntsville with Kids and To the Moon: Visiting the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.
Thanks so much to Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association and all of the good people at these great places for their generous hospitality and sharing their lovely corner of the state with me. For more help planning your family’s vacation in northeast Alabama, take advantage of the free resources and special offers on the official North Alabama website: http://www.northalabama.org.