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Tweets & Eats: A Journey from North Alabama, Western Alabama and Black Belt Birding Trails 

This post is sponsored by the Alabama Tourism Department. All thoughts and opinions are my own. 

You’re likely familiar with Alabama’s deep history, vibrant culture and warm southern hospitality. However, you might not be aware that Alabama also boasts a variety of birdwatching spots, delicious cuisine, and stunning scenic views. I’m on a mission to see it all. 

During the Year of Alabama Birding, I visited the state and road tripped along the Appalachian Highlands Birding Trail, that stretches from the northeastern part of the state southward to Birmingham. This spring, I returned with my husband to indulge not only in my passion for bird watching but to experience the state’s culinary delights during the Year of Alabama Food.

The Year of Alabama Food

Alabama’s culinary scene is a flavorful testament to its rich Southern heritage and offered us a variety of memorable dining experiences. During our trip, my husband and I enjoyed the delicious, finger-licking, slow-cooked barbecue that Decatur is famous for, savored pizza from one of the state’s few handmade brick ovens, and had lunch at Alabama’s oldest ice cream stand. 

100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama is an excellent resource for finding restaurants and iconic foods specific to the state. Download this guide to enhance your travels in Alabama, or if you’re a food enthusiast, use it to plan your entire culinary journey. 

Day One: BBQ, Architecture and Native American Mounds  

Every memorable road trip begins with a full tank of gas and a bag of snacks. Bucee’s, located along I-65 in Athens, is the perfect place to stock up on both fuel and treats. This much talked about gas station has become a must-see attraction in its own right and was our first stop in Alabama. 

Decatur

Our adventure kicked off  at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is an ornithologist’s dream with a two-story observation tower fitted with multiple spotting scopes; a perfect spot to gaze over the field and small pond where birds of all types congregate. 

This location is an especially popular spot for viewing migratory birds, including thousands of Sandhill cranes that winter at the refuge.  

You can watch a short movie in the newly-renovated Visitor Center and hike the meandering woodland trails found on the 34,000 acre property. There’s even a pavilion where you can enjoy a picnic.

We explored the Flint Creek Trail and then drove into town to discover what Decatur offers. 

Our first stop was to the Decatur Morgan County Visitor Center to pick up a tour map of the Old Decatur and Albany Historic Districts that comprise Alabama’s largest concentration of Victorian Era craftsman and bungalow-style homes in the state. This is a must for architecture lovers! 

Some highlights include the Old State Bank, the oldest bank in the state and is also part of the Civil War Walking Tour of Decatur, a former Carnegie library that now serves as a community arts center, and the serene Japanese Garden at Frasier Park. 

We spent a few minutes registering for the complimentary MoCo Mural Trail, which guides you to various murals across Morgan County. While we couldn’t visit all of them, we managed to check out several before enjoying a late lunch.  

Moundville

I could have spent a weekend exploring Decatur, but with only four days to travel and many miles to cover it was time to move to our next destination south of Tuscaloosa. 

We made our way to Moundville Archaeological Park, one of the 280 sites on the Alabama Birding Trail. This National Landmark Site features over 29 mounds within a 320-acre scenic park. This is a great place to learn a bit of history and to bird watch!

The Jones Archaeological Museum has been described as one of the most significant Native American archaeological sites in the U.S. Since it was getting late in the day and the museum would soon be closing, we quickly toured the museum before heading back outside. 

Outdoors we climbed one of the mounds to enjoy a panoramic view of the park and walked to the Indian Village, the original exhibit in the park.  

This outdoor exhibit illustrates what life on the complex would have looked like and shows the everyday life of the Native inhabitants. 

Some birds we spotted included Cedar Waxwings, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Grackles and a migrating Sandpiper.   

We left minutes before the gates closed and drove towards the hotel we’d reserved in Demopolis where we called it a night. 

Where We Ate: 

Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ was the perfect spot for a late lunch.  Named the Best BBQ Restaurant in Alabama,  Big Bob Gibson’s has been a culinary landmark since the 1950s, and a legend in Decatur. The restaurant is celebrated for its mouth-watering slow-cooked BBQ and award-winning sauces like the famous white sauce and “Alabama Red.” 

My husband opted for the Little Bob Gibson Sampler with smoked turkey and quartered chicken while I, attempting to choose a lighter option, ordered Big Bob’s Bar-B-Q Salad with Brisket. I couldn’t resist sampling some of my husband’s meal too.

White sauce isn’t something we have in Ohio and we were surprised by the tangy flavor. My resolve to eat something lighter dissolved when the waitress suggested we finish our meal with a slice of homemade Chocolate pie.  

Where We Slept: 

We spent the night in the Best Western in Demopolis. This property is an all suite hotel that has been recently remodeled. We stayed in a spacious King room, had a comfortable stay and woke up the next morning ready for another adventure-filled day.

Day Two: Birds, Bridges & Margaritas

After breakfast at our hotel, we drove 20 minutes from Demopolis to Newburn for a birding tour at the multi-generational Joe Farm. Our group, which included visitors from as far as Pennsylvania, was greeted by our tour guide Christopher Joe, his brother Timothy, who was selling his artwork, and their father and retired ag teacher, Cornelious. 

We rode on a tractor-pulled trailer through pasture, woods, and creek habitats while learning about the property and their Black Angus Cattle business. A few of the birds we spotted included American Pelicans, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Eastern Bluebirds, and Palm Warblers. After we left, they spotted a Bald Eagle!

When visiting for an event, be sure you have bug spray, binoculars, and water. Christopher takes photos on the tour and shares them afterward with a list of birds that are sighted so you can sit back and focus on the experience. 

During the fall, the Joe Family opens their farm to attendees of the Alabama Audubon Black Belt Birding Festival. Visitors can watch as the Joes harvest hay, an activity that attracts Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, which swoop down to catch insects stirred up by the tractor. Follow Connecting with Birds and Nature Tours to learn about future events on this private family farm.

Tuscaloosa

After the birding event, we headed to Tuscaloosa and stopped by the Riverwalk to stretch our legs and grab a late lunch at Loco Lupes, an authentic Mexican restaurant. I savored chicken street tacos and a delicious frozen peach margarita, while my husband opted for a fajita.   

We enjoyed a stroll along The Riverwalk, a 4.5-mile paved trail along the Black Warrior River, dotted with historical markers, art installations, and benches for pausing to take in the scenic views. 

Natural Bridge

After our break, we headed toward Bankhead National Park, where I had reserved a glamping spot nearby to enjoy a peaceful night under the stars.

As we traveled, we spotted signs for Natural Bridge, the longest natural rock bridge east of the Rockies, and couldn’t resist stopping to check it out. It quickly became one of our favorite stops. We took a short walk to view the main attraction and followed a trail leading to a trickling waterfall before looping back to the small gift shop where we’d purchased our tickets. 

We continued our journey, taking in the gently rolling hills and scenic views. We checked into our campsite and quickly drove to the local Piggly Wiggly to pick up dinner supplies before settling in for the night.   

Day Three: Waterfalls, Rock Walls and Wilson Dam

We woke up early to the sound of songbirds, packed our SUV, and left our campsite for Bankhead National Forest. Our first stop was the Sipsey Wilderness for a hike, followed by Kinlock Falls. 

It’s wise to fill up on gas and have reliable directions before entering Bankhead National Forest, as cell service can be sparse. Bearing this in mind, I prepared detailed directions to Kinlock Falls, which is slightly off the beaten path, but well worth the visit. The falls are gorgeous and only a short downhill walk from the road. 

Florence

By mid-day, we were on our way to Florence, our final stop on our four-day journey. Our next visit was to Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge (Site #9, Northwest Loop), a secluded area with fields of warm-season native grasses, patches of deciduous woodland, and seasonal sinkhole wetlands.

According to the website, the refuge is transitioning from farmland to native grasslands, enhancing the habitat for numerous Grasshopper Sparrows and Dickcissels. Despite seeing many birds darting around, capturing a good photo proved challenging. I tried but didn’t find anything on my memory card worth sharing.

Tom Hendrix’s Wall was one of the attractions I had hoped to visit when we lived in Alabama, 15 years ago, so I couldn’t wait to see it on this trip. This spot is just off the Natchez Trace in Northern Alabama. While my husband stayed behind, I explored the path, noting the painted rocks, turtle shell, and trinkets left by visitors who have visited the wall.  

This site honors Hendrix’s great-great-grandmother, a Yuchi girl who walked back to Alabama from Oklahoma over five years after being forcibly relocated during the Trail of Tears. It took over 30 years to build the wall and is the largest mortar-free rock wall in the U.S. It also stands as the largest memorial to a Native American woman, marking a heartrending chapter in history.

Muscle Shoals

After dinner, we checked into our hotel, freshened up, and drove to the Rockpile Recreation Area at Wilson Dam in Muscle Shoals, which turned out to be a trip highlight. 

Initially, I planned to snap a few sunset photos of the dam but I was captivated by the abundant birdlife and quickly learned why this spot is part of the Alabama Birding Trail. 

Although I couldn’t photograph them all, I spotted an osprey, a tern (rarely seen here), Great Blue Herons, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Yellow Rumps, Eastern Bluebirds, Cardinals, and more. 

Surprisingly, we also found waterfalls! When you get to the recreation area, turn right and follow the parking lot until you can’t drive any further. Park and walk through the gate towards the dam. You’ll see the waterfall in about ¼ of a mile along the paved path. 

I thought this would be a quick stop, but my husband and I spent nearly two hours at the site without hitting a single trail. I was engrossed in bird watching while he enjoyed people-watching.  

Other Things We Did: 

We drove by the Forks of Cypress Ruins, all that remains of the oldest antebellum home in Alabama, saw its replica, admired the exterior of the Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House (which was closed during our visit), and enjoyed a leisurely walk through the charming downtown area of Florence.

Where We Ate:

Ricatoni’s Italian Grill, nestled in historic downtown Florence, captivated me the moment I walked in, and the food certainly matched the atmosphere. Featured in “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama,” the restaurant is renowned for its warm rolls sprinkled with Italian spices and served with olive oil as soon as you’re seated. Boasting one of the state’s only handmade brick pizza ovens, choosing pizza was a natural choice for us. From our booth, we enjoyed watching our pizza bake to perfection in the oven, plated and served to our table piping hot.    

Where We Slept: 

The Stricklin Hotel is a 24-room boutique hotel situated in historic downtown Florence. This historic building has been converted to include event space, the hotel, a restaurant and an upscale gaming area complete with a bowling alley, foosball, skeeball, darts, arcade tables, classic games from the 80s and 90s and more. Although the Boiler Room was closed during our Sunday night stay we did have the opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal at Big Bad Breakfast.

The hotel blends modern amenities such as online check-in and keyless entry with the charm of exposed brick walls, large original windows overlooking downtown Florence and tasteful decor. Our spacious King room proved to be the ideal base for exploring Florence, Sheffield, and Muscle Shoals. We would happily stay again.  

Day Four: Helen Keller, Muscle Shoals & Singing River Statues

Our day started with breakfast at Big Bad Breakfast followed by a trip to Sheffield and Muscle Shoals to locate the Singing River Statues that pay homage to the area’s musical heritage. 

Muscle Shoals, dubbed the “Hit Recording Capital of the World,” is renowned for its distinctive “Muscle Shoals Sound” developed in the FAME recording studio and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios during the 1960s and 70s. Before visiting, watching the “Muscle Shoals” documentary provides an insightful overview of the area’s musical heritage. 

This unique sound, a fusion of rock, soul, and blues, was produced by “The Swampers,” the local rhythm section that attracted legends like Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Today, Muscle Shoals is a pilgrimage site for musicians and fans, offering studio tours and a self-driving tour to explore its historic sites and ongoing influence in music.

It’s a striking contrast that after we had immersed ourselves in the famous Muscle Shoals Sound, we visited Ivy Green, the silent world of Helen Keller in nearby Tuscumbia. Ivy Green, where Helen Keller was born, is a beautifully preserved 19th-century home that also includes the cottage where she and Anne Sullivan broke through the barriers of communication. The property features the iconic water pump where Keller first connected with language. A visit to Ivy Green offers a glimpse into the early life of one of America’s most inspiring figures.

Before embarking on the nine-hour drive back to our home in Ohio, we returned to town for lunch at the iconic Trowbridges. 

Where We Ate:

Big Bad Breakfast was a convenient choice for our morning meal, situated in the same building as our hotel. We were quickly seated and placed our orders. My husband ordered the Cathead Chicken Breakfast of Crispy fried chicken, cheddar cheese on a biscuit with sausage gravy while I ordered a half order of the most incredible Avocado Toast I’ve ever tasted. I’ve been craving it ever since!  

For lunch, we stopped at Trowbridge’s Ice Cream & Sandwich Shop which is located across from the Stricklin Hotel and has been a fixture in Florence for over a century. Stepping inside Trowbridge’s was like taking a step back in time. This adorable diner, complete with a soda counter, offers classic southern lunch favorites and ice cream treats. My husband ordered a hot dog with chili sauce and banana split while I ordered a vanilla milkshake. This busy spot is a favorite among both locals and visitors. 

In Conclusion

Our road trip covered a lot of ground and once again, I was struck by how much Alabama has to offer. This trip has only reinforced my desire to return to explore Alabama even further. 

Now is a great time to plan your own road trip to Alabama. Download the Alabama Road Trips app or order your free Alabama Travel Guide to start planning today. 

Have you visited Alabama? Leave a comment below and tell me what I should do on my next trip.

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