A December to remember can be enjoyed at this city in northern Alabama where fun can mean rocket science “” or simply a leisurely drive through a massive holiday light display.
By Kimberly Button
In 1940 Huntsville, Alabama, was a city that seemed devoted to an agricultural and simple way of life. Its population was 13,000. But World War II brought a need for arms, and the small town was chosen as the site of the Redstone Arsenal, a munitions manufacturing plant. After that location had served its purpose, the U.S. Army chose to use the site for missile research. And that’s how the town skyrocketed to fame. It’s been growing like crazy ever since, with a metro population now nearing 400,000.
Today’s visitors will find an eclectic mix of things to see: high-tech wizardry and tributes to the city’s historic past, creating a fun getaway. It’s especially exciting during the holidays when Huntsville’s down-home traditions are celebrated throughout the city.
Long before 1940, Huntsville was a major city in the developing state of Alabama. Alabama’s first constitution was drafted in the city, which also served as the temporary first capital and the home of the first state legislature. Cotton and textiles were a large part of the economy in Huntsville up until a group of German scientists would change the city, and the world, forever.
Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of scientists had been developing rockets for the Army since the end of World War II, until they were moved to the Redstone Arsenal to begin work on missile research. In 1960 von Braun’s rocket development team began working with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to ultimately develop the Saturn V rocket, which would send Americans to the moon during the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s.
As the birthplace of such strategic space technology, Huntsville took on the nickname of “Rocket City.” It is said that Huntsville has more engineers per capita than almost any other city in the United States. Visitors to Huntsville can learn more about the space technology that changed the skies forever at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Alabama’s largest tourist attraction.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center showcases the history of the space program from its earliest beginnings and focuses on technology of the future. In the museum, exhibits and historical artifacts, such as the Apollo 16 command module and a lunar rover, tell the tale of America’s race to the moon, as well as man’s dream to one day live and work in space. The Spacedome IMAX Theater presents films throughout the day. A variety of hands-on exhibits bring the excitement of space travel down to earth, such as the chance to try your hand at landing a space shuttle via a simulator. Some of the most popular activities are the simulators, which produce G-forces three to four times the weight of gravity, similar to what the astronauts experience during liftoff.
Outside in Rocket Park, visitors can walk among Army missiles and NASA spacecraft, including a Saturn V rocket; a Chaparral missile; and the Pathfinder, a Space Shuttle built for testing purposes.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center also is the home of the U.S. Space Camp. Visitors to the complex can walk through the training facility and see some of the nation’s youngest space enthusiasts training for mock missions.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day of the year excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. A combination admission ticket that includes the museum, Rocket Park, and one IMAX movie is available. Visit www.spacecamp.com/museum or call (800) 637-7223 or (256) 837-3400 for more information.
High-tech vehicles can be found throughout Huntsville, and the Veterans Memorial Museum is no exception. The museum, which shares the history of America’s involvement in conflicts from World War I to the present, has more than 30 military vehicles on display from various wars. It also features exhibits, artifacts, and memorabilia. The Veterans Memorial Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, and $3 for students ages 17 and younger. Visit www.memorialmuseum.org or call (256) 883-3737 for more information.
You can step even further into the past at a historical 167-acre park called Burritt on the Mountain. The 1936 mansion of physician and inventor Dr. William Burritt, perched on top of Round Top Mountain, is now a museum of regional history. Visitors learn about the doctor’s life, too, as they tour the 14-room mansion.
The hilltop location provides a fine view of Huntsville and its surroundings. While you’re there, visit Historic Park, where living-history interpreters dressed in period clothing teach visitors about northeast Alabama farm life in the 1850s and 1900s. All of the buildings, crops, and tools fit in with the era.
If you want to enjoy the pristine beauty of Burritt on the Mountain, be sure to save an hour or two to explore one of the many trails that wind over the mountain. Most pass by an aged coal mine located on the estate.
With a variety of festive activities, the holidays are a great time to visit Burritt on the Mountain. Candlelight Christmas, which will be held December 1 and 2, displays more than 500 candlelit sconces that light the paths to the historic buildings and the Burritt mansion, which are decorated for the holidays. Even St. Nicholas will visit.
On the following Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, December 7, 8, and 9, visitors can dine in one of the historic homes or in the Burritt mansion itself. Meals will be served by wait staff in period dress as carolers sing traditional songs “” and St. Nick stops by again.
Burritt on the Mountain is open Tuesday through Sunday year-round. Hours are longer in the summer. Regular admission is $6 for adults; $5 for seniors, military, and students; and $4 for children ages 2 to 12. Special-event admission prices are higher. Visit www.burrittmuseum.com or call (256) 536-2882 for more information.
Visitors can explore another aspect of Huntsville’s historic past through the EarlyWorks Museum Complex. EarlyWorks comprises three museums: Alabama Constitution Village, the Historic Huntsville Depot & Museum, and the EarlyWorks Children’s History Museum.
At Alabama Constitution Village, visitors can explore the site where 44 delegates met in 1819 to write Alabama’s first constitution. Interpreters in 1800s period clothing guide you through the reconstructed birthplace of Alabama as you witness them performing the chores of 19th-century life.
In the evenings throughout the holiday season (November 24 through December 23 this year), Alabama Constitution Village is transformed. During this time it becomes Santa Claus’s village, where young and old will enjoy decorating cookies with Mrs. Claus. Live reindeer and the opportunity to visit with Santa and sit in his sleigh are also part of the holiday festivities.
The Historic Huntsville Depot, completed in 1860, is one of the oldest remaining railroad structures in the United States. You can climb onboard a locomotive and learn more about the Civil War history of the building, which once served as a prison and a hospital. The largest public model railroad in the state is on display there as well.
The EarlyWorks Children’s History Museum is geared toward small fry. They’ll get to meet a talking tree, play songs on oversized musical instruments, and learn quite a bit of history at the same time.
The Historic Huntsville Depot is open March through December, Wednesday through Saturday, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Santa’s Village operates from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. The EarlyWorks Children’s Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission fees are charged. Visit www.earlyworks.com or call (800) 678-1819 or (256) 564-8100 for more information.
The Huntsville area has five historic districts listed on the National Register, including the Twickenham Historic District, which boasts one of the largest concentrations of antebellum homes in the South. Twickenham was preserved during the Civil War because the Union Army used the dwellings during occupation. Self-guided walking tours of the historic district’s homes and architecture are available year-round. Visit the Huntsville/Madison County Visitor Center for a self-guided CD walking tour, which includes a CD player and headphones for a $30 refundable deposit.
On December 9, the Twickenham Historic Preservation District Association will host a special holiday homes tour and luminaries event, part of the “Spirit of Christmas Past.” Visitors can tour several period homes dating back to 1819 amid the soft glow of luminaries. Call (256) 534-0429 for more information.
The Huntsville Botanical Garden is a 110-acre site that is colorful from spring through fall. And when the leaves leave, it’s time for something brighter: the Galaxy of Lights. The garden complex boasts a huge, nearly 1.5-mile animated light display that you can drive through, 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., from Thanksgiving (November 23) to New Year’s Eve. (Public walk-through nights are November 17 to 20, 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.) This is a major and popular attraction in the community, as the display features millions of lights.
During the day, the Huntsville Botanical Gardens are open year-round, with longer hours during the summer. Admission is charged. Visit www.hsvbg.org or call (256) 830-4447 for more information.
Whether you’re searching for high-tech or historic, Huntsville is a city that has it all for the holidays.
Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau
500 Church St., Suite 1
Huntsville, AL 35801
The Huntsville/Madison County CVB provides a free visitors guide, which is available upon request. Or, visit the Visitor Information Center Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m.
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
293 Ditto Landing Road
Huntsville, AL 35803
Monte Sano State Park
5105 Nolen Ave.
Huntsville, AL 35801
Sharon Johnston Park
P.O. Box 36
New Market, AL 35761
U.S. Space & Rocket Center RV Campground
One Tranquility Base
Huntsville, AL 35805
(256) 830-4987 Reservations; call between 10:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Central Time