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Alabama's Best - And First Cut

First and deepest cuts in the state budget went to what are clearly some of the state’s best resources—the natural kind. As an exercise in remembering who we are, take a look again at Alabama’s most popular 10 parks and natural destinations.

Eufala National Wildlife Refuge

Eufala National Wildlife Refuge

Courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department

From sandy beaches to breezy mountain trails, and plenty of lakes, rivers and forests in between, Alabama offers spectacular outdoor destinations for residents and visitors to enjoy. Unfortunately, the state’s budget crisis has placed some of these attractions in peril. Some destinations and historic sites will only lose a portion of their state funding, while others have been cut from the budget completely, such as the Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park in McCalla, which ranked number 3 on the Top 10 Parks and Natural Destinations for 2010 listing, as ranked by attendance compiled by the Alabama Tourism Department. For more information on Alabama’s budgets for 2012, see the Benchmarks section of this issue.

As parks and natural destinations across the state try to curb expenses, many of them are increasing their fundraising efforts.
Here’s a look at the state’s Top 10 Parks and Natural Destinations, based on annual

attendance, as named by the Alabama Tourism Department for 2010.

#1 Gulf Beaches (Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Dauphin Island, Fort Morgan)
#2 Gulf State Park (Gulf Shores)

Alabama’s Gulf Coast beaches have long been a favorite destination for travelers from across the country. Even with the BP oil spill dampening travelers’ enthusiasm last year, more than 3.6 million people visited Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island in 2010, and 711,474 visited the Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores. The previous year, the beaches welcomed 4.6 million guests and the State Park welcomed more than 1 million.

This year, the oil spill is cleaned up, the beaches are pristine, and the destinations are prepared to welcome millions of guests. “Recently, a deep clean of our beach front was completed in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and the crew is in the final stages of completion for the Fort Morgan peninsula,” says Kim Chapman, public relations manager for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “This process removed any subsurface oil product from our beach front and returned it to top-notch condition.”

In addition to beaches, restaurants, shopping and family-friendly activities, Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers plenty of space for business or association meetings and events. The area has 112,121 square feet of traditional hotel meeting space, Chapman says. But the area also is home to numerous nontraditional meeting facilities, such as the conference center at The Wharf, a multi-use facility that includes 27,000 square feet and seats more than 2,000 guests for a reception in the 18,600-square-foot exhibition hall. The beachside Gulf State Park Pavilion, which can host banquets for up to 450 people, also is available for meetings and events.

That pavilion is part of Gulf State Park, which is located in the Gulf Shores city limits and spans 6,150 acres. The sprawling park includes two miles of sandy beaches, along with modern camping facilities, cottages, trails and fishing. The park also offers tennis, group pavilions, an 18-hole golf course, a 900-acre lake for fishing, swimming, and water skiing, nature programs and picnic areas.

Last October, Gulf State Park completed a $4.5 million renovation of the campground area, including the addition of a 5,200-square-foot swimming pool with dressing areas and a raised pool deck, according to General Manager Mike Guinn. The project also included the addition of a nature center, a boathouse and nine boat docks. Renovations also were completed on the campground’s store and laundry area. In July 2009, the state park unveiled a new $14.8 million pier, which is 1,540 feet long, 20 feet wide, and offers 2,448 feet of fishing space available along the rails. The longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico and Alabama’s only public pier on the Gulf, it can accommodate up to 30 people on the octagon-shaped end of the pier. Much larger than the original pier, which was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the new pier includes indoor concession-area seating, indoor retail space for tackle and souvenirs, mid-pier comfort stations, and wheelchair accessible rail fishing.

For tourists or conference-goers visiting the Alabama Gulf Coast, “we are here to help,” Chapman says. “If you need suggestions of things to do or places to eat in the area, visit our website, call us at 1-800-745-SAND, or stop by the Gulf Shores or Orange Beach Welcome Center.” And if you want to find a good deal on a beach vacation, follow the tourism office’s Twitter channel dedicated to finding discounts on lodging, restaurants or attractions: twitter.com/beachspecials. For last minute trips, take a look at the last minute deals listed online at www.GulfShores.com/packages-deals/.

#3 Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park (McCalla)

More than a half-million people visit the Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park each year to take advantage of the rich natural surroundings and experience a taste of pioneer life. The park spans 1,500 acres along Roupes Creek. Along with plenty of opportunities for hiking, fishing, biking, taking train rides and playing on the playground, Tannehill also offers a unique, hands-on approach to learning about history.

Located on the site of Tannehill Furnaces, an ironworks forge built in 1830, the state park includes a cotton gin, working gristmill and pioneer farm. In restored pioneer cabins, a blacksmith, miller and craftsmen demonstrate their trades from spring through fall. Also on site is the Iron and Steel Museum of Alabama, a regional interpretive center on 19th century iron making that features the belt driven machines of the 1800s and tools and products of the times.

Among the most popular events at Tannehill are Trade Days, held the third weekend of each month, from March through November. At Trade Days, shoppers can browse through tools, clothing, jewelry, knives, furniture and other treasures, and meet the craftspeople behind the goods. The park also hosts an annual dulcimer festival, archery competitions, a Civil War re-enactment, and a wood carvers show. This year, on September 10-11, the park will debut Festival in the Pines at Tannehill, a new upscale arts and crafts festival.

While the various events hosted at the park always draw crowds during the warmer months, “people come to Tannehill year round,” says Stacey Green, events coordinator at Tannehill. “When you’re here, you feel like you’re out in the country, yet you’re just a few miles from Birmingham. The weekend before spring break, the campgrounds started filling up, and by the middle of the week, there were about 1,000 kids riding their bikes, fishing and having fun. It was great.”

#4 Lake Guntersville State Park (Guntersville)

Located along the banks of the Tennessee River and overlooking the 69,000-acre Guntersville Reservoir, Lake Guntersville State Park includes more than 6,000 acres of natural woodlands. The park’s 18-hole golf course recently was renovated and reopened last year, and “the greens are coming in beautifully,” says Patty Tucker, the park’s sales and marketing director. In addition to the newly reopened golf course, Lake Guntersville State Park recently installed a new paved area for bicyclists. “We are becoming more bicycle friendly,” Tucker says.

The park offers a number of designated trails for hiking and biking; boat rentals including Bass boats, pontoons and flat-bottom; a beach complex; fishing center; and nature programs. There also are a wide array of accommodations on site, including more than 400 campsites, cottages on the lake, a resort lodge on the pinnacle of Taylor Mountain, and chalets on the ridge-tops. And for business or organizational meetings, the park’s lodge offers 13,900 square feet of meeting and banquet space, along with resort-style accommodations and an on-site restaurant.

Lake Guntersville draws guests throughout the year, but there are several traditional events that attract crowds annually. Each January and February, the park hosts Eagle Awareness weekends, which include different informative speakers each weekend with live birds, guided field trips to eagle nesting sites, and excellent scenery. In March and April, the park hosts a series of guided hikes, and throughout the year, it is the site for a number of fishing tournaments.

While visiting the park, there are a number of other nearby attractions to take advantage of, including outlet shopping in Boaz, boutique shopping in downtown Guntersville, whitewater rafting at High Falls Park, hiking over the canyon at Buck’s Pocket State Park, and caving at Cathedral Caverns State Park. One hour away from Guntersville State Park, Huntsville offers the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Early Works and Sci-Quest.

#5 Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge (Eufaula)

Established in 1964 with cooperation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge is located along the Chattahoochee River, spanning about 11,000 acres in Alabama and Georgia. Because 4,000 of those acres are covered in water, the Refuge is a popular place for anglers, especially throughout the spring, summer and fall. From February through June, the Refuge hosts “an array of fishing tournaments,” says Steven Lewis, assistant manager of the Wildlife Refuge. Many of those tournaments are based out of Lakepoint State Park, which is surrounded by the Refuge on the banks of 45,000-acre Lake Eufaula. While the Refuge is open from daylight until dark, it doesn’t accommodate overnight visitors—but neighboring Lakepoint offers plenty of overnight accommodations, including a resort lodge, cabins, cottages and camping facilities.

In addition to endless opportunities for fishing, Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge also offers waterfowl hunts during the fall and winter months, with hunting blinds provided for a fee. “Ours is one of the higher-rated fee hunts in the Alabama/Georgia region,” Lewis says. The Refuge also allows archery hunting for deer and some small game hunting. And “there are lots of opportunities for photography and wildlife observation,” Lewis adds.

As part of the national system of refuges established for the conservation and management of fish, wildlife and plants, the Eufaula Refuge is one of 550 such properties across the country. The refuge’s primary purpose is to provide habitat for wintering waterfowl, other migratory birds and resident species; to provide habitat and protection for endangered or threatened species; and to provide wildlife oriented recreational opportunities for the public. Last year, almost 475,000 people visited the Refuge.

#6 Wind Creek State Park (Alexander City)

Located along the shores of Lake Martin, a 41,000-acre clear water lake, Wind Creek State Park covers 1,445 acres. Anglers flock to the park to draw the crappie, bluegill and striped bass out of Lake Martin’s clear blue waters, and several fishing tournaments are held in the park each year. In recent years, Wind Creek has played host to the American Bass Anglers’ Tour, the Airport Marine Team Trail and the Pine Level Bassmasters. To make the fishing trip complete, Wind Creek’s park marina sells live bait, tackle, hunting and fishing licenses and other supplies, and boat slips are available for rent by the day or by the month.

But fishing isn’t the only thing there is to do at Wind Creek, according to Park Superintendent Jimmy Shivers. The park also offers two hiking trails that wind over rolling ridges and along the shoreline of the lake with views of wildflowers, dogwoods and wildlife. The Jeff Reed Horse Trail, a 10-mile horseback riding trail, recently opened at Wind Creek, and takes riders through a vast forest of mixed hardwoods, pines and ferns, and along a stream with views of Lake Martin. There also are plenty of opportunities for biking, swimming and cliff jumping off nearby Chimney Rock. Other nearby attractions include Lakewinds Golf Course, the Lake Martin Amphitheater, home of one of Alabama’s largest July 4th fireworks displays; and Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. And Wind Creek hosts special events throughout the year, such as Indian festivals and waterskiing shows.

With 626 campsites and 16 horse camping sites scattered throughout 320 acres, Wind Creek is home to the largest state-operated campground in the United States. Almost 200 of those campsites are located on the water, offering convenient opportunities for fishing, swimming and boating. Bathhouses and playground facilities are located throughout the park. The park also offers seven cabins, each equipped with air conditioning, a kitchenette and a private bath.

#7 Monte Sano State Park (Huntsville)

Since the 1820s, Monte Sano has attracted visitors with its fresh mountain air and spectacular views of the Tennessee Valley below. Monte Sano, whose name is Spanish for “Mountain of Health,” rises more than 1,600 feet above sea level and was home to a mountain resort, Hotel Monte Sano, from 1887 until the early 1900s. In 1923, the state of Alabama opened Monte Sano State Park to make the natural beauty atop the mountain accessible to all people.

Today, the park offers more than 14 miles of hiking and biking trails covering various elevations and providing stunning vistas of the Tennessee Valley. Last year, 270,000 people visited Monte Sano. “The park and the trails are very popular with locals on weekends for mountain biking and hiking,” says Kent Wilborn, park manager. “The day-use area, with the playground and picnic tables, is very popular, as well.”

For guests who want to spend more than a day in the park, Monte Sano has 14 stone cabins, built in the Arts and Crafts style of the 1930s. The park also is home to 89 modern campsites. For groups and events, the Monte Sano Lodge is a modern facility in a serene mountain setting with space for up to 200 at a reception and 160 for a banquet. Beautifully furnished, the Lodge contains a large meeting room, small meeting room, break room, lobby or pre-function area, restrooms and a terrace.

Each September, Monte Sano State Park hosts a Dog Fair and the Monte Sano Art Show. The Von Braun Astronomical Society, a non-profit volunteer organization of amateur and professional astronomers, operates a Planetarium located inside Monte Sano State Park, and every Saturday night, the Planetarium offers astronomy programs to the public.

#8 Joe Wheeler State Park (Rogersville)

Located on Wheeler Lake in Northwest Alabama, Joe Wheeler State Park is an ideal location for outdoor enthusiasts, with plenty of opportunities for camping, fishing, golf, tennis and swimming. The park even includes transient boat slips and a marina. And it’s a popular place: In 2010, the park attracted 265,770 people, and in 2009, more than 310,000 people visited.

Ten new cottages are located in the mouth of First Creek, dotting the water’s edge. Each features two or three bedrooms and a stunning view of Wheeler Lake. The park’s cabins, located on the south side of the Tennessee River, are accessible to both Wheeler and Wilson Lakes, and can sleep from four to 15 people. The park also includes 116 large, level campsites situated beneath towering pines.

Last year, 26 of the guest rooms in the Joe Wheeler Lodge were completely renovated, and renovations will soon begin on the remaining 49 guest rooms. In addition to luxurious, updated guest rooms, the lodge offers four meeting rooms and can accommodate up to 300 people for meetings, says Felicia Turner, sales manager at Joe Wheeler Resort.

Aside from water-based activities like fishing, swimming and boating, the park is known as a great place to play golf. Joe Wheeler’s 18-hole championship golf course, designed by Earl Stone, is situated amid rolling hills that tie in with the river. Since the course is inside a game sanctuary, wildlife is abundant and it’s not unusual for golfers to pause their game to observe a doe and her fawn, or a flock of bluebirds. Each year, Joe Wheeler hosts special events including a Christmas Boat Parade of Lights; holiday buffets for Easter, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving; and various car shows and live musical events.

#9 Little River Canyon National Preserve (Fort Payne)

Little River Canyon National Preserve, nestled atop Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama along scenic Little River, features “some of the most spectacular scenery in the south, over 100 rare plants and animals, and many ways to have fun,” says Park Ranger Larry Beane. “A new bridge across Little River at Little River Falls has a protected walking lane with overlooks and benches to see Little River Falls and the beginning of the canyon.”

Recently, the National Park Service moved the Preserve headquarters to the Jacksonville State University Little River Canyon Center. Just opened, the Canyon Center is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Registered Building, and the largest LEED building in Alabama. Located inside the park, the 23,000-square-foot Canyon Center includes meeting spaces, a museum, auditorium, catering kitchen, classrooms, library, education store, amphitheatre, outdoor trails office space and other amenities.

“The most popular attractions at the park include sightseeing along the Scenic Drive overlooks, playing in the river on a hot day, picnicking and hiking,” Beane says. “For those who are skilled enough, extreme sports include whitewater and climbing activities. [However,] the canyon is unforgiving of mistakes, and safety should be on everyone’s mind.”

For guests who want to stay overnight, camping is available in the Preserve at DeSoto State Park, and just outside the Preserve at numerous private campgrounds. DeSoto State Park, located inside the National Preserve and spanning more than 3,000 acres, also hosts meetings and conferences and offers additional accommodations including mountain chalets, log cabins, and motel rooms. Additionally, the park features a picnic area with playground, Olympic-size swimming pool, nature center with interpretive programs and live animals, and more than 20 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.

#10 Goose Pond Colony (Scottsboro)

Located where the river meets the mountains, along the banks of the Tennessee River's Lake Guntersville and nestled into the picturesque Cumberland Mountains, Goose Pond Colony offers a relaxing getaway with plenty of activities to keep you busy. The resort features two 18-hole championship golf courses, comfy lakeside cottages, a lodge with up to five adjoining bedrooms, a relaxing waterfront campground, full service marina, meeting facilities, The Docks Restaurant, swimming pool, beach area and Lake Guntersville.

Goose Pond’s The Docks Restaurant has earned national recognition: In 2006, Rand McNally ranked it among the top five travel destinations in the Southeast, and Life on the Wire magazine named it the best restaurant on the Tennessee River, says Lyle Sosebee, general manager of Goose Pond Colony. The Colony’s marina, resort and bait and tackle shop also were highly rated by Life on the Wire.

Each year, Goose Pond hosts more than 60 fishing tournaments, including the largest fishing tournament in Alabama. The Colony also is home to the Junior College National Golf Championship.

And water sports for weekenders and vacationers always are popular. “We’re located on a stretch of the Tennessee River that runs straight for 16 miles, the longest straight stretch on the river,” Sosebee says. “That makes it perfect for fishing, boating, skiing and swimming.”

Last year, a boat rental service became available at Goose Pond Colony, making a variety of boats available, including pontoons, fishing boats, ski boats, wakeboard boats, kayaks and canoes. In December 2010, Goose Pond Colony began an extensive cottage renovation program that will result in complete renovations in all the resort’s cottages. The Colony also is in the midst of a multi-year campground expansion and upgrade that will cost more than $500,000.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Florence.

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