We started our month of April in northern Alabama at Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville, about 50 miles west of Hunstville just below the Tennessee state line. After our last stay at the Good Sam Park in Tupelo, we were extremely excited to get back to a proper campground. We really loved our time here. The State Park is a RESORT Park encompassing 2,550 acres along the Tennessee River which forms the 69,700 acre Wheeler Lake. Mike was also happy because it is touted as a fisherman’s paradise.
The park has a campground where we stayed in spot A23. It also has a lodge with 75 lakeside hotel guest rooms, a swimming pool, conference center, and restaurant with spectacular views of the lake and the marina. The marina has boat rentals, and the golf course is beautiful. They also have a dozen or so guest cottages along the waterfront, and about 14 miles away on the other side of the water, are 27 more modest guest cabins. After I list the rest of the amenities like the tennis courts, fishing piers, hiking trails, the sandy beach area, and beautiful views, you can see why we were so happy to make this place a stop on our trip.
We met back up with the spring breakers when we arrived on a Tuesday afternoon to a full park. The office assigned us spot #A9, but when we got there another motorhome had already occupied the space. Fortunate for us, we decided to take the first spot we could find and then get in the car to circle the rest of campground to see if anything better was available. It turns out the first spot we took was the only full hook-up pull-thru long enough for us to fit into regardless of what else was available. Our travel angels were on duty that day.
We arrived to a very nice section of neighbors on this stop. Two families from different parts of the state had converged at Joe Wheeler S.P. to celebrate spring break together. They had several kids with them, but we really only got to know Zane and Molly May. These two first graders were cousins and they spent many hours at and under our picnic table talking to the dogs. Zane was the cutest kid. He was all boy and every time he would show back up to our camp he would have another cut or bruise from falling out of a tree, or getting run over by another kid’s bike. He was always proud to show his latest camping scar. We met him when he followed us on our walk after we got settled on our first afternoon. I noticed he was trailing behind us so I asked him his name and we were friends from there. He didn’t really care too much about us, he just wanted to talk to the dogs as often as possible. Molly May spent many hours telling me about other state parks in Alabama – what there was to do at each and which ones sold ice cream. Her dad was a high school science teacher, H.S. and middle school coach, and part-time bus driver. When they all left on Friday morning, they gave us their leftover fire wood.
We only took a couple of day trips from our campground because there was so much to do inside the park. The Shoals area of northwestern Alabama is a pocket of four historical towns along the Tennessee River about 45 minutes to the west of the state park. The area is depicted in history as a thunderous stretch of shallow rapids where the Tennessee River flowed through the hills and valleys of the state. Mussels were found in abundance among the river rocks and American Indians used “much muscle” to power their canoes through the swift waters. That is how the area got the name of Muscle Shoals. Today, the shallow rapids are gone and the area is centered around Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Florence.
Muscle Shoals is a hot spot in recording music. Lyle Lovett even talks about it in one of his songs. Since we both love music we were looking forward to exploring the “muscle shoals sound” as we started out for the day. There are at least three famous recording studios in Muscle Shoals where everyone from the Rolling Stones to Paul Simon to Jimmy Buffett to the Oak Ridge Boys have created gold and platinum records. These places were open by appointment only, so we didn’t pursue that option other than taking a drive-by photo of FAME Recording Studios, Inc. We were very bummed when we got to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia to find it closed. The brochure made it sound very cool, but the building was locked up and there was no sign on the door or windows with information on operating hours or anything else.
We did stop at the birthplace and childhood home of Helen Keller in Tuscumbia. She was one of my idols as a child and I never really realized she was from Alabama originally. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see where she once lived and see the actual water pump where everything opened up for her. Mike was not so inspired by her life of miraculous accomplishments, so we parked under a large tree and he napped in the car with the dogs until I was finished. The estate was called Ivy Green, and there are only about 10 acres remaining of the original 640.The home was built in 1820 by her grandparents. Inside the home were hundreds of personal photos and letters/ correspondence on display. Most of the furnishings were actually original to the home including an exquisite 200-year old silver tea setting. After we (I) left Ivy Green we explored downtown Tuscumbia, drove through downtown Sheffield, and then parked in downtown Florence to grab a cocktail and some dinner at a great locally-owned spot along the main drag.
The main lodge at the park had a restaurant with elaborate buffets on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday brunch. They featured all-you-can-eat prime rib on Friday night. We went on Saturday for the endless crab leg and seafood buffet. I was tempted to go back to the Sunday Brunch on Easter after church, but I was still so full from all the crab meat and shrimp that I couldn’t consider it for long.
On our last day we drove over to Hunstville to check out the area and to specifically see the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. We stopped in historic Athens on our way to have lunch at a spot on the courthouse square. I enjoyed driving through downtown Huntsville and its adjacent historic neighborhoods. Everything was very clean and well-maintained. Huntsville boasts the largest collection of antebellum homes in the state, so there were plenty of wonderful structures to gawk at.
This is the day I learned that Hunstville played a role in America’s race to the moon. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is recognized as one of the most comprehensive U.S. manned space flight hardware museums in the world. The museum features almost 1,500 space artifacts from the U.S. manned spaceflight program, including the original Saturn V rocket an the Pathfinder orbiter displayed as the world’s only fully stacked Space Transportation System. The place is huge and has all kinds of simulated rides/virtual reality games for adults and older kids. They had a special exhibit on black holes while we were there. After our time reading the information on the exhibits, I was in awe of so many scientists and explorers that developed accurate theories and formulas for ideas and phenomenon they still cannot even fully comprehend or explain. It was overwhelming and inspirational at the same time.
On the way back home that afternoon we stocked up on supplies for the next week (groceries, dog food, liquor). The next morning we loaded up and headed to the middle of Alabama to spend some time on Lake Martin. It is not by accident that we thought this would be a good state park to investigate, we figured we would feel at home there!