Alabama marks the 45th state in our JenRanAdventures across the United States… with our first stop in Robertsdale, one town away from the Buc-ee’s #42 in Loxley.
What is a Buc-ee’s? For some, it is a destination… but officially it is a
travel center chain with a mascot that’s a smiling, cartoon beaver. It’s a gas station with a convenience store, but on a massive scale; think a truck stop, but only for cars. There are many, many, many gas pump stations (more than 100) and the store offers a vast collection of merchandise in addition to fresh and packaged foods and beverages… and the most wonderful bathrooms you have ever seen in a gas station. A Buc-ee’s store is about 21 times the size of an average gas station convenience store.
The Alabama location is the company’s first outside of Texas (with other locations now planned in Florida and perhaps Mississippi). Buc-ee’s is based in Lake Jackson, Texas, and started in 1982; it now has about 35 travel stations — located mostly in Texas.
If you travel in the south — and especially in Texas — you must experience a Buc-ee’s to totally get it. A true success in marketing and merchandising.
Alabama is an interesting state — with key in-state football rivals in the Crimson Tide (Roll Tide) and the Auburn Tigers. It was the 22nd state to join the union. Its nicknames include the “Yellowhammer State,” the “Cotton State,” and the “Heart of Dixie.” The state is named for the Alabama River (a 318-mile river that flows from the northeast part of the state southward to Mobile) — and the name Alabama is believed to be a combination of two Native American words: “Alba and Amo. Alba refers to vegetables, herbs; and plants, while Amo refers to gatherer or picker. The Saturn V, the rocket used by NASA for the original flights to the moon, was developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Finally, Mobile is actually the birthplace of America’s original Mardi Gras back in 1703 — not New Orleans.
Because we again ran into murky weather in Robertsdale (which is located about 27 miles southeast of Mobile — and almost the midpoint between Pensacola and Mobile), we decided to hunt out another Jazzercise location… which we found just a few miles west of us at the Jazzercise Daphne Fitness Center.
We enjoyed our first workout so much, we came back for a second one too! Jazzercise is a mix of dance, resistance, and more — for a full body workout… and we always leave sweaty, but exhilarated from the endorphins. There’s no need to call ahead; we just show up and fill out a form and pay a fee (depending on the center), and get ready to have a fun time. We did a standard Dance Mixx class one day and a Fusion (using High Intensity Interval Training – HiiT) class the next. We can’t recommend these classes enough for all genders, though Ran is often the only man in the classes.
We then moved on to Montgomery, the state capital… and a major center for civil rights — and we just happened to be visiting on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a federal holiday on the third Monday in January (marking his approximate January 15th birthday). As we approached downtown and Troy University, we discovered an MLK parade was about to start, so we changed our plans and watched the parade, which was quite wonderful — except for the many politicians participating in the parade requesting voter support.
Montgomery is where Martin Luther King, Jr., began his career as a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Montgomery is also where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955 — a key moment in the civil rights movement.
Montgomery is a key endpoint in the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, the route voting rights activists took March 1965, during several organized marches demonstrating the desire of African-American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote. These marches, some of which gained great exposure (sadly) for the violence committed upon the African-Americans, helped contribute to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act — another key moment in the civil rights movement.
Montgomery is also home to the Civil Rights Memorial, National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Freedom Rides Museum, and Rosa Parks Museum. The Civil Rights Memorial (crafted by Maya Lin, the same designer who did the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.) is a tribute to the 41 people who were killed in the civil rights movement’s struggle for the equal and integrated treatment of all people, regardless of race. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally known as the National Lynching Memorial) is a national memorial to commemorate the victims of lynching in this country, as well as African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow laws. The Freedom Rides Museum is located in the old Greyhound Bus Station where 21 young Freedom Riders arrived to angry mobs intent on maintaining segregation. The Rosa Parks Museum contains information, exhibits, and some artifacts from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
We ended our visit in Montgomery with a nice little hike in Lagoon Park, located northeast of the city.
The 432-acre park has more than five miles of biking and walking trails that meander through hardwood forest and pine flats, over meadows, along a creek, and around a scenic lagoon… and if lucky, one can get an up-close glimpse of wildlife, wading birds, and waterfowl.
Lagoon Park is also home to a world-class softball complex, 17-court tennis complex, an 18-hole golf course, a lodge and restaurant, picnic shelters, and playgrounds.
We hiked the 1-mile Piney Woods Loop Trail, which is an out-and-back trail located between the Big Lagoon and the Northeastern Boulevard. Other options for hiking or biking include the Cross Country Trail (2.4 miles RT), Forest Road Trail (2 miles RT), and Creek Trail (1.8 miles RT).
Montgomery also offers lots of other fun activities, such as the Cooters Pond Park, Blount Cultural Park, Montgomery Zoo, Alabama Safari Park, Hyundai Motor Factory Tours, W.A. Gayle Planetarium, and Launch Trampoline Park.
From Montgomery, we traveled up to Birmingham — the largest city in the state. The city started out as a regional hub and major player in manufacturing and iron and steel production, earning nicknames such as The Magic City and The Pittsburgh of the South. (Interesting side fact: Birmingham was also a major producer of rails and railroad cars.) As with many other industrial-centered cities, as the steel mills and other industries shut down, the economy pivoted and today, Birmingham is a major banking hub — one of the largest banking centers in the U.S.
Our first stop in the Birmingham area was Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama’s largest state park at just under 10,000 acres; it is home to the Alabama Wildlife Center, Oak Mountain Interpretative Center, and Oak Mountain BMX Track, and is managed by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. It is located about 20 miles south of Birmingham.
The park is used for hiking, swimming, picnicking, camping, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, and golfing. Like many other state parks, major improvements were made to the park in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration.
Our goal was to hike some of the 25 miles of hiking trails within the park, starting with hiking to a waterfall — our first in many months! You can hike the Green Trail from the beach area (a VERY steep 2.8 miles RT) up to Peavine Falls… or do what we did, which was to drive up to the Peavine Falls parking area and then hike parts of the White and Blue Trails to reach the falls. The 65-foot tall falls, located on the topmost ridge in the park, are spring-fed but have a stronger flow after rainstorms. It is a bit of a hike to get down to the base of the falls, but definitely worth the small amount of goat-trail scrambling… and from the parking area to the falls and back is only about 1.5 miles. On the hike back to the parking area, we even still found bits of ice left over from a storm and cold temperatures (and shown in the bottom left picture in the collage).
Feeling we needed a bit more hiking, but worrying about the time, we decided to just take a short hike on the Treetop Nature Trail, which features about eight enclosures that contain hawks, owls, and vultures that were injured and rehabilitated — but too injured to return to the wild. Included is a rare (one we had never seen before) albino vulture. The exhibits are part of The Wildlife Center, the state’s largest and oldest wildlife rehabilitation center. More than 3,000 orphaned and injured birds, mammals, and reptiles from more than 100 species are cared for in the center annually. (Whenever possible, the rehabilitated animals are returned to the wild.)
Having seen one waterfall, we got a bit greedy and decided to find another one… and enjoyed another relatively easy 2-mile (RT) hike to Falling Rock Falls, a 90-feet high waterfall located in the Cahaba River Wildlife Management Area (operated by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources).
The trailhead is located about 30 miles south of Birmingham, along County Road 22 in Montevallo; it sits along a bend in the road and if you blink, you might miss it! There’s a small parking area. The trail starts on a closed logging/access road. After about a half-mile follow the road to the left for a short distance before taking the next right turn onto another road. After about a quarter-mile, you will see a small path on your left… follow the path down to the top of the waterfall on Eddings Creek; from there, you can do a goat trail hike down to the bottom of the falls and inside the cavern cut out by the waterfall. Because of recent rain, we found the walls to be flowing nicely — and once again, because of the cooler weather, we saw giant icicles hanging down (and some crashing down) from the rim of the cavern.
Per our usual modus-operandi, we also visited two Costco Wholesale locations while in Alabama: Store #362 in Hoover (a rare three-digit numbered store) and Store #1009 in Montgomery. Can’t beat Costco’s gas prices and growing selection of organic groceries.
And that completed our Alabama travels. Next, we head back to Georgia to explore more of the western side of the state and spend time in Atlanta with some of Ran’s family.