I have spent a considerable amount of time in Alabama (with mixed results), but I had never visited the Rocket City of Huntsville. As I prepared for my visit as a participant in the TBEX North America travel blogger conference, I was apprehensive about wheelchair accessibility there since it’s not a very large city. However, I was pleasantly surprised repeatedly by the city’s beauty, modernity, southern charm, and wheelchair friendliness. Here are some of the places I was able to visit or read/learn about that are accessible and definitely worth a visit.
1. The US Space and Rocket Center. This space lover’s dream in Huntsville is a museum operated by the government of Alabama, showcasing rockets, achievements, and artifacts of the US space program. Sometimes billed as “Earth’s largest space museum,” astronaut Owen Garriott described the place as, “a great way to learn about space in a town that has embraced the space program from the very beginning.” It is also home to the renowned multi-day Space Camp. The Center has one of the most extensive collections of space artifacts and displays more than 1500 pieces. Displays include rockets, engines, spacecraft, simulators, and hands-on exhibits. Many of the larger walk-through exhibits have ramps that allow wheelchair users to explore like everyone else.
2. Marshall Space Flight Center. The MSFC is the US government’s civilian rocketry and spacecraft propulsion research center. The largest NASA center, MSFC’s first mission was developing the Saturn launch vehicles for the Apollo moon program. Marshall has been the agency’s lead center for Space Shuttle propulsion and its external tank; payloads and related crew training; International Space Station (ISS) design and assembly; and computers, networks, and information management. The MSFC is located on Redstone Arsenal, which requires a military or government ID for access. As such, you need to be part of a tour through the US Space and Rocket Center to access the stops. You can call to make arrangements for an accessible bus so you can see the amazing work they’re doing at the MSFC.
3. Huntsville Museum of Art. I’m a HUGE art lover, and having recently returned from visiting some of the world’s top museums in Europe, my expectations for this museum weren’t particularly high. However, the galleries are beautifully arranged with ample space to view the expertly curated installations. During my visit, they had both pieces from their permanent collection and temporary exhibits on display, and both were impressive, especially for a small museum. It was very easy to get around in my scooter, and the quality of the exhibitions and display space make the museum a must-see in Huntsville.
4. Campus 805. This is easily one of the most unique evening spots I’ve been to anywhere. This entertainment venue is housed in a former public school. It started out as a high school in 1951, then became a middle school, then went up for sale for five years in 2009 before morphing into a food, beer, and entertainment complex in 2014. The building currently houses craft breweries, restaurants, catering, bars, retail and entertainment venues. The bottom floor is easy to navigate in a wheelchair, and you can even sneak into a speakeasy hidden behind a sliding wall of old lockers.
5. Twickenham Historic District. I absolutely love architecture, so I was excited to learn that there is an area of downtown Huntsville where you can find numerous antebellum homes to walk by and enjoy. Covering an area of 13 blocks, Twickenham has the one of the greatest concentration of antebellum homes in Alabama. Every major architectural style from 1814 to 2014 is represented in neighborhood, and one house even has an original Tiffany glass window. You can view a virtual tour of the neighborhood HERE, and arrange for a guided tour HERE. The sidewalks are mostly in acceptable shape, but there are plenty of places where you can roll into the very wide street for smoother access. The residents are very friendly and won’t mind driving around you at all.
6. AM Booth’s Lumberyard. Similar to Campus 805, this is a large entertainment complex. The 120 year-old building has a relaxed vibe rooted in southern hospitality that is always welcoming. Just through the front doors is a restaurant with blended influences, multiple bars with one of a kind personality, four stages, large patios, beautiful plant life, and private rental spaces. One of the many attractions to see is the large 1924 Pullman train car resting in the central courtyard, surrounded by a whimsical collection of unique treasures. The Lumberyard is an ideal spot to catch live music, grab a drink, or enjoy lazy weekend brunch, and it is easy to get around using a wheelchair.
7. Big Spring Park. This beautiful accessible space in downtown Huntsville is built around its namesake “Big Spring,” the original water source that the city of Huntsville was built around. Hearing of the abundant water source and plentiful big game, John Hunt, Huntsville’s founder, sought out the spring and settled near it in 1805 on the bluff above, which later became the site of the First National Bank of Huntsville. The original park site is situated in downtown Huntsville, starting from the west side of the courthouse square, and extending about two blocks southwest. Today the park prominently features gifts given by other countries and foreign nationals to the city of Huntsville, including a 1903 light beacon (often referred to as “the lighthouse”) and a 1929 fog bell given by Norway in 1973. Other smaller gifts included a bench from the United Kingdom and a sundial from Germany. The most recognizable gifts, however, are the iconic red Japanese bridge and cherry trees, given by Japanese Major General Mikio Kimata.
8. Huntsville Botanical Garden. The Huntsville Botanical Garden is open year-round and boasts a picture perfect aquatic garden, a spectacular wildflower and nature trail and numerous specialty gardens and plant collections. The Children’s Garden and Nature Center contain the nation’s largest seasonal butterfly house and eight specialized gardens aimed toward the younger set. Children and adults alike will enjoy a stroll through the dinosaur garden, the space garden, storybook garden and more. Family festivals include Beaks and Barks, Huntsville Blooms, the Scarecrow Trail and the nationally recognized Galaxy of Lights. Nearly the entire Garden is handicap accessible, and free wheelchairs are available on a first come, first served basis.