When you set foot in Alabama, you’ll quickly discover that there’s more to this state than amazing barbecue, sweet tea, and Southern charm. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Smoky Mountains, this Southern state is home to more secret getaways and unique activities than expected. As for accommodations, there are a bounty of incredible Alabama vacation rentals to choose from. Whether you want to eat dinner in a cave, hold a lemur, or experience a place that resembles Tolkien’s “Middle Earth,” let these 10 top hidden gems in Alabama make your getaway unforgettable.

1. Rikard’s Mill Historical Park, Beatrice

rikard's mill historical park

Watching someone grind corn at a historic, water-driven Rikard’s Mill teaches kids of all ages how pioneers made cornmeal. Water from Flat Creek turns the paddle wheel, which operates the 36-inch grinding stones that pulverize the dried corn. The park features other historic structures, including a blacksmith shop, a cabin, and a mule-drive syrup mill. While you’re there, browse for souvenirs in the covered bridge gift shop.

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2. Rattlesnake Saloon, Tuscumbia

rattlesnake saloon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hop into the back of the pickup truck for a ride down the steep hill to Rattlesnake Saloon. It’s just your average, run-of-the-mill restaurant in a cave where the proprietor serves hot food and cold beer. Situated under a cliff, the restaurant features seating inside the cave and outside, in a dried-up riverbed. The setting, decor, live music, and campy atmosphere make it a memorable experience. Hours typically include Thursday, Friday, and Saturday only.

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3. Dismals Canyon, Phil Campbell

dismals canyon rope bridge
Source: dismalscanyon.com

It sounds bland at best, or ominous at worst, but Dismals Canyon hides a tiny secret to light up your vacation. After sunset, tiny bioluminescent insects, known as Dismalites, light up the canyon. Join a guided nighttime tour–usually on Fridays and Saturdays during the summer– to meet the Dismalites. Tolkien fans find that the canyon reminds them somewhat of “Middle Earth.” Carry a flashlight with a red filter on your Dismal tour in this 85-acre natural reserve that attracts savvy locals, lucky visitors, and fantastical glowing creatures.

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4. Mooresville

mooresville post office
Source: Wikimedia Commons

From Interstate 65, exit the present and park your car in historic Mooresville, a little village that time forgot. The 1840 post office is the state’s oldest working post office, which includes call boxes that pre-date the Civil War. Stroll through this walkable community and explore the quaint shops. Almost all the structures stand, preserved as they once appeared, including a church and tavern.

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5. Little River Canyon National Preserve, Fort Payne

little river canyon falls
Source: Flickr/Shawn Taylor

Along the 11-mile scenic drive, you get amazing canyon views at Little River Canyon National Preserve at the top of Lookout Mountain. Many tourists miss one of Alabama’s most beautiful hidden gems at the north end of the canyon, the Little River Falls. From the parking area, there’s a boardwalk to the overlook, and a trail to hike on down into the canyon continues on from there.

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6. Ave Maria Grotto, Cullman

ave maria grotto
Source: Flickr/Daniel Thornton

A monk with a handicap spent 17 hours a day for 30 years creating Ave Maria Grotto, which features 125 miniatures of famous structures and holy locations. Brother Joseph Zoettl finished the Lourdes Basilica, his last model in the four-acre city, in 1958 when he was 80 years old. Also known as Jerusalem in Miniature, it beautifies a four-acre park on St. Bernard Abbey’s grounds.

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7. Alabama Natural Bridge, Natural Bridge

alabama natural bridge
Source: Flickr/David Brossard

As the morning midst fades, a verdant forest reveals Alabama’s Natural Bridge, a spectacular 200-million-year-old sandstone and iron ore bridge. The bridge formation measures 148 feet long and 60 feet high, and it stands near a small cave. Near the bridge, you find moderately easy trails in the woods and woodlands of the Bankhead National Forest. See if you can find the mysterious Indian Head carving nearby. No one seems to know who created this impressive relief, when, or why they did it.

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8. Noccalula Falls Park, Gadsden

noccalula falls

The 90-foot Noccalula Falls plunges into Black Creek, singing an ancient love song about the young Indian maiden and her lost love. View the scenic falls from a convenient overlook or explore several trail areas, including one unmarked, challenging trail that leads you underneath the falls. It’s part of a lovely park that features a paved trail system, which includes a Huntington miniature train tour for those who prefer to ride. The Pioneer Village includes a petting zoo and features interpretive staff to show and tell about pioneer life. Additional amenities include picnic shelters, a playground, putt putt golf, and a gift shop.

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9. Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, Gulf Shores

a lion at the alabama gulf coast zoo
Source: http://www.alabamagulfcoastzoo.com

Slip into something a little more comfortable, such as a Gulf Shores vacation rental near the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, which houses more than 500 exotic animals. It’s easy to spend the better part of a day meandering through the exhibits, and there’s also an option to enter some enclosures for first-hand animal encounters, such as feeding a baby kangaroo or holding a lemur. The little kids enjoy petting and feeding alpacas, donkeys, sheep, and goats, or experiencing some of animal shows.

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10. Dauphin Island

a pond in dauphin island
Source: Flickr/Ken Ratcliff

White sand, blue water, and golden sunshine create a colorful vacation palette on this little barrier island, a sparkling gem just off the Alabama gulf coast. You reach the island via a high-rise bridge that spans three miles across the mouth of Mobile Bay. Check out the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, a seashore preserve with well-kept trails, several boardwalks, and a small pier at one of the crystal blue ponds. As you stroll through the sanctuary, your walk is mostly level through a lush pine forest, grasslands, and around sand dunes. Look for lots of turtles, egrets, herons, owls, and eagles. The giant live oaks with Spanish moss create a magical feeling at Shell Mound Park on the island. Walking along some of the trails among the shell mounds, just imagine what tales those ancient trees could tell.

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