Decatur, Alabama, city of 50,000 people, has a fortunate location along the banks of the Tennessee River and halfway between Nashville, Tennessee to the north and Birmingham, Alabama to the south.
Decatur is the county seat for Morgan County established in 1818 and named for Brigadier General Daniel Morgan who led the victory at Cow Pens during the American Revolution. The city itself was founded five years later in 1823 and named for Commodore Stephen Decatur who was renowned for his bravery during the early years of the United States Navy.
Decatur, Alabama, and all of Morgan County benefits from industries that are possible because of the river and the railroad and is blessed with incredible natural resources.
The city would, of course, be happy for you to spend as many dollars as you will in its shops, attractions and restaurants, but it is important to know that you can occupy many happy hours within its boundaries without spending a cent, especially if you pack a sandwich from home and bring a few bottles of water. Wear your most comfortable walking shoes, download some of the trails maps from the decaturcvb.org website, grab your binoculars, and map out a day of fresh air, beauty, fun, and discovery.
1. Fish on the River
The Wheeler Lake portion of the Tennessee River is a huge part of Decatur’s identity. You can park your car and watch the constant activity of barges and boats of all sizes, or you can engage with the river personally by putting in your own boat at one of several public launches or by finding a perfect spot along the bank with your fishing pole and favorite lures.
Bass, crappie, catfish and bream are abundant. In fact, bass fishing tournaments are held regularly on Wheeler Lake bringing in hundreds of anglers vying for large cash prizes.
2. Hike, Bike, or Picnic in Area Parks
Point Mallard Park was made popular when the first wave pool in Alabama was installed. Then it began hosting the Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic over Memorial Day weekend and the Spirit of America Festival on the 4th of July. The campground and golf course added value to the attraction. Due to COVID-19, the wave pool and the Spirit of America Festival cancelled its 2020 season, and the Balloon Classic was drastically modified, but the hiking and biking trails are still open.
Delano Park on Gordon Drive is 130 years old and comprises 28 acres of carefully maintained landscaping. It is a beautiful, shady place for walking, playing and picnicking.
Rhodes Ferry Park is located on the river with plenty of space for walking, jogging and enjoying that sandwich you brought from home while you watch the boats and the trains.
3. Go Birdwatching and Hiking
The Visitors Center, located off Highway 67, is currently closed at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, but five nature trails ranging in length from 200 yards to 2.5 miles are clearly marked and maintained. Throughout the year, early morning or late afternoon are the best times to see the wildlife, but the winter migration arrivals of sandhill and whooping cranes seem to get the most attention from the locals.
The 35,000 acres of the refuge provide a safe habitat for 13 endangered or protected species along with 295 species of birds, 30 different waterfowl, 115 different fish, 74 species of reptiles and amphibians and dozens of mussels, snails, and mammals.
4. Follow the Turtle Trail on 2nd Avenue
A great tie-in to the wildlife refuge and to the sparkling new Cook Museum of Natural Science is the Turtle Trail in Decatur that begins and ends near the Princess Theatre on 2nd Avenue. Ten bronze turtles have been strategically placed near businesses in the area with interesting historical significance. Download the clue map before you go and learn while you search. It will probably take about an hour.
After you and your children find all ten, head to the Cook Museum on 4th Avenue NE or the Decatur Convention and Visitors Center on 6th Avenue to collect your prize. On a day when you have some money to spend, I highly recommend touring the Cook Museum of Natural Science. It opened in the summer of 2019 and was quickly named one of the top new museums in the country.
5. Admire Carnegie Visual Arts Center Exhibits
Located at 207 Church Street NE, the Carnegie Center is open Tuesday through Friday from 10:00-5:00 and on Saturday from 10:00 to 2:00. Admission is free. The Carnegie maintains a vibrant calendar of new exhibits and is a valuable asset for area schools and art students. The Carnegie Carnival is held each year during Mardi Gras season and is a major fundraiser for the center.
6. Take an Architectural Driving Tour
These two sections of Decatur are said to provide the largest concentration in Alabama of Victorian era homes in the craftsman and bungalow styles. A number of the houses comprise Decatur’s version of “The Painted Ladies,” which are admittedly less well-known than the ones in San Francisco but still strikingly beautiful.
Old Decatur and New Albany are technically on opposite sides of 6th Avenue. Houses in Old Decatur date back to 1829, and many in New Albany were built in the late 1800’s and early 1900s.
7. Find the Murals on the Morgan County Mural Trail
Public art is beginning to make a huge showing in Decatur and Morgan County. Eleven installations are now completed with several dozen more in the planning stages. Look for “Homecoming” on 2nd Avenue, “Jimmy “Yellow Horse’ Webster” on 6th Avenue, “Heron Today, Gone Tomorrow” on 6th Avenue, “Heavenly Muse-ic” on Bank Street and all the others as you walk and drive around the town.
8. Window Shop in Historic Shopping Districts
Again, if you have your credit cards, the merchants will gladly sell you one or more of their treasures, but if you’re committed to a free day, then window shopping will suffice.
Decatur does have a mall with chain stores, but I strongly suggest that you head to Bank Street and 2nd Avenue for finding truly unique items. Browse shops such as Urban Atlas, Old River Interiors, Tammy Eddy Antiques, Tennessee Valley Pecan Company, 810 Antiques, Absaroka, The Cupboard, Second Read Books, and many others.
Drive 15 minutes south of Decatur and park near the Historic Train Depot in Hartselle (also in Morgan County). Then go down one side of Main Street for about four blocks, cross the street, then peruse the windows of the other side of Main Street.
I double dog dare you to get through this particular activity without spending any money.
9. Follow Decatur’s Civil War Walking Trail
History buffs, particularly those who are interested in the Civil War, will enjoy finding sites connected to the four-day battle that took place in Decatur in October of 1864. Go by the Decatur Visitors Center for a map, then drive to Old State Bank on Bank Street to begin.
10. Find the Churches on the Amen Trail
Nineteen churches with historical significance comprise the Amen Trail in Morgan County, and two of them are also included in the North Alabama Hallelujah Trail. Many of the churches are 100 years old, still stand on their original site and continue to hold services today. They encompass a range of architectural styles and denominations.
11. Drive 2 Miles North to the Tiny Town of Mooresville
All 12 blocks in Mooresville are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This small community was formed in 1818, a year before Alabama became a state. Because of COVID-19, your tour will primarily consist of driving or walking slowly up and down the six streets, stopping to read marker plaques and take photos, but this intact village will definitely transport you back to another time and place. White picket fences and trees that have sheltered many generations and even a U.S. President or two will welcome you.
Take time to notice the post office which is Alabama’s oldest one in continuous use, Lyla’s Little House, Stagecoach Inn and Tavern, the Church of Christ and the brick church in particular. And check the website for hours of operation for 1818 Farms. You’ll want to return for organic eggs, goats milk products, flowers and fresh herbs.
With these 11 activities, you’ve seen and learned a lot, and I’ll bet you’ve picked out places you’ll want to revisit. Maybe you’ve seen an interesting restaurant, too, in case that sandwich didn’t quite last for the whole day. The people of Morgan County will be happy to have you any time.
This article was written by Connie Pearson of There Goes Connie.
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