This last year of staying close to home has given us ample opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the magic of the South, in particular its lush terrain, rural charm and cultural heritage. And few trips have been as fulfilling—checking all the boxes of our favorite attributes, including the outdoors, small towns and public art—than the new North Alabama Mural Trail.
The featured image is a mural by Michael McPheeters of Jimmy “Yellowhorse” Webster in Decatur, Alabama.
About the North Alabama Mural Trail
As a way to knit together its 16 counties, boost tourism during a time when towns across America need it the most and provide fun, safe activities for Millennials, Boomers, families and solo travelers alike, the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association pieced together various pieces of art across the region in a trail that will take you through some of North Alabama’s most fascinating topography.
This post is in partnership with the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association.
The best way to follow along on the trail is by using the interactive mural map on this page where you can read about the artist behind each piece and get exact location information and coordinates for all murals you want to visit. You can also use the app feature to check in at 25 of the sites, and receive a reward from Visit North Alabama once you complete the challenge. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #NorthALMurals if you share any snippets of your journey on social so others (including SVV and me!) can enjoy your travels virtually.
This Girl Can mural by Kim Radford
What to expect along the North Alabama Mural Trail
What you’ll find along the North Alabama Mural Trail is a mix of original murals, ghost signs, painted signage for centuries-old establishments, graffiti-style art and, yes, wings murals (lots and lots of wings murals!).
wings mural in Decatur by Kelsey Montague
The trail is very much in its infancy, having just launched this year, so new art is being added all the time in towns across the region. In fact, the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association has been awarding grants to communities who want to participate, so if you’re a town in North Alabama who wants to do more art, this is a great funding avenue to pursue.
And if you’re a mural artist in the South, this is an equally compelling opportunity to check out some of the towns involved and pitch your services. Murals are such a vital driver of tourism and important in keeping small towns alive and thriving. Despite my Alabama roots—my dad and his entire side of the family are from the Yellowhammer State—I hadn’t visited many of these rural areas at all until this trail popped up, so a lot of this terrain was new even to me.
mural by Athens State University students at Alabama Veterans Museum
How long do I need to drive the North Alabama Mural Trail?
If you’re a traveler who wants to drive the trail in its entirety, you’ll want to devote a solid week or more to your Alabama travels as this region is vast and there’s a lot to stop and see along the way. The largest airport in North Alabama is Huntsville International Airport (HSV), so you can fly into Madison County and plan a loop of the area that begins and ends in Rocket City.
Alabama 200 mural in Gadsden by Christian Dunn
Because we live just over the Alabama border in Tennessee, a mere hour from Huntsville, we split up our trip along the North Alabama Mural Trail into three separate overnight trips—western, central and eastern North Alabama—that added up to a full week of travels over the course of a month.
Highlights along the North Alabama Mural Trail
Many of the towns along the North Alabama Mural Trail may only have a mural or two—or else be en route to a bigger, more bustling destination—so if you’re pressed for time and don’t have time to physically see all 140+ murals, I’m rounding up our favorite highlights in the North Alabama region, many of them with far more than public art to offer.
The Shoals—comprising Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia—has become one of our go-to weekend spots in the South thanks to the charming Florence downtown, its great outdoors and position along the Tennessee River, the abundance of notable music studios and the overall accessibility of the area. Most notably, the Shoals is home to studios that birthed the careers of such greats as the Swampers and also was where artists like Cher, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, The Staple Singers and Rod Stewart all recorded hits.
If you’re driving the North Alabama Mural Trail from west to east, the Shoals is also a great place to start your art adventures and the Stricklin an excellent hotel to make your base.
Related article: From Music to Design, the Shoals is Alabama’s Cultural Secret Weapon
We have passed through the riverside city of Decatur no fewer than three times in the past year, and each time I’m drawn in by bold, beautiful art that immediately greets drivers as they’re entering the downtown, first the tribute to Jimmy “Yellowhorse” Webster, then other beauties like this Adam Stephenson mural memorializing his late sister that reminds me of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
Decatur’s downtown itself is absolutely thriving, and there are few things that appeal to me more than a well-done Main Street corridor. You know what they say: Bring in the art and the industry will follow! Every time we’re in Decatur, we discover a new favorite shop or eatery, though you can’t ever go wrong with The RailYard. I’m also eager to check out Cross-Eyed Owl Brewing Company, but have yet to visit Decatur on a day the brewery is open.
Decatur mural by Decatur High fine art students and teacher Robert Belcher
Don’t miss: Bankhead National Forest. It’s one of just four national forests in the state of Alabama and you can easily detour through it en route to Decatur from the Shoals. On a dry, sunny day, there are plenty of waterfalls like Turkey Foot Falls and Mize Mill Falls in the forest to see, too!
I assumed Athens would be a quick stopover on our drive, but I assumed wrong—there’s actually a lot to see and do in this town of 26,000 people, from parks and 17 trails to ogling the stately antebellum homes that line the downtown to poking in and out of the shops that line the well-preserved courthouse square.
murals by Adam Stephenson and Athens High School art students
Huntsville and Madison County
My love for Huntsville is no secret. While I was always excited about going on my annual school trip to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, it wasn’t until around five years ago that I fell in love with Huntsville for more reasons—namely the mindful growth and artistic boom that’s taken place across industries.
murals by Logan Tanner, Gracie Lenox Designs, Red Brick Strategies, Daria Hammond
Huntsville is the ultimate creative city, which given its large aerospace technology footprint is not that surprising as creativity, engineering and problem-solving often go hand in hand. It also easily boasts a couple dozen murals—and we find new additions every time we take a weekend trip down to Huntsville.
murals by Jahni the Artist, Robert Bean, Jessie Andrews
While in Huntsville, be sure you check out Downtown and its courthouse square—seriously dreamy, y’all—and allot ample time to see the ultimate artist base camp, Lowe Mill Arts, where you’ll not only find a few rad murals, but also see where more than 200 artists make magic happen in their studios and storefronts.
And even though there aren’t murals in Madison (yet), the other major city in Madison County just 10 minutes outside of Huntsville, the town that lays claim to the Rocket City Trash Panda is well worth a stopover just to see the adorable railroad town and have lunch in an old jail at Main Street Cafe.
Upon approaching Cullman from the north, we were greeted by the most darling park with interactive art, murals and a lovely little waterfall. I wish every town had this, as it was such a warm welcome to Cullman.
Cullman’s downtown seemed to stretch on for blocks and blocks even though the population is less than 20,000 people. I loved the restored brick buildings, the fading ghost signs and the abundance of farm land just beyond the city center. We stayed at a creekside cottage just 10 minutes outside of Cullman as fall was finally beginning to peek through, and I wanted to stay forever.
Don’t miss: Ave Maria Grotto. The masterful work of a monk from Germany, Brother Joseph Zoettl, this four-acre park just five minutes from downtown Cullman is a miniature wonderland that you’ll want to see for yourself.
Don’t miss: the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. As if the grotto weren’t enough of a cool, unexpected attraction in rural Alabama, just 15 miles south of there in a pastoral piece of heaven is this Catholic place of prayer and spiritual renewal a bit outside of Hanceville. It’s open the public, you just have to dress appropriately if you plan to enter into the premises.
Perhaps the best surprise on the North Alabama Mural Trail was Oneonta, a small rural town in Blount County not far from Birmingham.
Welcome To Oneonta mural by Sam Sanflippo
What makes this town of just 7,000 residents so special? It’s got an alley, the OBA Artwalk, bypassing the 200 block of downtown with dozens of colorful murals of all styles. You can see all the pieces and read about the artists who painted them here.
Don’t miss: Miller Drug. This old-fashioned soda shop is a great stopover spot for lunch—and it also sits at the entryway to OBA ArtWalk
I knew Gadsden was full of life and culture, but I didn’t know how big of an artistic mecca this 35,000-resident Alabama city truly was until we pulled up to its downtown core.
Gadsden postcard mural by Ali Hval
Our day in Gadsden was one of my favorite on the mural trail: We had burgers and Back Forty beers at The Rail Public House—next time I hope to visit the actual Back Forty brewery—we shopped the sweet boutiques of downtown Gadsden and we found ourselves in one of the nicest contemporary art museums in the rural South.
Gadsden music mural by Joseph Giri
The Gadsden Arts Center & Museum is free to enter and its exhibits rotate out every few months. I wasn’t expecting such world-class art in a small city of Alabama, but I continued to be surprised around every bend on the mural trail—during our visit last month, the art center featured four centuries of female artists, including a women in the Sudan photography exhibit.
Don’t miss: Noccalula Falls. This stunning waterfall cascades over 90 feet into the Black Creek ravine. It’s also the centerpiece for Noccalula Falls Parks, which has campsites, trails, mini golf and green space galore. It’s truly a magnificent and enviable piece of property right smack in the middle of Gadsden proper.
Mentone is one of those mountainy towns sitting on the western rim of Lookout Mountain, 1,000 feet from the valley floor, with tiny home vacation rentals and cabins galore, and I’ve always wanted to spend a weekend there. While I didn’t get a full weekend (yet), I did get a taste of just how sweet this outdoor oasis is.
Don’t miss: DeSoto Falls. Did I mention North Alabama is rife in waterfalls? They’re everywhere! But few (other than maybe Noccalula) are as impressive as DeSoto Falls with its 104-foot fall into a glimmering pool and limestone canyon.
North Alabama has a whole host of other trails, from waterfalls to craft beer, so if you’re planning a trip, why not combine murals with other things you love? You can see a full list of North Alabama’s trails here.
For more North Alabama travel tips, start here:
- Finding Fall Colors Along the Natchez Trace Parkway in North Alabama
- Dismals Canyon: Alabama’s Most Unexpected Natural Treasure
- Driving the Natchez Trace Parkway from Start to Finish
- To the Moon and Back: Visiting the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville
- Huntsville’s Food and Wine Scene is On Fire