A lot of regional culture flows through this area, which was once known for a treacherous series of rapids on the Tennessee River. (The rapids have since been tamed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority—the area's Wilson Dam has one of the world's highest single-lift navigation locks.)
Florence, the chief retail center, began as a trading post on a stagecoach route. Travelers today can see the old stagecoach stop, which was built by slaves in the early 1800s. It's now Pope's Tavern Museum, specializing in Civil War memorabilia and antiques (phone 256-760-6439). From the top of the Renaissance Tower, you'll be able to look out over the Tennessee Valley. (There's a restaurant at the top, an aquarium on the second level and a number of high-tech exhibits on the ground floor.) We also suggest that you see the Indian Mound Museum (phone 256-760-6427). At 43 ft/13 m high, the burial mound there is the largest on the Tennessee River (with artifacts dating back 10,000 years). We consider it an absolute must to visit the W.C. Handy Home and Museum, where the Father of the Blues was born—the museum contains his trumpet and the piano he used to compose "St. Louis Blues" (phone 256-760-6434). Florence holds the W.C. Handy Music Festival, a weeklong celebration of music, in August. About 20 mi/32 km east of Florence, in Rogersville, is Joe Wheeler State Park, which overlooks the scenic Tennessee River.
From Florence, drive to Tuscumbia (named for a Chickasaw chief). This town is most famous as the birthplace of Helen Keller. We think it's worth a visit to see Ivy Green, the Keller birthplace and shrine. On June and July weekends, actors perform the play The Miracle Worker. The Alabama Music Hall of Fame is in Tuscumbia and pays tribute to the state's musical heritage. Phone 800-239-2643. http://www.alamhof.org.
In nearby Sheffield, you'll find several legendary rhythm-and-blues recording studios. (Local musician Percy Sledge cut "When a Man Loves a Woman" in one of them.) The best known is Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, which has been the scene of some of the great moments in R&B. Many recording artists (such as Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, Bob Seger and Aretha Franklin) have sequestered themselves in the area just for the chance to record with the studio's regular lineup of session players. Phone 256-783-2641. http://muscleshoalssound.org.
About 20 mi/32 km southwest is the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, started in 1937 when a dog named Troop was laid to rest there. It's now the final resting place of nearly 200 coon dogs. Phone 256-383-0783. http://www.coondogcemetery.com.
Ancient canyon walls light up like a starry sky with tiny bioluminescent creatures known as Dismalites at Dismals Canyon 34 mi/55 km south of Florence. This is one of the few places outside New Zealand where these interesting insects exist. A secluded, natural retreat, Dismals Canyon has been designated as a National Natural Landmark by the Natural Park Service. Phone 205-993-4559. http://www.dismalscanyon.com. The Muscle Shoals area is approximately 100 mi/160 km northwest of Birmingham.
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