Tucked away in northern Alabama, Muscle Shoals is known mostly for its role in today’s popular music. Located in “the Shoals area,” along the Tennessee River that includes the cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield, and the counties of Lauderdale and Colbert.
Muscle Shoals became a powerhouse location for music, songwriting, and history.
Rich in culture, It’s known for FAME Studios, a hub of tolerant musicians who hosted big-name stars and created huge hits for such artists as Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Bono, and Alicia Keys.
The music history is so ingrained in this town that a self-titled documentary called Muscle Shoals pays homage to how this corner of Alabama helped shape music from the 1960s to today.
While visiting here on a hosted press trip, I discovered the area isn’t just steeped in music history, but also cultural history, interconnected communities with their own attractions, and a delightful outdoor environment for adventure and relaxation.
Here’s how to spend a perfect day exploring historic Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
1. Make Some Music
The FAME Studios lured musicians to the banks of the Tennessee River for that famous “Muscle Shoals sound,” a style of gritty Southern music created by the Muscle Shoals studio musicians called “The Swampers.” The FAME Recording Studios keeps that sound alive today and continues to record hits from modern and contemporary musicians.
Originally housed above City Drugstore in Florence, Alabama, Florence Alabama Music Enterprises was founded in 1959 by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Tom Stafford. In 1960, the FAME Recording Studios moved to its current location at 603 East Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals, and today, the musicians and the hit songs keep coming. The Rolling Stones recorded here as did Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding.
The Fame Studios is open for tours during its normal hours.
Just down the road in Florence is the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, another historic Muscle Shoals sound recording studio. Established in 1969 by The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (nicknamed The Swampers), the studio became sought after for its funky style. Artists like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Boz Skaggs, and The Rolling Stones all made their mark on music through the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
Tours of the studio take place every hour Tuesdays through Saturdays.
2. Take In Some Performances
Muscle Shoals may have its roots in music, but you’ll find other entertainment at the Shoals Theatre. Built as a movie theater in the 1940s, this little community theater presents plays, live music, and special performances on a regular basis. If you’re looking for a good drama, the Shoals Theatre is always up for putting on a show.
Another entertaining venue is the famous Rattlesnake Saloon in nearby Tuscumbia, Alabama.
This “watering hole under a rock” is built into a natural rock shelter overhang and started as the Seven Springs Lodge. Soon, the Foster Family added the Rattlesnake Saloon, and the joint has been hopping ever since. In addition to a full menu, you can grab a cold beer and take in some local live music as well.
The Seven Springs Lodge is a pretty neat place to stay as well. Located on 20,000 plus acres, the land has trails for both hikers and equestrians with historic sites littered throughout the area. In fact, one of the shelters on the property holds the oldest Native American burial remains found in Alabama — dating back 8,000 years ago.
If you stay at the Seven Springs Lodge, you can choose from rustic cabins, renovated grain silos, or camping and RV sites. It’s definitely a unique place to stay and visit in Muscle Shoals.
3. Visit the University… And Its Lions!
In next-door Florence, the University of North Alabama is home to actual lions, which is a big draw for visitors. The George H. Carroll Lion Habitat was built in 2002, and the $1.3 million indoor and outdoor habitat adheres to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums guidelines.
The habitat was home to UNA’s live lion mascot, Leo III, the third male lion to call the university home. Sadly, the female lion Una passed away in 2020, but Leo is still up for having visitors.
The George H. Carroll Lion Habitat is open to the public.
4. Get Outside in the Shoals
If you’re craving outdoor adventure, lake fun, or long, natural walks, The Muscle Shoals area doesn’t disappoint.
Popular hiking destinations include Colbert Ferry Park on the Natchez Trace Parkway, the 15 miles of trails at Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, and the 17 miles of trails at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Muscle Shoals Reservation.
Kayaking enthusiasts often flock to The Cherokee Kayak Trail, located on Bear Creek, as well as Lower Bear Creek Canoe Trail (great for beginners!) and the Class I Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail.
Birdwatchers must not miss the North Alabama Birding Trail, which has numerous stops around the Muscle Shoals area. A detailed map is available here.
For a more heart-racing adventure, Hawk Pride Mountain Offroad offers offroading trails spread over 1,000 acres on this privately-owned adventure park. The park is only open on Fridays through Sundays, however.
Dust off those golf clubs and hit up the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trails at The Shoals, which includes two 18-hole championship courses along the Tennessee River. Named Fighting Joe and Schoolmaster, these two courses each overlook the beauty of the Tennessee River but have their own personalities.
Pro Tip: The cost for kayak rentals on the Cherokee Kayak Trail is $30 for a single-seat kayak and $40 for a two-seater. This easy paddle typically takes about 4 to 6 hours to complete the 8.1-mile water route.
5. Take Some Time for Tuscumbia
Neighboring Tuscumbia is just a hop, skip, and jump from Muscle Shoals, and this small community is home to museums, iconic eateries, and unique experiences.
The Helen Keller Home, also known as Ivy Green, was the birthplace of Helen Keller, who went deaf and blind at the age of 19 months. Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan made history as Keller learned to communicate through sign language and went on to graduate college, write books and become an advocate for the deaf and blind.
This plantation home is open to the public and includes original furnishings from the Keller family and memorabilia. The tour includes the main house, birthplace cottage, original pump, and memorabilia from around the world that have been placed in the gardens on the grounds.
Downtown Tuscumbia is worth a visit as well, with its cute boutique shops and Spring Park, which includes a small waterfall and a little amusement park for children, but most visitors aim for the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
The Alabama Music Hall of Fame covers the famous genres of Alabama artists and songwriters, the state’s music heritage, and the music of Muscle Shoals. While there, take the opportunity to record your own hit single in the studio and take the CD home as a souvenir.
The Belle Mont Mansion is one of the city’s crowning architectural achievements. Built in the 1820s, this 2-story mansion is a Palladian-style house — one of the very few in the Deep South — that has been partially restored and includes pre-Civil War furnishings.
Pro Tip: The Claunch Cafe in Spring Park is one of the local favorite eateries. Known for its pecan chicken salad plate and lemon tea bread, the little restaurant is only open for a few hours during lunch and fills up quickly. The restaurant only takes cash, but it’s so popular that you never know what music icon or Alabama celebrity is having lunch at the next table.
6. Explore Native American History
Just outside Muscle Shoals in nearby Florence, a massive mid-Woodland period Native American mound can be explored at the Indian Mound and Museum.
Pre-dating the Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw tribes, the prehistoric Native Americans are believed to have built this 42-high mound between 100 B.C. and A.D. 300.
Visitors can climb up to the top of the mound, but the museum is a gem. The museum has a thoughtfully curated collection of Native American artifacts as well as a detailed chronological display.
The Mound itself contained the largest collection of ancient tools, pottery, pipes, and other artifacts found in Alabama, and the museum also has a gigantic collection of Clovis and Cumberland points — some 500 generations old!
The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays.
No matter what time of year it is, the Muscle Shoals region of northern Alabama is an often-overlooked destination. In addition to the museums, sound studios, and outdoor offerings, the region also hosts numerous events throughout the year, including the Helen Keller Festival, the W.C. Handy Music Festival, the Trail of Tears Motorcycle Ride, the Alabama Renaissance Fair, and the annual holiday season events.
Whether you’re a music lover or just like new regions to explore, Alabama should be on your bucket list: