Gadsden, Alabama, in Etowah County, has a prime location in the northeast quadrant of the State of Alabama between Birmingham and Chattanooga and just off Interstate 59. The population numbering approximately 36,000 enjoys the geographic beauty of the Appalachian foothills, a vibrant downtown, and the advantages that come with life along the Coosa River.
It is a city of superlatives, at least if you believe their claims to fame such as “the world’s largest” and “the world’s longest” as you will see on my list. Gadsden also has a famous park with a captivating legend. It’s a great place to spend a day or a weekend, and I have recently been able to enjoy both. Here are my suggestions for nine must-do activities when you find Gadsden for yourself.
1. Noccalula Falls
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful Indian maiden who was in love with a young brave in her tribe. Her father, the chief, made a different alliance and promised her to another man. To learn the rest of the story, visit the 90-foot waterfall at Noccalula Falls Park and see the statue of Princess Noccalula.
At the park, you can camp in an RV or tent, rent one of the two-bedroom cabins, walk, hike, or bike 16 miles of trails, visit the petting zoo, enjoy a train ride, explore a pioneer homestead, or play miniature golf. Fly fishing for trout is available in season in Black Creek feeding the magnificent falls.
Special events at the park include Smoke on the Falls, which is the annual Kansas City Bar-B-Q Society Cook-off held in the spring, and Art on the Rocks, an arts and craft show held in the fall.
Although Noccalula may have been a legend, it is an important part of Gadsden history that the Creek and Cherokee nations of American Indians inhabited the area in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Pro Tip: The two-bedroom cabins are particularly nice for a getaway in the fall. The colors of the trees are spectacular, the fireplace is cozy, and the sounds of Black Creek which can be seen from the back porch are mesmerizing.
2. Broad Street
Mater’s Pizza and Pasta Emporium reigns as the oldest restaurant in the downtown historic district, but through the years it has been joined by two dozen other eateries. The most recent ones are S.A. Cantina, Las Brisas Mexican Restaurant, NOLA on 2nd (a block and a half off Broad Street), and Scoop de Jour, serving great ice cream.
30 retail shops are ready to be explored, a massage and yoga studio will help you relax, and an axe-throwing business will increase your aim and focus.
3. Mary G. Hardin Center For Cultural Arts
Broad Street also serves as the City of Gadsden’s hub for fine arts with three outstanding facilities. Gadsden Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free. Imagination Place, a well-planned children’s museum, is designed for children ages 2 to 10. Everything is child-sized to make it easy for kids to explore a town, a grocery store, a train station, a farm, a sunken pirate ship, and more.
Mary G. Harden Center for Cultural Arts is on the corner of the block in what was once a Belk-Hudson department store. The center houses an art gallery, event venues, and a 72-foot model train running through a replica of Gadsden as it was in the 1940s. It is the home for the Downtown Dance Conservatory and the Etowah Youth Orchestra. Visitors can find parking along Broad Street or in the convenient lot behind the museum and center.
In addition to the Imagination Place, there are musical instruments attractive to young children in an outdoor space behind the Hardin Center. This is a great place to take children and grandchildren, especially when you combine it with an ice cream cone from nearby Scoop du Jour.
Pro Tip: Museum lovers will want to find the Gadsden Museum of Art and History. The third floor houses a history museum of Etowah County.
4. Top O’ The River
Any meal that begins with a skillet of hot cornbread, a plate of pickled onions, and a bowl of coleslaw is promising enough, but when Top O’ the River adds catfish, shrimp prepared three different ways, stuffed crab, and hushpuppies, the meal goes over the top. I’ve seen a lot of seafood platters, and I believe this one must surely be the largest. The restaurant also offers grilled and fried crawfish, steaks, chicken, and delicious fruity drinks.
Combine that with a view of the Coosa River and it becomes swoon-worthy. The river, in fact, is a major asset for Gadsden and nearby cities such as Anniston. River Rocks Landing has recently been developed, so guests can stay on the river and enjoy the views for a night or more. You can stay in a condo or a tiny house, experience glamping, or sleep luxuriously in a five-bedroom home. The Current is a riverside snack bar and a great place to watch kayakers navigate the waters.
5. The World’s Longest Yard Sale
A yard sale that stretches for 690 miles through six states deserves the title of “World’s Longest.” Taking place annually on the first Thursday through Saturday in August, the sale begins in Gadsden at Noccalula Falls Park and ends in Addison, Michigan. The sale is also called the 127 Yard Sale because it follows Highway 127 and the Lookout Mountain Parkway.
Expect to find thousands of vendors and realize that it will be impossible to stop at all of them.
You’ll find collectibles, antiques, household goods, games, toys, dishes, fresh produce, baked goods, sporting goods, and so much more. Take plenty of cash, because only a small number of vendors will accept credit cards. Check the website for the route, plan to start at any point that looks convenient for you, expect to cover no more than 100-150 miles a day, and reserve a hotel room well in advance. Take plenty of water in a cooler in your car, and best advice of all — don’t pass up a public restroom whenever you find one.
6. Coosa Landing
The Coosa River has earned a great reputation for having impressive numbers of bass and crappie. That, in turn, has led to fishing tournaments galore beginning and ending at Coosa Landing. If you are an early riser, the start of a tournament is fun to watch with the engines revving and racing away at the starting signal, all trying to get to the best spots first. But it is also great to be there at the end when the anglers bring in the day’s catch for a weigh-in which will hopefully lead to coveted prizes.
The Coosa Landing Super Bass Tournament held in April has a hefty first-place prize of $3,000. Coosa Landing is also the host site for tournaments sponsored by Crappie U.S.A., the BASS Federation, the Women’s Bass Fishing Association, and others.
7. First Friday Festivities
From April to October each year, Broad Street is the place to be on the first Fridays of the month. Police close off several blocks beginning at 3:30 p.m. Antique cars, polished and gleaming, park on the street to be admired and possibly driven home by a new owner. Live musicians set up their speakers on a few corners, and stores and restaurants prepare to keep their doors open until 9 p.m. Then the crowds begin to show up. This is a great place to see your friends, enjoy some free entertainment, browse the shops, and order a meal. The atmosphere is light-hearted and lively. It’s like having a festival, only this festival happens every month for 7 months.
8. Holiday Lights
Noccalula Falls Park
Gadsden dresses up for the holidays. Broad Street is filled with lights and fun window displays. There are special events planned at the Hardin Center and in area churches. But probably the most spectacular sight happens at Noccalula Falls Park when Christmas at the Falls flips the switch on millions of lights and dozens of colorful decorations. You can enjoy the lights by walking, but it’s especially fun to take the train through the park after dark. Park employees start preparing weeks in advance because this is arguably their most popular time of the year.
Bootsie’s is in Attalla, and downtown Attalla is approximately 5 miles from downtown Gadsden. However, the barbecue is so good at Bootsie’s that I must include it on my list of favorite things. Daddy Bootsie is the chef. His wife manages everybody and everything, and their daughters make the desserts and keep the diners happy. Bootsie’s ribs and pulled pork are outstanding, and the side dishes are exceptionally good, too. They serve grilled cabbage rather than coleslaw, and the grilled bread is divine. No calories have been saved in this café with a happy family atmosphere.
Pro Tip: Bootsie’s is only open Wednesday through Saturday, so plan carefully to avoid being disappointed.
Gadsden has several sites that are significant to African Americans who participated in Civil Rights Marches in the early 1960s. Among them are Union Baptist Church, Dr. J.W. Stewart’s Skyliner Building, and Etowah County Courthouse.
Other popular activities in Gadsden include golfing on two championship golf courses, Silver Lakes and Twin Bridges, and indoor rock climbing at GadRock on the Coosa River. Silver Lakes is part of the acclaimed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. You’ll also want to be on the lookout for special events at Gadsden State Community College and nearby Huntsville. Let me encourage you to allow yourself time to get off the interstate between Birmingham and Chattanooga and explore this gem in Northeast Alabama.
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