The life-size giraffe loomed overhead, nipping away at the tree leaves while wildebeests and warthogs gathered lazily at the nearby watering hole.
Just minutes before, I’d been face to face with a lion and could peer underneath an elephant’s trunk all while listening to the birds call and sing without being seen. I wasn’t in an actual African savanna, but the unassuming and very accessible Anniston Natural History Museum.
Having only passed through Anniston, Alabama, on previous road trips I hadn’t regarded it as much of a destination until finally digging in and learning a little more about the city.
Unlike many Alabama towns of the era, Anniston was not built on a waterway. Rich mineral deposits and the railroad brought industry and military to the area, and in the mid-1870s Anniston was intently designed as a “company town” to support the Woodstock Iron Company. Through careful planning and early adoption of “modern” technologies, Anniston grew into a cultural center for the Northeast Alabama region.
As I often do, even after cursory online searches, we planned our first stop in Anniston for the local chamber of commerce, which also houses the visitor information center. Online searches can certainly give some great ideas and suggested itineraries, but I’ve learned over time that smaller towns often have even more hidden gems to offer and those places may not have the resources to beat the search engine algorithms thus remaining hidden.
Our stop at the chamber was well rewarded as Emily Duncan, the Anniston public relations coordinator, just happened to be the one to ask, “May I help you?” Turns out, Emily is also a history buff and has created a driving tour of Calhoun County that will ultimately be shared via their website.
Not only did Emily offer suggestions on places to eat and local sites of interest, she gave us a draft copy of the driving tour, pointed me toward a few murals memorializing the Freedom Riders, and explained how the area is capitalizing on the increased popularity of mountain biking and through-hiking in the region.
Some highlights of our day:
The Anniston Museum of Natural History: A Smithsonian affiliate, the museum is home to thousands of mounted specimens (and a few surprise live ones!!) displayed in beautifully crafted natural habitats spread through seven exhibit halls.
I was immediately struck by how close the visitor is to the displays, unlike many other such museums, you are just inches past arm’s length away from some of the animals, allowing you to really get up close and personal. Because our itinerary was packed, we breezed through some sections, but did stop to play in the hands-on learning area, and even then we spent an effortless hour and thoroughly enjoyed the visit.
I could easily imagine children and adults of all ages enjoying the space for the better part of a morning. There are a few outdoor nature trails and an aviary to enjoy if the weather is nice.
The overall quality and variety of the displays is on par with bigger city museums, but at a more accessible price and location, and with free parking! Note that you can also leave the museum and return on the same day using the original entry ticket.
The Berman Museum of World History: This museum houses an eclectic display of weaponry, oddities, relics and curiosities collected by Anniston native Farley Berman and his French wife who met in military service and traveled the world for decades.
Located in the same section of LaGarde Park as the Museum of Natural History, you can park once and walk from one museum to the other, even enjoying a picnic lunch at nearby shaded picnic tables. The museums offer a discounted pass if you wish to visit both, but the Berman — while awe-inspiring — may not hold the attention of anyone who isn’t already a lover of weapons, ancient artifacts or military memorabilia.
There were two underwhelming attempts at children’s “hands-on” activities; everything else is encased in glass and requires reading information placards. However, the proximity to nature trails, picnic areas and the natural history museum next door makes this an easy stop for a group that has divided interests.
Freedom Riders Murals: In the early 1960s, in the thick of the Civil Rights movement, groups of students and citizens from across the country boarded buses for transit through the southeast to test new federal laws against discrimination in interstate travel facilities. These Freedom Riders and their courageous acts are memorialized in two murals in downtown Anniston.
A 30-minute podcast hosted by NPR, “Get On the Bus: The Freedom Riders of 1961,” would be an enlightening listen on your drive into Anniston and the accompanying text details the impact of the May 14, 1961, Anniston events on the civil rights movement.
The two murals are just a few blocks apart around 10th and Noble, where free and metered parking is easily found. Bus No. 1 is found on Gurnee Ave between 10th and 11th st. Bus No. 2 is found on the northeast corner of 9th and Noble.
A few other areas of interest
While you are in the area, you may consider a stop for refreshments in the Peerless Saloon and Grill. The Saloon is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features a fantastic mirror-backed mahogany bar that was featured at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Standard fare and local brews are local favorites.
The Church of Saint Michael’s and All Angels offers pre-arranged tours and features a white Carrara marble altar, alabaster reredos, hand-carved angels and crosses, magnificent stained-glass windows, 95-foot bell tower, and an organ with nearly 3,000 pipes. Call ahead to see if they are open for tours.
Anniston and the surrounding area is enjoying a rise in the popularity of mountain biking and bicycling. An enthusiast could ride their bicycle 90 miles from Atlanta to Anniston via the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga trails, both projects of the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
Upon arrival in Anniston, you can rent mountain bikes and enjoy over 20 miles of trails in the Coldwater Mountain trail system or explore nearby Cheaha mountain, which will be highlighted in a future article.
To round out your day in Anniston, locals would highly recommend Top O’ the River, a family-owned catfish and seafood restaurant.
A short drive south to Oxford yields standard chain restaurants and the locally owned, farm-to-table Garfrerick’s Café featuring fresh local fare with tasty vegetarian options.
So, it turns out that Anniston has much more to offer than just a pit stop on a longer road trip, as is the case with many places I’ve discovered in my travels.
More information about all of the places featured in this article can be found online or by calling the Calhoun County Convention and Visitors Bureau located at 1330 Quintard Ave., Anniston, AL 36202; 256-237-3536 or 800-489-1087.
Visit my blog at www.wheretonow.com for more detailed road trip notes and anecdotes of this and other adventures.
Donna Weathers is a LaGrange native and former chief petty officer in the Navy who enjoys traveling in her spare time.