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What to do in Guntersville, Alabama

A pontoon boat makes its way across Lake Guntersville. Photo by Andrew/

Whether you come for the water sports or just to unwind, there’s plenty to do and see on and around Alabama’s largest lake.

At the rippling edge where water meets land, tidy boathouses stand on piers and stately lake houses peek out from between the pines.

Pontoon boat captain and tour guide Mark Mills points out where prominent locals live and where out-of-towners are building million-dollar cabin compounds to house the anglers who flock to Alabama’s largest lake every year. For decades, Lake Guntersville has been recognized for 2 things: epic bass fishing and a white-knuckled summer boat-racing event known as Hydrofest.

This zero-adrenaline sunset tour is much more my speed. As the sky plummets from dusky pink into inky purple, I toast my travel companion with a glass of red wine and we pose for silly photos to send our boyfriends back home.

Mills—who launched his boat tour company, Lake and River Fun, with his wife 5 years ago—tells us that changes are afoot. The northeast corner of Alabama is “a really pretty area, and we’re starting to bring in other types of tourism. There are some big plans for Guntersville.”

Visitors walking toward City Harbor.

Visitors can check out City Harbor’s waterside eateries, bars, and outdoor gathering spaces. Photo by Jessica Fender

Some of these schemes are already apparent as we dock at Guntersville’s City Harbor complex—a mélange of waterside eateries, bars, and outdoor gathering spaces that didn’t exist 2 years ago. Live music echoes out over the water. Lakehouse-chic couples stroll to dinner. 

City Harbor is both a visitors’ focal point and a modern counterpoint to the quaint downtown that’s steps away—and among a raft of trendy accommodations, creative watering holes, entertainment options, and  new restaurants that have bloomed in Guntersville and neighboring towns in the past few years.

The great outdoors

The next morning, before we explore all that’s new around this 69,000-acre lake ensconced in the Appalachian foothills, we strap on our hiking boots to trek through some of the area’s older attractions. Marshall County is home to 3 state parks, and my artist friend Elise Toups and I are eager for a little forest bathing. 

We have the Cutchenmine Trail nearly to ourselves as we parallel the shoreline through a lively wood, snapping photos of natural tableaux for future watercolors (in Elise’s case) and for note-taking purposes (in mine). For about 5 ridiculous minutes, we struggle in near-slapstick fashion to photograph a spider aloft in its web, making me glad for the trail’s solitude.

But elsewhere, Lake Guntersville State Park is action-packed. Its 6,000 acres are home to a golf course, a fishing center, a beach, and a zip line course.

In winter months, the main attractions are found in the treetops: Scores of bald eagles migrate from the frozen north for the excellent fishing at Lake Guntersville and other Alabama lakes. Three known pairs nest in the park every year, naturalist Indya Guthrie explains later by phone. 

“After our leaves drop, you can see the lake from almost anywhere in the park, and that allows us to see the eagles’ nests, too,” Guthrie says. “Sometimes you can see them flying over the lake carrying huge tree limbs to add to their nests.” 

Set in a historic home just steps from downtown, Lake Guntersville Bed and Breakfast epitomizes “charming” with sprawling porches, delectable breakfasts, and water views. Guests love the comfy mattresses, soft sheets, and plush robes. Don’t miss its happy hour sangria and a new media and game room. Rates start at $150.

The park hosts Eagle Awareness Weekends twice in January and once in February, bringing in rescued raptors from other areas of the state and letting visitors observe the apex aviators from 5 feet away. 

But Elise and I are here a little too early for the migration. Instead, we stop for lunch on a rocky promontory. Paddlers pass peacefully by, while a speeding Jet Ski zooms away in the other direction.

Lake Guntersville, named for the dam that formed it in the 1930s, is the southernmost part of the Tennessee River. Two-lane byways bridge its islands and peninsulas, making the area as pretty to explore by land as it is by water. From here, a determined boater could reach the Mississippi, the Great Lakes, or even the Pacific Ocean in a large craft.

Tooling around in a pontoon boat is, by far, the more popular option, Russ Cranford of Alred Marina tells me. The family-run marina in Guntersville is also home to Islands Boat Rental, which hires out kayaks, pontoons, and small fishing boats and offers bespoke trips to one of the lake’s more unusual natural wonders.

In warm-weather months at sunset, tens of thousands of gray bats emerge from Hambrick Cave, which locals know as the Bat Cave and is reachable only by water. (Lake and River Fun runs group tours to the cave as well.)

You may also like: Alabama’s 7 natural wonders: How many have you seen?

Shop ’til you drop

The swirl of flying mammals isn’t the only hustle and bustle of note in these parts. Guntersville’s small and picturesque main drag is lined with restaurants, gift shops, antique stores, and home decor boutiques—some of them new. 

Inside Antiques & Sweets, seller stalls are packed with colorful treasures, from midcentury modern furniture to vintage fishing lures and everything in between. I’m toting around a wild ’70s print housedress and a slip-cast dolphin vase with serious Lisa Frank vibes when Elise holds up a delicate black party dress. 

“You need this!” she says. She’s not wrong. 

A bubbly mother-daughter duo, Lisa and Evie Patterson, run the place. We learn that they opened last summer, fulfilling a longtime dream of Evie’s. 

So far, they’ve been wowed by where their shoppers are coming from: Dubai, Iceland, Japan, Ecuador, and nearby Huntsville, of course.  

“The diversity of visitors here is crazy,” Evie says. “It’s been off the beaten path for a little while. But people are starting to see what Lake Guntersville has to offer.”

Even so, her mom adds, Guntersville remains the type of town where downtown shops decorate for homecoming week and neighbors look out for one another—for now. 

“It’s still a quiet, quaint little place.”

Travel pro and freelance journalist Jessica Fender explores destinations in the South and beyond on Instagram @travelerbroads.

You may also like: 5 epic Alabama road trips

Where to stay

Tucked into the woods, the brand-new ReTreet Resort less than 10 minutes from downtown Guntersville marries luxe amenities—like a soak in a cedarwood tub under the stars—with outdoorsy-lite accommodations. New safari tents boast big wooden decks, bathrooms with plumbing, and heating and air-conditioning units.

Feeling less campy? Opt for a tiny cabin or a tree house instead. Rates start at $150 for tiny cabins and $195 for safari tents and tree houses, plus a $60 cleaning fee.

You may also like: 8 unique places to stay in Alabama

3 small towns to visit near Lake Guntersville

Fish not biting? Too chilly to hop on a Jet Ski? The small towns surrounding Lake Guntersville offer day trip–worthy entertainment. 

Set sale in Scottsboro

Unclaimed Baggage Center sign.

Shoppers can browse jewelry, electronics, clothing, and more at Scottsboro’s Unclaimed Baggage Center. Photo by Jessica Fender

Bargain hunters beware: Visiting Scottsboro’s Unclaimed Baggage Center is more like a marathon than a sprint. Lost luggage from around the world finds its way to this one-of-a-kind thrift emporium. (At 50,000 square feet, the center is just too big to be called a store.) 

Every day, staff members stock thousands of goodies, including jewelry, luxury items, electronics, sports gear, and suitcases. A recent jaunt through its plentiful racks turned up everything from a half dozen matching sequined tux jackets to a pair of mint-condition Valentino slides.

Explore new depths in Woodville

Without a word to his wife, Jacob Gurley sank his family’s entire life savings into a hole in the ground in the 1950s—almost literally. When Gurley’s wife finally agreed to visit the massive cave he’d purchased, she was won over by the soaring subterranean formations she said resembled a cathedral. That’s how Cathedral Caverns—and today’s surrounding state park—got its name. 

Extending more than a mile, the cave’s rooms boast dramatic forests of columns and some notable stats. Its Goliath stalagmite, for example, may be the world’s largest, at 45 feet tall and 243 feet around. Park staff guide 90-minute, 1.5-mile round-trip tours; reserve in advance. Tours, $20.

Raise a fanciful glass in Albertville

Passersby can be forgiven for, well, passing by the nondescript entrance to the Busted Oak Bourbon Society. Frosted glass covers its storefront’s windows, and no sign marks its existence along a historic main drag.

But a step inside the new speakeasy reveals plush seating, Prohibition-era elegance, and a mind-boggling selection of hooch (be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol). Pop in for live music on weekends or retire to the on-site cigar lounge. But remember, mum’s the word.

On Albertville’s outskirts, another destination sipping spot awaits. Longtime favorite Jules J. Berta Vineyards offers Napa-esque environs and a menu of wines made from handpicked grapes grown on the estate. Enjoy a snack and some sips on the trellis overlooking the rows of vines.

You may also like: Why you should visit Huntsville, Alabama

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