Elite Lakes: A Travel Guide to Smith Lake

A trip to the Black Warrior River reservoir unlocks more than spotted bass for anglers with a thirst for education and adventure.

A hotspot for spotted bass in the rolling hills of North Alabama, Smith Lake may be to the Bassmaster Elite Series what Bristol is to NASCAR — a smaller-than-normal venue where competitors go gunwale to gunwale to battle out a win. Though this storied reservoir on the Black Warrior River is no stranger to big bass tournaments, it’s better known for furious spring and fall derbies than heated battles during the depths of the Deep South’s summer.

For bass fishing fans, that may mean a visit to Smith is better saved for cooler months when the Crimson Tide is rolling across the football field in Tuscaloosa or Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers are lighting up the hardwood on the Plains.

Whether you’re venturing down for an Elite Series weigh-in or gearing up for a fishing trip, North Alabama has ample entertainment options around Smith Lake — enough to linger for a day or two before and after chasing hard-fighting spots on the water.

Getting your grub on

Rising from the rubble of a 2011 tornado, Goat Island Brewing Co. has rapidly claimed a spot as one of the top microbreweries in the Yellow Hammer State. Bartenders in Birmingham swear by Goat Island. And cans are making their way as far afield as Nashville and Atlanta.

About 15 minutes from downtown Cullman, the hamlet of Hanceville plays host to the kind of old fashioned soda fountain and pharmacy combos that pocked Alabama highways in the days when the Drifting Cowboys beat a path from Montgomery to the Tennessee state line. Today, the Hanceville Drug Co.is a lingering remnant of a bygone era — one where passing travelers can saddle up on a swivel seat at the soda fountain and order a banana split or Coke float.

Alabama is a state steeped in barbecue lore. Alabama takes barbecue as seriously as any state in the South. So much so that dueling swine rivals at University of Alabama at Birmingham and University of Memphis play annually over a 94-pound, bronze rack of ribs in a gridiron game that features its own barbecue cooking contest.

Any chronicle of Alabama’s pulled pork history worth its seasoning salt contains a page or two on Johnny’s Bar-B-Q. Founded in 1949, this roadside respite specializes in slow-smoked ribs and pork and has garnered a cult-like following for its banana pudding, cheesecakes and pies. Closer to lakeside, Kat Daddy’s BBQ & Grill Co. serves up catfish, mega burgers and pulled-pork sandwiches close enough to the launch ramp to satiate a sudden appetite.

Dockside dining can be found at the newly-opened Drifters Bar & Grill near Trimble. Located just across the water from Smith Lake Park in the former Brothers location, this classic seafood joint dishes out blackened shrimp, crab legs and cheese balls with great views.

For a celebratory dinner, swing by 412 Public House for handcrafted cocktails, opulent steaks and fresh seafood. Seasonal cocktails vary but standards like The 412 Gimlet, Debutane and Bourbon Apple Crisp provide a varied menu for every palate. Eats also include wonton nachos, filet mignon and a pimento cheeseburger.

Cabins, campsites and comfortable confines

Smith Lake’s proximity to Cullman and popularity among recreational boaters means an array of lodging options abound, ranging from national chain hotels like Comfort Suites, La Quinta Inn and the like to campgrounds and private vacation rentals closer to the boat ramp. A quick search of both VRBO and Airbnb could produce a winning basecamp, though an array of lodging options offer travelers the chance to skip the ubiquitous private rental platforms.

The Cabins at Smith Lake offers plush, fully furnished cabins directly on the shoreline. Each comes move-in ready for a weekend or week’s worth of fishing. Meanwhile, families looking for a more adventurous experience can book a bespoke glamping experience in Cullman’s Palomino RV Resort. Located on the Burrow-Hamilton Farm, glamping tents are fully equipped for a family adventure and situated not far from a camper-friendly RV park.

In the economy cabin, Smith Lake Park offers both RV and tent camping in addition to unfinished, basic lakeside cabins similar to what one might find at a KOA Journey.

In downtown Cullman, one of the South’s most talked about new boutique hotels, The Flying Fifty Hotel, brings a modern take on vintage travel with comfortable, spacious suites, private balconies and a roof deck for savoring stunning, phosphoric colors of Alabama’s isoprene-soaked sunsets.

Fun for the family

The Smith Lake area is a gateway to family adventures well beyond the water. Less than an hour’s drive from Cullman, NASA’s U.S. Space & Rocket Center gives visitors a first-hand glimpse of the massive scale of mankind’s greatest achievement in exploration, the Apollo program. Visitors greeted by a retired SR-71 Blackbird enter a world of scientific innovation from the 1960s, which opens up a garden full of real, life-size rockets leading to the massive hulk of a Saturn V rocket developed in large part in nearby Huntsville.

Clarkson Covered Bridge is less stunning than a moon landing, but is rare in its own right. Just 15 minutes from Cullman, the vintage lattice truss bridge circa 1904 spans 328 feet over Crooked Creek that’s well worth a pit-stop and photo op on the way to and from town.

Just 30 minutes northwest of Cullman — between Moulton and Hartselle — the Jesse Owens Museum pays homage to one of the most well-known and groundbreaking athletes of the 20th Century. Owens was an olympic pioneer beyond equal who gained international acclaim by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The namesake museum in his hometown contains an interactive broad jump pit, a documentary narrated by Owens himself and a gallery of stories from his athletic career and later life of advocacy for human rights.

Bioluminescent wildlife may be closely associated with coastal areas, but the caves of Northwest Alabama hide a surprising secret: Dismals Canyon. This national natural landmark is home to luminous, sapphire Dismalites — a species of carnivorous fly larvae that glow blue at night. These unique insects are close cousins to similar “glow worms” found in New Zealand and Australia and are best observed during guided night tours of the canyon situated about an hour west of Smith Lake. Dismals Canyon and the nearby Bankhead National Forest’s Sipsey Wilderness also offer some of the best forested hiking trails east of the Mississippi River.

Gain a deeper understanding of Alabama’s indigenous history at Oakville Indian Mounds Education Center near Danville. There, remnants of a mound complex dating back an estimated 2,000 years tell the story of a Copena people, who brought material to the site from as far away as the Great Lakes.

For the truly adventurous, Skydive Alabama offers anglers the chance to get a true bird’s eye view of Cullman County through the only drop zone in North Alabama. First-time jumpers are eligible for an accelerated freewill program, which teaches students how to skydive solo and features a seven jump solo certification program. Tandem, single skydives are also available and require only 15 to 20 minutes of training.