A classic movie line comes to mind when the massive gates of Franklin County swing open, revealing 85 acres of prehistoric beauty: “Welcome to Jurassic Park.” But it’s not Jurassic Park. It’s real and like nothing else in Alabama. Welcome to Dismals Canyon.
Except for designated areas, the sunken world of sandstone has not been touched by man. Trails criss-cross fern forests. Waterfalls cascade through house-sized rocks. Caves, caves and cliffs are negotiated at every turn.
“It really is a different world,” says Britney McCaffrey, wildlife biologist and tour guide. “It never ceases to amaze me.” She is not alone.
The state wonder off Highway 8 in Phil Campbell, Alabama so impressed Discovery Channel crews that they filmed a segment of “When Dinosaurs Roamed America” in this very area. “They added raptors,” McCaffrey recalls. “It looked very real.”
Dismals Canyon doesn’t need movie effects to look real. It’s real but sometimes hard to believe it’s not an enchanted forest. “Visitors often say, ‘I can’t believe it’s here,'” McCaffrey says. “And it’s often followed by, ‘I can’t believe this is in Alabama.'”
Early explorer Greg Downs, of Tupelo, Mississippi, sums up the experience. “It’s just beautiful, the canyon walls, the plants, everything. I cannot describe it.
Explorers look skyward at rocks wider than your home and three stories taller. Trees with an attitude grow 10 feet tall before turning sideways to continue growing at 90 degree angles. Visitors to the canyon meander through mazes, negotiating sandstone fissures, wooden bridges and gurgling streams.
And the insects? They shine.
Dismalites, not to be confused with fireflies, are the local name for the orfelia fultoni of North America, i.e. very rare luminous bugs. They congregate on rock cave walls emitting bright blue-green light. At night, it’s like looking at the stars, sometimes so thick that they form constellations. Others claim that it is as if the caves were adorned with creeping jewels.
During the day, visitors explore at their own pace. For most people, the 1.5 mile walking trail can be done in two hours. No experience is necessary. There is no rock climbing, but the paths are on uneven ground, so watch your step.
Side trails and maneuvering among sandstone fissures are downright fun. Beginner Joseph Glasgow, from nearby Red Bay, says: “One of my favorite parts of the walk was weaving between two giant boulders. It was impressive now that I’m done.
From the Canyon House, one descends the staircase outside into the Paleozoic era. Light diffuses and filters faintly through lush treetop canopies shrouded in mystery. Even the name, “Dismals”, evokes mystery. Two theories prevail:
- The name derives from the Scottish-Irish settlers, after a place in Scotland with the same title – Dismals.
- Visitors have named it after some of the paths – dark, eerie and gloomy.
Rainbow Falls contradicts the latter. When sunlight hits just right, the falls become a liquid prism, casting rainbows over everything around them. Dismals are no longer lamentable.
In the 1800s, area churches baptized members in a pool at the foot of the falls. In contrast, the outlaws of the 1800s also hid just down the path to evade capture.
Other cliffs, caves and rocks are experienced along the journey. Caves formed 10,000 years ago by earthquakes are waiting to be explored.
Temple Cave is one such beacon of investigation. Native Americans found refuge here centuries ago. They used a big stone to grind corn. He is always there.
Dismals Canyon is also home to sadness. Weeping Bluff has a nature-carved likeness of a Native American girl’s face. Rain or shine, water flows from the cliff, which legend says are the canyon’s tears shed for the Chickasaws.
In 1838, American troops rounded up the Chickasaws and held them captive in the canyon before leading them to Muscle Shoals, where they began the Trail of Tears. More than 90% perished during the trip.
More than 350 types of flora and 27 species of trees including hemlock, tulip poplar, liquidambar, bigleaf magnolia and beech are on the way. Ferns and moss carpet everything, adding a green coating to the towering stones.
A champion tree is here. At 130 feet tall and approximately 400 years old, it is one of the largest known eastern hemlocks in the world.
The canyon owes its almost spotless state to the more than majestic massive stones. They are guardians. For decades, loggers tried to harvest old trees from the canyon, but reluctantly gave up. The terrain was too rough and inaccessible for wood-cutting machines. Thanks, rocks. You rock.
In addition to walking trails, the site’s offerings include cabins, camping, a country store, and night tours (to see glowing dismalites). However, like everything else in the world, before visiting, check the website – dismalscanyon.com – for the latest COVID-19 compliance status.
The canyon is not a national or state park, but private property. In 1975 it was designated a National Natural Landmark, administered by the National Park Service, US Department of the Interior.
Allow at least half a day to visit. There is no need to hurry. Dismals Canyon will wait, as it has for 300 million years.
Explore the state natural beauty
Alabama is home to a rich landscape of geological treasures, of which Dismals Canyon is just one. In 2022, the National Park Service is celebrating the International Year of Caves and Karst, making it a great time to get out and explore our state’s terrain by visiting a cave, canyon, grotto, or karst (formation earth formed by the dissolution of limestone).
More information is available at northalabama.org or alabama.travel.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.