The hike was only 1.5 miles long, on a well-maintained, largely level trail, and it took us over three hours to finish it. And after finishing the hike, we both thought the same thing: I could happily have taken longer. Yes, that’s what it’s like to hike in Dismals Canyon.
As Ruth noted in last week’s post, we had driven over to northwest Alabama for a nighttime visit to Dismals Canyon, to view the living natural treasure known as the dismalites. The experience was a little underwhelming, to be honest, but we weren’t there at the peak viewing time. It seemed most of the dismalites were on vacation, or like all other Alabama residents were just trying to find someplace to get out of the heat. Part of our plan was to spend the night and knock off the short little hike on the canyon floor the next morning. We moseyed over after breakfast, arriving a little after 9:30. We were the second car in the parking lot, which can accommodate around 25 cars or so.
We checked in at the general store, after first stopping to admire the porch by daylight. We found out after the hike that it’s a recent addition, and it’s a very comfortable outdoor space, with a large fireplace, comfy couches, and chairs by the bentwood porch rails with a view into the canyon. After paying the day use fee (we got a discount from taking the evening tour the previous night), we headed toward the back of the store, exited onto the deck, and made our way down the stairs to the canyon rim.
Since the general store/snack bar sits at the top of the west end of the canyon, the first few yards of the hike are down stairs to get you to the deck at the edge of Dismals Branch. This set of steps passes beside a sunny bank with several late summer wildflowers. It’s a good thing we stopped to snap a few photos, for these were the only wildflowers that we saw on the hike. Given the extreme biodiversity of the area, it’s a good bet there would be wildflowers throughout the canyon at different times of the year.
But first, a slight digression. You may be wondering why Dismals Canyon is so named. There are a couple of theories. One theory is that the Scots-Irish settlers thought the area was similar to a place in Scotland known by the same name. A casual internet search doesn’t turn up any place by that name in modern Scotland, and I find it unlikely that anywhere on the blasted plains of Scotland would resemble the lush green canyon in northwest Alabama. The other theory, as stated by the Encyclopedia of Alabama, is that the area is named for its “dark labyrinths and gloomy passages.” That’s more feasible, so to quote John Milton in Paradise Lost, we set off “on bold adventure to discover wide that dismal world.”
The first part of the hike is anything but gloomy and dismal. At the bottom of the stairs, a wooden platform overlooks a pool formed on Dismals Branch by a dam constructed at the top of Rainbow Falls. The dam was part of a mill that was swept away in a flood in the 1950s. While the mill is gone, its millstone is found next to the trail below the falls. Concrete steps descend into the pool, and you’re welcome to take a swim there, bearing in mind (1) there’s no lifeguard, and (2) if you drift over the dam, there’s likely a fatal drop awaiting you down Rainbow Falls.
Another set of wooden steps takes you down to the west side of the canyon floor, with several views of Rainbow Falls. Though the now defunct mill reshaped the lip of the falls, Dismals Branch drops over an approximately 40-foot ledge here, tumbling over rocks into a relatively small and shallow plunge pool. The trail map says that often a rainbow can be spotted in the vicinity of the falls if the sun is shining, but it was a bit overcast so no rainbow for us. We made our way to the bottom of the fall for a closer look.
Now we were at the bottom of the canyon, and we followed the trail away from the waterfall, passed a swinging bridge, and continued to a spot known as Phantom Falls. There’s not really a waterfall there — instead, it’s an auditory illusion, an echo of Rainbow Falls that sounds like another waterfall is behind you in the rocks. But it’s no illusion that you are in a special place, down in the canyon. This area was a swampland before being lifted during the late Paleozoic era, when earthquakes shook loose huge boulders from the canyon walls and opened fissures between the rocks. The canyon is a fairyland of mossy rocks, soaring trees, and amber waters. The combination of narrow canyon and virgin forest has the effect of filtering a lot of sunlight, which creates a land of shadows interspersed with spotlit cliff faces. The northern end of the canyon seems to have been most affected by earthquakes, as there are several areas where rocks have tumbled together in such a way as to form an above-ground chamber. One such example is the Grotto, which has an S-shaped tree framing its entrance.
I’ll digress again from the narrative of the hike to mention that Dismals Canyon provides an excellent trail map, which includes a description on the back of the various points of interest. There is only one trail along the bottom of the canyon, though it has a few spurs to interesting sights and several places in which you can cross Dismals Branch to create loops of various distances. The trail surface is packed dirt, with a few places in which you’ll have to climb over a few rocks. Points of interest usually have a wooden sign affixed to them, and often when the route is confusing because of wildcat trails there are stylized wooden arrowhead signs pointing the way to the main trail.
Back to the hike now. We passed through the cool grotto, admiring the small steam that runs through it. Though it’s an enclosed space, a boardwalk makes for sure footing and the headroom is adequate. On the other side of the Grotto, we took an alternate route to join up with the narrow fissure that slopes upwards to the top of one of the boulders, to a view called Pulpit Rock.
The Dismals Canyon website mentions that it’s typically 14 degrees below the summer average temperature on the canyon floor. They don’t mention, however, that it’s also about 200% of the average humidity! I’m making that number up, but the humidity is a good thing, as it is one of the ingredients for the habitat for the dismalites, and paints the canyon with lush greens everywhere you look.
We continued south through another naturally enclosed area called the Kitchen and at one point noticed a side passage that had been roped off. This is perhaps a good time to point out that hikers are requested to stick to the trails, to protect the over 350 species of exotic flora found in the canyon. Though privately owned, Dismals Canyon is a National Natural Landmark, with sensible rules to protect the vegetation and fauna.
Our next point of interest was Temple Cave, a large rock shelter that was home to Paleoindians about 10,000 years ago. Though this shelter has never been excavated, spear points from the Paleoindian period have been found in the canyon. It’s no surprise that the canyon was long the home of Native Americans, particularly the Chickasaw and Cherokee. This bluff shelter is sited at one of the most scenic parts of Dismals Branch, in an area called the Fishing Hole. The trail winds here, with the branch to the left, rock walls to the right, and glorious foliage everywhere.
This was my favorite stretch of the trail, from the Fishing Hole down to the bridge that marks the southern end of the trail. The canyon is broader here, with a more open feel. Dismals Branch splits and winds among gravel shoals, flowing quietly between its shaded banks. The trail mostly stays within sight of the creek during this stretch, twisting away briefly before crossing the creek on a bridge. Well, not quite — on our hike, we proceeded a few feet south of the bridge, which had washed away, and crossed the creek on cinder block “stepping stones.” Red tape draped through the trees here marks the property line, so it was time to turn north.
The first point of interest on the northbound trip is the Champion Tree, an Eastern/Canadian hemlock 138 feet tall, largest of its species in Alabama. This is at the extreme southern end of the range for this species. It’s thought to be 360 years old. Think about that for a minute — this tree was a yearling when Benjamin Franklin’s father was born. It was the size of a pencil when John Milton began writing Paradise Lost. I’m no forester, but that tree looked healthy to me, and if so it’s still growing. The oldest of its species is over 550 years old. If it can survive ice storms and the hemlock woolly adelgid, who knows how long it will last? I have to marvel at it. My great-great-grandchildren may very well pose by its trunk, just like my wife did last week.
We continued northward, skirting the east side of Dismals Branch, along some tumbledown passages and across a footbridge, until we reached the next point of interest. Weeping Bluff is an overhang, so named because it seeps symbolic tears for the Chickasaw who were ousted from the area in 1838. The Chickasaw weren’t keen on losing their paradise, but made better deals than the Cherokee so they were able to sell their lands to the government, purchase land from the Choctaw, and most important, time their treks on the Trail of Tears to reduce casualties due to weather. U.S. troops rounded up the Chickasaw in the area in 1838 and held them in the canyon for two weeks before marching them to Muscle Shoals, where they started the journey west. The bluff is dark and gloomy, and the dripping water would make the trail a quagmire except for the clever stepping stones constructed of bags of concrete.
After stopping for a brief snack, we continued northward until we reached an intersection of sorts about halfway along the east side of the trail. A side trail to the right leads to Secret Falls, a small waterfall fed by a stream that emerges from underground about 3/4 of a mile upstream of the fall. We scrambled around and took a few photos. I’d estimate its height at about 8 feet. The water flow was pretty anemic on the day of our hike, but I’ve seen photos that indicate this fall is much prettier when the stream is in full flow.
We returned on the spur trail back to the creek, crossing on some tumbled stepping stones to rejoin the main trail on the west side, in the vicinity of Temple Cave. After retracing our steps to the Kitchen, we crossed the creek again on stepping stones to visit the Dance Hall. This sheltered area was used for rituals by the Chickasaw, according to the trail map. This was a really cool sheltered overhang, with a “floor” formed by a flat fallen rock, and partially enclosed by a sloping fallen boulder. There’s a sandy beach on the south side of the dance floor, with a beguiling view of the creek.
The interplay of the mossy green, the orange sandstone, and the tan shades of rock and sand created a peaceful scene that was tough to leave, but we reluctantly recrossed the creek and headed right at the next intersection, crossing a footbridge back to the east side and turning north again to reach Fat Man’s Misery. As you might guess, the Misery is a 16″ wide gap in the rocks that was the original entrance to the canyon floor. The photo doesn’t do it justice — that’s a tight fit! This leg of the trail is rougher than the others, as there is a bit of rock scrambling necessary to continue north to Witch’s Cavern. It’s an option to backtrack to the footbridge, cross back to the west side of the creek, and return to Rainbow Falls, where you can cross the swinging bridge and work your way back southward. We chose to just continue north from Fat Man’s Misery and didn’t have any difficulty in making our way to Witch’s Cavern.
Witch’s Cavern isn’t a true cavern. However, it’s a cool winding passage between huge boulders, narrow in some places (but easily passable), with one roomy chamber surrounded by more of the ubiquitous mossy rocks. This particular chamber was the home of one of the conglomerations of dismalites we had seen on our night tour. Witch’s Cavern was oppressive by night, but impressive by day. We continued north to the last point of interest, Burr’s Hideout. This was once thought to be a hiding place for Aaron Burr (of the Burr-Hamilton duel infamy), but the truth is actually more interesting. It’s true that Aaron Burr was traveling about five modern-day counties south of here when his arrest was ordered on suspicion of treason. He briefly fled, but was captured in what is now Washington County, Alabama.
However, there was another outlaw who almost certainly took shelter in the canyon — Rube Burrow, a well-known train robber from 1886-1890. Rube was from Lamar County, Alabama, about 40 miles southwest of Dismals Canyon. Burrow eluded the authorities for around two years in northwest Alabama, and at the time was pursued by hundreds of lawmen and the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency. “Burrow” and “Burr” are similar-sounding names, so you can see why there would be some confusion. The actual feature known as Burr’s Hideout is another chamber close by Rainbow Falls — so close, in fact, that it feels like you’re under them! It’s shadowy and damp, and happens to be the home of the biggest concentration of dismalites that we saw on our tour. So if Rube Burrow holed up there, at least he had a nice view of the “stars” at night. From Burr’s Hideout, turn southwest to cross Dismals Branch on a swinging bridge close to the foot of Rainbow Falls, where you tee into the main trail and hang a right to climb the stairs by Rainbow Falls to complete the loop.
Dismals Canyon is not exactly a secret. It’s been featured on TV and on the cover of National Geographic Traveler and other publications. It carries quite a reputation for its biodiversity and beauty, and it’s well-deserved. In fact, I’d say it’s the prettiest place we’ve visited in north Alabama and southern Middle Tennessee. The day use fee is $10 for adults, with discounts for seniors, children under 12, and groups, and is absolutely worth it to experience this paradise. You can also stay there overnight, with two cabins available for rental and a few primitive campsites available in scenic locations. There’s a bathhouse available for the campers. And if cooking isn’t your thing, there’s a soda fountain and grill inside the general store where you can lunch and dinner. In fact, that’s just what we did. Ruth had a pimento cheese BLT and fizzy lemonade, and I was in a Depression-era mood and had my first slugburger, washed down with a cherry phosphate. Those aren’t menu items that you’ll find just anywhere!
To paraphrase Milton from Paradise Regained, we “when no other durst, sole undertook the dismal expedition.” Actually, other people dared make the dismal expedition while we were there, though we didn’t see many on our hike. It was paradise, and we look forward to regaining it on another visit.