Dismals Canyon of Northern Alabama
Northern Alabama does not cover a lot of territory. The entire state of Alabama at its widest point is close to two hundred miles east to west and about three hundred fifteen miles north to south. Its northern-most point is only about 140 miles across and broadens to around 155 miles. This small part of the state has many attractions that visitors could enjoy without requiring extensive travel time.
One of these attractions, Dismals Canyon, is a canyon, but is definitely not dismal. It is located just off US Highway 43 on Franklin County Road 8, near the town of Phil Campbell and south of Russellville. A turnoff four miles south of the intersection of State Highway 13 and US 43 onto CR 8 takes visitors to the entrance of Dismals Canyon.
The National Park Service named the 85-acre privately owned and operated parcel of northwest Alabama as a National Natural Landmark (NNL) in 1974. There are several good reasons for that designation -- its biological diversity and its geologic and human histories. The origin of its name, Dismals Canyon, is unknown. According to the website (www.dismalscanyon.com), it is believed that the canyon got its dreary name from the area's early Scotch-Irish settlers who could have named the canyon after a craggy spot in Scotland called "Dismals." Another theory is that the settlers felt uneasy about the rugged bluffs and dark grottos of the canyon and thought the place "dismal".
Explorers have found pottery and arrowheads made by Paleo Indians, the first people known to inhabit northwest Alabama, on the canyon floor. They also found an old musket and cot in one of the dark spots of the canyon. Also, remnants of a water mill, cotton gin, and a sawmill built by early settlers were found in the canyon. So, humans throughout history have used the canyon for habitation and refuge.
Within the canyon are two waterfalls. Rainbow Falls, located at the beginning of the canyon, is formed as the Dismal Branch of Bear Creek drops fifteen feet into the canyon. The second smaller one, Secret Falls, is from a feeder stream emptying into the Dismal Branch.
Within the canyon is a stand of old-growth virgin timber composed mainly of Hemlock, Tulip Poplar, Sweetgum, Bigleaf Magnolia, and Beech. There have been identified more than 350 different species of flora by botanists that explored the canyon. At the end of the canyon one Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) towers above the forested floor. It is called the Champion Tree, measuring 138 feet tall with a circumference of eight feet nine inches and a crown spread of fifty feet.
Another thing that sets the Canyon apart is the presence of Dismalites, which are actually larvae of a fungal gnat (scientific name: Orphelia fultoni.) They are very small, and the salt on human fingers will kill the "glow worms," as they are called. They has been documented from sites across the southern Appalachians. Some of the most well-known sites include the western North Carolina mountains, Tennessee’s Hazard Cave, and Dismals Canyon. One of the only other glow-worms known on the planet lives in cave systems within New Zealand.
Some of the key features of Dismals Canyon are waterfalls, the Champion Tree, and several formations that have been used by former residents, whether they were Indians, early settlers, or outlaws. Rainbow Falls was the source of power for a mill that was destroyed by a flood about a half century ago. Remains of the timbers and millstone are scattered along the canyon floor.
There is a Pulpit Rock, Indian Head Rock, Fat Man's Misery, Stove Pipe, and Witches Cavern. All are formations of rocks in the canyon and all have significance. For instance, the Kitchen, which is a partially covered flat area that is protected by large rocks, was used by the Chickasaw Indians for cooking and tribal rituals. Since there is no written records about the early times, the information and legends were handed down through the generations through word of mouth.
Dismals Canyon has a fairly well marked trail through the rocky crevices and along the stream. Visitors enter the canyon by going down a series of stairs descending about thirty feet. The path leads along the stream to the end of the canyon, where a short wooden bridge crosses the stream. The path continues back to the point of origin near Rainbow Falls.
Although North Alabama does not cover a lot of territory, there are a number of interesting places in this section of the state. One of the most interesting, and best kept secrets, is Dismals Canyon. But definitely not dismal.
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Keywords: alabama, america, beaten, canyon, dismalites, dismals, dismals canyon, glow worms, hiking, off, path, rocky, travel, usa
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