A hidden gem awaits you in northwest Alabama. A 1.5-mile-long hiking trail leads you through a boulder strewn maze of a canyon, its moss covered sandstone walls offering up a fascinating trek back in time. Two waterfalls — one that’s a phantom — brighten the otherwise endless green, and at night, tiny incandescent worms called Dismalites (glowworms) put on a dazzling light show.
Welcome to Dismals Canyon, an 85-acre, privately owned nature preserve in the town of Phil Campbell, Alabama. The canyon, which was named a National Natural Landmark in 1975, holds many secrets, centuries of history, and incredible natural beauty that can only be unlocked by taking the easy ramble along the canyon floor.
Being a National Natural Landmark does not mean that it is part of the National Park Service. It means that it is a location of historical and environmental significance that needs to be protected.
The Dismals is an amazing destination that should be included as a stop on any visit to Alabama. Here are seven reasons why.
Over 300 million years ago, northwest Alabama was underwater, covered by an ancient swamp and ocean. As the water receded, the soft sandstone was eroded away, cutting a gorge and several canyons across the region including what became known as the Sipsey Wilderness, Cane Creek Canyon, and right here at Dismals Canyon.
What the action of nature left behind was a labyrinth of house size boulders, deep rock overhangs (rock shelters), caves, and the canyon itself. The trail at the bottom of the canyon meanders around these features, giving you a sense of adventure as you walk through a couple of short caves, a few narrow cuts in the rocks (also known as a “squeeze”), and along the base of towering rock bluffs draped in dark green moss.
One unique feature is Witches Cavern. This one is not for the claustrophobic. As you walk the trail you will walk straight into what looks like a dead end. Where did the trail go? Look to your right and there is a narrow passageway that shrinks down to about a foot wide. That’s the way through. Don’t worry, you can avoid the cavern and still make your way around the canyon.
The processes that formed the canyon are still at work today and are evidenced by two beautiful waterfalls. The first is encountered at the start of the hike, the 15-foot Rainbow Falls. Rainbow is the centerpiece of the canyon. The water from the lake above the canyon flows over an old dam where a mill once stood. It’s called Rainbow Falls because if you catch the sun just right, the spray produces a beautiful rainbow.
The second waterfall is an 8-foot cascade called Secret Falls, an appropriate name for the cascade that will be found about 0.7-miles into your hike and is formed by an underground spring.
If you look at the Canyon’s brochure, you will see that they list a third waterfall — Phantom Falls — but it is just that. There really isn’t a waterfall. The sound of Rainbow Falls crashing down to the canyon floor echoes off the rock walls making you think there is another waterfall nearby.
Besides the falls and the soothing sounds of Dismal Branch that flows through the canyon, you will also come to a very picturesque scene called Weeping Bluff. A wooden footbridge crosses over a tranquil pool beneath the towering rock wall where they say that if you look at the wall at the right angle, you will see the face of an Indian maiden. The water seeping down the rock face makes it look as if she’s crying. Locals say that the wall is crying for the loss of the canyon’s only true friend, the Chickasaw Indians.
Sure, exploring the canyon during the day is fun, but it only gets better after dark. Grab your flashlight and join knowledgeable guides as you travel into the canyon to experience the Dismalites, a small larva that lives in only a few select places in the world in conditions like those found here at Dismals Canyon. These are glowworms of sorts that cling to the rock walls and emit a bluish-green light to attract flying insects which quickly become dinner.
Dismals Canyon has regular nighttime tours to view this magnificent light show. Times of the tours change throughout the year so check with the camp store.
4. Nature Abounds
It’s not only the geology that makes Dismals Canyon special. Plants and trees are well represented. The area around Secret Falls, for example, is called a natural arboretum with 27 species of native trees growing within 100 feet of it. Bigleaf magnolia, sweetgum, and hemlock trees rise up from the canyon floor that also hosts over 350 species of exotic flora.
History greets you at every turn along the trail through Dismals Canyon. The high, green moss covered canyon walls and rock shelters were once home to Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Paleo Native Americans as far back as 10,000 years ago.
During a tragic episode in American history, U.S. soldiers rounded up the Chickasaw and interned them in the canyon for two weeks in 1838 before “herding them like cattle” to Muscle Shoals and eventually landing west of the Mississippi along what has become known as the “Trail of Tears.” The canyon also provided shelter for many bandits over the years as they tried to evade the law.
6. Spending The Night
Dismals Canyon is an incredible place to pitch your tent and spend the night. In all, the park has five primitive camp areas. The number of sites has been intentionally limited to protect the fragile environment.
Having said that, it should be noted that you cannot drive up to the campsites. You have to walk your gear in, but it is a very short walk from the parking area.
A popular site is Dead Water Bluff which is located next to a creek. The absolute best is Stillwater, which is located in a small box canyon, where a waterfall flows after a good rain. But make reservations early before your trip! Sites book up fast.
Campsites are available Memorial Day through Labor Day, and weekends only from March — through Memorial Day and Labor Day — to the last weekend of October.
If you’re not into tent camping, the park has two cozy cabins that are removed from the main parking area so you are guaranteed solitude. Each is your quintessential country cabin with beautiful rich hardwood floors, vaulted ceilings, stone fireplaces, rocking chairs, and plenty of peace and quiet.
Call the country store at (205) 993-4559 to make your lodging reservations.
7. Country Store And Soda Fountain
If you’re not into hiking or are just passing through, take the time to stop and visit the Dismals Canyon Country Store. As the staff likes to say, the atmosphere of the store is as old as the dust between the floorboards with rows of candy jars, gifts, and souvenirs.
And when you get hungry or need a sweet treat, belly up to the counter of the Dismals Canyon Grill and Soda Fountain. It is a real old-fashioned soda fountain serving up not only traditional icy cold treats like ice cream sodas, banana splits, and hot fudge sundaes, but also mouthwatering burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and more.
The Grill serves up a unique “burger” called the Slugburger. Now, don’t let the name turn you off. The story is that this special burger was created during the depression when meat was scarce. Families would mix together ground pork and soy flour, pour in a variety of seasonings, make the mixture into patties, then deep fry them, and serve them on a bun. Trust me. You will be surprised at how good they are.
The Dismals is hidden away in northwest Alabama but is easy enough to get to. From Muscle Shoals, follow U.S. 43 South for 31 miles, and turn right onto C.R. 8. In 1 mile, the entrance to the Dismals will be on your left.
The hike around the bottom of the canyon is a relatively easy walk. The toughest part of the hike is actually heading down the stairs to the bottom (and back up), but even that isn’t too difficult.
The canyon is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday–Friday, Saturday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tickets are sold up to 90 minutes before closing.
Nighttime tour schedules can be found online.
Admission prices vary, so please visit the canyon’s admission page for the latest fees. All pets must be kept on a leash, and remember, before entering the canyon, you must complete a waiver form. You can cut your wait time by downloading and completing the form before your arrival.
There are a considerable amount outdoor activities to experience in Alabama: