Stepping into Dismals Canyon Conservatory I wasn’t sure what to expect. Touted as “Alabama’s Last Secret Hiding Place” on their website and compared to “Middle Earth” from The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy by Only in Your State, Dismal Canyon proved to be an oasis of breathtaking beauty. Located in Phil Campbell, Alabama, it’s an off the beaten path attraction you would never expect to find. One of the two locations in the US where you can find this species of North American Orfelia fultoni, (the other is North Carolina), these tiny creatures light up the canyons at night.
I visited Dismal Canyon on a PreBex Fam tour. We plan to return as a family on our own soon.
How Dismal Canyon got its name is a mystery. Some believe it was named by Scots-Irish settlers, who believed it resembled a region from their homeland called the “Dismals.” Others believe the settlers simply thought the place was dreary. Whatever the reason the canyon was named, this 85 acre is a privately owned and operated National Natural Landmark. Featuring old growth virgin forest trees and flowers found nowhere else in the state, the canyon can be accessed by a 1 1/2 mile hiking trail winding gently through the canyon.
Although Dismal Canyon is no longer inhabited by humans, it has a long history of occupation beginning with Paleoamericans about 10,000 years ago. Later, it was home to the Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians, who designated a spot for cooking and for tribal rituals. This was also where the Chickasaw were captured, rounded up, and held before the US Government forced them from their lands and onto the Trail of Tears. After the Civil War, it served as the perfect hiding spot for outlaw Jessie James.
Although the hiking path is beautiful, the main attraction is the “Dismalites.” The tiny larvae glow to attract food, showing up at night in wonderous displays of light. The best place to spot Dismalites is at the spot known as “Witches Cavern,” named for the unusual plants growing only in this area. Settlers believed only witches could have planted the mandrakes and mushrooms growing there. Night tours are available, but these fill up quickly so reservations are recommended. Tip: Call several weeks in advance to reserve your spot. During the day self-guided tours are available or you can hire a guide for a fee. If you wish to hire a guide you’ll need to call in advance and reserve your spot.
Don’t feel like hiking? Relax on the covered sundeck. Sit in one of the comfy chairs and enjoy the natural view. You can step inside the Country Store for a quick treat or stop by their soda fountain and grill for an old-fashioned milkshake. If you are more adventurous you can try the “Slug Burger.” During the summer swimming is permitted in the natural pool that feeds Rainbow Falls.
Tips to Know Before You Go:
1. Wear comfortable shoes and clothing. We went on a rainy day. The rocks were slippery, so the chance of falling into the creek was higher, but there are uneven spots along the trail.
2. Don’t go off the marked trail. Because of the location, it will be an all day ordeal if you get hurt. Rescue crews can not access the trail easily.
3. There is no elevator into the canyon, only steps, so it is not handicapped accessible.
4. The Canyon is 14 degrees cooler than at the top. Bring a jacket if the weather is cooler.
Dismal Canyon is only open on weekends and does charge an admission fee for ages 3 and up. If you want to feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to a primordial forest (after all, Where Dinosaurs Roam was filmed here) or just crave natural beauty in a serene, unspoiled setting, Dismal Canyon is a must for your bucket list adventures.
Where is your favorite serene natural spot to visit?