While we were traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway the week before last, we detoured south of Florence 45 minutes into a town call Phil Campbell. North Alabama is rife in greenery and state parks, and I’ve embarrassingly not taken advantage of this on the dozens of trips I’ve made to our southern neighbor over the years. But this detour had a specific purpose, one I’d had on my Southern bucket list for years: I wanted to visit Alabama’s Dismals Canyon.
Finding our way to Dismals Canyon
I had friends who went to school at the University of North Alabama and were big fans of this park, which they said was on private property and that we’d likely encounter the owners when we arrived. I expected a slightly sketchy situation where we moseyed on up to a canyon enclosed by an electric fence and had to sweet-talk a landowner with a shotgun into letting us descend into their canyon. So imagine my surprise when we pull up to find a full-on visitors center, shop, cafe/soda fountain and legit lodging options.
It turns out that Dismals Canyon is privately owned, but it’s an 85-acre chunk of verdant land that has been a National Natural Landmark since 1975 through the National Natural Landmarks Program, which is administered by the National Park Service.
Upon arrival, we parked in the lot—which was outfitted with extremely clean bathrooms and luxe showers (something I’d be thankful for later after sinking my feet into quicksand-like mud!)—and a pathway down to the shop that doubles as the visitors center. Admission is $12 for adults, and it’s completely worth it I’ll say after the fact. If you come back for a night tour, it’s $10 or $18 to do day and night.
Once down on the canyon floor, I felt as if we were immersed in Avatar—or at least the setting for Fern Gully. Everything was so green, and it seemed as if we had opened a door to another world entirely, one that only we knew about.
What exactly is a dismalite?
But the biggest selling point of Dismals Canyon? The glowworms dubbed dismalites, which light up the caves once darkness has cloaked the canyon each night. Microscopic bioluminescent insects, the dismalites are a species of fly larvae that emit a bright blue-green light to attract food. They hang from surfaces in humid, dark spaces—specifically, the moss-covered walls of Dismals Canyon—and are considered a cousin to the New Zealand glowworms that I traveled solo to the North Island to see a decade ago. They’re the biggest collection of this species in the world, which makes the spectacle one that lands on many travelers’ bucket lists.
When to go to Dismals Canyon, Alabama
April through May and September and October are the best time to see them, and you have to take a guided tour into the canyon. Spoiler alert: Even though we were there in peak fall season, we went down into the canyon midday so did not encounter the illuminated dismalites, but that didn’t make our time in Dismals Canyon any less worth the trip.
During the day, you can explore on your own at your leisure. Follow the trail map, and it will take you on a 0.6-mile, out-and-back path that goes through caverns, over streams and past waterfalls. Due to our tendency to take an excessive amount of pictures, we probably spent two hours roaming the canyon, but you can definitely do it in less if you don’t have that much time to spare.
The best part of all is that we didn’t see a soul until we looped back and were on our way back up to the exit. If you can hit Dismals Canyon on a weekday in early fall, you have better luck getting the place to yourself than you do in summer months when school is out. Note: Check the schedule before making the drive as days and times vary by season. When we were there in late-October, Dismals Canyon was open from Tuesday through Sunday, but from late fall through early spring, it’s only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Overall, this is one of my favorite hikes I’ve done in the South, even though it’s relatively short, simply due to the novelty of it all.
Who should hike Dismals Canyon
For those with mobility issues, this probably isn’t the best option for you. There are a number of stairs you must descend to the canyon floor to Rainbow Falls where the swinging bridge is and the trail starts. We saw a lady at the beginning of the trail with a bum knee and she couldn’t make the whole loop as there’s a lot of rock-hopping, squeezing through crevices and scampering over uneven terrain required.
Camping options in North Alabama
We didn’t stay at Dismals Canyon overnight, as we were bunking up in the Shoals exploring fall on the Natchez Trace for a project, but the park has a pair of Cozy Cabins available for rent, and we spoke with a retired couple out of Mississippi staying there that said they weren’t exactly “cozy” per se, but rather spacious, comfortable and perfect for families. Dismals Canyon also has campsites open weekends from March through early November and daily during the summer. There’s even a massage therapist available on request! I know where we’re staying when next in Alabama.
Looking for other Southern travel inspiration? Here are a few places to start:
- The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Memphis
- An Out-of-This-World Trip Exploring Space in Huntsville
- Exploring Savannah Beyond the Historic District
- Discovering the Plunging Pogue Canyon in Jamestown, Tennessee
- 5 Ways to Get Outdoors in New Orleans