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The Secret Treasures of Northeast Alabama
Where breathtaking natural wonders appear to be yet undiscovered.
By Kimberly Button
Little River Canyon
One of northeast Alabama’s most picturesque areas is the Little River Canyon National Preserve, located near Fort Payne. This remarkable work of nature is the deepest gorge east of the Rocky Mountains, yet – amazingly – it is not overrun with visitors.
This preserve was formed by the Little River, the nation’s only river that forms and flows for most of its length on top of a mountain. An extensive series of canyons and gorges were formed as the Little River plunged off of Lookout Mountain for thousands of years. Today, the challenging river is loved by whitewater paddlers. You don’t need to be on the river, though, to witness the area’s majestic beauty.
Canyon Rim Drive (Highway 76), a narrow, twisting mountain road, hugs the Little River Canyon for 11 miles and enables you to appreciate the river’s mighty force.
Eight scenic overlooks are found along Canyon Rim Drive. At some, you can gaze down into the deep canyon filled with lush vegetation as you try to spot the Little River, which seems like just a ribbon of blue from above. At other overlooks, just a short walk will reward you with views of a waterfall. Many RVers like to visit Little River Falls before beginning their drive. Located near the bridge of Highway 35, the visitor’s area has a paved path that leads down to the 45-foot falls where swimming is allowed, though risky.
Though picnicking and hiking can be enjoyed at several spots within the preserve, one of the most popular is the Canyon Mouth Day Use Area, located in the southern section. This popular
facility has restrooms, picnic areas, grills, a hiking trail and a beach for sunbathing and wading.
Lying within the north end of the preserve’s boundaries is DeSoto State Park, named after famed explorer Hernando DeSoto, who came through the area with his army of Spanish Conquistadors in 1540, in search of gold. Located in Fort Payne, DeSoto State Park was created atop Lookout Mountain in the 1930s. The 3,502-acre park has more than eight miles of hiking trails, including many that are bursting with rhododendron and mountain laurel blooms in late spring. DeSoto Falls, a 100-foot waterfall, is just one of many that are interspersed throughout the park. A variety of interpretive programs on the history and biology of the area are offered throughout the year.
Touring Sequoyah Caverns
Another fascinating geological find in northeast Alabama lies just up the road in Valley Head. At Sequoyah Caverns & Ellis Homestead, a range of family activities are offered, but the primary reason to visit the attraction is to witness the other-worldly caverns located underground. Since 1841, the caverns have been in the Ellis family who takes great pride in showing off its wonder.
Inside the caves, the temperature is a constant 60 degrees, making this a great attraction in summer and winter. Your one-hour tour will take you past unusual geologic finds as well as shimmering lakes that perfectly reflect the curious rock formations hanging from the ceiling above. The rhythmic dripping of water as it seeps from the mountain’s surface, as well as the darkened pathways strategically lit by glowing yellow lights, create a peaceful retreat that is as much educational as it is entertaining. During the summer months, a night-time lantern-lit tour of the caverns is available, as are gem mining and crafts demonstrations. Hiking trails located on the property are open year-round to cavern guests who want to enjoy the area’s beauty from above ground, too.
Small-Town Shopping and the Famous Yard Sale
Just a few miles northeast from Valley Head is Mentone, a charming mountain town brimming with quaint shops and country cooking. With friendly locals, fresh mountain air and a picturesque backdrop, you’ll want to allow plenty of time to browse the stores full of handmade crafts and to sample regional flavors.
If you are a serious shopper, though, and enjoy the thrill of finding a good bargain, make plans to visit northeast Alabama in early August to enjoy the “World’s Longest Yard Sale.” This annual, four-day event features more than 5,000 vendors along 450 miles of scenic parkway from Alabama to Kentucky. The Alabama portion, which has more than 1,000 vendors, takes place over the 93-mile stretch of Lookout Mountain Parkway which runs from Gadsden, toward the south of Little River Canyon National Preserve, to the Alabama/Georgia border, located near Mentone.
Campsites Close to Nature
With the state of Alabama’s heavy emphasis on enjoying the outdoors, there are plenty of RV parks and campgrounds to choose from in northeast Alabama, many conveniently located at the most popular attractions. DeSoto State Park has 78 sites with water and electric hookups. There are primitive campsites as well for those who prefer
that is much closer to nature. Picnic and play areas, such as playgrounds with tennis and volleyball courts, are available to guests, as well as a swimming pool, country store and restaurant located on-site.
Sequoyah Caverns & Ellis Homestead also offers a campground with 85 sites having water and electricity, and 15 more campsites with sewer hookup. A pool and store are available to campground guests, as are the hiking trails, fishing pond and other activities that all visitors to Sequoyah Caverns can enjoy.
If you, too, enjoy the feeling of finding the perfect vacation spot before the crowds have discovered it, then you will find the small towns of Fort Payne, Valley Head and Mentone in northeast Alabama to be a vacation secret that you won’t want to share.