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Noteworthy Hike in TAG: Dismals Canyon Conservatory

Noteworthy Hike in TAG Dismals Canyon Conservatory – A National Natural Landmark Activities: Hiking, Photography, Nature Appreciation, Camping Rating: Easy

Located in Northwest Alabama about 30 miles west of the Sipsey Wilderness is an 85 acre Natural Conservatory that is privately owned and operated known as Dismals Canyon. It is not a state park or national park however it was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1975 by the National Natural Landmarks Program. Once a primeval swamp, this area was lifted upward during the geological events of the late Paleozoic era (roughly 300 million years ago). Over time, the force of draining waters helped to carve a canyon and gorge system punctuated throughout by dozens of sandstone sheltered grottos, waterfalls, natural bridges and giant moss covered boulders strewn about by ancient earthquakes. This natural wonder contains one of the oldest primeval forests east of the Mississippi River untouched by ax or fire.

From artifacts found among the bluff shelters, grottos and other areas it was learned that many cultures of Stone Age man were at Dismals Canyon. “Temple Cave”, a bluff shelter in the canyon was once home to a tribe of Paleoamericans about 10,000 years ago. The shelter has never been excavated but Paleo spear points have been found nearby. The area has also been home to the Chickasaw and Cherokee Indians. In 1838 US troops rounded up the Chickasaw forcing them from their lands to Muscle Shoals where they embarked on the Trail of Tears. Other early settlers of Scotch-Irish descent built a water mill, cotton gin, and sawmill.

Alabama ranks as the fourth most biologically diverse state in the nation and it is on the canyon floor where you will find this undisturbed special terrain known as Dismals Canyon. It contains a rich diversity of native plant life, including a stand of old growth virgin timber composed mostly of Hemlock, Tulip Poplar, Sweet gum, Big leaf Magnolia and Beech. More than 350 different species of exotic flora have also been identified by botanists exploring the canyon. Until an ice storm destroyed one of them there were two Canadian Hemlocks towering up from the canyon floor. One of them remains and continues to look sturdy for its 360 years! It is 138‟ tall, 8‟9” around and has a crown spread of 50‟. It is the largest of its species in Alabama and thought to be one of the largest anywhere in the world. The hemlocks are in an isolated spot hundreds of miles from their normal range of growth. It is believed the twins are sole remnants of arboreal flora pushed south during the age of glaciers.

Through the heart of the canyon flows Dismals Branch, a winding stream that enters the canyon with a roar at Rainbow Falls. Rainbow Falls was once the source of power for a mill that was destroyed by a flood about 60 years ago. You can still see the holes bored in the rock which was used to support the wheel and the grinding wheel is still below the falls where it landed after the flood. The pool at the top of the falls was once used to baptize members of local churches in the 1800‟s. From here following a 1.5 mile hiking trail on the canyon floor you will come to a secret world of sky reaching boulders, waterfalls, ferns and giant trees. Along the trail you will come to sites known as Phantom Falls, Pulpit Rock, The Kitchen, Stove Pipe, Indian Head Rock, Temple Cave, Weeping Bluff, Secret Falls, Dance Hall, Fat Man‟s Misery and Witches Cavern. Each of these areas has their own special offerings. In 1925 the Girl Scouts built a fireplace in the kitchen which still remains today and in the Temple Cave area you can still see the depression in the large rock in front that was used for grinding corn by Native Americans. At Secret Falls within 100 feet there are 27 species of native trees.

Dismals Canyon is also home to Dismalites, the larvae stage of a unique, native, and endemic species of insect that emits a bright blue-green light to attract food, in the form of other flying insects. Dismalites require a select habitat to survive: humidity to prevent it from drying out; hanging surfaces to allow it to build sticky webs to trap the food; an adequate food supply of insects; a still atmosphere to prevent lines from tangling; and darkness to allow it to show a light. The canyon provides the perfect habitat for them. The large number of them makes the Dismals Canyon population unusual. On nights when conditions are right the rock faces look like a star filled sky. Best viewing times are May through September, although they can be seen in smaller numbers year round. If you plan on taking the Dismalite tour make sure to bring your own flashlight.

In 2006 a Hellbender (giant salamander) was also found at the canyon. It is currently the most recently encountered hellbender in Alabama, and one of only three specimens that have been found in the state in the past twenty years. It was about 2 feet in length and was donated to Auburn University. Unfortunately the hellbender was found by a dog that killed it so its exact location in the canyon was unknown.

Dismals Canyon changes their operating schedule regularly. It is best to check their website ahead of time when you are planning a visit and it is also suggested that you make a reservation ahead of time. There is a fee to enter the canyon which you can also find on their site. You can take a self guided tour of the canyon during the day or take a guided tour in the evening to see the Dismalites. Dismals Canyon is intentionally private. You will not see big road signs pointing you to the area.

If you do make the trip to Dismals Canyon another site nearby worth checking out is Natural Bridge, Alabama. Here you will find the longest Natural Bridge east of the Rockies, spanning over 127 feet.

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