Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dismals Canyon: a National Natural Landmark

Back in the 1980’s, my parents took me and my sister to Phil Campbell, Alabama to see Dismals Canyon. It had been featured in Southern Living Magazine and my mother was eager to see it for herself. What we ended up seeing was one of the most beautiful, unspoiled places left in Alabama.

The Dismals began millions of years ago and was created by natural forces, such as erosion and earthquakes. You can see waterfalls, natural bridges, grottos, giant boulders, ancient hemlock trees, glowing worms called "dismalites" and much more. Artifacts have been unearthed that proves that all known cultures of Stone-Age man have resided there. Various American Indian tribes made Dismals their home in the past as well as notorious outlaws such as Aaron Burr.

At the start of the tour, you see a natural pool carved into rock at the top of Rainbow Falls. As you make your way into the canyon via wooden stairs, mist from the waterfall spreads into the canyon making it into a mysterious place. It’s like stepping back into time as you wind your way along Dismals Branch to the swinging bridge and then to Burr’s hideout.

Along the path, and all through the canyon, you will find such diversity of flora. According to their website, "More than 350 different species of Exotic Flora have been identified by botanists exploring the Dismals", including Canadian Hemlock, a variety of maples, witch hazel, mountain laurel, Virginia creeper, sassafras, and more.

But the strangest thing you might see here is the dismalites, a species of glowworm unique to only a few places on Earth. Seen only at night, flashlight tours are given after hours for those who want to witness one of nature’s true marvels.

In fact, the Dismals is so unique with it’s atmosphere and flora, the Discovery Channel used it as one of the locations for the filming of "When Dinosaurs Roamed America". According to the website, "the canyon was selected because its vegetation and broad leaf trees are typical of those that existed when dinosaurs roamed the Earth some 100 to 200 million years ago. The canyon's tall trees and ferns are similar to fossils paleontologists have found near dinosaur relics".

And it truly seems like stepping back in time. The atmosphere in the canyon is dim, misty-green and somewhat ancient. The path follows the branch for a long way, passing such spots as Phantom Falls, Fat Man’s Misery, Temple Cave, Weeping Bluff and the Champion Hemlock tree. In all, it is about 1.5 miles of fern-surrounded trail.

Different from when I was there years ago, the owners have added two, fully-furnished, romantic rental cabins available year-round. And, yes folks, that includes rocking chairs. Reservations are required, so call early.

Also available during the warmer months are primitive camping areas. The Dismals do not offer RV or pop-up campsites, only tent areas in the canyon, and every spot is located near a bathhouse. Also of note: The campsites are not wheelchair accessable as you have to navigate stairs and rough trails to get to them. That goes for the canyon, in general, as well.

There is no man-made swimming pool here or miniature golf. If you want to swim, you can use the natural pool at the top of the falls and if you want something to do for recreation, hiking in the canyon, bird watching and shopping at the Country Store are the main events. But for someone serious about experiencing the beauty of Alabama, Dismals Canyon is a place you don’t want to miss.

For information on admission fees and more, go to the Dismals website at or write them at –

Dismals Canyon
901 Hwy 8
Phil Campbell, AL 35581
Phone:(205) 993-4559

* all photos courtesy of

© 2005 Dana Sieben