Thursday, May 9, 2019

Little River Canyon

For millions of years, the Little River has flowed down from the top of Lookout Mountain to Weiss Lake, carving a canyon that is one of the deepest and most extensive canyon and gorge systems in the eastern US. The canyon and surrounding areas became part of the National Park Service in 1992, the 15,000+ acres in Alabama forming the Little River Canyon National Preserve.

We had crossed the border into northern Alabama the previous evening after a stop at Kennesaw Mountain, opting to stay the night in Fort Payne for easy access to the Preserve the next morning. The drive had in fact taken us up and over Lookout Mountain. For most of its length Little River actually flows along the top of Lookout Mountain, making it one of the cleanest and wildest rivers in the southeast, undammed aside from an old hydroelectric project at DeSoto Falls on the West Fork near Mentone, Alabama. Before it was the Little River Canyon NP, most of the canyon was part of DeSoto State Park, and after breakfast we opted to begin our explorations of the Canyon in the State Park, at DeSoto Falls.

DeSoto Falls is named for Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto. The A.A. Miller Dam and upper falls can be seen from the parking area, but to view the 104-foot waterfall, visitors must descend stairs to the overlook.

From the DeSoto Falls Picnic Area we drove south about 16 miles, passing through DeSoto State Park and then climbing back up the Cumberland Plateau to the Little River Canyon Center. The LEED-certified building is a Jacksonville State University public facility with programs, events, gift shop, classrooms, movie theater and National Park Service offices. From the Center there is a trail that connects to Little River Falls picnic area.

45-foot Little River Falls marks the beginning of the canyon. A short boardwalk leads from the parking area to an overlook with a view of the waterfall. Being that a storm system had passed through the previous evening the falls were considerable, and we took a moment to enjoy the view before continuing on ¾ mile Little Falls trail. The trail winds south along the east rim of the canyon, with a final steep descent to the river at the end.

The bottom of the canyon was once the floor of a shallow sea during the Paleozoic Era, while the sandstone cliffs consist of sandstone and conglomerate shale, siltstone and coal. It was interesting exploring the rock formations along the river at this point, with the sound of Little Falls (also known as Martha’s Falls or Hippie Hole) accompanying our examination.

Having returned to the car, we drove over the bridge and then turned south on Little River Canyon Parkway. The first 12 miles drive along the rim of the canyon follow State Road 176, while the next 9 miles make a steep descend on Canyon Rim Drive. The Parkway features multiple overlooks and trailheads, while Canyon Rim Drive is mostly a connector to Canyon Mouth picnic area on the south end of the Preserve. While 176 is curvy and steep, Canyon Rim Drive is considered impassable to trucks, trailers and RV’s; I would suggest asking at the Visitor Center if you are unsure about the state of the road and suitability of your vehicle.

View from Little River Falls Overlook

The first overlook is Little River Falls overlook. Having seen the falls from a much closer vantage point, we took a look but then headed to the next one, Lynn Overlook. A sandstone rock glade stretches along the length of the parking area, allowing easy access to the eight rare plant species that live there. One of those is Elf Orphine, a small red plant about an inch tall. We were lucky to spot some blooming, and the kids enjoyed catching glimpses of lizards as we explored the rocks.

The next pull-off is for Beaver Pond Trail. The easy 1.24-mile loop trail is a favorite for bird watchers, winding through the woods to an area that used to be a pond dammed by beavers; be warned, the pond is no longer there. We opted to continue on to Mushroom Rock. This rock formation cannot be missed – it is literally right in the middle of the road. Legend has it that the road crew constructing the original scenic drive refused to remove the giant mushroom, and instead built the road around it. On the rim side of the road is a series of rock outcrops, and the kids had fun climbing and exploring before we continued on.

There are three trails that lead from the Parkway down to Little River. The first is Lower Two-Mile Trail, up next after Mushroom Rock. Although the shortest of the three, it is proof that the quickest way to the bottom of the canyon is straight down. We opted to skip these trails, no matter how short, as we had already descended into the canyon on Little Falls Trail, and were planning on a second exploration at Canyon Mouth.

View from Canyon View Overlook

Subsequent scenic overlooks include Hawks Glide, Canyon View, Wolf Creek and Crow Point. At Eberhart Point we took the left turn onto Canyon Rim Drive and immediately saw some steep, winding sections of road. There is really only one turn-off on this section, which is for Powell Trail. We continued down to Canyon Mouth Picnic Area, paid a parking fee, and pulled into the parking lot to discover we had the entire place to ourselves.

Canyon Mouth Trail was a quick 1.6-mile hike that led us up the banks of Little River to the point where Johnnie’s Creek flows in. There was quite a bit of poison ivy, we saw a snake or two, and the trail kind of petered out with no particular scenic view. On the other hand, there were a couple of sandy spots along the river that made for a nice place to sit and enjoy the river, and we spent a considerable amount of time there just listening to the sound of rushing water.

Little River, near Martha's Falls

Overall, Little River Canyon was a nice surprise. An excellent visitor center combined with a variety of trail options and the scenic drive make for an easy one-day exploration. The Preserve could be combined with time (and camping) at DeSoto State Park, and it’s only about 4 hours from the Upstate – doable for a long weekend. For us it was just day two, as we continued west across Alabama into Mississippi…

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