Exploring Northern Alabama Part 2: Dismals Canyon

Picking up from Part 1 of our Northern Alabama road trip

Does anyone else have a bunch of random screen captures on their phones of amazing places to visit that pop up in their Facebook and Instagram feeds? Mine is littered with them.

Somewhere along the way I was scrolling through Facebook when a random Buzzfeed article popped up talking about a place in Alabama that looked like it was straight out of Lord of the Rings. My interest was officially piqued.

I clicked through and was introduced to Dismals Canyon. It looked amazing — one other-worldly view after another (those Buzzfeed writers weren’t wrong). I was thrilled to find that it isn’t far from where we live and would fit seamlessly in with a trip to the US Space and Rocket Center for a few-day excursion.

There are a few things to know about Dismals Canyon before you go:

  1. The days they are open vary according the season, so check to make sure they’ll be open when you plan to go.

  2. If you go after Memorial Day, they have a natural pool you can swim in as part of your admission. We did not go during pool season so we didn’t experience this firsthand, but it sounds super cool!

  3. Pool or no pool, your feet will get wet, so plan your footwear accordingly.

  4. No food is allowed inside the canyon, so you’ll want to plan your visit around mealtimes, or prepare to hike back out of the canyon for lunch in their cafe. We had a big early lunch and a late dinner so as to maximize our hiking time down in the canyon. I just didn’t think all the little legs with us could climb up and down into there twice and I think that was a pretty accurate assumption.

  5. VERY IMPORTANT IF YOU’RE IN AN RV: Bus and RV parking is before you reach the bridge! There is a little bridge just before you arrive at the entrance to Dismals Canyon, and that little bridge will not hold your weight if you’re in a bus or RV. There is a small sign on some trees at a gravel pull-off spot just before the bridge and that’s your parking. Sean found noticing the bridge’s weight limit, stopping, and pulling into that spot simultaneously to be a bit much so consider yourself forewarned. (This photo was taken from the park side as we were leaving, just fyi. We like to keep you on your toes and make sure you’re reading.)

Dismals Canyon is privately owned land, not a state park, so they do charge admission. You have your choice of purchasing a 1 day pass (with or without a nighttime tour, or a 2 day pass with nighttime tour to see the Dismalites (more on them later).

Due to our time limitations for this trip, we opted for the one day pass with the nighttime tour, but the kids definitely would have loved to go back for a second day, so if you have the time, I encourage you to give yourselves as many days there as possible.

The hike down into the canyon isn’t hard per se, but it does involve a lot of steps so prepare yourself.

Once inside, you’re immediately greeted by a gorgeous waterfall and the wonder begins. The temperature even drops inside the canyon. It’s just all around magical.

They will give you a map of the canyon floor when you arrive. We found that the map was more of a suggestion than an accurate representation. Just know that you’re making a loop so stay on the trail and keep walking down one side of the creek that flows through the middle of the canyon floor until you reach the end and see stepping stones. Cross the creek and repeat back to the entrance. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for signs that will lead you off on short side trails to other sites.

The variety of beautiful locations inside the canyon is really incredible. We couldn’t possible capture the grandness of the place in pictures, but these will give you a little bit of an idea anyway.

This is what it looks like when you stop for beautiful light, but someone’s being very three at the moment and just ain’t havin’ it.

The kids’ favorite part was the creek. It’s kind of the perfect creek for little kids. It’s shallow and pretty slow in most parts with big gorgeous trees and boulders providing shade and lots of great stones to throw. They could have stayed in this spot all day and been happy as clams.

Seven loves climbing anything and everything, so this place was paradise for him.

Serai loves having people hoist her up onto things in order to pretend she actually climbed it for a photo op, so this worked well for her too. She’ll make some Instagram husband very proud one day. ;)

In the interest of full transparency, there are times on hikes with toddlers when you have to cantilever your babies while they’re less than pleased, but over all, I still contend that it’s mostly lots of fun.

When the sun was getting ready to set, we headed back out of the canyon for some dinner, before returning for the night tour.

Dismals Canyon is named for the Dismalites, which are tiny glow worms that live on the boulders in certain parts of the canyon. They work in a similar way to the bioluminescent plankton in Puerto Rico and I was so excited for the kids to get to experience this since they had about died of envy when they saw my photos from my trip to the bioluminescent bay last year.

We hiked down into the canyon with flashlights, led by a guide who was very sweet and knowledgeable. She told us all kind of interesting things about the canyon and the Dismalites themselves.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as how well you would be able to see them, but they showed up really well when the group stopped periodically and turned off all the lights. The kids loved them and all got to get a really good up close and personal look.

I wish I had photos to show you of the glow worms, but alas, I do not.

I know you’re shocked, but it turns out that hiking in the dark with 2 little people on foot and 2 squirmy toddlers strapped to your backs is not really conducive to capturing long-exposure night photography of glow worms in near pitch-blackness.

You will just have to trust me and go see for yourself.

Tip: call a couple of weeks in advance and find out when they will open booking for the night you are interested in. Then call first thing on the day booking opens. They do multiple tours a night, so you could end up there quite late if you don’t. I called an hour after they opened booking and ended up in the second tour of the night. Even that had us getting out of there after 10pm and there were other tours going out after us.

From start to finish, Dismals Canyon was really quite wonderful. I can’t say enough good things about it. Your family is definitely going to want to check this one out.

And should you find yourself with more time to explore Northern Alabama, here are some sites we didn’t get a chance to check out on this trip, but look really great too.

Huntsville Botanical Garden

Harmony Safari Park

Early Works Children’s Museum

 

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