By DAVID RAINER
Should anyone question Alabama’s claim to the title of biodiversity champion east of the Mississippi River, a road trip from the sparkling white sands of the Alabama Gulf Coast to the breathtaking vistas of Little River Canyon should settle that debate.
Having lived near the Gulf Coast for more than 15 years, I was well aware of the abundant wildlife and natural resources of the coastal plains region. However, I really hadn’t taken the time to explore the opposite end of the ecological spectrum and spend some time in northeast Alabama, where the landscape is completely different.
On a trip to Fort Payne to check out the Northeast Alabama Sporting Clays facility, DeKalb County Commissioner Brant Craig made the mistake of offering me the grand tour of Little River Canyon the next time I was in the area.
Although I’m sure he was a bit surprised when I called to take him up on the offer, Craig graciously accepted the role of tour guide. And, I couldn’t have had anyone better. Craig grew up in Fort Payne and spent many, many hours in and around Little River Canyon, often called the “Grand Canyon of the East.” He recalled taking a cable trolley into the canyon to listen to a group of musicians that would later become the mega-band Alabama.
In 1992, Congress made the canyon a 14,000-acre addition to the National Park System as the Little River Canyon National Preserve, a move welcomed by Craig.
“It’s been good for the canyon,” he said. “People had been dumping cars into the canyon for years, and the National Park Service brought in Blackhawk helicopters to remove all the car bodies and aid with the cleanup. The service does a good job of making sure we don’t have any pollution problems with one of the cleanest rivers in the nation.”
As much as I was amazed of such a spectacular natural resource in Alabama, I expected Craig’s enthusiasm to be a little muted because the canyon has been in his backyard all his life.
My assumption was far from the truth. Craig realizes and loves to share the wonder of Little River Canyon.
“It’s the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi,” he said. “As far as I know, it’s the only river in America and maybe the world that has its origin and runs entirely on top of a mountain.”
Little River meanders atop Lookout Mountain, merges with Yellow Creek and then runs into Weiss Reservoir near Leesburg.
As Craig took me on the 23-mile scenic drive along Canyon Rim Drive (Highway 176), we made numerous stops at different vantage points, which included Littler River Falls (the first stop after turning off Highway 35) and marveled at the scenic beauty of the cascading water at the canyon’s signature vista.
Other stops included overlooks at Hawk’s Glide, Canyon View, Wolf Creek and Crow Point. The drive takes you past Mushroom Rock and Lizard Wall. We got lucky at Grace’s High Falls, a seasonal waterfall that happened to be gushing because of recent rains. Across a gorge from Crow Point is Eberhart Point, which has a three-quarter mile hiking trail with access to the canyon floor.
For those who want a little easier access to the canyon floor, continue the drive past the 500-foot sheer bluffs all the way to the river’s Lookout Mountain exit at Canyon Mouth Park, which offers hiking trails and picnic areas with easy access to the river.
For the adventurous sort, ample rain provides adrenalin-pumping whitewater rafting and kayaking, while the canyon offers challenges for rock-climbing and rappelling enthusiasts. Local outfitters are available for assistance and equipment.
A recently completed addition to the canyon experience is the Little River Canyon Center, a 25,000-square-foot facility located on Highway 35 just north of Little River Falls. The building will be shared by Jacksonville State University’s Little River Canyon Field School and the National Park Service Little River Canyon Natural Preserve.
“The center is owned by JSU and only one of two LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) facilities in Alabama,” Craig said of the designation given environmentally friendly construction projects. “The insulation is ground up newspaper treated with fire retardant. The building is heated and cooled by geothermal energy. We’ve got 36 wells 300 feet deep. The ground under the surface is 57 degrees. When it’s a 30-degree day, it will help heat the building. If it’s a 90-degree day, it’s going to help cool it. It will cut the heating and cooling costs in half. It cost $120,000, but it will pay for itself in seven years.”
Craig said the center’s countertops are all recycled glass from beverage bottles, while water conservation measures include waterless urinals, low-flow showers and faucet sensors. Rainwater will also be used for irrigation on the 60-acre site.
On the center’s site will be a 1.3-mile walking trail with numerous interpretive learning stations.
“Jacksonville State has teamed up with the Alabama Treasure Forest Association at some of these learning stations,” Craig said. “It might be ‘Classroom in the Forest’ for the younger students. We’ll have wildlife food plots and stations on the longleaf pine. You’ll be able to learn about the soil and the sandstone and limestone – everything that is influential in the canyon. You’ll learn about the history and geography of the canyon. It’ll be kind of like the Dauphin Island Sea Lab except it’ll be in the mountains.
“We hope that when we have visitors, they’ll be able to watch deer and turkeys roaming the site. And, if it’s the right time of year, you might get to see an eagle or two soaring overhead.”
The center also has a library, an auditorium and meeting rooms that can be rented by the day or half-day. For more information about the center, call 256-845-3548.
For those who really want to experience Little River Canyon, an overnight stay is a must. DeSoto State Park, with its stunning DeSoto Falls, has a motel, cabins and chalets, not to mention two completely renovated improved camping areas.
“If the park is full, there are plenty of rental cabins in the area,” Craig said. “You can go on the Web to find those.”
Craig said the area’s busiest seasons are the blooming of the rhododendrons in the late spring and fall colors
“Gatlinburg has nothing on us except taller mountains and more people,” Craig said. “The fall colors are going to depend on the weather during the summer. If it’s dry, the colors are not going to be quite as vibrant and they won’t last as long. If we have a wetter summer, the leaves are going to be more brilliant and it’s going to last longer. It usually lasts from the second week of October to the first week of November.”
For more information on the Little River Canyon National Preserve, visit www.nps.gov/liri/ or call 256-845-9605.
PHOTOS: The view from Little River Falls Overlook can be stunning, although there are numerous breathtaking views along the scenic drive. The flow at Grace’s High Falls depends on the amount of rainfall in the areas along the canyon rim. Brant Craig, DeKalb County Commissioner, soaks in the view from Crow Point Overlook.