Insider's Guide to Little River Canyon

The LIttle River Canyon Nature Preserve is especially scenic with the changing fall leaves.
The LIttle River Canyon Nature Preserve is especially scenic with the changing fall leaves. Alby Headrick
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For many Birmingham locals, the perfect fall weekend in Alabama consists of SEC football, day-long tailgating, and deep-seated rivalries. But roughly 100 miles from downtown, in the northeastern corner of the state, lies the Little River Canyon- one of the most beautiful outdoor destinations in the country and the perfect place for weekend exploration. In these Appalachian foothills you will find the wrinkled landscape of adventure, replete with sandstone cliffs, tumbling waterfalls, and rugged trails. And while you might miss out on a few games of cornhole or two hand touch, this place is simply breathtaking during the autumn months, and it should not be missed.

RootsRated asked Nat Smith, a Forestry Technician at Little River Canyon National Preserve and an avid mountain biker and adventurer, to share her favorite spots in a corner of the state that is still relatively unknown. Here’s her perfect weekend:

Saturday morning: Climb sandstone cliffs

Nat Smith

Sand Rock is one of the better-known spots in the state for climbing, and it offers all flavors—top roping, plenty of bolted routes, bouldering, and even some trad route options. As fall weather grows crisp, the routes with Southern exposure are more comfortable to climb, and with a variety of routes from 5.6 to 5.12+, plus an endless maze of bouldering problems, you can find an un-crowded spot to set up even on a perfect fall day.

Insider tip:  Little River Canyon has some climbing, but the routes tend to be more challenging (with many in the 5.11 range and up). “Down the road from Little River Canyon, Jamestown is a spot owned by the Southeast Climbers Coalition, and it has some easier routes,” says Smith. You’ll find nearly a mile of sandstone cliffs towering 80 to 100 feet, with nice lines and plenty of 2-star and 3-star routes. For more beta, see the Southeast Climbers Coalition.

Lunch: Ol’ Tymer’s Barbecue & Blues

The prices are reasonable, the service is friendly, and the ‘cue is smokin’ at this favorite Ft. Payne spot. They serve barbecue ribs, pulled pork, and classic southern sides like collard greens, slaw, and corn bread. And the portions certainly won’t leave you feeling hungry.

Saturday afternoon: Hike to a swimming hole

Nat Smith

Head to the Little River Canyon National Preserve , named after a river that meanders almost entirely on a mountain top. With such topography comes waterfalls and swimming holes that make hiking here an absolute joy. Take the renovated trail under the new bridge to reach the main cascade, Little River Falls. Then continue downstream to Martha’s Falls, a deep swimming hole surrounded by rock outcrops.

Insider tip:  Martha’s Falls is beautiful, but it can be crowded. For a little more solitude (and a more challenging hike), hop in the car and head down Canyon Rim Drive (Highway 176), and make sure to stop at the overlooks for great views. “Lower Two-Mile Trail is a strenuous hike into the canyon, but you can swim and look around,” Smith says. “And you can fly fish.”

Saturday night: Camp on the riverside  

There isn’t a designated campground at Little River Canyon but it does have three great backcountry sites right on the river. One of them, called Slant Rock, is accessible in just about any type of vehicle, but the two others require 4-wheel-drive. The facilities are limited to an outhouse, but you can filter water from the river. No advance reservations are needed, so get there early to nab a site. If they’re full, or if you prefer car camping, check out the campground at nearby De Soto State Park.

Sunday morning: Pedal De Soto’s rock gardens**  **

Nat Smith

DeSoto State Park has 13 miles of mountain-bike trails that range from the beginner-friendly Family Trail to the challenging Never-Never Land, a 3.8-mile loop punctuated with rock gardens and a climb. “It has lots of roots and rocks,” Smith says. “It’s a great place to practice technical skills.” For something even more technical, try the CCC Quarry loop, a hiking trail that is open to bikers. It can be either a gnarly climb or a rollicking downhill, depending which way you’re riding.

Insider Tip:  DeSoto State Park recently announced it would be acquiring a tract of land called The Citadel, a bouldering area that will also add more hiking, mountain biking, and backcountry camping to the park. The sale of the land to the Forever Wild Land Trust is slated for next month, but there are already laid-out plans for new mountain-bike trails. “Park superintendent Ken Thomas is working on trails with better flow,” Smith says. “It’s going to be awesome.”

Sunday brunch: Wildflower Café

This friendly locavore café in Mentone, Alabama has a Brunch Extravaganza on Sundays that is worth a splurge. The extravaganza ($14) includes a slice of quiche, a handmade crepe, and a sampler of grilled steak, sautéed vegetables, garlic smashed potatoes, fresh fruit, and their signature tomato pie. If you miss brunch, they’re also open for lunch and dinner, serving fresh food made with local and organic ingredients (with vegan and gluten-free options, too). They're open on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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