Outlaw Hideouts, Hidden Passageways, and Primeval Landscapes: Discovering the Secrets of Dismals Canyon

Dismals Canyon feels like a secret wilderness spot within the water pools and large rocks.
Dismals Canyon feels like a secret wilderness spot within the water pools and large rocks. Carolyn Wright
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Descending into Dismals Canyon almost feels as if you've stumbled upon a lost corner of Tom Sawyer's Island. With its waterfalls, swinging bridge, and hidden grottos, the lush canyon could have inspired Disney Imagineers.

Tucked away in northwest Alabama near Phil Campbell, this sandstone canyon was dubbed a National Natural Landmark in 1974. About 10,000 years ago, the bluffs and rocky alcoves of Dismals Canyon provided shelter for Native Americans, and Scotch-Irish settlers later named the place for the rugged Dismals area of Scotland.

Traversing the floor of the canyon, an easy 1.5-mile trail winds through shady stands of virgin timber, along stone passageways, and across wooden footbridges. Along the way you hug a quiet steam and visit interesting landmarks that are described in detail on the official canyon map.

Because the trail is relatively short and packed with entertaining features, it makes a great day hike for kids and beginning hikers. Whoever embarks upon the hike is sure to have a blast slipping through narrow hallways of stone looking for highlights like outlaw hideouts and the aptly named Witches Cavern. Here's what else you should know about exploring Dismals Canyon.

Soak Up the Fascinating History

Step across this path into a foliage paradise.
Step across this path into a foliage paradise. Carolyn Wright

When you first enter the cavern, you'll pass the powerful Rainbow Falls, which used to power a mill until a flood in the 1950s destroyed the millworks. As you walk through the canyon, you might pass timbers that served as supports. If the sun is shining on the falls, sometimes a rainbow will appear—thus the name.

Across the canyon is a grotto dubbed Burr's Hideout. At one time, people thought it was named for Aaron Burr, because there was a tale that he hid here after shooting Alexander Hamilton. But Hamilton musical fans shouldn't get too excited—it's actually named for Rube Burrors, an Alabama outlaw who used it as a hideout in the 1800s.

Not far down the canyon, you'll reach an area known as the Kitchen, where the remains of rough stone fireplace sit in a large rock hallway. In the 1800s, Chickasaw Indians lived in the canyon and cooked in this area before they were forced to move to the West. As for the fireplace, it was actually built by Girl Scouts in 1925.

After the Kitchen, you'll reach a great bluff overhang known as the Temple Cave, where Paleo Indians lived some 10,000 years ago. Look closely at the large flat rock in the front, keeping an eye out for a depression that was created where Indians ground corn.

Beautiful Scenery

Walking through one of the canyon’s many grottos.
Walking through one of the canyon’s many grottos. Carolyn Wright

On the west side of the canyon, south of the Temple Cave, the trail takes on a dreamlike quality as it hugs a shallow, burbling stream that slips around great moss-covered boulders. To the right, a thin curtain of water glistens on an almost-black rock face covered in a green patchwork of moss. It's as if time has stood still here, and prehistoric creatures might emerge from the stone caverns around you.

Once you cross the stream and walk north, make the short climb to the Champion Tree—a hemlock that stands 138 feet tall—and walk just behind it. Here you'll find a long, narrow hallway of stone with a great tree growing between the steep rock walls.

Backtrack to the Champion Tree and continue north to cross a footbridge beneath a large bluff. Down the trail you'll squeeze between two low boulders to reach Secret Falls, which sits tucked back in a grove of hemlocks. This is a perfect place to just sit and relax, away from others exploring the canyon.

Highlights for the Kids

Flowing water in a hemlock grove.
    Ronnie Harris
Flowing water in a hemlock grove. Ronnie Harris

Near the north end of the canyon, little ones can look for the Dance Hall, a shaded, camouflaged area where Native Americans conducted secret rituals. You can point out to kids that the rocks here are worn smooth due to regular use over the centuries.

Continuing on, you'll see the Witches Cavern sign posted on a tree. Walk to the rock wall on your right, and you'll see a nearly hidden narrow opening in the rock that leads to a small chamber. From this first room, you can slip through another narrow passageways to wander a maze of stone hallways and grottos.

From the Witches Cavern, passageways will lead you to Burr's Hideout, where the roar of Rainbow Falls fills a dark, cool mini-cavern. From the hideout, ascend stone steps to cross a short, wooden swinging bridge and return to the trailhead.

If You Go

  • During cold weather, consider wearing waterproof footwear, so you can more comfortably slosh through shallow sections of the creek. No matter when you go, wear shoes or boots that you don't mind getting muddy.

  • After you hike, grab a bite to eat in the country store where you'll pay for admission. They have tasty sandwiches and burgers and great chocolate milkshakes.

  • The canyon is often closed during the week and the schedule shifts throughout the year, so consult their website before you visit.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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