The National Park Service named the approximately 85-acre, privately owned and operated parcel of northwest Alabama as a National Natural Landmark (NNL) in 1974 or 1975 (sources conflict on the precise date). There are several good reasons for that designation—namely, the site’s biological diversity and its geologic and human histories. The origin of its name, Dismals Canyon, is unknown. According to the area’s website, some believe the canyon got its dreary name from the area’s early Scotch-Irish settlers, who may have titled it after a craggy spot in Scotland called “Dismals.” Another theory claims that settlers felt uneasy about the rugged bluff's and dark grottos of the canyon and thought the place “dismal.”
The canyon was formed centuries ago during the Paleozoic Era, when earthquakes caused the sandstone rocks to shift and crack. Water helped form the gorge walls, resulting in the canyon and its steep walls, haphazard rock formations, sandstone-sheltered grottos, and six natural bridges.
Some believe the canyon got its dreary name from the area’s early Scotch-Irish settlers, who may have titled it after a craggy spot in Scotland called “Dismals.”
Explorers have found pottery and arrowheads made by Paleo-Indians, the first people known to inhabit northwest Alabama, on the canyon floor. They also found an old musket and cot in one of the dark spots of the canyon, and remnants of a water mill, cotton gin, and a sawmill built by early settlers were discovered elsewhere in the canyon. Such evidence suggests that humans throughout history have used the area for habitation and refuge.
The canyon holds two waterfalls. One, Rainbow Falls, located at the beginning of the canyon, is formed as the Dismals Branch of Bear Creek drops fifteen feet into the canyon. Rainbow Falls was the source of power for a mill that was destroyed by a flood about a half-century ago. The second and smaller waterfall, Secret Falls, is from a feeder stream emptying into the Dismals Branch. This area has a large amount of diverse plant life, and twenty-seven species of native trees grow within one hundred feet of the waterfall. As a matter of fact, thirty states’ official trees are found on the canyon floor.
According to Kevin Cheek—a long-time resident of Franklin County, director and tour guide at Dismals, storyteller, and history buff —campers desiring to build a fire cannot carry wood into the canyon for fear of bringing in a disease common to hemlocks. Approved wood is sold at the canyon to prevent infecting their hemlocks.
The Dismals Canyon has a colorful history. There are tales of secret Indian rituals being held there and of the area being a hideout for outlaws. One local outlaw, Reuben (Rube) Burrow from nearby Lamar County, Alabama, may have used the hideout. Because he was a train robber who would not steal from the poor, Burrow earned the nickname “The Alabama Robin Hood.” Burrow was also called “King of Outlaws,” so his notoriety was widespread. Although he may have been inspired by the Jesse James Gang, Burrow had his own gang, consisting of his brother Jim, Nep Thornton, and Henderson Bromley. After he murdered a postal clerk, his trail was very hotly pursued by the Pinkertons. Burrow was later killed in a gunfight.
The Dismals Canyon has a colorful history. There are tales of secret Indian rituals being held there and of the area being a hideout for outlaws.
Several of the canyon’s rock formations are also significant. These include Pulpit Rock, Indian Head Rock, Fat Man’s Misery, Stove Pipe, and Witches Cavern. Another formation, the Kitchen--a partially covered flat area protected by large rocks--was used by the Chickasaw Indians for cooking and tribal rituals. Since there are no written records about the early times, the information and legends were handed down through the generations by word of mouth.
Although North Alabama does not cover a lot of territory, there are a number of interesting places in this section of the state. One of the most interesting, and best-kept secrets, is Dismals Canyon—a sure bet for a scenic and educational outing that will be anything but dismal. For information on seasonal hours and activities, including camping options and guided night tours, visit the site’s website at www.dismalscanyon.com or call (205) 993-4559.
This article was originally published in Alabama Heritage Issue 120, Spring 2016.
James Richardson, a writer and photographer with an interest in special places, lives in West Tennessee and has written travel articles in many national publications.