It’s amazing what Mother Nature can do. Her scenic mountain splendor can almost instantly elevate even the deepest “down-in-the-dumps” mood. It’s why the area that includes the tiny town of Mentone, Little River Canyon, and DeSoto State Park, all on the Lookout Mountain ridge in Alabama’s Appalachian foothills, is one of my favorite places to be. Here, the breezes blow cooler, time slows down, and the sweeping views will steal your breath.
Lookout Mountain ridge stretches across the northeast corner of the state, continuing east into Georgia and north into Tennessee. Start your journey at the Little River Canyon Center in Fort Payne to learn a little about the area’s natural heritage before checking out the wonders of Little River Canyon National Preserve. If you’re not from the state or the area, you may not even know that Alabama has a place like the canyon. But it’s there, it’s magnificent, and you should definitely give it a visit.
The Little River is the centerpiece of the 14,000-acre protected site. Unique as one of the longest rivers in the country to flow atop a mountain (Lookout Mountain), its flow slowly cut through sandstone to create the 700-foot-deep Little River Canyon (one of the deepest this side of the Rocky Mountains) and pours itself over a craggy ledge to form the foamy torrent of Little River Falls.
Get a good look at the canyon with a drive along Highway 176, also known as Canyon Ridge Drive, and stop for photo opps at the many well-marked overlooks. Another waterfall visible on this drive is Grace High Falls, but it’s a little fickle, only appearing when there’s been enough rain. Farther into the Preserve, the Canyon Mouth area has picnic tables and access to trails that weave through the lower canyon’s boulders and bubbling creeks.
If you want to do more than gawk at the gorge, contact the guys at True Adventure Sports, based in Fort Payne. Expert guides will take you rappelling down the canyon’s cliffs, canoeing or kayaking on the river, or into the some of the many caves tunneling into the ancient rock.
TAS routinely takes groups on caving tours of Manitou Cave, previously mined for iron and coal and then a popular tourist attraction that was once open to the public. You can choose how far in and down you’d like to go, and even the shorter tours will leave you feeling like you’ve left earth for another planet. But you’re not “out of this world,” you’re under it, hundreds of feet under it. The air is refreshingly cool, while almost every surface is slick with moisture.
When you return from “down under,” head over to DeSoto State Park and the 104-foot DeSoto Falls. The wide, rushing Upper Falls gives way to the main falls, a glittering cascade plunging into a blue-green pool below. Both are easily visible from an observation point just a brief walk from the parking area. Continue into the Park to find thirteen miles of hiking and biking trails leading to a few more small waterfalls as well as cabins and primitive camping sites. Try traversing the somewhat strenuous Little River Canyon Trail, which leads down to the bottom of the waterfall for a different perspective.
Next, make your way into Mentone to discover its small-town charm. Founded in the late 1800’s, Mentone’s name means “musical mountain spring,” and two of the mineral springs for which the town was named are still flowing and giving up their cool, pure water today.
Stop in some of the interesting boutiques and stores lining the main street running through town, including antique shops like The Crow’s Nest and other spots, like Gourdies, where you’ll find gift items and the unique works of Sharron Barron. She takes ordinary gourds, paints on faces and dresses them in hand-sewn clothing to make her highly expressive gourd “dolls.”
Then grab a bite at Wildflower Café. This little cabin in the woods serves a mix of basic comfort foods and gourmet creations, selections in both of these categories ranging from healthy options to hearty indulgences and all made using local, organic ingredients whenever possible, including fresh herbs from the garden right out front. Try the Tomato Pie, a flaky, buttery crust filled with the tart goodness of balsamic-marinated, perfectly ripe tomatoes smothered in a blend of salty cheeses.
If you’re in the mood for more shopping, and especially if you dig handmade objects, swing by Miracle Pottery, just a few minutes north of Mentone in Valley Head, to find Valinda Miracle’s vividly hued pots, plates, vases, bowls, and mugs made with area-sourced clay and echoing the palette of the Lookout Mountain’s water, forests, and earth.
And don’t miss Orbix Hot Glass, a secluded studio and gallery also right outside of Mentone, where glass-blowing artist Cal Breed crafts brilliantly-colored glass creations. Check the Orbix website for Open Studio dates where you can see a demonstration and even make your own blown-glass ornament.
After that, just hop in your car and drive. Roll down the windows; flip your GPS off. Turn down that unmarked road. Stop at that ramshackle stand. Who knows what hidden gems you might find? And if nothing else, you’ll uncover the mind-cooling calm that comes from getting intentionally lost in the mountains’ magic.
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