From Hawk’s Nest, one of the overlooks high above Little River Canyon, you can see everything: the upland forest, the sandstone cliffs and the body of water cutting through the floor of the gorge.
Established as a national preserve in 1992, Little River Canyon is an idyllic getaway any time of the year. But in the fall, with leaves changing to a cornucopia of incredible hues, one of the best vantage points is from high above along the 11-mile scenic drive.
This is where we find Sandra Brown and her family, including her 8-year-old granddaughter Zara Roper, who’ve taken the 90-minute road trip from Birmingham.
“This is one of my favorite places in the world,” said Brown, who worked 40 years in Ohio in the mental health field before returning home a decade ago. “I wore it out during COVID. You couldn’t go anywhere else, but you could get in your car and drive here. I did, and I keep coming back.”
Brown is using a fall break from school to give Zara a firsthand lesson on nature’s wonders.
“A lot of times, kids can learn more by just being outdoors,” Brown said. “I want her to see the beautiful view, the pretty colors of the trees. It’s stunning. It’s gorgeous. My favorite time is the spring. Even in the cold of winter it’s beautiful. But right now, with the leaves changing and the butterflies everywhere, it’s just incredible.”
The Foothills of the Appalachians
At the base of Lookout Mountain, a range of the Appalachians that begins in Alabama and winds through Georgia and Tennessee, is the small mountain town of Fort Payne. Located in a valley, just off I-59, Fort Payne is a former textile juggernaut that’s reinvented itself as a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Birmingham, Huntsville or Chattanooga.
It’s a town like no other in the state, with a thriving downtown, the state’s original opera house and a constant backdrop of mountains. This Good Town’s most famous residents are honored with statues at the city park (more on them later). But, on this weekday excursion, Fort Payne is the jumping off point.
Because the weather is glorious, the sky is blue and the road beckons.
From Fort Payne, the road winds up Lookout Mountain so that, within minutes, you are entering the Little River Canyon National Preserve, where you’ll find Jacksonville State University’s center, staffed by park rangers.
At Little River Falls, you’ll see how the canyon was originally formed millions of years ago as water cascades over a 45-foot-high waterfall. It’s one of three waterfalls in the park, but the other two will take some effort to get there.
We prefer the scenic drive along the rim, but naturalist Bear Grylls once took on the canyon by foot and raft for an episode of Man vs. Wild, condensing his adventure in nature to a captivating hour-long adventure.
But if you’ve got a day to explore, Little River Canyon is merely the appetizer.
The Church in the Rock, the Glorious Falls
Just a few miles away from Little River Canyon is DeSoto State Park, another Lookout Mountain refuge first developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Here, you can stay in a mountain chalet, zip line across a sky bridge five stories in the air, go swimming, fly fishing and horseback riding, or even take a kayak down the river.
As leaves float down and hawks soar above, we take the quarter-mile Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail, which offers a quiet stroll through a canopy of trees to the Azalea Cascade, connecting to more arduous trails through the park that demand endurance but lead to a treasure trove of finds, including more waterfalls.
Back in the car, we continue to wind our way along Lookout Mountain. A quick detour takes us to Sallie Howard Memorial Baptist Chapel, an active church and wedding venue that Col. Milford Howard built in memory of his wife. He based the design on a church that was the highlight of their final trip to Europe. But this is not your typical place of worship. It’s built into the surroundings, which includes a giant boulder two stories high. Inside the sanctuary, the rock abuts a gorgeous pulpit, and just a few minutes inside puts you in touch with a higher power.
But it’s the power of rushing water that lures us away. Within this massive park, the state’s biggest when it was first declared an Alabama treasure, are Laurel Falls, Indian Falls, Lodge Falls and Lost Falls, which vary in their drops but not in their beauty. All can be accessed, but some require some rigorous hiking.
The gem is DeSoto Falls, just off Lookout Mountain Parkway, where water tumbles dramatically to a pool 104 feet below.
This is where Fort Payne resident Diana Schaar has decided to take her friends from Wisconsin, Ron and Mary Thompson, to give them a tour of her hometown. They were once neighbors in Lake Mills, Wisconsin. But Schaar came back to Alabama to care for her sister, who was battling cancer. At the end of the stay, she made a declaration.
“I told my husband you choose – me or Wisconsin,” Schaar said. “That’s how we ended up back in Fort Payne for good.”
This is the Thompson’s first trip here, so they take it all in on a whirlwind tour.
“It’s a pretty city,” Ron said of Fort Payne. “But the beauty around it is breathtaking.”
A Mountain Resort and a Tragic Trail
Just a few miles from the Georgia border, we stop at the Chuck Sennett Center for the Arts, which houses the nonprofit Mentone Arts & Cultural Center organization. It’s a serendipitous stop, because inside we run into an old friend.
Randy Grider left a newspaper publishing job in Texas to return to Mentone five years ago to make an impact back home. Or, so, we were initially led to believe.
“I joke that the real reason I came home was I was an Alabama grad in Texas during football season, where there were nothing but Longhorns and Aggies. Now, I’m back with my own kind,” Grider said. “I love Mentone. It’s a weekend town, an artistic community, full of inspiration.”
He helped purchase a city-owned building and open the arts center in 2020. Despite the pandemic, the center was immediately popular among those looking for a non-crowded venue to get out and shop.
Tourists continue making this a regular stop now to see regional art, occasional concerts and storytelling roundtables, and to take classes taught by locals or professional artists from the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina.
Mentone once boasted Alabama’s only ski slope, but now it’s known as a summer retreat for the affluent in Birmingham and Chattanooga, and a summer-camp destination for city folks.
It’s also one of the origination points of the infamous Trail of Tears.
Wills Town Mission was established in the late 18th Century, as white settlers lived alongside Native Americans who had been on Lookout Mountain for centuries. But the mission was closed in 1838 as the U.S. government forced the local Cherokees to head west along the trail — a move that was opposed by the newest residents.
But not all the history is tragic. Outside the arts center is a sacred garden that honors the memory of the Cherokee leader Sequoyah.
“In his day, Sequoyah overcame many obstacles including a disability that caused him to walk with a limp and alcoholism. Grider said. “Prior to his arrival in Wills Town from Tennessee, he wasn’t always taken seriously. All the while, he dreamed of developing what he called ‘talking leaves.’”
We call what he produced the Cherokee Syllabary, an alphabet-like system still in use today. “Five years after he introduced the Syllabary, the Cherokee nation produced its own newspaper,” Grider said. “And they had a 98 percent literacy level.”
But Sequoyah soon moved to Arkansas, then Oklahoma. And the proud nation he once led was forced to leave its ancestral home permanently.
Their Home’s in Alabama
Back in Fort Payne, no stop is complete without visiting Greg Fowler at the Alabama Fan Club & Museum. We mentioned the statues at the beginning. The museum is a loving shrine to Fort Payne’s famous homegrown musicians – Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook, better known as the founding members of the country supergroup Alabama.
Fowler was spinning records in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in the late 1970s at WKZQ-FM when the band, originally named Wild Country, signed a major record deal with RCA and were told to hit the road in 1980. They asked Fowler to join them as tour promotions manager. He also occasionally shared in song writing, helping them with four No. 1 songs.
Now he manages the museum, sharing anecdotes, insights and band history.
“As the song says, my home’s in Alabama,” Fowler grinned. “I’ve lived in Fort Payne 40 years, and I’ve never left. It’s been an amazing ride.”
Alabama originally made The Bowery in Myrtle Beach a second home because Fort Payne and DeKalb County were dry. And, well, people like beer with their band. They needed the place to be heard and make a living playing six nights a week for tips.
“Alabama didn’t read music. Everything was done by ear,” Fowler said. “They’d hear a song on the radio, record the song on cassette, learn it in the afternoon then play it live that night at The Bowery,” Fowler said, recalling the famed Myrtle Beach nightspot. “We learned to play everything from A to Z – from Acuff to ZZ Top,” said Teddy Gentry.
Of course, they found a way to create their own songs – 43 No. 1 singles and more than 80 million records sold to date – while giving back to the community in numerous ways. Alabama’s hometown charity concert, June Jam, ran nearly two decades from 1982-97, drawing hundreds of thousands of music lovers to Fort Payne. But the money went to local charities and to endow college scholarships. Artists came to Fort Payne and played for free, supporting Alabama’s benevolent efforts.
Over the years, the fundraising and concerts continued – $1.28 million for Bama Rising in the wake of devastating 2011 tornadoes, and another $2 million after tornadoes ravaged DeKalb County and nearby Jacksonville State University in 2018. Randy Owen helped establish Country Cares for St. Jude Kids in 1989. To date, more than $900 million has been raised for the Memphis children’s hospital through the help of country radio, artists and the music industry.
The Alabama museum honors the awards and accomplishments, showing the history from the early days in South Carolina to the original Dodge touring van to the sold-out shows across the world – and the celebrities and people met along the way. We spent an hour with Fowler, but needed a day to take it all in.
The band had a farewell tour nearly 20 years ago, yet they continue to make music today with six concerts scheduled nationwide before the end of 2022.
“The Alabama museum is a mine of undiscovered gems,” said Fowler. “It’s how Randy, Teddy and Jeff wanted to show their appreciation to their hometown and the people who have been with them since they started.”
Fort Payne’s favored sons will be off tour and back home again soon. And with so much to explore, so will we.