A Digital Journal

Photography by Tony Triolo

The Dismals

Recently, I took my grandson on a visit to the Dismals Canyon in northwest Alabama. I have been there many times, going back at least thirty years, but this was my grandson’s first visit. I’ve never really known why the place was given such an unlikely name as it is anything but a “dismal” place. In fact, it is one of my favorite places to visit in the entire state and I feel fortunate that I live only ninety minutes away. Located in Franklin County, near the town of Phil Campbell, the Dismals is a limestone gorge which exhibits a topography quite unlike any other place in north Alabama. There are towering rock cliffs, caves, grottos, a meandering stream and a stunning waterfall which empties into a shallow pool, perfect for cooling hot summer feet. The canyon is also the home to the insects known as “dismalites”. The larval forms of these flies emit a bright blue-green light to attract food and mates. They cover the canyon walls and are quite a sight to see on a warm summer evening. The bugs have been the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary as they are quite rare and can be found in only a couple of places. Nightly torchlight tours are conducted in order to view the dismalites up close and personal.

Dismal Canyon was declared a National Natural Landmark in May 1974. The history of the canyon is quite interesting. Over 10,000 years ago cavemen inhabited a bluff shelter on the canyon floor. Several Indian tribes like the Chickasaw and Cherokee followed making the Dismals home, but in 1832 they were forced from these ancestral lands as part of the Trail of Tears migration westward.

Unfortunately, the Dismals has become a very popular place to visit, especially during this time of COVID-19 and our need to social distance. Getting out in nature is one activity most people seem to think comes with minimal risk. The day I took my grandson there, it was very busy, and although the property comprises over 85 acres, it still seemed crowded. It was a far cry from visits years ago, when often I would be the only person in the park. Nevertheless, my grandson and I had a good time just exploring and taking photos. Following the map that we received when we arrived, my grandson blazed the trail, although I could probably have hiked the 1.5-mile trail blindfolded. He got into the history of the place, which was recounted in great detail on the opposite side of the map. He enjoyed learning about the few bandits and desperados who used the canyon as their hideout after a bank robbery or worse. I’m not sure how many of those stories are based in fact or are just the fanciful dreams of some tourism promoter.

If you plan a visit to the Dismal Canyon, please be aware that it is located on private property and there is an entrance fee. There is a gift shop, soda fountain (closed during COVID-19), rental cabins and rest rooms on site.

Here are a few images from my most recent visit to the Dismals Canyon.


Rainbow Falls at the Dismals


Entrance to Pulpit Rock


Indian Head Rock


Dismals Branch


Rainbow Falls Bathers


The “Impossible Tree”


Rainbow Falls and Swinging Bridge

August 16, 2020 Posted by | Alabama, Franklin County, Historic Alabama, Landscape, Nature, Phil Campbell, Photography, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Dismals – Summer’s Last Green

I cannot remember a hotter or dryer fall here in North Alabama. It has been so hot and so dry that I have hesitated venturing out with my cameras much at all. The waterfalls have all but dried up, and I fear a very lackluster display of autumn colors this year, perhaps even worse than last year. On top of that, this dry weather has brought the armadillos out of hiding to ravage my lawn looking for grubs, but that’s a story for another time. So, I decided that I needed to get out from behind the computer and go somewhere, anywhere, even if what I ended up photographing was less than spectacular. I decided to check out the Dismal Canyon located in the northwest part of the state. Now, I have been to the Dismals maybe thirty times, but I have not been there in a couple of years. I contacted a photographer friend of mine down in Helena, Alabama to see if he’d like to join me. Since he had never been there before, and since the trip wouldn’t interfere with Alabama football (we went on a Sunday), he was all in.

The Dismals is located near the town of Phil Campbell and it is on private property. There is an entry fee to enter the canyon, but I think it’s well worth it. One reason for settling on the Dismals, is the fact that the canyon floor is some fourteen degrees cooler than the average Alabama summer temperatures. The trail loops 1.5 miles around the property passing huge towering boulders, peaceful waterfalls, caves and sandy bends along the Dismals Branch. As suspected, the water levels were low, but the main Rainbow Falls was flowing well due to the fact that a damn feeds it. What surprised me was the fact that most of the canyon was still pretty lush and green. The rocks were covered in dark green moss and the ferns were standing tall.

Here are a few shots from my most recent visit.



Rainbow Falls and the Swinging Bridge

Rainbow Falls and the Swinging Bridge


Moss and Vine

Moss and Vines


A Fern Takes Hold

A Fern Takes Hold


Cyprus Tree Roots

Cypress Tree Roots


Indian Head Rock

Indian Head Rock


Weeping Bluff

Weeping Bluff


Creepy Tree

Creepy Tree


Rocks and Roots

Rocks and Roots


Tower Cliff

Tower Rock





October 13, 2016 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rutledge Falls


Rutledge Falls

     Last week, I took a drive up to our neighboring state of Tennessee. Living in Athens, Alabama, less than 20 miles from the Tennessee border, I have the opportunity to visit that beautiful state on a fairly regular basis. The contrast between the two states is quite stark and the changes become apparent almost as soon as you cross the state line. The generally flat Alabama landscape gives way to rolling hills and beautiful vistas. Farms come into view along with red barns, hay bales and beautiful woodlands.

Tennessee also has no shortage of waterfalls. I have a book that lists all the waterfalls in the state, and it numbers well over 300. I have photographed a number of them, but I have never photographed the falls in, or near, Tullahoma. The waterfall most identified with the town, located in southern Middle Tennessee, is Machine Falls. It is an impressive 60-foot waterfall when the water is flowing. It is located in the Short Springs Natural Area. I had hoped to make this my second stop of the day, after checking out another smaller waterfall I had heard of called Rutledge Falls.

Rutledge Falls is located just northeast of Tullahoma, along Crumpton Creek. It is located on private property, but visitors are welcome. Numerous signs greet you, but warn you to stay on the path, alerting you to the slippery rocks and informing you that you are venturing forth at your own risk. I should have heeded the warning better, because, as soon as I began to navigate the boulders which led to a prime viewing spot, my feet went out from under me, and I landed hard on my elbow. It was at that point that I began contemplating just why they call it a “funny bone” when there is nothing at all funny about it. Boy, did that sting. It took me a few minutes to recover, but once I did, I had to admit that my mishap was almost worth it, because Rutledge Falls did not disappoint.

Although a good portion of the falls was dry, the far right side still had a fairly decent flow. I set up my tripod and began taking some shots, experimenting with a new neutral density filter that I had just purchased. I got maybe thirty shots off before, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something move. It turned out to be a teenage boy, who appeared out of the forest, on the opposite side from where I was. He had on a bathing suit and was followed by at least a dozen others, who were headed for the swimming hole just below the falls, and right in the middle of my picture. A few brave souls even climbed the thirty-foot waterfall in order to jump off the top it. I knew, that at that point, my shooting for the day was over. That’s alright though. I’d gotten my picture and the kids got some well-needed relief from the ninety-plus temperatures. Besides, they were not about to stay out-of-the-way of some fool photographer.

As it turns out, I never did get to photograph Machine Falls. I heard rumours that it was pretty dry, so I figured I’d just pass on them that day. I’ll just have to keep them on my “to do” list and try again on a cooler day and after a good soaking rain.

July 20, 2016 Posted by | Nature, Photography, Tennessee | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments



Bicycle Planter

Bicycle Planter


This past week, while photographing the covered bridges of Blount County, Alabama, a photographer friend and I came upon this scene of an old bicycle being repurposed as a flower planter. It was just propped up against a maple tree near the town of Oneonta. You could say it was being “re-cycled.”

May 22, 2016 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spring Green – Rock Bridge Canyon

A week or so ago I had the occasion to visit Rock Bridge Canyon, a small rock canyon located in the northwest quadrant of Alabama. It lies near the small township of Hodges, and is not far from the Dismals, another canyon just south of Russellville. I have visited the Dismals many times, but for some reason, I never made it to Rock Bridge, until now. It’s a bit off the beaten path, so that may explain why I never found my way there before. It’s unfortunate, because it is a very pretty area with several lovely waterfalls, interesting rock formations, a lake and trails for horseback riding. The canyon is not found on most roadmaps, which may also explain the unspoiled nature of the park. The nearby Dismals Wonder Gardens is easier to find and offers many more amenities. That probably accounts for its greater popularity, despite the entry fee charged. The appeal of Rock Bridge Canyon, is the fact that has fewer visitors, a fact not lost on photographers, who prefer not to have people in their photographs. Often, having a person in one’s photos is helpful as it adds scale to the image, but most often, I prefer that mother nature be the singular subject.

Mossy Rocks

Mossy rocks

The dominant color of Rock Bridge Canyon in spring is green; not the dark green of mature foliage that will come later in summer but a lighter, brighter green that is almost iridescent. It reminded me of the greens I had seen on a trip to Ireland a few years back. Leaves, still young, reach for the sun that filters through the old growth trees high above. Parts of the canyon floor are in total shade, but even here, plants have adapted to the limited sunlight, and have produced a rich spectrum of green shades. Moss covered rocks almost look like rich deposits of emerald lying scattered on the canyon floor.

A vine climbs for the sunlight

A vine climbs for the sunlight


The park gets its name from the 50-ft. natural rock bridge located next to a gigantic concave cliff. A 50-ft. waterfall descends from the top of the bridge. While an interesting natural feature, the waterfall does not compare to a pair of larger waterfalls along the Rock Bridge Creek which meanders through the canyon. The smaller, but prettier waterfall is located just below the parking area and is easily accessible. There is even a staircase provided to help you get down to it. It is one of the most serene, peaceful waterfalls I have found in north Alabama.

Mystic Falls (Lower Falls)


Rock Formation

Rock formation near the Ten Commandments

Unlike the nearby Dismals, Rock Bridge Canyon was never opened up to the general use of the public by the landowners. There is evidence, that at one time, that was their intension. There are wooden staircases, ramps and bridges at several locations throughout the park. Some have fallen into disrepair but most are still usable and very much appreciated. Some wooden walkways were constructed, it appears, just to keep visitors’ feet dry. While a good bit of the area stays pretty wet, especially after a heavy rain, it’s what keeps everything so beautifully green.


Rock Bridge Creek and Cave

Rock Bridge is similar in many ways to the Dismals especially in regards to topography. The rock formations here are as impressive as those at the Dismals, and can boast a natural rock bridge, which the other park is lacking. There’s even a place where several flat stones stand upright resembling holy tablets. The spot is called the Ten Commandments. Rock Bridge also has more waterfalls, so if cascading water is your thing, head to Rock Bridge Canyon. Plan your trip right after a good rain to make sure the water is flowing well.


The Upper Falls

The taller of the two waterfalls on the Rock Bridge Creek can be a bit of a challenge to find. Known as the Upper Falls, it takes a bit of a hike to reach, but it’s worth the effort. After a good rain, it makes an impressive splash from the height of 25 ft. – not as wide or serene as the Lower Falls, but just as pretty in its own way.

I might just have to pay Rock Bridge Canyon another visit in late summer or fall to see how different it will look then. One thing is certain though, those wonderful light green tones of early spring will be long gone.

May 10, 2016 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment