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

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