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

Aloha Hawaii

On quite the spur of the moment, my wife Sharron and I decided to go to Hawaii. We had been to the 50th state way back in 1980, almost 37 years ago. That’s a long time, so when we got an offer from Hilton Hotels to stay at their resort village on Waikiki Beach, at a reduced rate, we said, why not. The catch (there’s always one of those) was that we would have to endure a two-hour sales pitch to purchase a Hilton timeshare. We’ve been to these sorts of things before, so we thought we could easily survive their efforts to get us to sign on the dotted line.


Sunset on Waikiki

We decided to go in January, which we felt would be a good time to escape the cold. We didn’t know how right we were until we started receiving texts and emails from family members back home telling us that Alabama was experiencing some of the lowest temperatures in years.

Hilton Hawaiian Village


Diamond Head at Waikiki

We arrived on Saturday, January 13, a momentous day in the history of the Hawaiian Islands, as it turned out. That was the very same day that an erroneous emergency alert was sent out to every citizen’s cell phone, TV set, radio and Apple watch, that a ballistic missile attack was imminent and to seek immediate shelter. Fortunately for us, our plane was still several hundred miles away from landing in Honolulu. Once we did land, the threat had already been determined to be in error. The panic felt by many Hawaiians had already dissipated by the time we arrived.


Our first week on Oahu was spent at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, an enormous vacation resort right on Waikiki Beach, and just a few hotels away from where we stayed 37 years ago. It’s a beautiful place comprised of a half dozen high-rise residence towers, five pools, an equal number of restaurants, two Starbucks, shops and even its own lagoon. You could get lost in this place, and believe me, we did.


The Fire Dance at the Hilton luau show

Our week on Oahu was great. When we weren’t enjoying the beach or one of the pools, we were exploring the island. We took a tour of Pearl Harbor, drove through properties once owned by the Dole Pineapple Company, watched surfers challenge thirty-foot waves up on the North Shore and visited the Polynesian Cultural Center. We even saw the locations for several Hollywood movies, like Jurassic Park and From Here to Eternity. One night, we took in the Hawaiian luau at our hotel and really loved the show.

Scenes of Oahu

For our second week, we flew to the island of Hawaii, or as it’s better known, the Big Island. We had never been to this island before so we rented a car since we planned to do a good bit of exploring. To get a sense of the place, we took a group tour around the entire island on the first day to see the major highlights, and decide which places we wanted to return to on our own. From Kona, we headed south and then east to Hilo, the main town on the east, or wet side, of the island. Because of the prevailing winds and mountainous terrain, the east side of the island gets over 200 inches of rain a year, while the west side gets relatively little. Unfortunately, most of what we wanted to see was on the east coast, so we kept raincoats and umbrellas close by.


On the road to Ka Lae (South Point)

We did manage to revisit several spots we saw on our first day’s tour. The black sand beach at Panalu’u was made better on our second visit by the presence of several green sea turtles. We wanted to go back to the Volcanoes National Park, but that wish was almost dashed when Congress did not vote on the budget and the government shut down. As a result, most national parks were closed including Volcanoes NP. Fortunately, a few days later, Congress did approve funding for a few more weeks and the park did reopen. A highlight of the trip was getting to stay overnight at the Volcano House, the historic hotel on the edge of the Kilauea Caldera. At night we got to see the lava glow from the crater right from our hotel, but a better vantage point was from the Jaggar Museum. We drove the Crater Rim Drive down to the ocean, walked through the Thurston Lava Tube and survived several active steam vents.


The glowing caldera on Kilauea

Another place I wanted to return to was Akaka Falls. The tour company took us here, but conditions for photographs that afternoon were awful, so I planned to return the next morning. Akaka is a spectacular 420-foot waterfall, one of many on the island. Rainbow Falls was another beautiful waterfall we got to see and photograph. The natural beauty of the island of Hawaii cannot be truly appreciated until you actually visit there. The Waipi’o Valley is a beautiful and spiritual place, as is Ka Lae, which is better known as South Point, the southernmost point of the United States. The road to get there is narrow, and the last couple of miles can only be safely accomplished with a four-wheel drive vehicle. We didn’t want to test the capability of our two-wheel drive rental car, so we drove as far as we could, but didn’t quite make it to the green sand beach at Mahana Bay. We did see several black sand beaches, including one where a bathing suit was optional.

The Big Island

We took the drive up Mauna Kea to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy that was named for the Kona-born astronaut who died in the shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. Not far from the slopes of this 13,000-ft. extinct volcano, the land begins to flatten out into beautiful grasslands. This is the Parker Ranch, the largest privately held ranch in the U.S. The land supports 35,000 head of cattle. We visited the original homestead, which was a bit underwhelming.

Perhaps the highlight of our time on Hawaii was our zipline adventure. Surprisingly, Sharron has had ziplining on her bucket list for a while, so we figured this was as good a place as any to make it a reality. The zipline company we chose was highly rated and we were not disappointed. The course was comprised of seven ziplines progressing in height and distance. You start out nice and easy, but before you know it, you’re sailing over 400-foot ravines and a distance of over half a mile. We passed by some amazing waterfalls and lush tropical vegetation. Our guides pointed out the notable flora and fauna of the area and we even got to sample the local “apple” bananas and sugar cane growing there. We really had a fun time and hope to do it again sometime.


A fellow zipliner takes a selfie

Our self-guided tour of the Big Island basically followed the same route that we took on the first day, but we were able to see so much more. Had we not gone off on our own, we would have missed St. Benedict’s Painted Church in Honaunau, highlighted by bright biblical scenes painted by a Belgian priest. We’d have missed the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau Historic Park that showed us how the early Hawaiians lived and worshipped. And we would have missed the humorous things that kept us laughing, like the coffee plantation named “Kona Lisa” whose marketing featured that smiling DaVinci maiden sipping a delicious cup of Hawaiian coffee. We’d also have missed the bookstore that was open for five hours on Wednesdays only! That’s the job I want.

Parker Ranch and Panalu’u’s green sea turtles

It was a great trip that ended all too soon, as most good things do. Our flight home from Kona was uneventful. The airport there is totally outdoors, which I suppose illustrates the little rainfall that side of the island receives. It is not well managed, which leads to a bit of confusion. We had no idea what gate we were flying out of until the last minute. All flights are accessed from the tarmac, so Sharron had a bit of a struggle dealing with her carry-on luggage and all the souvenirs she brought back for all the kids and grandkids.


Windmills along the road to Ka Lae

One final note – we did manage to resist buying a timeshare in Hawaii, much to our kids’ dismay.


Kilauea Caldera

March 11, 2018 Posted by | Hawaii, Photography, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Welti Falls

Welti Falls

A few days ago, I had a chance to visit Welti Falls in Cullman County, Alabama. Located in the town of Welti, the falls are created from the spillway of Forest Ingram Park. I had been to the falls once before, but at that time, it wasn’t flowing near as well as it was last week due to all the rain we have been getting. Now that things are drying up, I fear that the falls will too. What was equally nice about this recent visit was the fact that I had the place to myself. For a photographer, there is nothing more disturbing than to have other people milling about, ducking in and out of your shot. While they may think that they are not in your field of view, they never realize how wide some of these landscape lenses are. I often have to stop and wait for folks to have their experience and then finally move on.

For those interested, this shot required a 45-second exposure in order to get the water to blur to this degree. Since it was a sunny day, I had to use a 10-stop neutral density filter in order to dramatically reduce the exposure. It’s a bit difficult to work with because it is so dense that you can barely see through it. You must compose your image and have your focus dialed in before placing the filter in front of the lens. The exposure can be a bit tricky too, because the camera’s meter is often not sensitive enough to read the dim light filtering through. For that reason, I use a handheld light meter and adjust the exposure factoring in the 10-stop reduction.

The falls are located on Brindley Creek. There is a wide shoulder along Welti Road suitable for parking and next to the trailhead. A half-mile hike will take you to the falls. It’s a pretty easy hike, but the rocks can be slippery if it has recently rained. For you fellow photographers, pay attention to the creek itself. There are numerous photographic possibilities to be had well before reaching the falls.

April 17, 2017 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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