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

Glade Creek Grist Mill – Mill Tour Part 2



Glade Creek Mill at Babcock State Park in Virginia

Glade Creek Grist Mill, often called Babcock Mill because it lies within Babcock State Park near Clifftop, West Virginia was the second mill on our recent tour. From Mabry Mill (part 1) on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, we drove north on Interstate 77 for about three hours. The weather began to turn sour, and our clear, sunny skies gave way to clouds and even a few sprinkles. The conditions, however, proved to be ideal for me. The overcast skies softened the shadows, deepened the colors and eliminated the dappled light which I try to avoid whenever possible. Having bright highlights on leaves, rocks and sky really messes with the dynamic range. That isn’t much of a problem if you’re posting an image to Facebook or Instagram, but it makes printing the image a real headache. So, although it was raining and I along with my gear was getting wet, I was still loving it. An added benefit to the weather, was that it kept the tourists down to a number that I could deal with. The way the mill is situated, right on the edge of the creek, did not allow for people to walk all around it as they did at the Mabry Mill. At Babcock, visitors could poke themselves in and out the mill door, but really couldn’t go any further. Once I was done shooting the mill up close, I moved downstream where people and other distractions became less of an issue.

This shot was  literally made from the parking lot.

All the mills I photographed this particular weekend were very accessible. They were either right off the road of within walking distance from the parking lot. Usually, no long trek through the woods is required. Maybe that’s why I like photographing mills so much. That, and the fact that they are quickly disappearing from the rural American scene and need to be recorded while they’re still here. Glade Creek Mill represents over 500 mills that were once thriving in the state of West Virginia. It was constructed of three older mills which outlasted their original usefulness. The earliest original parts of the mill date back to the 1850’s while other parts date to the 1890’s. The basic structure is from Stoney Creek Mill and the mill deck and other workings are from the Onego Grist Mill, originally located near Seneca. The mill was rebuilt in 1976, so what you see today is actually only 43 years old.


Parts of the mill are scattered about the site


The fall colors were just beginning to peak when I was there

Apparently, West Virginia has been experiencing the same drought that we have been dealing with all summer back here in Alabama. The low water levels at Babcock State Park prevented the mill from operating the day I was there. I believe the mill operator told me that Glade Creek was two feet below normal, so there would be no milling until the areas received substantial rainfall. Perhaps, the rain I was experiencing was the beginning of just that. I would have liked to have seen the creek flowing better for photographic reasons. I could have used a bit more water cascading over the rocks, especially in the downstream shots. I also would have preferred to have the water wheel turning to provide some motion to the static image. Water spilling over the wheel off the sluice is always something I try to capture in a mill photo. Unfortunately, that would not be possible this time.

A view of the mill from downstream


Unfortunately, the low water levels prevented the mill from operating this day

The Glade Creek Grist Mill and the Mabry Mill (part 1) are both wonderful examples of early mill construction. They remind us of another time, one less rushed and complicated. They both represent an era when mills dotted the American landscape, much like the covered bridge which has all but disappeared.  I actually visited a third mill on our tour of the Virginias. It was the Tinger Mill located near the town of Paint Bank, Virginia. We found it totally by accident, but I’m glad we did. While it doesn’t have the old-time charm of the Mabry and Glade Creek mills, it is a wonderful example of a working mill and a reminder of why mills were so vital to the surrounding community.

Despite the fact that the Tinger Mill is not as photogenic as the Mabry and Babcock mills, it is a very nice example of a working mill, and I may post some photos of it in a few days. Stay tuned.


November 12, 2019 Posted by | Architecture, Mills, Photography, Travel, Virginia, West Virginia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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