“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Little River Canyon

Courtesy Huntsville Times
 It's not often that additions are made to the national park system, so when an area is considered significant enough to be protected by the National Park Service, it is worth seeing first hand. That's how I found myself standing at the bottom of a deep canyon in Alabama, taking in the beauty of the Little River Canyon National Preserve.

I never expected to encounter anything so rugged or so mountainous in the deep south and I immediately understood why the government wanted to protect this area. The Alabama I was used to consisted of long flat fields of cotton, dusty red dirt roads, and beautiful Gulf Coast beaches. The trees were supposed to be southern live oak festooned with Spanish moss or tall southern pines. But this area of extreme northeastern Alabama fit none of those descriptions. Above the early morning mist rising from the rushing water I could barely discern the rim of  the Little River Canyon, 600 feet above me. The huge boulders looming through the mist were a glistening black where they were touched by the clear cool water of the Little River, the gray canyon walls on each riverbank climbing to the cloudless blue sky above.

Courtesy NPS
This was without a doubt the wildest and most inaccessible area I had ever visited in Alabama. The sparkling mountain river thundering over the boulders beneath my feet and the steep forested canyon walls reaching for the sky seemed out of place. If I didn't know better, I would have sworn I was deep in the mountains of West Virginia.

But the 14,000 acre Little River Canyon National Preserve sits an hour south of Chattanooga on the Alabama Georgia border. This natural jewel was established as a National Preserve in 1992 and, with the acquisition of surrounding land by the federal government, recently became one of the newest additions to the National Park System as the LIttle River Canyon National Preserve, a continuous stretch of protected land from the canyon mouth extending 20 miles through the heart of the canyon.

What the government added to our National Park System is the deepest canyon land east of the Mississippi River. The hills and mountains surrounding the canyon sit on the southern edge of the Cumberland Plateau, a giant sandstone table extending through Tennessee into northern Alabama. The Little River carved its way through the soft sandstone over eons, leaving a deep natural gash through the heart of the area, at some points the river flowing 700 feet below the canyon rim. If you hike along the parkway which follows the north rim of the canyon, you can still spot sandstone slabs etched with waves and ripples from the ancient river when it still flowed at that elevation. Look over the edge of the rim and far below you can see the river still carving its way through the canyon rock.

The preserve's spectacularly rugged canyons and clear sparkling rivers and creeks are largely untouched by any type of development, including trails. The only exception is the Lookout Mountain Trail that runs from Gadsden Alabama, 30 miles south of the canyon, to Point Park near Chattanooga. The trail is 123 miles in length and for about fifteen miles runs through the heart of the canyon.

This trail is not well marked or maintained but it provides the only viable access to the length of the canyon. Be forewarned that this is extremely rugged terrain and that the hike through the canyon is very strenuous. The trail follows the river and is well below the canyon rim. But the elevation varies and at times you may be 200 feet above the canyon floor, with little if any margin for error between the trail and the escarpment edge. At one point I looked down 200 feet with my toes hanging over the edge of the trail and nothing under the rock overhang beneath my feet. A half mile later, the trail had descended sharply to the canyon floor and I was wading through an eddy of the Little River. You do not want to hike this trail in times of limited visibility or in rainy weather the trails can be dangerously slick. At the present time, backcountry camping is not permitted in the canyon, so plan on dayhikes only.

Courtesy Birmingham News
Courtesy Birmingham News
There is a campsite located at the south end of the canyon, near where the Lookout Mountain Trail enters the canyon. Canoeists and kayakers use the trail for river access at this point, but access is difficult, requiring a steep descent with a boat down a quarter mile of mountain. But what awaits at the bottom makes the trip down worthwhile. Little River is a whitewater enthusiast's dream and boaters from Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia can be found working through the boulder strewn river when the water levels are right, playing in the Class III and IV water within the canyon. The river is susceptible to variable water flows, so it pays to check with local officials before attempting to run this section. Too much water can be extremely dangerous, compounded by the difficulty of getting out of the steep canyon for help; too little water can make for a lot of pulling and carrying over boulders and very little paddling.

All of this may sound forbidding, but a trip to the canyon can be very rewarding. Unlike the canyonlands of the west, Little River Canyon is awash with trees and wildflowers and after a rainfall the canyon walls literally shower you with mini waterfalls spouting from crevices in the rock faces. In Summer, the canyon walls are almost totally hidden by the thick green vegetation. The riotous yellows, reds, and oranges of the turning leaves dazzle the eyes in Fall. In Winter, the deciduous trees have all dropped their leaves, revealing the stark, vertical canyon cliffs and walls, the dull slate gray rock reaching almost straight up from the riverbed, the rim barely visible from the canyon floor. Winter is perhaps my favorite time to visit the canyon, the bare canyon walls having a more commanding presence than at other times of the year.

Getting There: From Chattanooga, take Interstate 59south to the Alabama Highway 35 exit. Highway 35 crosses the canyon at Little River Falls. Turn onto Highway 89 to get to Desoto State Park.

Details: Information can be obtained from the Little River Canyon National Preserve office, (205) 997 9239.

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