Dismals Canyon is an 85-acre area of natural sandstone gorges and geological formations surrounded by one of the few remaining old-growth virgin forests in Alabama. This pristine natural area is located in Franklin County near the town of Phil Campbell; it is privately owned and is operated as a commercial venture.
Dismals Canyon is a maze of meandering canyons, huge boulders, caves, and grottoes, all bisected by the flowing waters of Dismals Branch Creek. The area was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1975. How the canyon got its name is uncertain. The early Scots-Irish settlers may have named the canyon after a similarly rugged region in Scotland known as "Dismals." A second theory suggests that the settlers named it Dismals simply for its dark labyrinths and gloomy passages.
The canyon's topography results from eons of geological events during the Paleozoic Era, when the area was a vast swampland. Over successive millennia, the landscape gradually was carved by moving water into a web of canyons and gorges; numerous earthquakes littered the canyon with gigantic boulders as the Earth was reshaped by tectonic events within the Cumberland Plateau. Natural attractions of the canyon include Temple Cave; Rainbow Falls and Secret Falls, two large waterfalls that tumble over large boulders; Witches Canyon; the Champion Tree, the largest eastern hemlock in the world at 138 feet and believed to be 350 years old; and Pulpit Rock, which provides a panoramic vista of the canyon.
Artifacts discovered within the canyon reveal that Native Americans inhabited the area as early as 10,000 years ago. Spear points, pottery shards, and other relics have been found among the caves and bluff shelters, including Temple Cave. During the historic period, the Chickasaws and Cherokees used the area as well. In 1838, the U.S. Army temporarily held a large number of Cherokees captive in the canyon before their removal west in the infamous Trail of Tears. Local legend holds that outlaw Jesse James hid out there during one of his bank-robbing forays, and bandits who robbed and murdered travelers on the nearby Natchez Trace wilderness footpath used the canyon as a hideout. In the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, settlers in the area built a cotton gin and sawmill in the canyon, both of which were destroyed by a flood sometime in the 1950s. The mill's grinding wheel is still visible below Rainbow Falls, where it was deposited by the flood.
The canyon's ruggedness helped preserve it when logging firms moved into the area. Early loggers were unable to profitably harvest the huge trees, with the result being that large numbers of old-growth trees remain, including huge beech, hemlock, and tulip poplar. The forest shelters a biologically diverse understory that includes huge glades of ferns and mosses that blanket the scattered boulders on the canyon floor. More than 350 species of plants and 27 species of trees have been identified in the canyon. The primeval appearance of the park led the Discovery Channel to use the park in several scenes in the show When Dinosaurs Roamed America.
Perhaps the most fascinating inhabitants of Dismals Canyon are the "dismalites," the name given to the larvae of Orfelia fultoni, a species of fungus gnat native to North America. The bioluminescent larvae emit a bright bluish-green glow that is thought to attract flying insects that then become entrapped in strands of sticky mucous exuded by the carnivorous dismalites. Dismals Canyon is one of a very few places on Earth with the habitat—high humidity, dimly lit, still air—required by these insects, and it harbors the largest known population in the United States. Guided evening tours of the canyon allow visitors to view the dismalites; the best time to view them is in summer, when they cover the steep rock faces of the canyon, but they are present in smaller numbers most of the year.
The canyon is owned by Dismals Canyon LLC which was incorporated in 1995. Facilities at Dismals Canyon include a visitors center from which interpretive guided tours are offered, a 1.5-mile hiking trail, two rustic rental cabins, a number of primitive campsites, a country store, and a bathhouse and restroom. There is a natural swimming hole on Dismals Creek. A seasonal staff of between two and six people operates the canyon. The canyon is closed from December through February and is open on select days depending on the season.