Into the Wild

Dismals Canyon: Nature’s Playground

By Andrea Brown Ross | Photography courtesy of Daryl Forester, Ronnie Harris and Laura Saylors Gibson

Mother Nature has her own blinking lights – a rare and natural phenomenon known as Dismalites. The only place in the U.S. to see these glow-in-the-dark bioluminescent creatures is Alabama’s Dismals Canyon.

The holidays will soon be here with all their grandeur. And one of the most anticipated traditions of the season is the countless blinking lights. After the holidays are over, and cabin fever has set in, where can you go to enjoy the evening lights and release some energy?
The answer is tucked away in the Appalachian Mountain foothills in northwest Alabama. Dismals Canyon, an 85-acre, privately-owned natural conservatory, offers a unique opportunity to view rare glow-in-the-dark creatures known as Dismalites in the fall and spring.
Dismalites, or Orfelia fultoni, are the only bioluminescent fly species found in North America. The larvae use their bioluminescent lanterns to attract prey. The species typically live along the bank of a stream in the moss near a rock cavity or sandstone cave. After twilight, the Dismalites illuminate the Alabama canyon, located in Franklin County.
Although the best time of year to view the Dismalites is typically late spring, tour guide Britney Slappey says the canyon doesn’t disappoint in the fall.
“Because of the temperature change in the canyon, we are typically about two weeks later in the changing of the fall foliage,” she says.
Amanda Wilson of Senatobia, Mississippi, began visiting Dismals Canyon in 2011, with her most recent trip being this past summer. Wilson thinks it’s a great day trip for north Mississippi families.
“It takes us about three hours to get there. We typically spend half a day there. Perhaps the best part is that it’s fun for all ages. Grandparents to grandchildren have a good time,” she shares.
The National Park Service recognized Dismals Canyon in 1974 as a National Natural Landmark. The canyon floor offers many points of interest, including a swimming hole, waterfalls, natural bridges, Native American sites, caves, and caverns. In addition, there are more than 500 species of flora and fauna.
“It’s definitely a different world in the canyon. It’s considered the last primeval forest east of the Mississippi River, because it’s never been touched by axe or fire,” says Slappey.
“A lot of the tree and plant species are not commonly found this far south. Our location in foothills of the Appalachian Mountains affords our visitors the opportunity to view species they would typically find in the Carolinas,” she explains.
Wilson adds that photo opportunities abound.
“It seems like nature’s playground. My boys love the Native American sites as well as exploring the caverns, caves, and the 139-foot Champion Tree,” says Wilson.

The canyon also has a 1.5-mile hiking trail. In order to make the most of the experience, Wilson encourages her children to explore and hike the canyon before playing in the waterfall.
“It can be tough,” she says. “Once in the canyon, one of the first highlights is the waterfall, but I want my children to see more of the park. So, I tell my kids we’ve got to explore everything else and then come back to the waterfall and swim.”
While the trail is considered relatively easy for all ages, visitors are reminded to wear appropriate clothing. The canyon floor is subject to downed trees, large roots, rocks, and mud. In addition, depending on recent weather, ankle-deep water streams may have to be crossed.
Slappey recommends visitors plan on hiking at least two hours. Wearing clothing and shoes that can get dirty is a good idea.
“My children wear old tennis shoes that can get muddy and wet,” says Wilson. “There are rocks, so no sandals or open shoes. They also wear their swimming trunks. We towel off and change into dry clothes for the ride home.”  
After visiting the canyon several times, Wilson has the following suggestions based on experience: dress appropriately, bring drinking water and stay hydrated, and know where the bathrooms are located. (Bathrooms and showers are located at the trailhead.)
Visitors are advised to bring drinking water and a flashlight for the Dismalites tour after dark. The temperature inside the canyon can drop by 10-to-15 degrees, and water in the swimming hole can be cold, even in the summer so appropriate outerwear is recommended.
Dismals Canyon can be a secluded getaway for visitors wanting to stay overnight. A limited number of cabins are available for rent. Massages are available by appointment to guests and campers, as well.
Guests interested in getting even closer to nature have the option of primitive campsites, which are available on weekends from Labor Day to Memorial Day. Each campsite is accessible only by a short hike. Recreational vehicles and pop-up campers are not permitted as drive-up campsites are not available.
A grill and soda fountain shop, as well as a country store, are available. For specific information and details, check the canyon website.
Wilson says, “For those who have an adventurous spirit, and who like to traverse the natural elements, it’s a great adventure!”

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.