Trees, Trails, & Mountain Music
By Verna Gates | Photography courtesy of Alabama Tourism, John Dersham and Verna Gates
Northeast Alabama comes alive in autumn with colorful foliage, outdoor attractions, and shopping and events in the quaint towns of Mentone and Fort Payne.
The colors of fall match the vibrant history and characters inhabiting Lookout Mountain in North Alabama. Native Americans walked these trails and rested and celebrated in the mouth of cool caves, leaving their mark on places like Manitou Cave. Desoto State Park and Little River Canyon preserve the botanical wonderland of the state that claims the No. 4 spot in U.S. biodiversity. Music springs from the sounds of winds and waterfalls, heard in the rhythms of bands like Alabama. The crashing of waterfalls hints at the pluck of characters who carved out communities in the mountains and now carve out the old crafts plied for centuries.
The sleepy burg of Mentone invites you to slow down, sit back, and return to a time when front porches opened up to friends, as well as scenic vistas. Life is best enjoyed in the fresh, clean air where birdsong is more common than traffic noise. This “Gateway to the Appalachians” charms with its natural beauty and unique culture.
During the fall, the best way to view colors is to wait at Mentone’s Brow Park for sunset. The sun’s golden orb hits the horizon in hues complimenting the explosion of leafy artistry. This public park provides picnic tables for a snack, cup of coffee or a glass of wine to toast the celestial event introducing nightfall.
On Sunday morning, join in a rock-solid church service at the Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel, which was carved out of a giant boulder that forms a wall, inside and out. Built by Sally’s grieving husband, the chapel stands as a testimony to everlasting love.
Mentone’s delightful downtown area is dotted with craft shops and restaurants. Stroll along Log Cabin Village and pop into craft and vintage shops. Across the street at The Gourdie Shop visitors will find gifts, jewelry, and the proper cape to wear to the midnight gathering of the coven. A Gourdie — whimsical creatures made from gourds — is defined as a “friend to tell a secret to … to share your dreams that can come true, unique and original just like you!” If you have time, head down to Miracle Pottery, where Cherokee and Appalachian folk art meet.
The legendary Wildflower Café embraces its hippie atmosphere with vintage cool. A burst of flowers lead you into this log cabin cafe, run by a woman known as “Moon.” Vegan options and live, local folk music round out the 1960s apparition. The loaded tomato pie entrée and old-fashioned chess pie are traditional favorites. In addition, the Hatter Café offers Southern staples for breakfast and lunch with biscuits so light, you feel like anchoring them to the plate.
Mentone is also home to the Southern Herbalist, Darryl Patton, who spent years studying with Tommie Bass, a famed traditional herb doctor. Patton continues the tradition in his new Mentone studio by mixing tinctures and teaching herbal medicine classes and foraging.
Nearby Desoto State Park offers cabins with views and hikes from the stroll to strenuous. A deep waterfall creases the basin as it comes alive with fall color. The hikes take you through wildflower laden trails and breathtaking vistas.
Just down the road, Little River Canyon National Preserve features a competing waterfall with a dramatic drop into the canyon. The Preserve offers 26 miles of hiking trails that range from gentle slopes to difficult canyon climbs. Other activities include kayaking, cycling, horseback riding, bird watching, rock climbing and fishing. For those seeking a leisurely look at fall colors, take the scenic drive.
The City of Fort Payne began as Willstown, a major Cherokee settlement. Sequoyah, who conceived and developed a Cherokee alphabet, settled here. His son, Richard Gist, recorded celebratory events on the walls of Manitou Cave, which can be visited today. European arrivals integrated here with the Native American culture until the United States government declared otherwise. The town is named for Captain Payne, who built the stockade that held Sequoyah and others, a homophone name capturing the tragic experience. The U.S. National Historic Trail of Tears begins here and is commemorated every year on Sept. 13 in Fort Payne.
The mix of cultures resulted in unique mountain sounds, one of which was a trio of Fort Payne cousins, who honed their craft in Myrtle Beach bars. Regardless of where they performed, they celebrated their home state with their name: Alabama, and set a record that may never be matched in any genre: 21 consecutive No. 1 hit singles. The Alabama Fan Club and Museum honors their 50 years of music with a variety of memorabilia and band members are often spied in the museum greeting fans.
Lookout Mountain offers multiple vistas to see far down into the forest, where trees blaze with fall colors. The rugged ridges and pounding waterfalls echo of the majesty and power of nature. Underground, the unique cave species of Manitou remind us of nature’s fragility. The pride and sorrow of history, plus the joy of art and music, still capture the human experience.