Anything But Dismal

This 85 acres of primeval forest in northwest Alabama offers visitors an ethereal respite from a chaotic world

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Chris Jenkins

Photographed by Chris Jenkins.

Photographed by Chris Jenkins.

Dismals Canyon Conservatory, tucked away in the northwest corner of the state of Alabama, is home to two charming cabins, five primitive campsites, a country store and diner and the most popular fly larvae in the world.

That’s right. Of the more than 240,000 known species of flies in the world, the fly larvae found on the sheer canyon walls in Dismals Canyon are veritable rock stars. Thousands of visitors make their way along various two-lane highways to Dismals Canyon each year to gaze in wonder at the hundreds of thousands of fly larvae that call the moss-covered canyon walls their homes.

Fly larvae are generally not considered a tourist attraction, of course. What makes these particular larvae a notable exception is one unique property. The larvae stage of the fly (officially known as North American Orfelia fultoni), glows a bright blue-green, which entomologists say is a means of attracting food.

It also attracts tourists, who gather at the conservatory for nightly guided “Dismalites” tours. Those who have taken the tour report that when looking up in the night-shrouded, moss-covered canyon walks, it’s difficult to tell where the “Dismalites” end and the stars begin.

While the “Dismalites” may be the best-known feature of the privately-owned, federally-protected 85-acre nature conservatory, the charms go beyond gawking at glowing fly larvae.

Photographed by Chris Jenkins.

Photographed by Chris Jenkins.

The conservatory, owned by Beverly Franklin of Columbus, has become a favorite of campers, hikers and nature lovers throughout the region.

The conservatory draws its name from a branch of Dismals Creek called Dismals Branch, which wends through the floors of the canyon canopy of massive old growth forest and canyon walls that tower 80 to 100 feet above the waters of the icy, clear creek.

The canyon is home to a rich diversity of native plant life, including a stand of old-growth virgin timber composed chiefly of hemlock, tulip poplar, sweetgum, bigleaf magnolia and beech.

A 1.5-mile hiking trail on the canyon floor makes a loop around the stream, a trail that includes enormous boulders, waterfalls, misty clearings and a labyrinth of surprising twists and turns that lead visitors from one breathtaking vista to another.

Among the shadows of this primeval sunken forest, you’ll see the mysterious sanctuaries used thousands of years ago for shelter by Paleo-Indian, Cherokee and Chickasaw inhabitants.

While the conservatory features the creature comforts and amenities that tourists naturally demand, the trail itself is pristine and undisturbed. Aside from a few stone or wooden steps necessary for safety through some of the more steep or slippery portions of the trail, there is little evidence of modern intrusion on this ancient natural setting.

Matthew and Kristina Jarrett of Tuscaloosa are typical of many visitors. The Jarretts made the two-hour drive from their house to explore the canyon with their 2-year-old son, Ellliot.

The trail earned rave reviews.

“It’s just beautiful, it really is,” Kristina said. “We got lost a time or two, but that’s kind of the fun of it. You find yourself back-tracking to get back to where you’re supposed to be. But then, some of those wrong turns really took us to some beautiful spots we wouldn’t have seen.”

The trail is not a difficult one, which allows parents to comfortably explore the canyon with children.

As for amenities, the conservatory features a well-stocked country store and a diner that features a good variety of reasonably priced menu items.

Photographed by Chris Jenkins.

Photographed by Chris Jenkins.

Camping is allowed from Memorial Day through Labor Day. But in keeping with its mission of preserving the natural beauty of the canyon, the camping is primitive only. No water or electricity, and the campsites are accessible only by foot.

For camping enthusiasts Stan and Lisa Brown of Pensacola, Florida, their first trip to Dismals Canyon will not be their last.

“Camping is really our main hobby,’’ Stan said. “We camp probably eight or nine times a year, just about anywhere we can get to in a day’s ride. Based on our time here, this is going to be a regular stop for us.”

Lisa said she was impressed not only with the natural beauty of the canyon, but the staff’s efforts in keeping it impeccably clean.

“That’s the problem with a lot of more popular places; there are so many people that it’s hard to keep everything clean. But in two days here, I don’t think we saw a piece of paper or a plastic cup. You really feel like you are in a natural, pristine setting.”

For those who are not inclined to rough it, the conservatory does feature a pair of spacious and well-appointed rustic cabins. Be forewarned, however. If you want to stay in a cabin, make your plans well in advance. Typically, the cabins are booked at least two months ahead for weekend stays.

Dismals Canyon is located approximately 12 miles south of Russellville, Alabama, on County Road 8, off of US-43/AL-17. It is currently open seven days a week, but the schedule changes regularly. Check or call 205-993-4559 for more information.