Discovering Lookout Mountain Parkway – and more
With our urban meanderings out of the way for a while, we set our eyes on what Reader’s Digest called “One of America’s scenic drives,” the Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway. It’s 93 miles long and spans three states as it stretches from Gadsden, Alabama, through the northwest corner of Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lucky for us the the parkway begins right where we’re currently located, at Noccalula Falls Campground in Gadsden.
Because rain was forecast for later in the day, we set out early with map in hand, planning to drive as far as Desoto State Park in Mentone, Alabama. After having lunch there we would wind through small towns, climbing several grades to see the lush and green scenery. On the Parkway we expected to see waterfalls, canyons, unique towns and villages, state and national parks and preserves. Although it was an overcast day, we were hoping to avoid the rain long enough to see and capture some beautiful waterfall pictures.
Our first stop was at DeSoto State Park, where the water of DeSoto Falls plunges 120 feet into the river below. The highest falls in the area, it was named for the spaniard Hernando DeSoto, who searched unsuccessfully for gold nearby. Upon arriving and parking there, the first thing we saw was a lovely reservoir situated above the falls.
The state park featured miles of hiking trails, so we had to take some time to pick our favorite candidates. The first one had several intersecting trails with the sound of water rushing through streams along much of its length. It was also very fragrant with the smell of many wildflowers – the best-smelling trail we can remember! Although not very strenuous, we felt like this was the first real hiking environment we’ve been in for many months, and we were glad we had brought lunch along so we could spend as much time as possible in its beauty.
By the time we got to Little River Canyon Preserve, the sky had already darkened and we felt some raindrops. We forged on and discovered that Little River is a mountaintop river that plunges into a nature sanctuary. It’s one of the nations’s longest rivers that forms and flows for most of its length on top of a mountain. There is a boardwalk that leads to the Little River Falls lookout.
It began raining lightly, so after quickly taking some pictures we decided to take another trail to nearby Martha’s Falls. Bad idea, since we were wearing only light, non-waterproof jackets. The trail was mostly flat until it got close to the river where it was very steep, and since it was pouring rain at this point we were trying to walk down a muddy path. At the Falls, which were a bit of a disappointment anyway, Steve declared, “This is officially not fun anymore.”
We had intended to follow the 11-mile scenic drive along Canyon Rim Drive to view more of the river and canyon scenery. Alas, it did not work out, as we somehow missed a turn and didn’t realize our error until it was getting too late to backtrack. Seeing the “Welcome to Georgia” sign was the first hint that we were lost. But there was a silver lining after all – Steve saw a roadside jerky stand and we stopped there to get directions. While talking, we tasted several of Tony’s excellent jerkies and ended up buying two bags. I discovered that Steve just can’t be upset about being lost when he’s chewing on a good piece of jerky!
“Tony the jerky guy” confirmed we were several miles off course, and that going back to complete the Canyon Rim Drive would have gotten us home pretty late. So, we started back on the more direct route and after a while Steve spotted a pickle store. Well, the only thing he likes as much as a good piece of jerky is a good dill pickle, and we had never before seen a store dedicated to pickles. We stopped to taste the array of spiced pickles and other products. The owner/pickle maker told us the story of how the business began, and how she discovered that her products are very popular among southerners. Forty dollars later (pickles, olives, tomato/mozzarella salad and roasted peanuts) we walked out with big smiles. And that’s how our trip to the Lookout Mountain Parkway ended – we missed part of the scenic drive, but got enough yummy munchies to last a while in return. Life is funny!
There were other hiking and biking trails to explore beyond our campground at Noccalula Falls. One was the James D. Martin Wildlife Park and Walking Trail. We found it located behind a large shopping mall and thought that was rather strange. Then we learned that the land bordering the H. Neely Henry Lake is too swampy for commercial use and was set aside as a flood plain and wildlife recreational area. It turned out that we were pleasantly surprised by the two-mile long green trail that also provided a raised network of boardwalks. It allowed us to walk out into a 300-acre lake which provided me with great bird-watching opportunities amongst the wildflowers, were in full bloom.
We didn’t think we’d spend much time on this short trek, and since it was overcast when we started, we failed to bring our sunglasses and hats along. We were sorry about that when the sun came blazing out halfway through our enjoyable walk.
Biking the Chief Ladiga Trail was also on our must-do list here. This trail is Alabama’s first extended rails-to-trails project. It covers 33 miles through the countryside of Calhoun and Cleburne counties in northeastern Alabama, and ends at the Georgia state border. Although we were off to an early start, it quickly got hot and humid so we clocked only 16 miles on this ride. The rails-to-trails paths are usually paved and offer a maximum of 2-3 degrees of slope at any point, because that’s all the train locomotives could handle at the time. Although not physically challenging, these trails have proven to be a very enjoyable way to leisurely bike on tree-covered paths with lots of bridges and birds singing to us along the way. They often go through several small towns so you can get a real feel for the area, and sometimes even stop for lunch along the way. Not a bad way to spend a half day!
Our one-week stay at Noccalula Falls Campground in Gadsden, Alabama was active and outdoorsy, as we enjoyed mostly sunny weather.
And that’s how we spent our last few days in Alabama, now onward to Tennessee!