Mountain Adventures near Fort Payne, Alabama
DeSoto State Park is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in Alabama. Located near Mentone and Fort Payne, the park also boasts one of the state’s most impressive waterfalls.
These mountains were once the homeland of the Cherokee people, who lived, hunted and fished here long before the arrival of the first Europeans in North America. Seqoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, lived at nearby Willstown, an important Native American community on the outskirts of today’s Fort Payne. He left the area in 1823 but other Cherokee remained until the brutal time of the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.
DeSoto State Park, of course, takes its name from the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. Modern scholars believe that he led his army down the Coosa River out of Georgia in 1540. If they are correct, then the main Spanish force did not enter today’s state park despite local legend to the contrary. It is certainly possible, however, that researchers could be wrong or that scouting parties from the expedition made it to Lookout Mountain in the park area.
There are some who believe, in fact, that another European adventurer arrived to explore the mountain streams, canyons and waterfalls long before Hernando de Soto set foot in North America. They point to mysterious caves in the bluffs overlooking DeSoto Falls as evidence that a Welsh explorer named Prince Madoc made it to DeSoto State Park in 1170 A.D.
The Madoc legend is controversial to say the least. Some researchers believe that he never existed, but was made up by English writers in the 1500s to refute Spanish claims to the New World. Others, however, claim that Madoc landed on Mobile Bay and made his way north into the mountains of Alabama and eventually Tennessee. They credit him with building stone walls in the “Welsh Caves” as well as with the construction of such ancient monuments as Fort Mountain in Georgia and Old Stone Fort in Tennessee.
Archaeologists believe these stone structures were built by prehistoric Native Americans during the Woodland era. They point out that no Welsh artifacts have been found in association with them and that such stone construction was fairly common in the region around 1,500 to 2,000 years ago.
Either way, the legend is colorful and definitely adds a touch of charm and mystery to the cultural history of the park.
Early settlers and hunters explored the region even while it was still Native American land. Other white pioneers followed and in 1837-1838, the Cherokee were forced from their homes in the area and driven west on the long and brutal Trail of Tears. Fort Payne was established by soldiers who arrived to enforce the “removal” of the Cherokee people. Several sites near DeSoto State Park are now part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.
Both Union and Confederate troops passed through the park during the Civil War. The main Federal army crossed Lookout Mountain near Mentone and DeSoto Falls on its way to bloody defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga. Smaller forces moved freely through the region on other occasions as well.
For most visitors, the natural scenery of DeSoto State Park and nearby Little River Canyon National Preserve provide the biggest draw. The West Fork of the Little River flows through the park and is one of the few rivers in the United States that flows almost almost entirely on a mountain top. It has carved a remarkable canyon that begins at DeSoto Falls near Mentone and continues south through the park to the national preserve.
DeSoto State Park offers miles of hiking trails, beautiful bluffs and rock formations, spectacular views of DeSoto Falls, a number of smaller waterfalls, historic sites related to the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) and spectacular views of the canyon.
DeSoto Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in Alabama. More than 100 feet high, it is also one of the most photographed points of interest in the state. Conveniently located in a separate area off the Lookout Mountain Parkway, the waterfall is open daily and is easily accessible via a paved walking path. A number of smaller falls can be found along the hiking trails and boardwalks near the lodge and restaurant.
In addition to its natural features, DeSoto State Park provides camping and picnic areas, log cabins, rustic cabins, chalets, a lodge and hotel, restaurant, country store, swimming pool, playgrounds and more.
DeSoto State Park is at 7104 DeSoto Parkway, NE, Fort Payne, Alabama. See the map at the bottom of this page for directions. The day use areas are open 7 a.m. to sunset daily.
You can learn about other great outdoor locations by visiting our Outdoor Adventures in the Southeast page.
See more of DeSoto State Park and DeSoto Falls in this free video: