Alabama’s “Grand Canyon of the East”
The Little River Canyon National Preserve protects 14,000 acres of beautiful and rugged mountain country atop Lookout Mountain near Fort Payne, Alabama.
Sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” the spectacular canyon was carved over thousands of years by Little River. One of the longest rivers in America that flows almost entirely on the top of a mountain, Little River begins at 1,900 feet above sea level and drops over 1,200 feet before it finally merges with the waters of Weiss Lake.
Along its course, the river has carved a canyon that is twelve miles long and reaches depths of over 600 feet. The result is some of the most stunning scenery to be found in the Deep South.
The canyon is located in one of the most beautiful and historic areas of the South. Near the traditional boundary between the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) nations, the Little River area was the hunting ground of American Indians for thousands of years.
It is thought by some scholars that the army of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto passed somewhere near Little River Canyon in 1540. Theories change over the years, but archaeological research by Jacksonville State University is providing some answers. Scientists from the university uncovered a major 16th century site near Centre and just across man-made Weiss Lake from the mouth of Little River Canyon. It may have been Coosa, an important American Indian village.
The canyon area was explored again in 1559 by the Spanish expedition of Tristan de Luna. He hoped to find food supplies for the colony he had planted on the Gulf Coast, but the area’s towns and fields had been devastated by De Soto’s passage 19 years earlier.
Other explorers followed and American settlers moved into the region after it became part of the United States. Population growth was slow, however, and Little River Canyon was still a rugged and largely wilderness area by the time of the War Between the States (or Civil War).
The Union army of General William Teumseh Sherman reached the Little River in 1864 while pursuing Confederates under General John Bell Hood following the fall of Atlanta. When Hood could not be brought to battle, Sherman turned back to Georgia to begin his March to the Sea. Hood moved west and then north to begin the Franklin and Nashville Campaign.
The rugged country was also a hiding place for organized bands of deserters and Unionists during the war. These raiders often emerged from their hideouts to strike against local communities and farms.
The Edna Hill community was established at Little River Falls after the War Between the States. The rushing water of the river powered a mill that became the focal point of a small village. From the late 19th through the early 20th centuries, Edna Hill boasted a store, church and homes. The community faded away with the passage of time, but interpretive panels at Little River Falls allow visitors to learn more about Edna Hill. These include photographs of the original settlement and information on its history and residents.
The beautiful waterfall is a stunning part of Little River Canyon National Preserve today. It an be reached by way of an accessible path from a parking lot on Alabama Highway 35. Visitors of all abilities can visit the overlook and the more adventurous can follow a short path down to the waterfall itself. Little River Falls can also be seen from an overlook on Canyon Rim Drive.
Through all the years, Little River Canyon remained a place of rugged and spectacular beauty. The establishment of DeSoto State Park was the first step in its preservation, but an outcry grew in the late 20th century for the canyon to be given higher prominence. Members of the superstar country band Alabama joined with other local residents to push for the preservation of Little River Canyon. It became part of the national park system in 1992.
The best way to easily explore the preserve is via Scenic or Canyon Rim Drive, a paved road that leads from Alabama Highway 35 near Fort Payne south to the canyon mouth at Weiss Lake. It provides visitors with access to a number of overlooks, picnic spots, trailheads and stunning natural vistas.
During the winter months, when rains and fewer leaves give the river its full current, Little River Canyon is known for some of the finest whitewater in the South. Different sections range from Class III to Class V, making the Little River Alabama’s premier whitewater river. The river is dangerous, however, and only experienced paddlers should float it when it is flowing at full force. Trips can be arranged through area outdoor outlets.
DeSoto State Park is located within the designated limits of the Little River Canyon National Preserve. Amenities there include a hotel/lodge, cabins, restaurant, store, picnic areas, campgrounds and more. It is an ideal base for exploring Little River Canyon.
Hotels, restaurants and other amenities are also available in nearby Fort Payne, Alabama. The mountain top community of Mentone, near the head of the canyon, is known for unique shops, inns and places to eat.
Plan to take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to explore Little River Canyon National Preserve. The entire area is rich in history, scenery and outdoor adventures. It is a great spot for family vacations or weekend getaways from Birmingham, Huntsville, Chattanooga or Atlanta.
The visitor center and main entrance is at 4322 Little River Trail NE, Fort Payne, Alabama. If this address does not show on our GPS, try 472 Alabama Highway 35, Fort Payne.
The park is free to visit with the exception of Canyon Mouth Park picnic area near Cedar Bluff, which requires a $10 admission fee. There is no camping with hookups in the preserve, but modern campgrounds are available at nearby DeSoto State Park. Primitive campsites are available in the preserve itself.
You can learn about other great outdoors destinations by visiting our Ourdoor Adventures in the U.S. Southeast page.