The beautiful and historic DeSoto State Park sits atop Lookout Mountain in northeastern Alabama. Located just eight miles northeast of Fort Payne, this mountainous wilderness area provides year-round hiking, water sports, camping, and an array of sites to explore. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built this 3500-acre park in the 1930s, which is just one of the many interesting historical features park visitors will discover. Expect temperatures to hover around the 90s during the summer months with high humidity levels. However, cooler weather begins in late September, just in time to see early signs of the area’s fall color transformation.
Chosen as one of the most scenic drives in America, the 93-mile Lookout Mountain Parkway passes through three states, starting in Gadsden, Alabama, and ending in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The mountaintop city of Fort Payne is the largest Alabama city on the route and only a short distance from the DeSoto State Park. Surrounding the parkway is a landscape of Rhododendrons, along with poplar, dogwood, maple, and hickory trees, creating the perfect atmosphere for a leisurely drive. There are plenty of restaurants and historic sites to discover along the way if you need to stretch your legs.
There are few natural phenomena more magnificent than a silvery waterfall cascading over a rocky ledge into a beautiful pond below. DeSoto State Park is famous for its abundance of waterfalls. The 104-foot DeSoto Falls is the main attraction, located just off Lookout Mountain Parkway. A paved trail leads to an overlook offering a fantastic view of the falls. Indian Falls is another easily accessible waterfall providing a wooden footbridge that crosses over its top for amazing views and great photo opportunities.
There are 30 miles of hiking trails and nearly a dozen biking trails that run through DeSoto State Park. Each trail has markers with a specific color for easy navigation, but it’s a good idea to pick up a map at the Lodge, the Country Store, or the Nature Center to plan your excursion. Although some trails interconnect, others lead to more remote areas and vary in difficulty, perfect for a family outing or an experienced hiker’s adventure. Dogs are welcome on the trails as long as they remain on a leash.
The Little River flows through DeSoto State Park, beckoning to anglers to indulge themselves with a day of fishing in one of its many prime angling spots. Fish for largemouth bass from the bank using spinning rod-and-bait casters, or enjoy a leisurely day floating on the river, fishing from a canoe or kayak. The choice fishing method here on the Little River, however, is fly fishing. Local anglers suggest the West Fork of the river as a great place to fish for Red-eye bass and panfish. The area is accessible using the yellow-marked route of the DeSoto Scout Trail.
For those who enjoy feathered wildlife, the Talmadge Butler Boardwalk is a 360-yard stroll through the forest that provides an opportunity to check out a number of woodland bird species. Visitors are often able to spot Yellow-throated Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, and a variety of woodpeckers. In the spring and fall, look to the skies above the boardwalk to see migrating raptors, including two types of hawks. The trail ends at an octagon-shaped deck overlooking the Azalea Cascade waterfall pool. The boardwalk is ADA-friendly. Enjoy a picnic, swimming, or fishing in one of the designated areas.
Rent a kayak from Miller’s Bend Paddle Shack, located in the park’s picnic area. Paddle through the West Fork of the Little River for a 4-mile round trip, or arrange for a longer excursion. Vests and paddle costs are part of the rental fee. Bring your own equipment and try out the rapids in the backcountry at the nearby Little River Canyon National Preserve which has fairly calm waters and easy rapids. Pick up a map at the Visitors’ Center there.
Whether you prefer primitive camping or something a little more like home, there are a variety of camping and lodging experiences available at this state park. The primitive camping areas offer spaces to set up two tents. Each space has a fire pit, a grill, a sheltered picnic table, and nearby water faucets and self-contained toilets. Rent the Camping Cabin, which has no electricity, heat, or water for a true, pioneer experience. The “Improved Campground” area provides 94 full hook-up sites for RVs. Backpacking campsites are also available, but campers must carry their gear a couple of miles before reaching them. Some campsites provide three-sided shelters; others have open shelters.
Built in the 1930s, the DeSoto Lodge was a CCC project used as a gathering place and a dance hall. The sandstone lodge still overlooks the West Fork of the Little River and offers the same rustic charm, but it has expanded through the years. In the 1970s, the owners added a motel, and the original lodge became the Mountain Inn Restaurant. Today, the full-service restaurant provides breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a wide array of sandwiches, salads, steaks, and seafood. There are also a variety of lodging options available along with free Wi-Fi.
The U.S. Army built Fort Payne in the 1830s. This historical area is just a short drive from DeSoto State Park. The town later became a stop for trains traveling between Birmingham and Chattanooga. By the 1880s, the community was a boomtown. Today, the Fort Payne Opera House and the Fort Payne Depot are still standing, historical reminders of the boom period. These buildings serve as local community centers and are open to the public. The opera house, which underwent restoration, holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The depot is now a museum, housing a collection of local history, including a special railroad history display.
Less than one mile from the DeSoto State Park Campground on the DeSoto Parkway is the Sallie Howard Memorial Baptist Church, a house of worship with a huge sandstone boulder jutting out from behind the pulpit. The designer, Milford Howard, an Alabama representative, built the rustic structure as a memorial to his late wife. Howard, who was also a failed presidential candidate, completed construction in 1937 with the help of the CCC. Six months later, Howard died, and his cremated ashes were placed inside the rock as per his final request. Services are held every Sunday, but the church is always open to visitors. Site managers encourage visitors to “come as you are.” Admission is free.