9 Fantastic Outdoor Experiences In My Favorite Alabama Mountain Town (2023)

Located in northeast Alabama, near the state’s border with Tennessee and Georgia, lies the town of Fort Payne. Nestled in the foothills of the Southern Appalachians, atop Lookout Mountain, this quaint village offers visitors who love outdoor recreation an amazing array of activities and is my favorite stop in the state for outdoor fun.

What’s your pleasure? Hiking? Kayaking? Waterfall viewing? It’s all waiting for you in the Fort Payne area. Here are nine outdoor experiences you don’t want to miss.

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1. Little River Falls

The 45-foot-tall Little River Falls is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Alabama and one of the state’s most popular attractions. While many waterfalls in Alabama dry up in the heat of summer, Little River always puts on a roaring good show, severe droughts notwithstanding.

The falls are part of the Little River Canyon National Preserve and mark the beginning of one of the deepest canyons east of the Mississippi (more on that in a moment). The best vantage point to see the falls up close and personal is from the Little River Falls Picnic Area on Highway 35. From the parking lot, a composite boardwalk makes viewing the falls ADA accessible.

The picnic area has room for 100 cars and ample space for RVs. There are also picnic tables and barbecue grills so you can make a day out of exploring. Admission is free.

Pro Tip: The Early Bird Gets The View

Early risers will be treated to a beautiful rainbow in the spray as the sun rises. And you should arrive early. On most days, the parking lot is completely full by 11 a.m.

2. True Backcountry Swimming Holes

While at Little River National Preserve, cool off in one of two good old-fashioned swimming holes.

Little Falls

The first is one of the most famous swimming holes in Alabama, but it suffers from an identity crisis. Some call it the Hippie Hole. At one time its official name was Martha’s Falls. Today, it is known as Little Falls.

This amazing and cold summertime treat is located at the base of Little Falls, a 10-foot cascade not far downstream from Little River Falls. It pours over a sandstone bed and forms this deep, cold, and extremely popular swimming hole.

Here’s the rub — you have to hike to get there using the Little Falls Trail. The trail is a three-quarter mile (one way) hike along the rim of Little River Canyon. It is a moderately difficult hike until the end, where you climb steeply down about 300 feet to the river and the swimming hole, but your hike will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the canyon along the way.

The Little Falls Trail begins at the end of the boardwalk at the Little River Falls Picnic Area on Highway 35.

Blue Hole

The second is Blue Hole, a quiet and tranquil stretch of Little River with a slow flow making the crystal clear mountain waters the perfect spot for families and new swimmers. Blue Hole is located only one-quarter mile east of Little River Falls on Highway 35.

Pro Tips: Be Prepared

  • The trail to Little Falls has ample room and keeps you safely away from the canyon rim, but still, use caution and refrain from looking over the edge.
  • Remember, you have to carry your swimming gear with you — towels, sunscreen, et cetera — so don’t forget and leave them in your car.
  • The parking lot for Blue Hole is small and can fill up fast. Arrive well before 11 a.m.
  • And remember, there are no lifeguards at the swimming holes.
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3. Little RiverKayaking

It’s hard to believe that as you marvel at the thundering Little River Falls, kayakers actually run its turbulent waters, but they do — and that is only for highly experienced kayakers. There are stretches of the river, however, that every skill level of kayaker can enjoy in winter and spring, when the river runs full.

In the miles of river above Little River Falls and at Canyon Mouth Park at the end of the preserve, kayakers will experience a paddle that ranges from a gentle float trip to Class I and II rapids.

For experienced kayakers, below the falls when the river is really flowing and full, kayakers can shoot Class II up to Class VI rapids. This area has been used by Olympic teams from around the world for training.

Pro Tip: Before putting your boat in the river, please read the National Park Service’s safety tips.

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4. Little River Canyon Rim Parkway

For something a little less adventurous but still spectacular, pack a picnic lunch and take the 11-mile drive down the Little River Canyon Rim Parkway for some breathtaking views.

Along the route, there are eight overlooks where you can stop and take in the incredible scenery — the towering rock walls, unique rock formations, and pencil-thin waterfalls, like Grace’s High Falls; the numerous hiking trails, like the easy walking Beaver Pond Loop and the extremely difficult Eberhart Trail; and the many faces of nature throughout the year; the lush greens of summer and the fiery orange, yellows, and reds of fall.

The drive begins less than a half-mile west of the Little River Falls Picnic Area on Highway 35.

Pro Tips: Travel Smart

  • Stop by the Little River Canyon Center before heading off and pick up a brochure that will show the route and the overlooks and waterfalls.
  • The park service recommends that RVs do not travel the parkway. It has many sharp, blind turns.
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DeSoto State Park

A huge source of Fort Payne’s outdoor recreation comes from DeSoto State Park, a 3,502-acre expanse of wilderness just northeast of town. It’s an oasis for hikers, mountain bikers, campers, thrill seekers, and more.

5. DeSoto Falls

DeSoto Falls is one of the tallest, most stunning waterfalls in Alabama, and one of the most visited.

DeSoto Falls was once a natural waterfall, but in 1925, the West Fork of Little River was dammed to create the state’s first hydroelectric plant. From the dam, the torrent thunders 104-feet down a rocky base before losing contact with the rock wall and crashing into a beautiful, blue pool below.

The falls can be easily viewed from the DeSoto Falls Picnic Area on County Road 613. From the large parking lot, a paved and stone ADA-accessible path leads to the edge of the falls for incredible views. The path is perfect for families with smaller children.

Pro Tip: For your safety, do not cross the steel railing at the edge of the falls.

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6. Hiking

DeSoto State Park is your basecamp for hiking adventures in Fort Payne. The park boasts 35 miles of hiking trails that lead to spectacular views of a canyon formed by the turbulent West Fork of Little River and several waterfalls.

A favorite hike for visitors is a 2.4-mile loop made by connecting four of the park’s trails — the Talmadge Butler Boardwalk, Azalea Cascade Trail, Laurel Falls Trail, and Lost Falls Trail. This easy walking hike takes you to three impressive waterfalls, beginning with the Azalea Cascade, which is framed with the vibrant colors of wild azalea in season. The 360-foot long boardwalk section of the hike is ADA accessible with decks and picnic tables located atop the pool formed by the Azalea Cascade.

Pro Tips: There is no admission fee to enter the park. Be sure to pick up a trail map at the park’s country store.

7. Mountain Biking

DeSoto State Park has something for mountain bikers as well — 11 miles of fast singletrack that will quench any biker’s need for speed.

The most challenging route is the CCC Quarry Bike Loop, a 5-mile, super rugged track that will test your skill.

For something that the entire family can enjoy, there is the Family Bike Loop, a nice and easy 2.5-mile ride through the woods that takes about an hour for average bikers to complete. It’s a great chance to get the kids out to have fun exploring nature.

8. Zip Lining

Get the adrenaline pumping as you soar through the treetops at DeSoto State Park on the Screaming Eagle Aerial Adventure. Six zip lines, from 100 to 350 feet long, and six sky bridges give you a view of the park and its unique geologic features like never before.

Pro Tips: There is a fee for the Aerial Adventure, and reservations are recommended.

9. Camping

If you are into camping, then DeSoto State Park is the place for you where you can spend a glorious night under the stars.

The park offers 94 full hookup tent and RV sites with level gravel pads, water, electricity, picnic tables, and fire rings with a grill. The canopy provided by the trees makes even summertime camping a pleasure, and the sites are distanced far enough apart to give you plenty of privacy.

The park also has 18 primitive sites (no water or electricity) and wall tent sites where large cabin tents are provided — just bring your food and cooking gear.

If you would rather spend the night in something more comfortable, then book a room in the 1930s-era Historic Lodge.

Pro Tip: Make reservations way in advance of your vacation. Campsites and hotel rooms book up fast, even in winter, when visitors come to the park to stay in the peace and quiet with a light dusting of snow on the ground.

Can’t get enough of the great Alabaman outdoors? Consider:

  • 7 Best Wildflower Hikes In Alabama
  • 8 Best Outdoor Activities Near Birmingham
  • 9 Beautiful Hikes In Alabama
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