Thursday, May 12, 2016

12 Things to see and do at DeSoto State Park near Fort Payne, Alabama

Waterfalls are the key feature of DeSoto State Park, located in northeastern Alabama on top of Lookout Mountain. The park shares a name with DeSoto Falls, a spectacular 107 foot waterfall located less than 6 miles from the main part of the park.  There are also many smaller falls located along the hiking trails inside of DeSoto State Park. Most of these smaller falls are located within a few feet of the trail heads so they are easy to find.

Location: The park is located on top of Lookout Mountain about 9 miles northeast of Fort Payne Alabama at 7104 DeSoto Parkway NE.

Cost: Admission to most of the park, including DeSoto Falls, is free.  However, there is a $3 fee if you visit the day use picnic area.

Camping starts at $14.30 per night for the primitive campground.  Sites at the improved campground are $34.65 per night.  There are also hotel rooms and cabins available for around $100 per night.

Operating Seasons and Hours:  The park is open during daylight hours every day of the year.  The General Store is usually open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, but hours can be reduced during the winter.

Official Website:

Date of Visit: Monday, April 11, 2016 to Friday, April 15, 2016

This was the first stop of the first day of our road trip to the Lookout Mountain area of Alabama in April of 2016.  This is also where we stayed every night of that trip. Desoto State Park was within driving distance to all the places we wanted to visit so it operated as a base camp of sorts. We also took time to explore the park during the five days of our vacation.

Over the years, Brandon and I have come up with routine for how to plan these road trip vacations.  I start planning them about six months in advance, and I bounce ideas off of him of things that sound interesting. However, it isn't until about 2 weeks before the actual trip that Brandon starts really paying attention to what I've been saying. Once it all registers he starts to gets excited about the trip.

This year was no exception. About two weeks before our vacation started Brandon needed to know the name of the state park where we'd be staying.  I told him DeSoto State Park and he looked it up. After looking at the website for a few minutes he told me, "we should just spent the whole week exploring this place!"

And that's kind of what we ended up doing.  Yes, we still explored other places in the Lookout Mountain Area, but we spent a lot of time in DeSoto State Park. We discovered that there was more to do there than just look at one cool waterfall.

Rather than take you through a play by play of what we did on each day I thought I'd change things up and make of list of 12 things you can see and do inside the park.

1. Country Store
If you are going to be in DeSoto State Park, chances are you will need to stop at the country store at least once during your visit. The store has an assortment of things for sale ranging from souvenirs to food stuff.  They sell firewood for a great price too.  Also if you plan on staying in one of the campgrounds then the Country Store is where you will check in and pay for your site.

2. Nature Center
Next door to the country store is a building that houses restrooms, a laundry room with quarter operated washers and dryers, and a small nature center. We used each of those things during our visit, but the Nature Center was by far the most fun part of that building.

The Nature Center is made up of two rooms.  The first one has displays of stuffed animals.  
The second room has some stuffed animals, but there are also a few live animals like snakes, a rabbit, and a squirrel on display in cages. 

3. Picnic Area
Okay, I'll admit we didn't go to the picnic area.  But that's because we were camping inside the park and so we ate our meals at our campsite. The picnic area did look enticing though.  It's across from the Country Store and we could see the playground structure from the parking lot. If we'd visited during the summer we could have swum at the pool inside the picnic area for $4 a swimmer.

I should mention that the picnic area is the only part of the park that charges a day use fee.  It's $3 per car which is a great deal.

4. Needle Eye Rock
There are many interesting shaped rocks within DeSoto State Park, but Needle Eye Rock is one of the strangest.  It's located a short distance behind the Country Store. You can find it via the Red or the Orange Trails. We discovered the crazy scenery on our way to the Country Store from Laurel Falls.  We were very surprised to find this crazy split rock.
It's kind of hard to see in this picture, but there is a giant split rock just resting on the ground.  The trail went right between the two halves of the rock.
There was also this enchanted looking staircase laid into the ground a little farther on the Red Trail.  It's definitely worth checking out. If you continue on this trail you can reach Laurel Falls, Lost Falls, or the Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail.  Make sure  you have a copy of the trail guide with you if you are going to go very far. This section of the park has a network of about 3 interconnected trails that can get a little confusing if you don't have an image of the map with you.

5. Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail
This 360 yard trail leads from DeSoto Parkway/Highway 89 to the Azalea Cascade.  The whole trail is a boardwalk, and so is accessible to anyone in a wheelchair or using a stroller.  Along the way you will pass beautiful plants, and have a chance to see many birds and other wildlife.  There is even a gazebo if you want to stop and sit for a while.
The Azalea Cascade at the end of the boardwalk is very pretty.  At the end of the boardwalk you have the option to start hiking on either the Blue Trail or the Red Trail.  Both of those trails lead to waterfalls.


Okay, now let's talk about the real wonders within DeSoto State Park.  The waterfalls.  There are five waterfalls within the park and three of them are extremely easy to find. I've listed them in order of distance from the Country Store.

6. Indian Falls 

This is probably the easiest waterfall to find within the park. It's located .1 mile from the trail head.

The Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail is located on the western side of the road about 200 feet south of the Country Store.  Park in the little parking lot for the Boardwalk Trail and cross the street.
You'll see a board fence that surrounds the park's sewage treatment plant.  You should also see a sign indicated that the Indian Falls Trail is to the side of the sewage treatment plant.  (Don't worry, that's NOT where the water comes from.)
Follow the trail around the fence and you'll come to footbridge.  This footbridge spans the top of the waterfall.
If you cross the bridge the path will descend down the side of the rocks so you can hike down to the bottom of the falls.
It's a beautiful waterfall that is more than worth the 5 minutes it takes to find.

7. Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls is located about .75 of a mile from the Country Store, but that's not the only way to reach the waterfall.  You can also reach it if you start from the Talmadge Butler Boardwalk.

When you reach the Azalea Cascade on the Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail you can either return to your car or you can venture onto one of the hiking trails in search of either Laurel or Lost Falls.  I highly recommend making sure you have a trail guide with you if you are going to go off the boardwalk. This section of the park has a network of about 3 interconnected trails that can get a little confusing if you don't have an image of the map with you.
My family decided to try to find Laurel Falls.  Laurel Falls is located on the Orange Trail which we accessed via the Red Trail.  (I know it all sounds confusing, but it's really not that bad.)  The trails are designated with colored dots spray painted on trees every few feet. 
Laurel Falls is a small waterfall, but it was very pretty.  Also the scenery on the way there is very beautiful. 

8. Lost Falls
Lost Falls is located about 1.5 miles from the Country Store.  It is located on the blue trail. This is a seasonal waterfall, and so it's "lost" when there isn't water flowing over it.  My family didn't have time to try to track down a waterfall that may or may not have been visible so unfortunately we had to skip this one.

9. Lodge Falls

Lodge Falls is another easy waterfall to find.  However, this one has a rather steep trail so it's not the most accessible one.
This waterfall is located on the Green Trail behind the Park Lodge which is about a half mile from the Country Store.  There isn't really a trail head for the Green trail, but if you park at the Lodge and then just go behind the hotel rooms you will find the trail.
After just a few feet a steeper trail leads down to into a ravine. As you can see it's a pretty steep trail. On our way back up, we actually discovered that if we'd kept on the Green Trail for about 50 more feet we would come to a somewhat less intense descent.
After about 25 to 30 feet the trail leveled out again and led right to the waterfall.  We were able to walk behind it which was pretty cool.

10. Desoto Falls
DeSoto Falls is the waterfall most often associated with DeSoto State Park, but it is actually located about 6 miles away from the main part of the park. There are plenty of signs to guide you between the places.  As you drive you'll see many homes of the lucky people who get to live on top of Lookout Mountain.  I was surprised by these homes.  I'd been expecting Lookout Mountain to be similar to Mt Cheaha about 100 miles to the south.  That state park was located in the middle of the Talladega National Forest and so was surrounded by nothing but trees.  But DeSoto State Park is built in the middle of some of the most coveted real estate in all of Alabama.
When we arrived at the falls we could see the A. A. Miller Dam.  I was a little disappointed to see the dam.  I was like, "Hello, that's a dam not a waterfall.  What kind of false advertising is this?"
But then we hiked down some stairs and could see a real waterfall.
I was pleased to discover that this was just the upper falls and that there was another waterfall below them.
After another hike down some more stairs we could see the 107 foot water fall.
In front of us was a high wall of stone that the river had been cutting for eons.  That wall of stone was almost as impressive as the waterfall.

11. Civilian Conservation Corp Museum
As with many State and National Parks, DeSoto State Park was developed during the Great Depression.  Men from the Civilian Conservation Corps worked hard to build the roads and trails that are still in use today. They built buildings such as the lodge, and even some of the cabins.  The original entrance to the park has been converted into a museum dedicated to the men in the CCC. The museum is open every Saturdays from 12:00-4:00 during the months of March though November. The rest of the time the museum is open by appointment.

12. Overnight Accommodations
Obviously there are many things to do at Desoto State Park, and so you'll probably want to plan to spend several days exploring the park.  There are a variety of places to chose from if you want to stay overnight.

My family chose to camp at the Primitive Campground. This campground costs only $13.40 per night plus lodging tax and a booking fee.  We paid around $80 for a total of four nights - what a deal!
The primitive campsites don't have picnic tables, but there was a picnic shelter that we could have used if we'd wanted to walk over to that part of the campground.  There was a spigot with running water.  The restroom was a vault toilet.

If you want a few more amenities you can stay at the improved campground. This campground has sites for RVs as well as tents.  There are picnic tables, electric hookups, and running water at each site. Sites cost $34.65 per night plus the lodging tax and booking fee.

There are two comfort stations in the improved campground.  These have bathrooms with flushing toilets and sinks with running water.  Most importantly - they have showers with hot water.  And thankfully, even the people who stay at the primitive campsites can use these comfort stations. We were very grateful for the chance to take a shower.
If camping isn't your thing you can still stay at DeSoto State Park. There is a hotel located right next to the Lodge.  There are also about 25 cabins in the same area as the Lodge.  The hotel and cabins each cost around $100 per night.

I should mention that The Lodge has a restaurant where you can eat meals if you don't want to cook your own food.

* * *

Recommendation: Anyone who lives in Alabama should plan a trip to DeSoto State Park. There really is no reason not to go.  The scenery is great, the waterfalls are easy to find, and most of the park is completely free to visit.  Seriously, you should go here.

Directions:  So how do you find this amazing place?  Well the easiest way to do it is to drive to Fort Payne, Alabama, and then take Highway 35 up to the top of Lookout Mountain.  Once you are on top turn left onto Highway 89 which is also known as DeSoto Parkway.  After about 7 miles you will be inside DeSoto State Park.

Additional Information: The DeSoto Scout Trail goes through the park and offers a challenging hiking experience.  This trail starts at the Comer Scout Reservation to the north of the park and ends at the Little River Canyon to the south of the park.  The trail can be accessed within the park from the Gillam Loop Trail head near the Lodge.

Places Nearby: If you are visiting DeSoto State Park, then you can't miss visiting Little River Canyon National Preserve located just 10 miles away.  We visited the Little River Canyon the same day that we did most of our exploring in DeSoto State Park. The two places go well together.

Next Stop: The next place we went on our road trip was up to Chattanooga to see Ruby Falls which is a waterfall located inside of Lookout Mountain. (And yes, it's just as cool as it sounds.)

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I would love to hear what you think. Did I get it right, or was I dead wrong? What was your experience like?


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