Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Noccalula Falls Park - Gadsden, Alabama

Noccalula Falls Park is the best deal in Alabama. It's also one of the best kept secrets.  This city park is home to a stunning 90 foot waterfall.  There is a trail that takes you down to the river gorge and even behind the waterfall.  The park also contains to a pioneer village, a botanical garden, a maze of rocks, and a small zoo.  As if that wasn't enough unlimited train rides are included in the price of admission.  

Location: 1500 Noccalula Road Gadsden, Alabama.  Gadsden is about 60 miles northeast of Birmingham.

Cost:  Admission to the park costs $6 for adults and $3 for children ages 4-12.  Children three and under are free.

You don't have to pay the entrance fee to see the waterfall.  There is a large viewing area outside the park. However, the entrance fee is worth it for everything else the park has to offer.

Operating Seasons and Hours: The park is open every day.  Hours vary depending on the season, but generally the park is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.  The park is open later in the evening during summer months.

Official Website: City of Gadsden

Date of Visit: Friday, April 15, 2016

This was the only stop of the fifth day of my family's road trip to the Lookout Mountain area of Alabama in April of 2016. We packed up our campsite at DeSoto State Park, and then drove southwest 45 miles on the Lookout Mountain Parkway to reach Noccalula Falls Park in Gadsden.

Within minutes of entering the park,  Noccalula Falls Park became one of my favorite places in all of Alabama.  Which is kind of ironic because I really didn't research Noccalula Falls Park much when I was planning our trip.  

This is basically how my research went. "Okay, there's a waterfall in Gadsden, we should go check that out.  Oh and it's part of a park . . . with a really low admission fee so we can afford to go there.  And what's this? Unlimited train rides!  Yes we will definitely visit this place."

And that's all the research I did. I never even googled pictures of the waterfall. The promise of unlimited train rides for my train obsessed four year old son was enough to put this place on our itinerary.  I didn't even look to see what else was in the park.   

So imagine my surprise when we arrived at the park, and discovered that not only did we get see a beautiful water fall and ride the train as much as we wanted, but we also could visit a small zoo, see pioneer era buildings, explore maze like rocks, walk through a botanical garden, and hike down behind the waterfall.  And all for the extremely low price of only $6 for an adult and $3 per child.

If there was such a thing as a 51 Cent Adventure seal of approval, Noccalula Falls Park would definitely earn it. Seriously, Noccalula Falls Park is the best deal in all of  Alabama. If you are in the area it is well worth your time to visit this park.  I'd almost even say that it's worth travelling to visit this park.

What makes it so great?  Well I'm going to tell you about 6 of the things that make it awesome.

1. Unlimited train rides on a replica C. P. Huntington train
Most places with a small train make you pay per train ride.  The going price is about $3 a ticket.  For our family of 6 that price adds up pretty quickly.

So the fact that we could ride this train as many times as we wanted was one of the things that made me love this park. Just riding on it twice would have covered the price of admission. The kids loved it too - especially my train obsessed son.
Another thing that was great about the train was that we could actually see points of interest while riding the train.  A lot of train rides seem like afterthoughts.  You can almost tell that the people in charge thought, "hey let's put in a small train as an additional source of income for the park.  And then the train just goes around the perimeter, and is kind of a boring ride.

The final thing that made the train nice was that it had three stops throughout the park. You could ride the train a little ways and then get off to explore the zoo. Or you could ride it over to the special exit that led to the waterfall overlook.  After you were done with those areas it was easy to hop back onto the train and ride it to your next destination.

2. Noccalula Falls 

It makes sense that the park's namesake would be one of the best parts of the park.  I was very impressed by the beauty of this waterfall.  The waters of Black Creek cascade 90 feet from the top of the falls down to a pool in the gorge below.
 The gorge itself is a beautiful sight too.
Noccalula Falls take their name from a legend of a Cherokee Princess who threw herself over the falls rather than marry someone that she didn't love. There is a statue depicting this princess.
What's interesting is that you don't have to pay the parks admission price to see Noccalula Falls.  The best viewing area is outside the park gates. The train makes a stop at a spot where you can exit the park to see the falls.  When you are done visiting the falls you can wait for the train to come back and the engineer will let you back into the park. (You receive a wrist band when you first enter the park so they can keep track of who has paid the admission fee.)

3. The gorge trail that leads behind the falls

If the view from above the falls isn't enough, you can also see the falls from down below.  This is something that you have to pay the park's admission fee to do.  But trust me it's worth it. 
I thought we'd have to travel to some place exotic to take a picture like this.  Who knew we could do it in Northern Alabama?
The gorge trail starts near the train stop for the zoo.  There is a sign recommending that hikers be in good physical shape before starting on this trail.  
The trail is paved at first and very steep.  My girls thought the best way to get down the trail was to scoot on their bums.
The pavement is replaced by gravel when the trail levels out.  The trail is lined with trees and very shady. 
There are tall cliffs on the side of the trail.  It's hard to believe that the park is at the top of the cliffs. It's actually really hard to remember that there is a whole city nearby.  This gorge trail feels like it's way out in the wilderness.  
The trail stays close to the cliffs until it comes to the water fall.  Then the trail actual leads into the large alcove behind the falls.  The trail is slippery from the water blowing off the falls, but it is still passable.
Hiking down the gorge trail is definitely something you should do if you are physically able to do it.

4. The Fat Man's Misery maze of rocks

Hiking down the gorge trail isn't the only opportunity for adventure inside Noccalula Falls Park. At the top of the cliff there is an area with odd shaped rocks that form a maze like area.

Stairs led down into the maze.
But soon you are wandering through tiny slots and climbing over boulders.

The maze area isn't very big, but it's a fun place to explore.

5. The Covered Bridge and the Pioneer Village

The historical buildings were some of the things that surprised me about Noccalula Falls Park.  I hadn't realized that the park was home to about a dozen different pioneer era buildings.  Most of them made up a small town in Tennessee before they were carefully moved to Gadsden.  Buildings include a black smith shop, a gristmill with a waterwheel, and several homes.

Of particular note is the Gilliland-Reese Covered Bridge. This covered bridge came from Reece City, Alabama and was moved to Noccalula Falls Park when the construction of I-59 threatened it's original location.  Today it sits near a picturesque small pond.

6. The Zoo and Petting Zoo

This was another thing that I completely missed when I planned our visit.  I didn't realize that there was a small zoo located inside Noccalula Falls Park.  The largest animal that the zoo  has is a lion, but there are mostly small animals and birds. 
There was also a large barn that was full of displays of birds, turtles, and some mammals.
Outside the barn was a small petting zoo with goats and deer.  My kids loved the this tortoise.  All week long my two year old had been talking about an imaginary turtle and saying, "turtle coming!" So it was funny to finally see a turtle coming, (even if it was really a tortoise.) 

We spent hours exploring Noccalula Falls Park. I'd planned to spend most of the day there, but I didn't realize just how much we would do during that day. Size-wise the park really isn't that big, but it had so many interesting things packed inside.   And whenever the kids started getting tired we'd just hop on the train for a while.

We were all very reluctant to leave the park when closing time came.  Of all the amazing places that we'd discovered during our 5 days in Northern Alabama, this was the place that had been the most fun to visit.  I was glad that I'd unwittingly saved the best part of the vacation for the last day.

Directions: Noccalula Falls Park is located north of the main part of the city of Gadsden, Alabama.  The easiest way to find the park is to turn left onto Woodliff Road (Highway 211) from Highway 431.  Follow that for about 2 miles.  You'll see the parking lot for Noccalula Falls Park on your left.

Places Nearby:  There are two other places of interest located close to Noccalula Falls.  One is the Noccalula Falls Campground.  This campground is on the north side of the gorge.  I actually considered having my family stay at this campground before I decided that we'd stay at DeSoto State Park. Camping at this campground starts at $16 for a tent site and $21 for an RV.  There are also cabins available starting at over $100 per night.

The other place of interest is the Noccalula Mini Golf course. This is located just down the street from the parking lot for Noccalula Falls Park. It is open from March to October.  Hours vary but the course is generally open in the afternoon.  Games cost $5 for adults and $4 for children under 12.

Next Stop:  This was the last stop of our Lookout Mountain Vacation.  However, Noccalula Falls could be the first stop for your trip to Lookout Mountain.  The Lookout Mountain Parkway starts just a stone's throw away from Noccalula Falls Park.  There is a Y shaped intersection about 100 yards away from the waterfall.  One of those roads is Tabor Road which is the beginning of the Lookout Mountain Parkway.  This parkway spans 88 miles and leads to Chattanooga Tennessee.  Along the way it passes many places of interest - including more waterfalls

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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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