The sturdy ridge of Lookout Mountain angles for about 80 miles across parts of three states: Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Nowhere more than 10 miles wide, the mountain seems a world unto itself, featuring a diverse display of plant life. Oaks and maples intermingle with poplars and dogwoods, while bouquets of sunflowers, lobelias, and black-eyed Susans spangle the fields. The parkway itself, marked by green signs, cobbles together a dozen rural byways to fashion a 120-mile-long paradise that includes cascades, canyons, and even caverns.
1. Noccalula Falls Park
Alabama’s natural beauty shares the stage with Indian lore at this 250-acre park to the north of Gadsden. Once called Black Creek Falls, the 90-foot waterfall here now bears the name of the Cherokee princess Noccalula, who is said to have hurled herself to a watery death rather than marry a man she did not love. A bronze statue of the lovelorn maiden, poised to leap into the thundering cascade, looks out endlessly on the falls. Nearby, a stairway descends into Black Creek Gorge, a snaking chasm carved into the rocks just downstream from the falls. A 1 1/2-mile trail shadows the waterway as it races between towering sandstone bluffs. Another pathway, the Lookout Mountain Hiking Trail, which one day will lead all the way to Chattanooga, also can be sampled at Noccalula Falls Park.
2. Little River Canyon
The green signs along Tabor Road, Rte. 89, the first leg of the Lookout Mountain Parkway, will guide you north to State Rte. 68, where the parkway becomes Rte. 176 with Leesburg on the left and Collonsville to the right. Farther along, at a community called Dogtown, the drive makes a brief, beautiful detour from the parkway itself, taking Rte. 176A northeast along the western rim of Little River Canyon.
The roadway parallels the steep-walled rift, one of the deepest to be found east of the Mississippi River. Turnouts are sprinkled along the route; stand at the canyon’s edge, if you dare, and listen for the distant music of the Little River, rushing along some 700 feet below. You can even follow one of several trails that lead down the sandstone cliffs to the cloistered canyon floor and reward yourself with a refreshing summertime dip in one of the Little River’s sheltered swimming holes. After you enjoy this side trip, return to the parkway by following Rte. 35 westward to Rte. 89.
3. DeSoto State Park
Although the Spaniard Hernando De Soto found no gold when he explored this region in 1540, modern seekers of nature’s treasures will find prizes aplenty: 20 miles of trails lined with uncountable riches. Famed for its springtime display of flowering shrubs, this wooded preserve is equally stunning in autumn, when hardwoods put on a show of foliage as colorful as a painter’s palette. Be sure to catch each season in all its glory from the overlook at nearby 120-foot DeSoto Falls, the highest cascade in the area. The reservoir above the falls makes for a lovely picnic spot — and a tempting find for anglers.
4. Sequoyah Caverns
The drive detours again, heading west to Rte. 11, where signs will direct you to the underground world of Sequoyah Caverns, with caves and passageways that honeycomb the rock. Thousands of fossils are forever frozen in time on the walls and ceilings, while underground lakes — silent, clear, and still — double every image like natural funhouse mirrors. Above ground the park has a small collection of animals — including fallow deer, goats, ducks, and peacocks.
5. Cloudland Canyon State Park
Back on Lookout Mountain Parkway, you’ll traverse the spine of Lookout Mountain along Rte. 117, which zigzags eastward through woodlands on the way to Georgia. Beyond the town of Cloudland, the parkway continues to press northward along Rte. 157, then turns onto Rte. 136 for a short jaunt to Cloudland Canyon State Park. One of the region’s finest preserves, its 2,200 or so acres embrace a cluster of ravines and waterfalls. With elevations that range from 800 to 1,900 feet, this is rugged terrain but well worth exploring. Exhilarating panoramas of the hills and hollows will prepare sightseers for the grandeur that awaits at Cloudland Canyon itself, a deep cleft slashed into shale and sandstone by Sitton Gulch Creek. For a front-row seat, stop at the park’s main picnic area.
6. Point Park
The parkway heads northward along Rte. 189, which returns you to Rte. 157 a few miles south of the Tennessee border. Once across the state line, the drive follows Rte. 210 to the scenic loop that passes Point Park — a fitting climax to this journey along the length of Lookout Mountain. The ridge reaches its highest point here, cresting at 2,126 feet, and boasts a view to match, with vistas of the Tennessee River gliding slowly past the city of Chattanooga. On clear days you can also see portions of six other states: Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and even Virginia. For a glimpse of the mountain’s interior, visit Ruby Falls, a watery plume that splashes down through a cave located more than 1,000 feet underground. The hidden realm — an elevator will whisk you there — also claims among its charms several subterranean chambers that are bejeweled with onyx as well as with dripstone; when illuminated, the cave’s walls shimmer with rainbow-like colors. Length: About 120 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Pleasant year-round.
Nearby attractions: Rock City Gardens, a 10-acre tract that contains rare vegetation and unusual sandstone formations, off Rte. 157 in Georgia, just south of Tennessee. Chattanooga Nature Center, with marked roads and trails that pass through areas lush with wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, off Rte. 11 in Chattanooga, TN.
Further information: Lookout Mountain Parkway Association, P.O. Box 681165, Fort Payne, AL 35968; tel. 888-805-4740, www.tourdekalb.com.
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