Fall Foliage in North Alabama Breathtaking
By DAVID RAINER
Pack your bags and hit the road for north Alabama if you want to see one of the most stunning displays of colorful fall foliage in the nation.
I suppose it’s a factor of aging – we tend to slow down and marvel at God’s creations and the beauty in what was once considered a mundane occurrence back in our younger days.
For those with the opportunity, viewing the brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow on Lookout Mountain, along the Natchez Trace Parkway and on the road to the Walls of Jericho will be a trip not soon forgotten, especially if you take the time to snap plenty of photos.
John Dersham with the DeKalb County Tourist Association in Fort Payne said north Alabama is a unique melting pot for plant species, which adds greatly to the colorful display.
“This particular part of north Alabama is host to both the southern and northern hardwood deciduous trees, which gives us a real advantage,” Dersham said. “Right now, we’re near our peak on Lookout Mountain. Sand Mountain is probably several days behind. What we have that makes this so exciting for tourism and the consumer is the fact we have the largest stand of maple – both southern red maple and sugar maple. That tree, in particular, gets everything from a bright yellow to a bright red. Along the Little River Canyon rim, the colors are really popping.
“The real difference in north Alabama, say from Birmingham north, to south Alabama is the concentration of hardwoods is a lot greater in north Alabama. And it’s also the type of hardwoods – yellow poplar, hickory, maples, sweetgums, hickory, white oaks, chestnut oaks, blackgum – all deliver a much greater color variety and intensity than the southern hardwoods. That’s a gift for us to get that color.”
Although other areas of the country rave about their fall foliage displays, Dersham insists those areas have nothing on northeast Alabama.
“That’s what surprises people when they come here,” he said. “They say, ‘We went through Vermont and it’s no more colorful than here, and I always heard it was.’ I tell them we have variety whereas Vermont is mostly maple and that’s all you see. So, in this part of the state, our colors are equal to or better than any points to the north.
Kay Smallwood of the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association, which encompasses 16 counties in north Alabama, said other areas of north Alabama have plenty to offer, as well.
“On the other side of the state, of course you have the Natchez Trace Parkway, which is very scenic,” Smallwood said. “The combination of trees is very similar. Of course, it’s not as mountainous as northeast Alabama. Highway 72 all across north Alabama offers a lot of scenic vistas. And you can take Highway 65 up the Paint Rock River Valley, which is beautiful, and you can go up Highway 79 to Skyline and the Walls of Jericho. Those are places you don’t want to miss on a fall foliage trip.”
Dersham said if he were planning a route for somebody right this minute it would start just outside Gadsden at the base of Lookout Mountain. DeSoto State Park is along the way with a resort, cabin and improved camping facilities.
“I think I would get off the interstate at exit 431 in Gadsden and follow the signs to Lookout Mountain,” he said. “Then I would follow the Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway all the way through DeKalb County and end it at Mentone. I think that drive will have quite a bit of color still left.
“Everything along the canyon is further along than when you get away from the canyon. All that cool air from the water turns the leaves on the canyon rim faster than away from the canyon. The area away from the canyon should be coming to its peak soon.”
“And you also have the opportunity to take in Noccalula Falls, Desoto Falls and the falls at Little River Canyon. On the other side of the state, another excellent stopover would be the Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness Area. You should have beautiful colors over there for a couple more weeks. And, the Natchez Trace has just opened a new welcome center.”
The fall foliage season is big business for the tourism industry in Alabama, Smallwood and Dersham said. The majority of visitors come from Alabama from Birmingham south, while Mississippi, Louisiana and the Panhandle of Florida make up the bulk of the remainder.
“When you’re coming from Louisiana, Mississippi and other parts of Alabama, these are the first mountains they come to,” Smallwood said. “In Florida, they can go east and west and find sand, but they have to go north to change what they see. Actually, Florida is in our top five every time we poll.”
That’s not to say those numbers hold up during the current economic distress, which has caused The Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association to bring its outreach program closer to home.
“For our region, our business is great within a 150-mile radius,” Smallwood said. “You get outside 150 miles and we’re seeing that business drop off. From 150 to 250 miles, we’re down probably 40 percent, so we’re concentrating on those people inside that 150 miles.”
For those who can make the trip during the foliage season, be sure to take the best camera you have available.
Before taking the director’s position with DeKalb County Tourism, Dersham spent 30 years with Eastman Kodak and is an accomplished photographer. He said a few simple tips can make a big difference in the quality of photography.
“If you’re doing long-distance shots, like from the canyon rim, environmentally clear days are much better,” Dersham said. “If you don’t have a choice, and you have gray skies, haze or bad weather, don’t make the sky much of the scene. Crop the sky out and go lower into the side of the mountain. If it’s a beautiful, clear day, use the sky in your favor. It will bring out the color in the leaves.
“The other thing is to make color really look fuller in the fall, you want to zoom in a little bit. You want to cut the tree line at the sky view. You get more color saturation that way. And pay attention to the angle of light. Early day and late afternoon has the best light, unless you’re in the canyon. Then you almost need mid-day light or you’ll get harsh shadows. And, if you have a viewfinder, use it. It’s much harder to compose a picture on an LCD screen.”
Serious amateur photographers should also invest in a tripod, Dersham suggests.
“If you want to shoot waterfalls, you need a tripod,” he said. “And shoot on one-quarter of second (shutter speed). That gives you the nicest, wispiest water, but it has to be on a tripod. You can’t handhold a camera at less than a 30th of a second. Also, you don’t need to overexpose fall foliage. A lot of times, the automatic settings will make it a lot lighter than needed and you lose color saturation.”
If you can make the trip right away, you might consider the Collinsville Historic Turkey Trot, the oldest festival in DeKalb County, replete with a greased pig chase that takes place on Nov. 14.
PHOTOS (by David Rainer): The fall colors are bursting from the foliage around Little River Canyon and areas of north Alabama should provide excellent vistas for at least the next week or so.