Little River Canyon has $16 million economic impact on Alabama

Little River Canyon has $16 million economic impact on Alabama
Little River, upstream from Little River Falls. The drought has exposed the riverbed. (Erin Harney/Alabama NewsCenter)

The National Park Service (NPS) turned 100 years old this year. Over the past century, the organization has grown from 35 national parks to more than 400 sites under the protection of the NPS today. From national seashores, monuments, heritage and historic sites to trails and military parks, the variety is as vast as the history they contain. The nine National Park Service sites in Alabama drew 790,000 visitors with a $31 million economic impact last year. Alabama NewsCenter is spending the rest of this centennial year highlighting each Alabama site.

Little River Canyon National Preserve

Twenty-five years ago today, the U.S. Congress heard testimony about a uniquely beautiful and important ecological area in Alabama’s northeastern counties of DeKalb and Cherokee, now called Little River Canyon National Preserve.

The lands within the preserve had long been recognized for their natural and cultural importance. In 1969, the Alabama Legislature designated the area a State Wild and Scenic River, and in 1991, Little River was designated an Outstanding National Resource Water by the Alabama Environmental Management Commission.

The initiative to achieve national designation for the area began in the late 1980s, led by U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill of Alabama’s 4th Congressional District. Olivia Barton Ferriter, who then served as press secretary and House Appropriations Committee associate staff for Bevill, said he was dedicated to the state and preserving its natural resources. “He sought to the have the Little River Canyon area preserved to be enjoyed by future generations,” she said.  

Bevill recognized that having the area chosen as a National Park Service unit would be beneficial for the preservation of the site and would bolster the local economy. The designation would allow Alabama’s natural diversity to be recognized on a national scale, Ferriter said.

The legislation for the state’s only National Preserve was approved on Oct. 21, 1992. The site encompasses 14,000 acres, including DeSoto State Park, Little River State Wildlife Management Area, the Canyon Mouth Day Use Area and lands that had belonged to Alabama Power Company. (The company sold more than 8,500 acres to the National Park Service and deposited the proceeds of about $7.6 million to the Alabama Power Foundation. The money was used “to support educational, charitable and cultural activities throughout Alabama,” said Elmer Harris, president of Alabama Power at the time.)

The site includes almost 200 square miles of the Little River Watershed. Within this watershed, a number of rare, threatened and endangered species of plants and animals are protected, including the green pitcher plant, blue shiner fish and six varieties of caddisflies.

“Little River Canyon is one of the most extensive canyon and gorge systems in the eastern United States and (is) one of the South’s clearest, wildest waterways,” according to the National Park Service. Little River is the only river in Alabama to “form and flow for almost all of its entire length on the top of a mountain.” After flowing along Lookout Mountain, part of the Cumberland Plateau, the Little River plunges into the 600-foot-deep Little River Canyon.

While there was some dissent over land rights early in the designation process from area residents and organizations, the extensive partnership of nature and preservation organizations; local citizens, including country music artist Randy Owen; Alabama’s state parks; Jacksonville State University, and Alabama Power brought about an impressive outcome.

Pete Conroy, director of the Jacksonville State University Little River Canyon Center, said early opponents of the National Preserve have become supporters.

Conroy said the preserve serves as an economic driver for the Fort Payne area. “There has been a $16 million economic impact, with over 255,000 visitors last year, which is an increase of 20 percent,” he said.

Next fall, the park will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its dedication with a special ceremony and activities at the Little River Canyon Center.

Visiting the Preserve

Today, with the severe drought conditions, the falls are dry and only small pockets of spring-fed water remain. While a disappointment for those interested in viewing the falls or kayaking, the drought has provided excellent views of the riverbed and rock walls, which the NPS says are more than 300 million years old.

The Little River Canyon Center is at 4322 Little River Trail NE, Suite 100, Fort Payne, AL 35967 (471 Alabama Highway 35 for GPS). The Visitor Center has park information and maps, restrooms, a video of the park’s history, and a gift shop. The Visitor Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is closed some holidays. For more information, call 256-845-3548.

The Little River Canyon National Preserve is open during daylight hours every day, including holidays. The preserve is divided into three parts: the back country area, the scenic drive and the Canyon Mouth Picnic Area (which charges a $3 vehicle fee).

Things to do at the park include hiking the three main trails, mountain biking or hiking in the back country, rock climbing, kayaking, horseback riding, fishing and hunting. Some of these activities have special instructions or require permits. For more information, call 256-845-9605, extension 201.

Canyon Rim Drive

For those interested in taking in the scenic views without a hike, there is a drive along the canyon’s western rim, on Alabama Highway 176 (known as Canyon Rim Drive). The drive begins at Little River Falls, the start of the preserve, and continues 11 miles, with eight scenic lookouts offering different views of the canyon.

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