Jaunt to Little River Falls

Yesterday I went on a desperately needed photo adventure to Little River Falls in Gaylesville, Alabama. This was one of my spontaneous adventures–the decision to go and the actual going occurred pretty close to one another.

I had never heard of Little River Falls before the previous night, when I saw a picture of the falls posted to one of my Facebook groups. It was late in the evening and I was winding down for bed, but the picture was beautiful, surging water cascading over jutting rock. I pulled up a Google map of the location, noting that it was less than two hours away. Then I pulled up the National Park Service’s Little River Canyon page, poking around to see what the park was like and where parking was in relation to the falls. I went to bed happy to have found a new place to explore someday.

When I got up yesterday morning, feeling rested and excited and ready to do something, I knew I would be going to Little River Falls that day. I started the second load of laundry first, because I am a responsible adult! And in the meantime I read social media and had my protein shake and packed myself a lunch. Almost as soon as the laundry was in the dryer (whites, so no worry over wrinkles), I grabbed my camera bag, water bottle, and lunch, and headed up to my car.

The drive was quite pleasant. I truly enjoy driving, especially when I’m going someplace new. The route began with I-75 north, then branched off to the west on GA-140, north on GA-1, west on GA-48. I passed through downtown Summerville, Georgia, and it felt like the little town, if not dying, was barely pushing on. I passed closed businesses and abandoned storefronts and a few places that were still open, but not on a Sunday. I took a wrong turn up US-27 and discovered an ancient Hardee’s, and I stopped for a few pictures after that.

Then I was through and back in the countryside. In tiny Menio, Georgia, I turned left on Jamestown Road and then crossed the border into Alabama. It wasn’t long before I reached AL-35 and the parking area at Little River Falls.

Falls parking is free. The lot is pretty big, and there are two large, glorified porta-potties, one for women and one for men. There are two ways from the parking lot down to the falls viewing area: a series of beautiful stone steps, and a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk. At the entrance to these paths, signage offers warnings about the rushing water, which you can already hear, if not see through the trees.

After documenting the parking lot and entrance with my camera, I set off down the steps. The falls came into view as I emerged from the trees onto a lovely riverwalk.

They were absolutely gorgeous.

Little River’s water level is not artificially managed, so the flow is entirely dependent on rainfall. The website indicated that winter and early spring are the best times to see the full effect, and I was not disappointed. Water surged, white and misting, down and around craggy shelves of rock. There were three main sections of waterfall: the largest, furthest from me; a comparatively slim and pleasingly symmetrical curtain of water in the middle; and another large section, surging just beyond the riverwalk.

The falls lie just down the river from AL-35, which passes as a bridge high overhead. The bridge is off to the right of the viewing area, offering a grounding backdrop for wider shots. I took my fill of photos, a variety of compositions from a variety of angles, and then I strolled along the riverwalk for a few shots of Little River.

When I got to the point where the riverwalk curved back up toward the parking lot, I discovered a dirt path leading off into the woods, labeled “Martha’s Fall Trail.” My plan had been to see the falls and perhaps to drive the scenic AL-176 route I’d read about online. But the woods and river were so inviting, and I was full of energy. I set off down the trail, feet cushioned by powdery dirt, dead leaves soft and oddly silent beneath my sneakers.

The path curved toward the river and became rocky. It was also high, weaving along a cliffside that often dramatically dropped off above woods and water. The precipitous nature of the trail was difficult to capture in photographs.

There were lichens and moss and pine needles everywhere. There were odd ground coverings I’d never seen before, miniature vines with bright red berries. It had rained recently, but much of the dirt had dried. I found spots where rivulets of water slipped in calming gurgles through the woods, across the stone, and down the cliffside. At one such spot, I climbed down a rock formation nearby to get a better view of the water, and I discovered a cave set into the cliff. Others had obviously found the cave as well; a fast food drink cup lay abandoned on the slick rock.

I did not enter the cave. Instead, I clambered up the rocks again and set back out on the trail. It guided me away from the cliff’s edge, and almost immediately I was in a lush grove, slim pines arcing overhead and small, bushy, pine-like grasses covering the ground like carpet. All was still save the rush of rapids and waterfall, unseen. In the hush, I felt like an intruder.

I emerged onto another rocky cliffside trail and stopped to gather my thoughts. Stepping back to write down what I’d seen, I nearly brushed up against a tree. It was covered in lichen, like gold leaf in the process of being applied.

Shortly I stumbled upon another grove, the pine-like carpet so thick my feet sank in by half a foot. Here and there the ground was spotted with mounds of pale green, tiny tendrils forming miniature explosions that came together in large, airy poofs.

I heard rustling and froze. Motionless, I squinted through the trees to try and find the source. Movement alone eventually revealed birds, tripping along through leaves screened from me by tree branches. I felt completely isolated from the world of people. My heavy footsteps, the beep and click of my camera were intrusions upon this natural, holy place.

I moved to try and find the real trail again, to make no more mark upon the sanctity of this breathless place, and it was then I came across the remains of a campfire. Then I sighted a hiker, not 20 feet away, on what was apparently the trail. I was not alone, but I felt that I was–a different alone than I’d felt not five minutes prior.

I sat on a rock overlooking the river and ate the last bits of a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit. A red kayak slipped suddenly through the rapids; I was not fast enough to take a picture. I finished eating, stood, and realized my pants were wet and covered in damp pine needles.

Back on the main trail, I encountered more and more hikers. A family of four scrambled past me over the rocks; one of the children gushed, “It looks like a fairy garden!” and I knew exactly what she’d seen.

I was on my way back to my car, because I was satisfied and because my ankles were starting to tire, when I came to a roughly level area of dirt. Stepping through a deceptively dry-looking patch near a spot where a stream of water trickled over the cliffside, my right leg suddenly slid laterally out from under me, off to the left, sending me down on my hip and the side of my knee. I cursed, but I hadn’t been hurt, thankfully. I struggled to my feet and examined my mud-smeared jeans in dismay. They had just been washed the day before. Ah well.

Rather than return to the boardwalk, I hiked straight up and out of the forest to the parking lot. This path led me past the main entrance again, where a man and a woman were now standing. I didn’t really look at them as I stopped and stuffed a $10 bill into the donation slot, but all of a sudden they were saying “Thank you!” and I glanced over and realized they were rangers. “Oh, you’re welcome!” I said, and smiled.

I was ready to get back in my car at that point–I laid my hoodie in the seat to avoid getting mud from my pants on the upholstery–when I realized there was a river access trail just beyond the parking lot to the other side of where I’d been. Why not? I grabbed my camera bag again, locked up the car, and headed down.

This was an excellent decision, because the river access trail offers a beautifully close view of the water. I stayed three car lengths away, as the signage warned, and snapped plenty of photos. Then I hiked back up the side of the cliff rather than taking the trail, because I’m a rebel that way.

A paved path led off from the river access entrance to the AL-35 bridge. I strolled that way, crossing the bridge on a pedestrian path separated from the roadway by a guardrail. This high vantage point offered a breathtaking view of the width of the river and the charging mist of the largest waterfall as it surged over the edge. There was a staircase leading down to the river on the other side, but as the bridge sits upstream from the waterfall, I wasn’t sure there would be anything to see down there, so I didn’t go look. Instead, I finally headed back to my car. I dug into my packed lunch and ate a cup of blueberry yogurt, and then I pulled out of the parking lot to take the scenic drive.

In a lucky coincidence, I ended up accidentally taking AL-35 instead of AL-176. This was lucky because I soon came upon a gas station–my low fuel indicator light had just come on.

The gas pumps were ancient; the boxy units had analog indicators that rolled over to keep track of how much had been fueled. Of course there was no place to swipe a credit card; I went inside to prepay. With gas prices so low, I decided to spend $15, and this almost completely filled my tank. “You have to stop the pump,” the lady at the counter had said. “We don’t have a way to stop it.” So I stopped it at exactly $15.

I quickly found my way to AL-176–the turnoff was across the road from the entrance to the Little River Canyon Center. The road runs along the river on the opposite side from the falls parking area. I pulled off to get a picture of the sign and to start eating my bologna sandwich. Then I tooled down the slim, winding road, stopping at every scenic overlook for photos. Only the first stop, the Little River Falls Overlook/Boardwalk, had a view of the falls. The rest offered stunning cliff and river vistas. At one point I passed a series of huge rock formations, two of which sat in the middle of the road like a median. On my way back, I stopped and explored the outcroppings of stone. They were like a secret world, a maze of rock jutting out in weather-rounded overhangs. Here and there, some moron had written his or her name in permanent marker.

To finish up my excursion, I pulled off AL-176 shortly before it came out on AL-35 and hiked down to see if I could get a close view of the falls from this bank. I could see the falls, but there were too many trees to get a clear shot. I climbed back up the cliff and settled into my car. Even without this opposite bank view, I was completely satisfied. Little River Canyon is beautiful, and I had seen so much.

I decided to try and drive back without using GPS. I made it all the way through Summerville just fine, but then I missed the turn off GA-1 to GA-140 and ended up in Rome. From there I found my way to US-411, US-41, and then I-75, all without using GPS directions or even looking at a map. I was pretty pleased with myself (and with road signage in Georgia).

I’m really glad I took this little jaunt to Alabama. It was exactly what I needed after being cooped up indoors for so long. I’m refreshed and happy and ready for the week.