From Chattanooga, take Interstate 24 West to exit 167 for Interstate 59 South toward Birmingham. Take I-59 to the Fort Payne/Rainsville exit 222 and turn left onto U.S. Highway 11 South/Greenhill Boulevard NW. Go to Fifth Street Northeast/Alabama Highway 35, turn left and stay on Highway 35 for a little over seven miles to a left onto Little River Trail. For those with GPS devices, the address "472 Alabama Highway 35, Fort Payne, AL" usually will give correct directions. If you cross the Highway 35 bridge, you went about one-tenth of a mile too far.
Once just rural back country used too often as a place to burn stolen cars and dump trash, old furniture and appliances, the Little River Canyon National Preserve is celebrating its 20th anniversary on Sunday.
Located near the Alabama-Georgia line, the canyon was known until the mid-1950s as "May's Gulf." Some local folks who lived in the region in the 1970s might remember going to Canyonland Amusement Park, which featured an almost 1,500-foot-long chair lift that took people 600 feet down to the Little River Canyon floor and had animal exhibits and rides at the top, according to Interpretive Park Ranger Larry Beane.
"The best story here [is] the partnerships; it's unlike anywhere else in the Park Service," Beane said.
The Little River Canyon National Preserve partners with Jacksonville State University, which operates the Little River Canyon Center, allowing scientists and students to study and teach in the park at no cost to the preserve, Beane said.
DeSoto State Park is another partner with Little River Canyon, providing and sharing educational programs, presentations, hikes and other resources, Beane said. Local law enforcement agencies join park officials for training and shared emergency resources.
As part of free events to commemorate the park's birthday, guest speakers Sunday will relay historical stories and accounts about the park's journey to becoming a national preserve, resources management specialist Mary Shew said.
Children will be the target of the first activities of the day, starting with American Indian games and clay table activities at 1 p.m. CDT, followed by refreshments at 1:30 p.m., the speakers at 2 p.m. and closing with dedication ceremonies for the park's new boardwalk at 3 p.m., Shew said.
Congress established the Little River Canyon National Preserve on Oct. 21, 1992, forming the 14,000-acre park from former Alabama Power Co. property, DeSoto State Park, Little River State Wildlife Management Area and the Canyon Mouth Day Use Area.
Newspaper archives show the park idea was launched in the late-1980s by then-U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill, who won a congressional committee's support for a $150,000 feasibility study.
In 1990, the canyon floor was littered with more than 80 vehicles, one of them a tractor-trailer rig, according to archives. In the years after its creation, park supporters worked to clean up the canyon, and the Alabama National Guard even helped out by using helicopters to lift junk cars out of the chasm.