MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Chance Bishop said he makes the roughly 180-mile trip to the Little River Canyon National Preserve three or four times a year to test his skills against the rapids.
Located in the northeast corner of Alabama near Fort Payne, the preserve offers forested uplands, bluffs, waterfalls, sandstone cliffs and the canyon that gives the park its name. Little River runs 30 miles atop Lookout Mountain, making it the longest mountaintop river in the nation, said Troy Mueller, the preserve's chief ranger.
Little River Canyon Preserve is the most popular of the state's national parks. Last year about 120,000 people visited the preserve, Mueller said. And with school out for the summer and tourism heating up with the weather, Mueller expects those numbers will improve.
The river brings whitewater enthusiasts to the park from across the country, said Bishop, 32, of Montgomery.
"It's easy to get to, and once you get in the park, you feel like you are miles away from everything," he said. Little was kayaking recently on the Coosa River, just to the north of the Capital City. "Little River is a challenge; there's good rapids there. I wouldn't advise beginners to try it."
The canyon itself is about 12 miles long and about 600 feet deep, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Little River runs from an elevation of about 1,900 feet above sea level to about 1,200 feet above sea level. The river empties into Weiss Lake.
The park is working to add land to the preserve on the eastern rim of the canyon to protect it from development, Mueller said.
Along with thrills on the river, the park offers primitive camping from February to September at three locations in the Backcountry Area of the park, hiking and horseback-riding trails, and scenic drives along a network of roads.
Because Little River is a natural river, low water in the summer months often makes kayaking and canoeing difficult.
Fishing is allowed year-round, with proper state licenses, and hunting is allowed in portions of the park during state-established seasons and with the proper state licenses.
The national parks in the state offer an affordable way for families to have "mini vacations," said Holly Gentry, of Prattville.
"We really became familiar with the parks when our oldest son, Zach, went to Russell Cave about five years ago with his Boy Scout troop," she said. "Our family went back the next year. We usually try to go to one or two of the parks a year.
"It's an easy thing to do on a weekend. Just load up in the car on Saturday morning, and we're back home that night."