As warm weather beckons travelers back to nature and the open road, few spots are as alluring as an epic waterfall. And there’s no better time than May, when rivers are flush and wildflowers are blooming, to explore some of Alabama’s most picturesque cascades. Whether you’re a mountain lover, city slicker, or looking to go completely wild, the Yellowhammer State has hundreds of waterfalls to explore. Here are our top three, plus more on what you can do and see in the area.
1. DeSoto Falls, Mentone
A close-knit hippie enclave perched atop Lookout Mountain, Mentone offers art, opportunities to unplug, and—of course—easy access to one of Alabama’s best-loved waterfalls.
The Falls: At 104 feet top to bottom, DeSoto Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the state. The eponymous state park bursts with wildflowers—mountain laurel and rhododendron—this time of year, says park naturalist Brittney Hughes. Divided in two, DeSoto State Park is made up of a larger section closer to Fort Payne that’s home to several smaller cascades along with a zip-line course, swimming holes, and fly-fishing. Seven miles north, DeSoto Falls crashes to earth just off Lookout Mountain Parkway. At the top, a historic dam from the mid-1920s wows visitors in an accessible picnic area. “You’d be surprised how many people never get out of their car because they think the dam is the waterfall,” Hughes says. Follow a path down about 50 steps to watch the water drop another 90 feet into a picturesque rocky gorge.
Stay: Mentone started as a mountain getaway for wealthy Birminghamians, so the vacation cabin tradition here goes way back. Tucked away along wooded lanes, these well-appointed accommodations give visitors a chance to truly switch off. (Spotty reception helps.) “Mentone is a place where people come to do nothing,” says property manager Ron Waits. “They just relax.” He runs Mentone Mountain Getaways, a collection of 18 vacation properties throughout the area, many with hot tubs and stunning views.
Shop: Among a population of about 500, Mentone boasts 300 artists and the newly opened Chuck Sennett Center for the Arts, offering galleries, classes, and artists’ workshops. With a concentration like that, the shopping is bound to be great. Start at the Log Cabin Shops, a village of historic cabins dating back to the 1800s that now house local makers, artisans, and snackeries. Along Highway 117, which straddles Mentone’s main drag, shoppers will find everything from Alabama-made goods at AJ Trading Post to crystals and garden sculptures at Earthly Elements. Just remember, shops are generally open weekends only.
Eat: The locally beloved Wildflower Café offers diners more than just a meal. With its live music on weekends and charming location in a 100-year-old house, the community hub regularly makes statewide best-of lists for both food and ambience. Its savory tomato pie topped with cheese is a fan favorite. Burgers are ground in-house from sirloin and filet, and weekly specials are based on whatever’s fresh at local farms. “I like to get creative in the kitchen,” says owner L.C. Moon. Patio seating is available. Open for lunch and dinner, but hours vary. Check the website before going. Reservations recommended.
2. Noccalula Falls, Gadsden
For those who like a little hustle and bustle with their cascades, Gadsden boasts a popular historic downtown that’s home to everything from an art museum to an axe-throwing venue just minutes from a picturesque waterfall within its city limits.
The Falls: Black Creek plunges a dramatic 90 feet within a 500-acre, city-run park in residential Gadsden. Visitors can admire Noccalula Falls’ drop from several viewing spots. Two unique spots: A bridge over Black Creek offers panoramic vistas of the top of the cascade; and Gorge Trail, part of a 15-mile network lacing throughout the park, leads hikers to the base of the falls and behind its crashing waters. Other attractions, such as a petting zoo, mini golf, and an authentic Huntington miniature train, make Noccalula a kid-friendly destination. Portions of the park are ticketed.
Stay: About 21 miles north of Gadsden, the Secret Bed and Breakfast’s themed rooms and cabins offer guests a unique place to unwind. The Sugar Shack, a quaint stone cottage, features a fireplace and hot tub; the Jailhouse has iron bars and wanted posters worked into the decor. The retreat sits atop the southernmost point of Lookout Mountain. An airy lodge and strollable grounds give guests views of lush azaleas, daylilies, jasmine, and knockout roses in the spring.
Shop: Gadsden’s downtown offers ample shopping. Amid cute boutiques, an antique mall, and gift shops lay some more unusual gems, like the new Tut Hookah Lounge and the cleverly named yarn shop the Taming of the Ewe. Once it’s safe for public gatherings, this historic downtown will resume First Fridays, which draws hundreds of classic cars and as many as 14,000 people each month.
Eat: New kid on the block NOLA on Second draws inspiration from the Big Easy both on its menu and stage. Dishes of red beans and Gulf shrimp and grits rank among crowd favorites, along with plates of sugar-dusted beignets. The house jazz band, the Storytellers, plays every Saturday, appropriate for a building that once housed a recording studio.
3. Bankhead National Forest, Jasper
Known as “The Land of 1,000 Waterfalls,” the wildwoods of Bankhead National Forest offer hikers a deluge of options and a more remote way to soak in nature.
The Falls: This spot offers 75 miles of Forest Service–sanctioned recreational trails in Bankhead’s 180,000 acres of hardwood forest and verdant canyons. Popular spots like Kinlock Falls and Sougahoagdee Falls on the forest’s east side can be reached by following hiker-worn footpaths. (Leave-no-trace practices and conscientious pathfinding are particularly important.) Dropping 15 feet over a 20-foot span, Kinlock may not be the tallest cascade, but it has the advantage of being less than 100 feet from the road and a favorite spot for swimming and picnicking. For more ambitious hikers, the 4-mile-round-trip footpath to Sougahoagdee Falls follows the crystal-clear Brushy Creek and features several smaller waterfalls and large limestone bluffs. The moderate hike, which can be slippery at times, starts and ends at the Brushy Creek bridge on Hickory Grove Road.
Stay: Swimming, hot showers, Smith Lake, and a starry sky await campers at Bankhead’s two biggest recreation areas. The Corinth campground puts visitors closer to the waterfalls on the forest’s east side, while the Clear Creek campground is closer to dining and grocery options in nearby Jasper.
Shop: This is more of a “take only pictures, leave only footprints” destination.
Eat: In nearby Jasper, the small, art-filled Black Rock Bistro run by a husband-wife duo with roots in New Orleans dishes up homemade chicken potpies, oozy meatball subs, and hand-cut steaks. Among its chart toppers? Catfish Pontchartrain, a blackened fillet topped with Conecuh sausage stuffing and a Creole cream sauce. “We have people who eat in here three and four times a week,” says owner Lindsey Kilgore. “We’re a local favorite.” Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner Thursday, Friday, and every other Saturday. Dinner reservations recommended through the Black Rock Bistro Facebook group.
Read more: How many of Alabama's natural wonders have you seen?
Travel writer and guide author Jessica Fender will take a road trip over air travel any day. (For one, the snacks are better.) Follow her adventures at TravelerBroads.com.
AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.