Looking For Fairies (or Dismalites) In Dismals Canyon

Dismalites and fairies are not the same thing. Dismalites are also known as glow worms, or scientifically North American Orfelia Fultoni. They aren’t really worms either. They are the larva stage of a form of fly, but they do glow.

If there are fairies in Alabama I believe they would be here in Dismals Canyon. The stone and iron fences and the large gas lights all give the place a sense not only that it will be here for ages to come, but also of history, like it has already been here for centuries, even though the canyon was designated a National Natural Landmark in just 1975. I didn’t set out looking for a place to see dismalites. I stumbled onto the canyon’s information while looking for interesting campsites within 4 hours of our home. You know, a good weekend trip.

When I was a kid I would have believed whole heartedly that there were fairies here.  How could there not be?  The canyon is not only home to glowworms but also has bioluminescent firefly larvae. So the creek beds are scattered with glowing dots also!

I didn’t spend my time at dismal canyon looking for fairies though.  This time I was looking for dismalites, or glow worms, and I found them!  Well, It wasn’t hard to find them because I went on a tour to see them.  Dismals Canyon in, Franklin County, Alabama is the only place in North America, the only place other than New Zealand really where you can see glow worms.  I won’t give you a book report here on North American Orfelia Fultoni but you can go to the website and learn a bit about them before going.  Two hundred years ago I bet people thought they were fairies.  With so many huge moss covered boulders, old twisting trees, and waterfalls how could this beautiful place not be associated with magic?

My first advice is: Book in advance and be committed. I was so excited about going, I booked our campsite 5 months in advance.  Then I life happened and I forgot all about it until a few weeks before the trip when I found it on our calendar.   Our friends wanted to go with us and tried to book a campsite but even 30 days before they were completely booked up.  There are only 5 campsites and 4 cabins in the canyon.

The primative campsite was very nice.  Not far from the road and equipped with a table, trash can, and a super nice surprise, wood for a fire!  The website states a charge of $5 for bundles of wood but no additional charge was on our bill.  It was so nice to see the fire pit already set up with stacks of wood ready for a warm, glowing fire.  There is a nice, and very clean, bath house available just inside the gates.  It was a short walk from our campsite.  Certainly no farther than I’ve walked at many state parks to get to the bath house.

Since we arrived on a weekend full of drisseling rain our camp site and fire wood were wet.  Two weeks after hiking 4 days in the rain we spend another wet weekend outdoors.  I’m so glad that October in Alabama is not cold!  We did have to deal, again, with damp weather, gear, and clothes, but it wasn’t cold. While we were up at the store, enjoying the amazing outdoor seating area and huge fire place a store employee told us to take the remaining dry fire wood from the fireplace to our campsite.  So nice! 

We set out to explore the canyon early the next morning. A cool morning, with mist hanging in the air, perfect for taking in all the magic around us. Visitors should know that picnicking is not allowed. There is a cafe with food and a nice seating area near the waterfall to have lunch. The staff are very protective of the canyon, rightfully so, and they do not want litter left behind. If you have a campsite or cabin this is not an issue because you can easily go eat and then return to explore some more. The entrance fee covers visitors for the entire day.

The canyon area is not huge and not difficult to walk. We took our time, climbing all the trails and looking into every rocky crag. I’m so glad we had this quiet time to explore. Turns out it was the last weekend for dismalite tours, so while we had the canyon pretty much to ourselves during the day, as evening approached it was pretty busy.   They operate tours from March through November.  Be aware the cancellation policy requires 30 days notice for a full refund.  Remember this is small private conserve not a state park.  So they operate on a thin budget stream.  You can appreciate that smaller more personal feel when you are there though. 

There were about 20 people in our tour and the tours were going consistently every 45 minutes.  You can’t control who is in your group.  In our group there were some people I would have like to not have been there.  People who kept turning on lights, which means you can’t see the dismalites, and people who talked over the tour guide while he was giving information.  Michael and I both agreed if we were ever to go back a private tour would be nice. 

If I were to stay again, I’d find some friends who are willing to commit 5 months out to a weekend away and I’d stay at the Falling Waters campsite. This is is larger, more private, and has its own waterfall! At $48 per night I felt it was too expensive for just the two of us. I do really feel a private tour would be amazing but it requires a 15 person minimum and I don’t think I could find that many people to commit to a camping weekend. Of course really they could just come for the tour. Below is a breakdown of what our trip cost and what the cost would be if we had gone with the more expensive Falling Waters campsite. The primative camp can have 4 people and the Falling Water site does accommodate 15 people.

ORIGINAL TRIP (Primitive Camp) Would Be Trip (Falling Waters Site)

$27 p/night x 2 nights $48 p/night x 2 nights

= $54 (2 people) = $96 ( /4 people = $12 p/person p/night)

+$30 p/person for 2 day canyon entrance fee & 1 night tour 

=$114 total ( $57 p/person) = $216 total ($54 p/person)

So you can see that if we had booked with friends it would have actually been cheeper even with staying at the more expensive campsite. Oh Well!

This is a beautiful place with wonderful staff and definitely worth a visit. If you know 15 people willing to commit to a tour several months in advance I do think it would be worth it. It is after all a rare chance to see glow worms with out going to New Zealand. Though New Zealand is on my wish list!

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