In the darkness of night at Dismals Canyon in northwest Alabama, tiny, bioluminescent creatures light up the moss-covered canyons, surrounding visitors with their effervescent glow. 

They’re not the glowworms you typically find in Australia and New Zealand, but are closely-related cousins nicknamed “dismalites,” native insects to the Dismals Canyon area that emit a bright, blue-green light to attract food and other insects.

Because they need a unique habitat to survive in their larvae form, Dismals Canyon is the perfect place for them to thrive. And it’s one of the reasons this 85-acre, privately owned and operated natural conservatory attracts so many campers year-round.

If you’re looking for a unique Alabama camping experience, this might be it. 

Camping at Dismals Canyon

Photo by The Dyrt Camper Sara C.

Dismals Canyon camping options include both cabins and primitive sites.

The Dyrt Camper Keri J. calls Dismals Canyon a “unique spot,” and writes, “Expensive fees, but worth a visit. They [fees] protect the canyon habitat.”

Campsites range from $36-$48/night. The Sleeping Water campsite offers room for up to 15 campers, and includes its very own waterfall.

If you’re looking for a little more luxury, cabins cost $175-$300/night.

While The Dyrt camper Sara C. wasn’t impressed by the excess of extra fees, including a $5 campsite cleaning fee, she concedes that there’s, “no denying the scenery is beautiful.” And with glowing, local hosts (the dismalites), it’s a truly unique camping experience.

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5 Things Campers Should Know About Dismals Canyon

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1. The natural scenery is stunning.

Besides the dismalites, Dismals Canyon offers campers plenty of eye-catching scenery, including Dismals Branch, a beautiful flowing stream that runs from the impressive Rainbow Falls and winds through the heart of the canyon, and a one-and-a-half mile long hiking path that follows it through a sanctuary of huge boulders, overarching trees, and gushing waterfalls.

Dismals Canyon isn’t a state park or a national park, but was designated in 1975 as a National Natural Landmark by the National Natural Landmarks Program, a part of the National Park Service. That’s because the area has more than 350 different species of exotic flora, including a stand of old-growth virgin timber composed of Hemlock, Tulip Poplar, Sweetgum, Bigleaf, Magnolia and Beech trees.

2. You Can Immerse Yourself in Ancient History

dismals canyon foliage

Image from Keri J.‘s campground review on The Dyrt.

Going camping at Dismals Canyon means sharing space among the bluff shelters, grottos, and other natural shelters used by the Paleoamericans more than 10,000 years ago, as well as the Chickasaw and Cherokee tribes.

At the top of Rainbow Falls, early settlers built a water mill, a cotton gin and a sawmill. Though the waterwheel and the mill were destroyed by a flood in the 1950s, one of the mill stones can still be seen at the bottom of the falls, where it landed after the flood.

3. You Can Escape the Mosquitos 

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Summertime in Dismals Canyon is typically about 14 degrees cooler than the state’s average, during a time when the heat and humidity makes the rest of Alabama close to unbearable. And to every campers’ delight, there are no mosquitoes, flies or poison oak in the area. Along with swimming and hiking, there’s also a country store that offers supplies and includes an authentic soda fountain to grab a milkshake and a burger.  

Dismals Canyon offers secluded primitive campsites, which are limited in number on purpose: to offer the very best camping experience, with privacy and convenience to the canyon.

4. Dismals Canyon Can be Romantic 

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For those who wish to make their camping trip as romantic as possible, there are two cabins you can rent, the “Bringing Up the Moon” and the “Bringing Down the Sun,” strategically located at the north end of the conservatory to allow absolute privacy. Both are built from Western Red Cedar and have vaulted ceilings, stone fireplaces and hardwood floors. Furnishing include refreshments to welcome you to your cabin, Tiffany lamps, stone fireplaces, books and magazines, and a complimentary wine basket if you choose to stay two nights or more.

If the beauty of this place isn’t enough to relax you, Dismals Canyon also offers a range of massage packages for cabin guests, day guests and campers. From Swedish and pregnancy massages to mini-facials and a brown sugar body scrub, it’s hard to imagine anything more relaxing than getting a spa treatment in the middle of nature.

5. You’ll Need a Flashlight for the Dismalite Night Tour 

underground dismalites at dismals canyon

Image from Image from Sarah C.‘s campground review on The Dyrt.

In order to see the local glowing insects known as dismalites, you’ll need to take the Dismalite Night Tour. And to fully appreciate nature’s light show, you’ll need to bring a flashlight, since the canyon isn’t lit at night.

When the group stops to admire the dismalites, everyone will be instructed to turn off their flashlights, otherwise you won’t be able to see those little guys and their blue glow. If you want your eyes to more quickly adjust after turning on and off your flashlight, bring a red filter, or a red flashlight, as these help your eyes adjust faster.

Charles Moss

Charles Moss

Charles Moss is a freelance writer with bylines in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Vice, Slate, The Week, The Bitter Southerner and other outlets. A lifelong resident of Chattanooga, Tennessee, he and his family enjoy camping, hiking and all the beauty the Scenic City has to offer.