The annual do-not-miss Christmas event in nearby Gadsden, Alabama is worth the 90-minute drive from Chattanooga if you’re looking for something to do with the family.
At ℹ️ Noccalula Falls Park, a 250-acre park listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage, millions of lights are on display from November 24th through December 23rd.
The main feature of the park is a 90-foot waterfall with a trail winding through ℹ️ Black Creek Gorge at its base—past caves, an aboriginal fort, an abandoned dam and pioneer homestead. The park also features a petting zoo, mini-golf course, the ℹ️ Gilliland-Reese Covered Bridge, built in 1899, and a scaled down replica of the 1863 C. P. Huntington train.
On the easy drive down I-59, stop off about halfway at the Valley Head/Mentone exit. The area is remarkably scenic and undeveloped with mountains, broad valleys, rivers and waterfalls. Lookout Mountain tumbles all the way down to Valley Head, an appropriate name for the little town.
Stay overnight at Winston Place if you want to embellish the trip with a bit of Civil War history. During the autumn of 1863, 30,000 Union troops camped on this property before beginning the march on Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain.
The home was built in 1831 by William O. Winston, an attorney and investor in the railroad that connected Birmingham to Chattanooga. The historic home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. With family ties to Patrick Henry, the walls of Winston Place display vintage photos of previous generations, military decorations and family trees for the three branches of the Virginia family.
Leslie and Jim Bunch are the owners and hosts. Jim, a former MVP and lineman for the University of Alabama under legendary Coach Paul Bryant, can talk extensively about football, as well as history. The stay is akin to a visit in the home of an old friend who is highly engaged in his community.
Have dinner up on the mountain in the whimsical weekend town of Mentone at the ℹ️ Green Leaf Grill, serving the second-highest rated catfish in the state. But, be prepared for a generous breakfast the next morning at Winston Place, before heading on down to Gadsden and the Noccalula Falls Park.
Falls Supervisor, Christina Richardson oversees the Christmas event that the City of Gadsden has produced for the past 10 years. It gets more expansive each year. Every night from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. people stream into the park. There are live performances and seasonal readings, along with activities for children, including cookie decorating and visiting with Santa. Expect loads of photo opportunities and plenty of small-town fun.
“Visitors come from all over the southeast. We had approximately 90,000 visitors last year at Christmas at the Falls,” says Richardson. “Visitors both young and old love the lights. Locals come, year after year as well, to see what is new.”
Apparently, locals aren’t the only ones who enjoy the event, with the Honda plant in nearby Lincoln, the number of international visitors increases each year, say park officials.
Gadsden is actively raising its profile and inviting the region to the selection of outdoor activities available in the area. Hugh Stump with Greater Gadsden Area Tourism says the outdoor amenities are plentiful. “We have miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking in this beautiful, uncrowded region,” he says. Campers who visit the area will appreciate the park’s camping facilities. In 2017, it was rated the best Alabama campsite in a 50-state survey conducted by msn.com.
On the way back home, travel on the southern side of Lookout Mountain through Summerville, Georgia and into Walker County where you will find beautiful McLemore Cove, nestled between Pigeon Mountain and Lookout Mountain. At its highest point, Pigeon mountain has an elevation of 2,330 feet. It runs in a northwest-southwest direction for about 10 miles, joining with Lookout Mountain on the southwestern end to form a V-shape. Several caves are located on Pigeon Mountain, including ℹ️ Ellison’s Cave, the deepest cave east of the Mississippi river, and ℹ️ Petty John’s Cave.
At the top of the mountain is ℹ️ Rocktown, a well-known free face rock climbing area. Located about 30 miles from Chattanooga, Rocktown is mainly a fall and winter destination. It is made up of boulder clusters spread out over a broad area. Park at the end of Rocktown Road, or if it’s busy, on the side of the dirt road leading up to it. It is a 20-minute hike from the parking area to the back area of Rocktown. There is a day-pass fee to use the area but camping is free in designated areas, although a 14-day limit is enforced. Rocktown is on a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) under the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The area is closed on certain days for seasonal hunting.
Climbers will need a Georgia Outdoor Recreation Pass (GORP). A three-day pass costs $3.50 and an annual pass is $19. Or pay $35 for one vehicle holding up to eight people. To buy a pass or for more information visit georgiawildlife.com.
These valleys to the north and south of the ridgeline of Lookout Mountain, and the mountaintop itself, represent thousands of acres of unspoiled beauty. If carefully managed, they will be a great asset to the future of the larger tri-state region.
Curious travelers will enjoy the history and explore the natural wonder at the end of the ancient Appalachian Mountain range. And, visitors who are exploring the region over the holiday may find the festive lights of Gadsden’s Noccalula Falls Park a pleasant diversion from more hectic holiday activities.
Photography courtesy of City of Gadsden