Nature’s Path: Legend of the Falls

March 9, 2015 in Featured, Spring 2015 Issue by Lookout Alabama


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Gadsden’s picturesque park offers mystery, historical perspectives and a wide array of outdoor activities to complement views of its fascinating focal point.


Growing up in a home daycare is a curious experience. It’s like having four to six siblings who disappear at night and on weekends. Life in our relatively small house was never boring, to be sure, and the summer field trips were some of the best perks.

Determined to keep her brood entertained, my mother – who at 60 is still accused of having more energy than most children – scheduled a trip for almost every day of the week. There was Library Day, Movie Day, Pool Day and my favorite, Park Day. The park was often Noccalula Falls – not a short drive from our Birmingham, Ala., suburb, but reasonable given cheap 1980s gas prices and, everyone agreed, well worth the time spent double-buckled* in the Monte Carlo’s massive back seat or, later, making faces at fellow interstate travellers from the third row of the Aerostar van (where we were relatively safe from my mother’s watchful eye).

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I’m not sure I fully appreciated the breadth of the somewhat odd combination of activities the park offered. You could roam through  a miniature train, dash around a playground, explore a real pioneer village, play mini-golf and go on an adrenaline-pumping adventure to the bottom of the gorge and the area behind the waterfall. To top it off, the place had at its core a mysterious legend filled with romance and tragedy.

Plus there were two things at Noccalula Falls Park we couldn’t find anywhere else: grape ice cream and a human hamster wheel. When you’re 8 years old, a summer outing doesn’t get any better than that.

Upon arrival at the park, we tumbled out of the vehicle steps away from a bridge crossing Black Creek just before it plunges 90 feet to the damp, cavernous ravine below. The first order of business was to take stock of the water flow, which could range from a trickle to a ferocious gush that caused a spectacular mist to rise from the pool beneath and made us raise our voices to be heard even a few feet away.

Next, we unpacked and ate our picnic lunch at a covered pavilion in the wooded area bordering the parking lot and the north side of the falls. Then we crossed the bridge, stopping to feed extra bread to the ducks and geese gathered there, and headed for the rest of the park. Taking the path that hugged the stone cliff, we came to the statue of the Indian maiden Noccalula, forever frozen in the last step before her desperate leap to the depths below. Even though I knew the story, I always took time to pause here, where the view of the falls is best, reread the plaque and ponder whether Noccalula actually jumped from the statue’s position (in which case she would have landed in the forested ravine) or closer to the falls, where she might have landed in water.

The legend goes that Noccalula was the beautiful daughter of a great Indian chief who wanted her to marry the leader of a powerful neighboring tribe. Though Noccalula pleaded that her heart already belonged to a young brave of her own tribe, the chief, desiring a union with the other group, banished the young warrior and forged a marriage agreement with the neighboring chief. Noccalula allowed herself to be dressed in festive wedding robes, then slipped to the brink of the rushing waterfall, where she ended her sorrow. Her remorseful father renamed Black Creek Falls in her honor.

I took it for granted the legend was true. Standing as close to the rim of the chasm as the iron fence would allow, I tried to imagine the inner turmoil that would inspire one to jump – and what such a flight would feel like.

Tearing myself from my reverie, I joined the other kids romping among giant boulders in a field to the left of the path before we embarked on the highlight of our journey – the Historic Gorge Trail. The sign warning hikers that they “assume all risks” only added to the thrill of the challenge before us: navigating an ancient-looking, unbelievably steep, brown-metal staircase into the humid jungle at the base of the falls. The 77 steps were increasingly short and narrow as one descended, becoming more like a ladder than a staircase at the end. We felt like we were going on an Indiana Jones expedition.

At the bottom, a trail wound in a semi-circle along the sheer rock façade on our right and into the deep cavern behind the waterfall. The area was scattered with slick, black-tinted rocks of all sizes, and I cringe now to think how I recklessly bounded from one to the next, heedless of my mother’s cautions. In the shade beneath the falls, the stone facings and raw earth radiated cool relief from the blazing sun beating down on the world above. And if a lot of water were flowing over the falls, our skin was soon coated with a refreshing layer of mist.

I remember thinking if I were a Native American, I would spend all summer in the gorge. There was evidence people had been visiting for a long time. The trail itself was well worn, and old carvings mingled with modern scrawls on the rock walls.

After climbing the stairs out of the canyon, it was on to the pioneer village, complete with homesteads, a general store/post office, blacksmith’s shop, loom house and school/church. All the log structures were authentic, and had been moved to the park from sites near Lawrenceburg, Tenn. We gazed through iron-barred doorways at the scenes portrayed inside and tried to imagine living in those times. The buildings brought to life Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books I had read.

Amidst the village was a large fenced area that was home to deer and sometimes turkey. The deer were fairly easily drawn to the fence for petting. We made a loop here and began heading back toward our starting point on a parallel path. A train ride – the only activity besides mini-golf that required a fee – was up next, and the conductor, always an elderly gentleman in striped overalls and a matching hat, gave an informative and entertaining tour of the park grounds.

At last we arrived at the playground, which was typical of the time – merry-go-round, swings, slides and metal jungle gyms – except tucked into a back corner, inside a structure painted to look like a small house, was a human-sized hamster wheel big enough to accommodate four or five children. Words can’t describe the joy. Partly because, in hindsight, I’m not sure what was so appealing about a circular treadmill. Maybe it was because I had a pet hamster and spent a lot of time watching him run in his wheel, but I wasn’t alone in my fascination. Small crowds of kids would gather to wait their turn, even though the park itself was never crowded.

As the afternoon wound down, we sometimes played a round of mini-golf at the small course next to playground before ending our exploits with ice cream at the Jack’s restaurant that adjoins the park.

Today Noccalula Falls Park, which has been owned by the city of Gadsden, Ala., since 1949, retains many of the aspects I remember, but incorporates changes and additions as well.

The most obvious is a new main entrance, marked by a large parking lot and attractive wood-and-stone building that houses a gift shop, admission booth and restrooms and is steps from a new train platform.

While the viewing area around the top of the falls and the playground are still free, the other parts of the park I knew as a child have been fenced in, and visitors access them through the new entrance, where admission fees of $2-$6 are charged and include unlimited train rides. The miniature golf course has been rebuilt on a much larger and impressive scale on land outside and to the left of the new entrance. Tasteful landscaping has been added throughout the park, and the grounds are generally more manicured than I recall. The metal stairway leading to the Gorge Trail is closed, replaced by an earthen ramp visitors and emergency vehicles can use, and a new trail system has opened many more acres of the park to hikers and mountain bikers.

Many of the updates were made about 10 years ago, says Janet Tarrance, park supervisor. “Interest [in the park] was growing and growing,” she says. “The city just wanted to do some revamping and make improvements.”

Noccalula Falls Park now consistently ranks among Alabama’s top three attractions in terms of attendance, along with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville and the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, says Hugh Stump, executive director of Greater Gadsden Area Tourism. Between 300,00 and 400,000 people visit Noccalula Falls Park annually, Tarrance says, and Stump estimates 70 percent of them are from outside the Gadsden area.

Noccalula Falls is the dramatic starting point (or ending point, depending on perspective) of Lookout Mountain, which stretches north to Chattanooga, Tenn. It’s unusual to have such a grand natural feature within city limits, Stump says. “It’s our prime, No. 1 image for Gadsden,” he says. “When we do image advertising, we always use a picture of the falls.”

The train ride and a new petting zoo are the most popular things in the traditional park space, Tarrance says. The train is a replica of the C.P. Huntington, a locomotive first used by the Central Pacific Railroad in 1864. Train conductors still point out attractions and tell about the area’s history. The boarding point next to the new entrance, by the pioneer village, adds convenience. “To get on a train and ride is fun, but it also gives a little direction for someone who’s never been here before,” Tarrance says.

The animal habitat and petting zoo – additions to the deer park, which is still there – were started in 2000 and now include indoor and outdoor areas for goats, sheep, donkeys, emus, an alligator, fish, birds, rabbits, foxes, an African lion and more. “Kids and people in general love animals,” Tarrance says. “We just started little by little to have different things.”

In 2006, a wedding chapel opened on the north side of the falls, by the bridge crossing Black Creek and the area where we used to picnic. The chapel holds 60 people, and wedding styles range from country to elegant.

“Noccalula Falls has always been popular for people wanting to get married,” Tarrance says. Before the chapel was built, people got married in the park’s botanical gardens or by the covered bridge, built in 1899. “We just decided we might as well have a wedding chapel,” Tarrance says.

Now couples use the gardens and covered bridge as photo backdrops. “It’s a gorgeous place for wedding pictures,” Tarrance says.

Also on the north side of the falls, Noccalula Falls Campground, which offered RV and tent camping when I was a kid, now boasts two cabins that accommodate up to six people each. Tarrance compares them to vacation cabins in the Smoky Mountains and says wedding parties often use them. RV camping sites with full hookups or water/electric hookups are available, and tent sites offer water and electricity.

Both Tarrance and Stump tell me about the biggest change at the park in the past several years – the development of the Black Creek Trail System. This trail system is on the north side of the falls (as opposed to the Gorge Trail, which begins on the south side) and can be accessed for free. The 1.7-mile main trail starts behind the wedding chapel and gradually descends into the gorge along a gentle slope, ending amid the city streets of Gadsden.

Stump says the trail had existed for hundreds of years, but when he came to Gadsden in 2009, it was a rutted, eroded, natural trail filled with rocks and roots. “You could tell it was a trail that had been used for a long time, but it was difficult to maneuver,” he says.

The city of Gadsden widened the trail to about 8 feet and paved it with gravel in 2011, using part of a federal transportation grant, Stump says. The goal was two-fold: make the park easier to access from the main part of the city and open areas of the park few had accessed before.

Only a small portion of the park’s 250 acres is occupied by what people have traditionally called Noccalula Falls Park, Stump says. Hundreds of other acres could be used for hiking and biking. “It wasn’t something that was known about because it wasn’t accessible,” Stump says. “People just saw the waterfall.” Now the elderly and people with disabilities can see the gorge.

Dozens of additional trails, made by people, deer and other animals, intersect the Black Creek Trail, and the city began improving those trails for hiking and mountain biking about a year and a half ago, Stump says. Now 5 miles of these dirt trails are easily accessible from the Black Creek Trail.

“The cool thing about Noccalula Falls is you can go exploring and not get lost,” Stump says. “You’re going to come out on a road eventually.”

Upon hearing about these enhancements to one of my favorite places, I have to see for myself. On an unseasonably warm January weekend, my 12-year-old son and I set out for Noccalula Falls.

I park the car in the parking lot we used when I was a kid, since this is closest to the Black Creek Trail. People are feeding the ducks and geese by the bridge, just like I remember. Only there are machines that dispense feed so you don’t have to bring food for them.

We walk behind the wedding chapel and see a sign marking the beginning of Black Creek Trail. With the gorge on our left, we pass the campground on the right and go by the cabins before the trail begins to descend. We find it much as described, with overlooks and a bridge offering pretty views along the way. Our elevation eventually matches that of the burbling creek, and we walk alongside it.

Where the narrower, dirt hiking and biking trails intersect the main trail, colorful signs with maps show their routes. As we inspect one of these signs, an older man with a hiking stick explains the trail it shows offers an alternate route to the campground. He also tells us about an upcoming trail that follows the creek more closely. “This is just wonderful,” he says of the whole trail system.

After reaching the end of the main trail and making our way back – taking the trail the man suggested for a time – we decide to have ice cream and visit the playground as a tribute to my memories. Alas, the ice cream at Jack’s has been replaced by standard Blue Bell fare, and there is no grape flavor. I try strawberry and find it a passable substitute. My son orders a chocolate-peanut-butter milkshake, and we walk to the playground.

All the equipment is new, and the area swarms with children enjoying the sunshine. There’s no replacement for the giant wooden hamster wheel (how could there be?), but the kids don’t seem to mind. They zoom down slides, hold tight to a metal, zipline-like apparatus and climb over the two large play structures.

We stop to look at the waterfall as we leave. A little boy approaches the fence near the statue, points at the rainbow the mist makes at the base of the falls and urgently calls his dad over to look. Everything isn’t the same as I remember, but I’m glad the beauty, history and adventure of this place are enchanting even more people today.

Noccalula Falls Park is on Noccalula Road in Gadsden, AL 35904. Hours: (Gated portion of park) March 1-June 1, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; June 2-Aug. 10, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Aug. 11-Oct. 30, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. More information:; 256-549-4663

*This is what you did when there weren’t enough seatbelts to go around and public-safety education hadn’t progressed enough to teach you any better.



A group in Black Creek Gorge, about 1910/ photo courtesy Danny Crownover

A group in Black Creek Gorge, about 1910/ photo courtesy Danny Crownover

It seems safe to say no one knows more about the history of the Noccalula Falls area than Danny Crownover, president of the Etowah Historical Society and director of the Etowah Heritage Museum.

After returning to Etowah County with a degree from the University of Alabama, Crownover spent a lot of time in Black Creek Gorge, curious about the unexplained things he saw there – old carvings and markings, piles of rubble, nails and pipes sticking out of the rock on both sides of the falls. “I was fascinated,” he says. “There was all kinds of historical evidence.” He began researching the area’s past as a hobby and eventually wrote a book, “Black Creek – Southern Lookout Mountain,” published in 1983.

Crownover says he found much to indicate people regularly visited the falls long before it became a park. It was a landmark for various Native American tribes, as it was near a route they used for thousands of years that eventually became known as the High Town Pass. It stretched from present-day Charleston, S.C. to Memphis, Tenn., and the Chickasaw used it as a trading route with the British.

A story goes that during the Civil War Gen. Joseph Wheeler took his men for a night of dancing at a pavilion in the gorge. “They were down there with the country women,” according to one account, Crownover says, “and must have had a good time judging from all the peanut shells on the dancing floor.” Crownover has found photos confirming dancing pavilions existed at the top and bottom of the falls.

A group in Black Creek Gorge, about 1910/ photo courtesy Danny Crownover

An 1859 map shows a cave entrance directly below where the Indian maiden statue now stands. The cave was rumored to go all the way to Chattanooga, but Crownover thinks it more likely ends in the Keener community, about 10 miles northeast of Gadsden, since it was sometimes called the Keener Cave. The cave entrance was dynamited in 1870, possibly because a saloon operated inside. The historical society and the University of Alabama Geology Department are holding an interest meeting soon to investigate the cave.

One of the first houses in the area was near the falls and was owned by a white man, John Riley, and his Native American wife, Crownover says. The log cabin has been moved to another area on the High Town Pass. Etowah County’s first factory, which made hats and was called The Hattery, was built in 1858 where the park is now.

Beginning around 1870, steam boats from Rome, Ga., came to Gadsden with the purpose of taking people to Noccalula Falls. A narrow-gauge passenger railroad was built around 1895. “It was a little tiny train that brought tourists from Gadsden to Noccalula Falls,” Crownover says.

The area was known as tourist camp for a long time. From 1838 until the city of Gadsden purchased the property in 1949, the land was privately owned, but its owners allowed the public to use it, Crownover says.

“There were many reasons why people went up to Noccalula Falls,” he continues. “For health reasons, people went to drink from the spring. People went to get away from life, to enjoy themselves and to go hunting. Many stayed overnight.” You can see where their camp fires blackened the rock in the gorge. Of course, the main thing people want to know is whether the legend of Noccalula is true. Similar stories are attached to other waterfalls and told as far north as Niagra Falls.

Crownover says written records, including newspaper articles and journals written by travellers on the High Town Pass in 1815, 1818 and 1821, indicate a Native American maiden jumped from the falls between 1789 and 1795, although the story is a little different from the popular legend based on an 1857 poem by Mathilde Bilbro.

The maiden was the daughter of Chief Little Turkey, who came to Turkey Town (a large area that stretched from Gadsden to Centre, Ala., with its main village located five miles northeast of Gadsden) in 1789 and later became principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Her name was not Noccalula, which means “waterfall” in the Cherokee language, but Elohibela or Elofabela.

The brave she was in love with was Chief Pathkiller, who also became principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and died in 1827 in present-day Centre.

A stick-ball game was involved in the incident, Crownover says. Chief Turkey promised his daughter to Creek Chief Micco if the Cherokees lost, which they did.

While he’s not comfortable saying the legend is definitely true, Crownover says he tends to believe it is, largely because it was documented in writing not long after it happened by people who were living during the time. Some people even claimed to have witnessed the stick-ball game. And since Little Turkey was principal chief of the entire Cherokee Nation, the story would have spread, he says. “I lean toward thinking the legend of the Indian princess started right here at Noccalula Falls,” he says. “But the fun of it is it’s a legend. It has a romantic story to it. It’s romantic that someone loved someone and they were willing to jump over a waterfall because they couldn’t marry who they wanted to marry. That used to wow the early pioneers. That’s why I think they wrote about it.”


Events at the Falls

Several annual events and festivals draw large crowds to Noccalula Falls and have given the park more visibility in recent years, says Hugh Stump, executive director of Greater Gadsden Area Tourism. They are:

SMOKE ON THE FALLS BARBECUE FESTIVAL, APRIL 11, 2015 – Pros and backyard barbeque teams compete in this event sanctioned through the Kansas City Barbeque Society and Alabama Barbecue Trails. Live music, food vendors and a children’s play area are part of the fun.

WHEELS ON THE HILLS CAR SHOW, JUNE 12-14, 2015 – Thousands will gather to trade, buy and sell cars at this reconfiguration of the 30-year-old “Gadsden Street Rod Run” series of car shows.

THE BARBARIAN CHALLENGE, JUNE 20, 2015 – Part race, part obstacle course, the Barbarian Challenge utilizes the Black Creek Trail System and involves creek crossings, tunnels, walls and ropes. Stump brought the event’s organizer to Gadsden after witnessing the Challenge in Georgia, and it will be held at Noccalula Falls for the fifth year in a row in 2015.

CHRISTMAS AT THE FALLS, NOVEMBER-DECEMBER, 2015 – The park is decorated with more than 1 million lights, Santa and the Grinch make appearances and children can decorate cookies and write and mail letters to Santa at the pioneer Post Office.