Little River Canyon threads through some of the most stunning fall color in Alabama. This month discover the secret jewel cutting through the state's slice of Lookout Mountain. Mother Nature may bring you here, but the antiques shopping and the enchanting small towns of Fort Payne and Mentone will keep you for the whole weekend.
Friday--A Downtown Delight
Nestled sleepily in the valley between Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain, downtown Fort Payne welcomes you to the beginning of your weekend. Stop first for lunch at Heroes Café, and order the daily special--a meat and two or three vegetables ($4.75-$6.75)--served until 2 p.m.
Now you're ready for some shopping, so find Big Mill Antique Mall, and hold on to your socks as you walk in the door. With 21,000 square feet of display space and about 45 vendors, we guarantee this former hosiery mill, built in 1889, has just about anything you might want. We particularly liked the antique hardware booth. (Fun fact: With more than 150 hosiery plants and 36 million pairs of socks produced every week, Fort Payne is known as the Sock Capital of the World.)
Another one of our favorite stops in town is Cranberry Corner, a gift shop specializing in designer pottery, ceramics, china, and hand-blown glass.
Begin your ascent up Lookout Mountain via State 35/U.S. 11 en route to Mentone, the charming vacation retreat community with a population of around 400. You'll get your first taste of autumn color on the tree-canopied road that twists up the mountain and stretches through the rural DeKalb County countryside.
Check in to the historic Mentone Springs Hotel, which was built in 1884 and offers nine rooms. Of the 16 bed-and-breakfasts, guest cottages, and cabins around Mentone, we liked this one the best, not only for the great service but also because the wraparound porch overlooks the town's main intersection. Rates range $85-$165; (256) 634-4040. For more modest but comfortable accommodations, consider the DeSoto State Park Lodge. Lodge rates range $65-$68, cabin and chalet rates range $65-$95; 1-800-568-8840.
Go casual for dinner at Dessie's Kountry Chef, a short walk from the hotel. Slap down $7.99 for the legendary fried catfish. End your evening with a slice of Dessie's homemade Buttermilk Coconut Pie ($2).
If your hometown lights blot out starry skies, stop on the way back from dinner, and lift your gaze for a while as the cool, peaceful night blankets you.
Saturday--The Magic of Mentone
You may want to spend a little more time on the front porch with a cup of coffee before breakfast. Enjoy the spread of country ham, spinach eggs, cheese grits, biscuits, fresh fruit, and the specialty--banana French toast. Then head right out the back door to White Elephant Antiques and Gift Galleries. Originally part of the Mentone Springs Hotel, this shopping area opened as an antiques mall in the seventies. From there, stop by Rocky Top Pottery in the Log Cabin Craft Village, where Belinda Mann sculpts her popular clay wind chimes ($25) on-site.
When you need a break, rejuvenate with a cup of soup ($1.75) and a sandwich ($4.95) at the Log Cabin Restaurant & Deli, formerly an American Indian trading post in the early 1800s. Wash it down with a Cabin Cooler, a soft drink akin to iced Russian tea.
Spend your afternoon in nature at DeSoto State Park. Dress comfortably for walking and light hiking. Pack a camera so you can take a little bit of the area's beauty back home. The sight of the 104-foot DeSoto Falls or the tranquil pathways along the 8 miles of hiking trails, some of which follow Little River, will take your breath away.
Have an elegant dinner tonight at the Mentone Springs Hotel. The menu varies seasonally, but when we were there, we enjoyed the Georgia Pecan Encrusted Trout ($19.99), which was sautéed in lemon and white wine.
Sunday--Follow the Canyon
Go a little early to the 10 a.m. worship service at the Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel for a self-guided tour of this humble church, built in 1937 around a gigantic boulder. The dress is casual, and all denominations are welcome.
We've saved a scenic drive of Little River Canyon, the best part of the weekend, for last. From Mentone, take County 89 south to State 35, and head east. Your first stop is just over G. E. Hill Bridge, where Little River Falls spills 45 feet to the beginning of the canyon. Cross back over the bridge, and turn south on State 176, also known as Canyon Rim Drive, a 23-mile road that follows the ridge. The various overlooks along this route afford expansive views of the canyon spread below like a patchwork quilt--its yellows, oranges, and reds briefly interrupted by evergreen pines. Listen closely to the faint rush of Little River cutting her way through this furrow she's been working on for thousands of years. Soak up the serenity here to take home with you.
"Alabama's Mountain Country" is from the October 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.