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Break Away from the Pack at These Parks


© St. Petersburg Times

FORT PAYNE, Ala. -- They're expecting dueling banjos. Or a corn-liquor still, here on the banks of the Little River, in the hollows of northeast Alabama. Instead, the city slickers floating downstream hear a sudden thrashing and splashing and look up to see a deer plunging across a shallow ford.

They stop paddling, mesmerized. A second deer appears, then bounds after the first. The pair dashes up the bank, leaps into a rhododendron thicket and vanishes. Once again, the forest falls silent.

"Deer's about the only big critter you'll see up here," drawls outfitter Bill Adams, a gap-toothed grin embellishing the country-boy image he cultivates for Yankees. "Or a hiker, maybe. Not too many fishermen ... and none of the mobs of people that crowd into places like Yellowstone. If you go there in summer, you might as well have stayed home."

Since early morning, this group, floating along on an Adams Outdoors trip, has been meandering through Little River Canyon National Preserve, watching the rocky bottom glide by and climbing out in shallow spots to drag the inflatable raft over a pebble bar.

The park's visitor facilities, in DeSoto State Park on the northern border, are half empty. The lodge and the cottages have vacancies, the campground is half full, just a half-dozen kids splash in the pool. But as the summer wears on and the humidity rises in Birmingham, Huntsville and Atlanta, the park will hum like bees in the honeysuckle.

"Y'all should call ahead for reservations to be on the safe side," advises park naturalist Ken Thomas, who leads nature walks in the woods.

The Little River/DeSoto park is among the many places where visitors trade the over-loved spectacular for uncrowded simplicity, offering a genuine outdoor experience without such urban hassles as traffic jams.

The 15,000-acre Little River Canyon National Preserve, managed in partnership with DeSoto State Park, was created in 1992 to protect one of Alabama's last free-flowing rivers. Fed primarily by rain, "jumping up quickly and emptying out quickly," says Adams, the Little River flows 40 miles over Lookout Mountain's hard sandstone cap to the Little River Falls, where it plunges 60 feet down a steep rock wall. Encountering softer stone below, it tumbles into the Little River Canyon, cutting a narrow gorge that plummets 700 feet from rim to river.

During high water, November to April, kayakers shoot the falls, then run the Class IV and V rapids downstream. Adams' lazy float trips on Lookout Mountain are geared for families, but he also guides in the canyon, teaches rappelling, leads cave tours, conducts environmental seminars and even organizes hay rides.

Actually, most park activities are land-based: hiking, camping, pool swimming, bird watching, nature walks and drives to a half-dozen scenic overlooks along 23-mile Canyon Rim Drive. The closest urban entertainment is eight miles away in Fort Payne, whose chief industry makes it the self-proclaimed "Sock Capital of the World," where you'll find markets, antiquing, cafes and a historical museum.

Lodge accommodations are plain but comfortable, with rows of rocking chairs on the front porch. In summer, double rooms are $49 per night; four-person cabins are $56 per night. (Only the cabins are available until mid-July because of renovations.) Call (800) 568-8840 or (800) 252-7275. The campground has 78 developed sites with laundry, showers and store. Primitive campsites are adjacent. Contact Bill Adams at (205) 845-2988; ask about his rental cottages. The park is off I-59, 72 miles east of Huntsville and 104 northeast of Birmingham.

Among other less-visited national parks, consider these: Kings Canyon National Park, California

This 462,000-acre park on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada is a sleeper: overshadowed by Yosemite but sharing the same rugged peaks, alpine lakes and rushing streams. Used mostly by hikers and backpackers, the park has limited services for day visitors.

Grant Grove, the most accessible area, has a large grove of giant redwoods, a visitors center, market, restaurant and three campgrounds. But the bulk of the park starts at Cedar Grove, in a remote valley. Trail heads to the high country begin past four huge campgrounds on the Kings River, ideal for family camping. A small market sells basic supplies and a ranger station dispenses maps, hiking permits and campfire entertainment. Call (209) 565-3134.

Enter Kings Canyon from State Route 180, northeast of Fresno. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

This wilderness park, 219,000 acres on the Minnesota-Canadian border, protects a network of interconnected lakes, waterways and marshes, the former haunts of the French voyageurs. The most popular activity is overnight portaging from one lake to the next, on routes pioneered by fur traders in the 18th century. Outfitters in the area rent canoes and supplies.

But the park also offers a wealth of day activities at the visitor centers at International Falls, Rainy Lake and Kabetogama Lake, where guided canoe and boat trips, hikes, historic tours and nature walks introduce visitors to the region's unique ecology. Camping is available. For information and accommodations, call park headquarters in International Falls, off U.S. 53; (218) 283-9821 or (800) 524-9085, or the visitors center at (218) 286-5258. Arches National Park, Utah

While other travelers are fighting for parking spaces at Bryce or Zion, visitors to Arches, 73,400 acres in Utah's Canyonlands, find amazing sandstone towers, arches and windows carved over the ages by wind and water. Framed by blue skies and white clouds, the semi-desert landscape is a photographic fantasy in reds, ochres, tans and ivory.

You can see the formations, many of them named, from the road and from hiking trails, but you need to drive some distance into the park. A particularly spectacular group is the Devils Garden, 18 miles from the park entrance and visitors center.

Public and private campgrounds are located in the park and nearby. Arches is five miles from Moab in southeast Utah, where you can rent bicycles for on and off-road adventure. Call (801) 259-8161. Anne Z. Cooke if a freelance writer living in Marina del Rey, Calif.

Originally published August 10, 1997

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