To me, there's nothing better than spending a weekend exploring a new park and camping with friends. The kids band together in packs and spend much needed free-range, mostly-unsupervised time exploring the perimeter of the campground and riding bikes, while the grownups find time to nap in hammocks or sit around the fire. Years ago, we started camping with friends and now it has become beloved Mother's Day Weekend tradition. If you feel like your family is sorely lacking outside time, try getting a few members of your tribe together for a camping weekend!
DeSoto State Park, located near Fort Payne, Alabama, is less than three hours drive from the Birmingham area. If you are looking for a great day trip or camping trip, this may be the destination you're looking for! We spent two nights camping in the park's improved campground, and exploring the park, this past Mother's Day weekend. Read on, to find out things to do and places to go in this gorgeous park with kids in tow.
The "Improved" Campground
There are an impressive variety of lodging options available at DeSoto SP, depending on your outdoor adventure preferences. You certainly don't have to camp. But, DeSoto State Park is a great option for first-time campers. Options for an overnight stay include several types of log cabins, staying at the park's historic lodge, primitive and back country camping or the "improved campground." Our crew of campers needed tent and camper options, so we chose the improved campground for our stay.
This was probably one of the nicest campgrounds we've ever had the pleasure of visiting. With dim streetlights, paved roads, mown grass lawns edging the sites, and extremely level, fine-gravel covered tent and camper pads, this campground borders on "glamping," Our tent toting friends found comfortable spots to set up, on both grass and the fine-gravel pads. To give you an idea of how comfortable the campground is, many of the kids in our group were walking around barefoot.
The bathroom, which features coin-laundry, hot showers and flush toilets was clean and nice. The only complaint I heard was distance from camp sites. Some of our group was not comfortable sending young kids by themselves. However, you can reserve specific sites at this park, so if distance to the comfort station is a factor for you, choose a site closer to the station.
Photos: Improved Campground at DeSoto State Park
TIP: Don't miss DeSoto Falls when you make the trip to DeSoto State Park.
It wasn't obvious to us out-of-towners which waterfall was the huge one featured on the front page of the park's website. You'd think that the name would have given us a clue, but the photos aren't captioned very clearly! The park has many waterfalls labeled on its trail map, and DeSoto Falls is in an area of the park completely separated from the main part, by quite some distance. So, it took us some time to figure out. In fact, we spent a few hours hiking from the campground on Saturday, looking for the big falls, only to come up short. And several families who had younger kids were not able to take the time to drive on Sunday to see it. That was sad, because you don't want to miss this one.
There aren't very many places you can park your car, walk five minutes and see a spectacular canyon and waterfall from the top. And this one has the added bonus of being open for wading and cooling off between the bottom of the dam and the top of the first set of falls. I won't say "swimming," because it's not really deep enough for swimming. Be sure to put your kids in swim suits though, because they will want to sit down in the water and slide around on the rocks. Next time we go, we will probably bring a picnic and spend half a day.
Tip: If you have toddlers, be aware that the short trail to view the top of the falls has railings but they are by no means toddler proof. In fact, I would keep a tight grip on any child younger than five, or with a willful personality. The railings do not cover all dangerous spots and are quite open (see the title image in this article to see what I mean).
Photos: DeSoto Falls
Miles of trails are accessible directly from the campground at DeSoto State Park. No need to jump in the car to get to the trail head, just walk right out of camp. As I said before, we spent a few hours exploring the trails around the campground looking for the "big" waterfall. And though we didn't find it, we did find plenty of amazing rock formations, smaller water falls, a board walk trail and lots of places to stop for a snack and some play time. These are not super, easy trails. A two mile hike was plenty for the older kids, but some of the younger kids were very tired and cranky by the end. Be sure to bring along a carrier if you have a toddler and pack plenty of water and snacks.
Photos above from top left: Lost Falls, Laurel Falls, Needle Eye Rock and Needle Eye Rock.
From the campground, you can also hike to the park nature center and country store. Don't miss the carnivorous plants, both inside the nature center and growing in some of the beds, outside. There is a playground across the street from the store, but believe it or not, we did not visit it. The kids were much too happy playing on, in and around the "Needle Eye" rock formation, which is just 50 or so yards from the store, inside the woods on the store's south side. Be sure to wear closed toed shoes when you visit the Needle Eye.
Thank you to Susan Chien and Michael Searcy for helping with photos for this article!
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