The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area (MSNHA) has strikingly beautiful forest lands, lakes, streams, small mountains, and valley areas. Located along the Tennessee River are several lakes, including Bear Creek, Pickwick, Wilson, and Wheeler. In Franklin and Lawrence Counties is Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness, known as the "Land of a Thousand Waterfalls." Another one of the region's best examples of unspoiled nature can be seen at Dismals Canyon Conservatory in Franklin County. The region's natural settings make it easy to study native fish, birds, and other wildlife.
MSNHA is primarily located in the Highland Rim, one of Alabama's seven physiographic areas. The area is defined by an east-west mountain ridge, which separates two valleys that were formed by various eroding layers of limestone, sandstone, and other similar rocks.
There are three distinct areas within the Highland Rim – the Tennessee Valley, Little Mountain, and Moulton Valley. Little Mountain starts near the city of Huntsville and extends almost to the city of Russellville. From the Tennessee border to the base of Little Mountain is the Tennessee Valley and below Little Mountain is Moulton Valley.
Bankhead National Forest / Sipsey Wilderness
Covering over 181,000 acres, the William B. Bankhead National Forest is one of four national forests in Alabama. The forest was established as an Alabama National Forest in 1918 and is Alabama's largest national forest. Cutting through the forest land is the Upper Sipsey Fork, Alabama's only "National Wild and Scenic River" and Sipsey Wilderness, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River.
The effects of the erosion of the varying levels of sandrock can be seen in Bankhead National Forest's deep gouges, canyons, and waterfalls. Several ancient types of trees and plant life still grow in the forest and the area is home to a large number of native and rare wildlife. The forest gives visitors a glimpse into the way North Alabama must have appeared to its first settlers.
Dismals Canyon Conservatory
Another example of preserved land in North Alabama can be found at the privately-owned Dismal Canyon Conservatory. The canyon was once a primordial swamp that was changed through the years by earthquakes, flowing water, and eroding rock. More than 350 different species of plant life can be found inside the canyon area and the canyon is home to a rare glowworm, the dismalite, which is a bright-green glowing larvae that lights up the canyon walls at night.
The lakes in the Muscle Shoals region have a unique story in that they were all created during the taming of the Tennessee River and surrounding creeks. These lakes are reservoirs that were created by dams constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Pickwick, Wilson, and Wheeler Lakes are three of nine reservoirs that make the Tennessee River navigable between Chattanooga and Tennessee. Bear Creek Lakes was created by four dams constructed on Bear Creek and helps manage flood conditions and provides water to residents in North Alabama. Though man-made, these reservoirs have become havens for fish, birds, and plant life and have become an integral part of the natural heritage of North Alabama.