Cell phone signals fade as you roll down the windows in the car and breathe the mountain-fresh air. Time stands still as you make your way into Mentone, AL, a quaint mountaintop enclave of artists, thinkers, adventurers and vacationers where a log cabin village of shops, three restaurants, an art gallery and a gas station with outstanding burgers comprise the city center. It’s a diverse, yet tight-knit, community that gathers for fish fries, movie nights, live concerts, festivals, farmers markets, bonfires, club meetings and art shows.
Nestled amid a sprawling green network of farms and cabins that are tucked along winding roads, Mentone offers breathtaking views of the impressive mountains and awe-inspiring waterfalls that seem to be stolen from a vast Colorado mountain range and transplanted to the backwoods of Northern Alabama. It’s a seemingly magical place where people come to unplug and connect to nature. At Little River Canyon National Preserve and DeSoto State Park, visitors enjoy hiking, horseback riding, fishing, camping, swimming, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, bird-watching, hunting, canoeing, snow skiing in winter months, campfires, sunsets and invaluable time with friends and family.
“They say nobody gets to this mountain by accident,” says New York City native, jazz singer and Kamama art gallery manager Clare Donahue. “All of us come here with a story, and it’s as if the mountain called you, and you just never leave.” This sentiment is echoed repeatedly by the loyal vacationers, local transplants, weekenders and campers. “Mentone is a unique town where people dance to the beat of their own drum and operate on their own time,” says L.C. Moon, owner of the Wildflower Cafe. “It is a town where socioeconomic boundaries fall apart because most of us live on a dirt road and appreciate the simple ways that make us walk instead of run.”
Local Ann Chambliss, a managing partner of Little River Farm, says Mentone is “a tapestry of life,” of her friends who have grown up there and people transplanted from all over the world. “It is an eclectic community that is interesting and full of life in a million ways,” says Ann. “The beauty of a sunset on the brow, a ride in the woods, seeing your family gather for fun, learning and appreciating a skill of a local resident — my favorite thing about Mentone is hard to define. I guess you will have to come see for yourself!”
Let’s take a tour of this charming town and stunningly beautiful mountain. Here are the places to stay, eat, shop and play in Mentone, AL.
A Slice of Mentone History
Built by Dr. Frank Caldwell of Pennsylvania in 1884 around a rippling mountain spring believed to have healing properties, the town’s oldest hotel needed a name. Dr. Caldwell was living in the home of John Mason, whose daughter, Alice, suggested the name Mentone, based on Queen Victoria’s visit to a place by the same name in France. The news item covering the queen’s trip had given the meaning of Mentone as “a musical mountain spring.” So it became the Mentone Springs Hotel, and the spot became the heart of the town. The 130-year-old hotel tragically burned to the ground in 2014.
The hotel, which co-owner Jim Rotch described as “a mix between country club and hunting lodge,” was famously haunted. Its white-tablecloth Alice’s Restaurant played host to wedding receptions, while the Rusty Fox pub, famous for its rustic pizzas and storied Prohibition-era secret tunnel, hosted class and family reunions. The White Elephant Galleries, housed on the hotel property, was “a hodgepodge of a treasure chest, with everything from fine antiques and books to collectibles and the ridiculous,” says Darlene Rotch. The hotel property is currently for sale, and the Rotches would love to help the right person or group revive it as the centerpiece of Mentone.
Where to Stay
“If you are looking to be entertained, you are coming to the wrong place,” says Ron Waits, owner of Mentone Mountain Getaways’ 24 rental cabins, the vast majority of which have hot tubs and porches with gorgeous Lookout Mountain views. “But if you are looking to get away from the rat race and just kick back and enjoy nature, Mentone is the place for you.” An hour-and-a-half from Birmingham, AL, two hours from Atlanta, two-and-a-half hours from Nashville, TN, 45 minutes from Chattanooga, TN, and 20 minutes from Fort Payne, AL, Mentone is becoming a popular place to unplug. “It’s a charming, sleepy little village, and, for couples that have children, it’s the perfect weekend getaway. We have lots of Friday and Saturday night bookings.” To peruse the endless cabins available to rent for a vacation stay, visit discoverlookoutmountain.com/cabins.
Built in 1927, the Mentone Inn has 12 rooms, each with a private bath. The inn serves a home-cooked breakfast each morning, as well as other meals, if arrangements are made prior to arrival. The inn also hosts fish fries, movie nights, weddings, family reunions and concerts in the pavilion in the back yard. “I pride myself on creating a cozy, home environment, where we encourage our guests to unplug from their lives and rejuvenate their minds and bodies,” says innkeeper Cynthia Stinson. “We even have a massage therapist on call for in-house massages.”
Where to Eat
Once voted the best cafe in the state by Alabama Magazine and famous for its tomato pie, the Wildflower Cafe’s popular and crowd-pleasing fare is made with top-quality natural ingredients with gluten-free and vegetarian options. “We have some of the best burgers anywhere, ground from filet mignon and sirloin,” says L.C. Moon, or “Moon,” an herbalist and owner of the Wildflower. Brunch and lunch offerings include quiche, tomato pie, sandwiches, salads, wraps, soup, desserts and appetizers, such as sweet potato biscuits. The dinner menu features gourmet foods, including hormone-free choice filet mignon and prime rib, wild-caught salmon and shrimp scampi, to name a few.
The charming cafe has a store in the front of the restaurant and live music on weekends. “In the spring, a group of local bluegrass and ole-time musicians plan to start a picking post for pickers and grinners. Master gardener and Junior League clubs have me host a talk from time to time to talk about native edible and medicinal plants,” says Moon. “One of the greatest things about Wildflower is the connections that people make here. Long-lost friends have run into each other, new friendships have been made, artists and musicians have gotten their start here and impromptu musical magic has happened countless times.”
Kamama is an art gallery, coffee shop, cafe and concert venue in the heart of downtown Mentone. This is the place to find locals dropping off their beautiful art, then staying to enjoy a hearty bowl of homemade soup. The eclectic hub of culture was the vision of Ray and Sandra Padgett, and it continues to grow and flourish, with a massage and reiki spa, concerts and classes for the community. Jazz singer and gallery manager Clare Donahue is helping to further Ray’s vision of showcasing the town’s artistic talent. “Ray’s big dream is a Mentone Arts & Cultural Center, where we would have art classes, violin, bluegrass, voice, cello, folk arts like iron-making and beer-making, dance, theater, you name it,” says Clare, who is in the process of bringing these classes to fruition and figuring out which arts resonate with Mentone’s 370 local residents and numerous visitors. Stop by to peruse the gallery, purchase a piece of art made by one of Lookout Mountain’s talented locals or simply savor a delicious lunch in Kamama’s cafe.
This new eatery is located in an old 1800s log cabin that previously housed the Moonlight Bistro. “I had always loved the building, and when it came up for auction I attended just on a fluke and ended up being the new owner,” says The Green Leaf Grill owner Julie Sisam. She worked with Jimmy Rogers and Mikell Frechette to create the recently opened restaurant. “Jimmy’s got a huge following,” she says. “Everyone loves his food and loves him.” The grill serves lunch, Monday through Saturday, Sunday brunch and fine dining on Friday and Saturday nights with special events featuring talented local performers.
“I expect our fried cornbread and fresh rainbow trout from the cold waters of North Carolina and our fresh jumbo lump crab cakes will be among our popular dishes,” says Jimmy. “We named it The Green Leaf Grill, because everything here is so natural and refreshing. Mikell and I came back to Mentone for a visit and fell back in love with this beautiful area, so refreshing and untouched just like it has always been. It was like stepping back to our youth.”
Where to Shop
Log Cabin Village
You can’t miss this adorable collection of shops high on the hill in the center of town. Artisans and craftspeople sell unique and traditional wood carvings, essential oils, homemade soaps and more. The epitome of charm, this collection of shops tucked into a network of log cabins is the place to find an authentic handmade souvenir to remind you of your enchanting vacation in Mentone.
Thirty years ago, Valinda Miracle began making pottery as a restorative rehabilitation after an automobile accident that caused memory loss. The art of creating vessels from clay required her to focus and calm her mind, and the therapeutic art form restored her memory. Since then, Valinda established Miracle Pottery in her home, and it now occupies a large workshop and showroom at the base of Lookout Mountain. The stoneware bacon cooker and egg scrambler are hard to keep on the shelves, but the colorful array of mugs are also a perennial favorite. The surrounding camps, so popular in Mentone, have made having a Miracle Pottery mug for their morning coffee a tradition among camp counselors and administrators.
Sharon Barron Burke created a critter from a gourd in 1979 and registered it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. She was showered with national press coverage, including from USA Today, “NBC Nightly News,” CNN and several AP articles, for her playful creations. She set up her Gourdie Shop in Mentone, where she did wholesale, mail order, craft shows and retail. “Gourdies were loved by all ages,” says Sharon. “Even men bought them for themselves. It was all a very strange and wonderful experience.” The popularity of gourdies waned, but Sharon still loves to create unique items. The Gourdie Shop now carries one-of-a-kind, handcrafted items from all over the world. And, because of her love for Halloween and Christmas, she carries those fun holiday items all year long.
Where to Play
In the Southern Appalachians, this stunning nature preserve is a must-see. The beauty of these North Alabama mountains will take your breath away. Little River Canyon, known as The Grand Canyon of the East, and the 45-foot-tall Little River Falls are two sights to behold. Once you check out the gorgeous scenic views along Canyon Rim Drive, get a serious dose of nature with the park’s hiking trails, kayaking, waterfalls, rock climbing, horseback riding, fishing, hunting and camping. It’s an untouched slice of heaven!
Developed in the late 1930s, DeSoto State Park is a place to celebrate nature. Stay at a primitive campsite, log cabin or chalet in this expansive state park, where you can enjoy 25 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, kayaking, fly-fishing, hiking, biking, cycling, rappelling, geocaching, bouldering, picnicking, wildflower expeditions, a nature center, adventure excursions and more. And don’t miss the 104-foot-tall DeSoto Falls, the state’s highest waterfall.
Camp Skyline was founded by Eloise H. Temple in 1947. Eloise felt it necessary to not only give girls a place to call their own, but to make sure it would last through the ages. Camp Skyline activities appeal to the interests of all kinds of girls. “Our more adventuresome campers love the ropes course, tower, circus, waterfront, canoe, outdoor adventure, horseback riding and an equestrian program,” says Sally Johnson, camp director and owner. “We also have painting, arts and crafts, pottery, musical theater, set design, cooking and dance for our girls who love the arts. And basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, swimming, mountain biking and ultimate Frisbee are loved by our campers who have a competitive nature.” Camp Skyline hosts campers from 20 states and four countries.
Founded in 1959 by Coach Malcolm Laney and located on the banks of the Little River in Mentone, Camp Laney is an overnight boys’ camp offering many group and individual activities. Activities on the Little River include canoeing, paddleboarding, water biking, swimming, rope swing and water slide. Campers participate in archery, riflery, challenge course, climbing wall, bouldering, mountain biking, sports, horseback riding, tennis and ping-pong. Night activities include campfires, reptile programs, animal shows, dances with Riverview and Skyline for girls and tribe hunts. There are field trips to the Nantahala and Ocoee rivers for whitewater rafting and a trip to the Chattanooga Aquarium and Rock City.
Get away to Mentone and unplug, connect with nature, eat some delicious food, enjoy live music and arts, and shop local in this magical mountain town. And when you stop by, make sure to tell them StyleBlueprint sent you!
Thank you to Heydon Hatcher of H. Hatcher Photography for the gorgeous images of Mentone!