Two Coffees to Go, Five Miles, Six Waterfalls

It wasn’t the most promising start to the day.  A thunderstorm rolled through and woke me before my usual rising time on a weekend.  Seeing as how we were planning to hike, the rain wasn’t a welcome sight.  I staggered out to the kitchen to start the coffee, and then discovered that there was a water outage.  Well, that’s just peachy — water where I don’t want it (puddling outside), and no water where I do want it (in the coffeepot).

But I could see that things were turning around.  There was a work crew end at the end of the block, digging up the sidewalk in the rain at 6 AM on a Sunday.  It probably wasn’t their idea of the perfect start to the day, either.  While I was standing on the porch, a whirl of movement caught my eye near one of the hanging baskets.  It was a hummingbird!  I’ve seen them elsewhere, but never so close to the house.  Maybe this day is going to be OK after all….

After Ruth was stirring, we took a look at the weather forecast and saw that things were going to improve as the day progressed.  So we figured, if Nature gives you water, it makes waterfalls with it!  So off we went to Waterfall Central in north Alabama — the Bankhead National Forest.  I had seen some trip reports about Sougahoagdee Falls, described as a favorite by many BNF enthusiasts, so after scrawling down directions we hit the road.  But we had to stop for coffee and some water to pack!

Fortified by gas station coffee, we made our way to Wren, then turned south on Alabama 33.  We passed the Cranal Road turn and took Highway 63 (Cheatham Road) roughly four miles to Winston County 3159 (Hickory Grove Road).  We overshot at first because the road didn’t have a marker for 3159, but the turn is easy to find — just hang a left at New Home Church.  01parking_lotAfter driving 4.1 miles, roughly half on a paved road and half on a gravel road, we pulled off into a small gravel parking area to the left, just before the road crosses Brushy Creek.  The parking area is small, but can accommodate four or five vehicles.  We were the only ones there.

On the way there, I told Ruth that my research had turned up a couple of trip reports, both of which mentioned finding venomous snakes on this hike, plus another nasty surprise farther along in the hike (more about that later). 03brown_snakeThough we have come upon snakes in our hiking adventures, we’ve never spotted a venomous one around here.  We know they are around, but they’ve kept to themselves when we were nearby.  So we were telling ourselves to be vigilant as we set off along on old roadbed that leaves from the parking area.  And about 50 yards later, Ruth obliviously stepped over a little snake who had foolishly gotten caught out in the open.  I’m no expert, but this is a non-venomous snake, possibly a baby brown snake.

05first_creek_crossingAbout 100 yards or so past the trailhead, you come to a small creek. 06old_bridgeThe path continues on the other side, barely visible in a large patch of jewelweed.  For a view of Brushy Creek, cross and head to the right.  Brushy Creek was muddy, since we were visiting after some heavy rains (and during a light rain).  The remains of an old concrete bridge are visible here.

38cascade_near_parkingTo actually continue on the hike, return to the jewelweed patch and head toward a small cascade.  The trail continues here, along an old roadbed.  Technically, there isn’t a formal, Forest Service-maintained trail to Sougahoagdee Falls, but for the most part the trail is easy to follow, as most of it is an old roadbed.  37brushy_creekThe trail travels a mostly level path within sight of Brushy Creek, with the occasional large boulder sitting on the right side of the trail, where it came to rest after rolling down the hill.

14waterfall_across_creekAbout 1/3 of a mile into the hike, you’ll hear the sound of rushing water from across the creek, and if you peer through the trees you’ll catch a glimpse of the first waterfall of the hike.  This was the first of six waterfalls we would see in this five-mile hike.  This one looks like a multi-tiered one, and it whetted our appetites for more.

16second_fallJust past 1/2 a mile into the hike, we came upon the second fall, a tall slender beauty off to the left and up a hollow.  You can walk behind many of the waterfalls on this hike, and Ruth snapped a photo from behind this one.thumb_IMG_2549_1024

After taking quite a while at this waterfall, we returned to the trail and continued along paralleling Brushy Creek.  I had read in previous hike reports that the trail becomes difficult to follow along the creek, and somewhere around 1/2 mile into the hike one is supposed to take off uphill to rejoin the old roadbed.  At one point, this detour was marked with ribbons, but later hikers apparently thought this was altogether too gaudy and removed them. We kept looking for a likely spot to turn uphill, and as a result we went past a very subtle junction that is actually the route we would recommend.  There is no marker at this junction, and the trail to the right is faint indeed, but if you are hiking this trail with a GPS, set a waypoint at 34.2561, -87.2538 and follow the trail along the creek until you come to a very subtle cairn in about .2 of a mile.  Though the trail continues along the creek at this point, turn left and head uphill for about 100 yards.  You’ll come out at the roadbed again, with another small cairn at the top.  Turn right to continue the hike.  It might help if you have a look at the “unmarked fork” waypoint on our GPS track.

35cairn_at_bottom36trail_uphill_between_cairns33cairn34roadbed_at_cairn

thumb_IMG_2551_1024 If you miss this turn like we did, you’ll wind away from Brushy Creek and in around .2 miles you’ll come to waterfall number three, a tiny one that flows along a crack between two boulders.  We flailed around a little bit at this point, feeling that we should be heading uphill to find the roadbed, but we finally decided to head back toward Brushy Creek and after a little bushwhacking we happened upon the roadbed and continued on our merry way, travelling west, then southwest as the creek meandered.  32fourth_fallAbout two miles into the hike, we came upon waterfall number four, another skinny Minnie that dropped from the bluff above.  As you might guess from the size of these falls, they are very dependent on rainfall.  We had picked a good day for a waterfall walk.  Though we started the hike in a light rain, the skies were clearing.  A heavier brief shower hit around the time we were at number four, but the forest canopy kept the worst of it at bay.

18fifth_fallBy this time, we knew we were getting close to Sougahoagdee Falls, and were looking for a more substantial feeder creek coming in from the left.  In a little over .1 of a mile, we found one, and could hear a waterfall, so we headed up a hollow to find waterfall number five, another slender one, but about five feet wide.  I dubbed it False Alarm Falls, because I knew we were close, but this wasn’t the main event.  We followed its discharge creek back toward Brushy Creek, and almost immediately came to a much larger feeder creek coming from the left.  We headed up the hollow around 200 yards, and long before we saw it, we heard it:  Sougahoagdee Falls.19sougahoadee_falls_setting

What a beauty!  I’d estimate it at around 70 feet tall, with the main flow around 50 feet wide.  27soug_fallsIt has a sizable plunge pool, but we didn’t do any wading.  Remember when I said there was another nasty surprise on this hike?  In a trip report from August 2011, a couple of hikers reported they went for a dip in the plunge pool and discovered it was full of leeches!  I took a long look but didn’t spot any.  Strangely, neither Ruth nor I wanted to test this by going in for a swim.  But I’ve seen photos taken here, and I’d say they are pretty credible.  Unless you’re in need of a bloodletting, best to swim elsewhere.

29soug_falls_sideSougahoagdee Falls is set in a very picturesque bowl, with bluffs rising on either side and a lush crop of ferns and other moisture-loving plants behind the fall.  30soug_selfieWhile we were there, the sun kept dodging in and out of the clouds, making the setting alternately moody and brilliant.  We sat and admired for a long while, enjoying our lunch and listening to the gentle roar of the water.  After wandering on all sides, we took a moment for a selfie then reluctantly began to retrace our steps back to the trailhead.

The walk back was largely uneventful.  We knew we had missed a turn on the way to the last few falls, so when we came to the cairn on the old roadbed, we headed downhill at that point and found the trail along Brushy Creek. Probably about three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, Ruth heard a mighty splash in the creek, which raised her hopes of spotting a river otter.  Alas, there were no otters to be seen.  But the sun was out, the weather was relatively cool, and the trail was level and shady.  And when we got home, the fine folks of Madison Utilities had our water working, so warm showers and a nap rounded out the afternoon perfectly.  Throw in a delicious dinner partially made from farmer’s market produce and a couple of craft beers while watching our favorite soccer team win their season opener, and that’s a very good ending to a day that didn’t start out so well.  Maybe that hummingbird had something to do with it.

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