If you like your nature a little rough around the edges, but not too far from home, may I direct you to the Bankhead National Forest? It’s a place of rivers and hollows, hills and wild hogs, dirt roads and waterfalls, coyotes and cemeteries. The Bankhead is full of great dayhikes and backcountry camping, and as Ruth likes to joke, every time we go there it tries to kill us. But it doesn’t really try that hard, and we tend not to do really foolish things, so I think we’ve made an agreement to call it a truce.
The Bankhead is really quite large, spanning over 180,000 acres in Lawrence and Winston counties in Alabama, and is around a 90-minute drive from Huntsville. The Bankhead was initially proclaimed a national forest in 1918, and I tend to think of it in three broad geographical swathes — the National Forest itself; a subset of the national forest known as the Sipsey Wilderness Area; and another subset known as the Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area. Our favorite part of the Bankhead is the Sipsey Wilderness, which according to the Bankhead’s website is “the largest national forest wilderness area east of the Mississippi.” The only access is to hikers and horseback riders, and depending on how you count, there are around 14 recognized trails in the Sipsey.
Our hike in early September was to one of the longer trails, the Sipsey River trail. This particular trail is numbered 209 by the Forest Service and spans the majority of the distance from the Sipsey River picnic grounds to the Randolph trailhead, both on Cranal Road. Thompson Creek and Quillian Creek merge to form the Sipsey River in the southwest portion of the Sipsey Wilderness, and the trail for the most part follows the nascent river west to east. We dropped a shuttle vehicle at the picnic grounds and headed west to the Randolph trailhead to start our hike.
Parts of this hike would be familiar ground. To get to the west trailhead for the Sipsey River trail, we took the Rippey trail (trail 201) 2.6 miles to its three-way junction with the Thompson Creek (206) and Sipsey River trails. This junction is a familiar one, as we have previously hiked the Rippey and Thompson Creek trails (as we previously wrote about in The Spur of the Moment Hike). We made good time, hitting the trail at around 9:30 and covering the distance in a little less than an hour. The Rippey trail isn’t one of the more scenic ones in the Sipsey, but it doesn’t have a lot of elevation change, and at times looks like it parallels an old wagon road. It was a pleasant walk in the woods, with a few late season wildflowers in bloom, such as goldenrod and lobelia. It had rained a couple of days prior to our hike, and mushrooms were much in evidence.
The west trailhead of the Sipsey River trail starts off with a moderately steep downhill section about a quarter of a mile down to the river. This part of the trail isn’t terribly well marked, but as long as you are headed downhill you’ll reach the river and a wide path on its west side (the river runs north-south at this particular spot). We knew we would have a couple of water crossings on this hike, and we knew this first crossing was pretty easy but weren’t sure about how high the water would be. Just for grins, we took the extra weight and strapped our Keens to the back of the pack, so when we reached the crossing (which is well marked on this side of the river) we doffed the boots and socks, put on the water shoes, and strolled across. The water was barely mid-calf on me, and there’s a small set of stepping stones that might keep you dry if you have good balance.
Once you’ve crossed the Sipsey, you pretty much can’t get lost if you keep the river on your right. On the western portions of the Sipsey River trail, there’s generally only a single track through the woods. Large boulders are found sporadically on either side of the trail, where they’ve come to rest after rolling down from the nearby bluffs. The river was relatively low and slow here, and was more of a brown shade than the usual teal cast of the Sipsey River. Along the way there are a few interesting rock structures, such as this little A-frame formation made by a sloping rock resting against a boulder.
We saw more interesting mushrooms and hearts a-bustin’ as the trail continued, pretty much flat, next to the river. At times, the trail was fairly overgrown, necessitating more than a few stepovers and workarounds for downed trees. There are good things and bad things about trails that hug a riverbank. The good: the going is generally level and the views are often quite striking. The bad: when creeks flow into the river, you have to cross them to continue on the trail, and riverside trails can be a little buggy if the water isn’t flowing well. We had both of the good things with this trail, and one of the bad things — the creek crossings. Most of them were minor, but all required some level of careful footwork. One had a narrow footlog, and another one required hanging onto a rope while descending about five feet into a gully. For this reason, we wouldn’t recommend the western half of this trail for hiking with young children.
Bankhead trails in general aren’t typically as well-groomed as trails you’ll find on Land Trust properties or national parks, and after you reach the junction with the Bee Ridge (204) trail (about 2.3 miles from the west trailhead of the 209) there are a few overgrown sections that you’ll need to push through. However, even in these sections the trail is easy to follow, even when you have to hurdle a series of downed trees in this area. Trail maintenance is complicated in the Sipsey Wilderness, since power tools aren’t allowed. On the plus side, you’ll see nice displays of sunflowers and interesting fungi. Bee Ridge is a popular trail by Sipsey standards, as it is the gateway to two waterfalls and the Big Tree, a state-record yellow poplar over 25 feet in circumference. We haven’t been there yet, but it’s going on the future hikes list.
Your next landmark is the intersection with the Randolph trail (202), about 3.5 miles from the west trailhead of the 209. If you want to return to the Randolph trailhead, you can cross the river here and hike around 3.4 miles back to your car. If you are looking for a loop hike and don’t mind water crossings, the 201-209-202 trails form a loop of around 9.5 miles. Since we wanted to complete the Sipsey River trail in its entirety, we pressed on past the old-school trail sign.
On this eastern half of the Sipsey River trail, the footpath widens, with occasional branches that go down to the river. We saw some elephant’s foot, downy rattlesnake plantain, and cutleaf grape fern on this stretch. There was also a fun little oddity — a tree that appeared to be floating in midair above the trail, as it had broken off at the base but was still suspended by vines.
Around 5.8 miles from the west trailhead of the 209, you’ll come across a cool rockhouse on the left side of the trail, and begin to hear the sound of running water. In around another .2 miles, you’ll come to the source of that sound — Falls Creek Falls. Not to be confused with the much taller waterfall with the similar name in Tennessee, this fall is a modest single-drop 30-footer. Today it didn’t have an impressive flow, but it was still a welcome sight. You can easily walk behind this fall.
After resting a bit and snapping quite a few waterfall pics, we pressed on for another half mile to the crossing of Borden Creek, and the official end of the Sipsey River trail. At this point, you have an option of turning left and following an unofficial trail north along the west side of Borden Creek for about 2 miles to get to the Borden Creek trailhead, where you can cross the creek on a bridge. Since the river was low and we had parked our shuttle at the picnic grounds, we just strolled across on the stepping stones. If you are thinking of doing this hike, we strongly suggest that you first stop at the picnic grounds and have a peek at Borden Creek before deciding where to drop your shuttle vehicle. If Borden Creek is high enough to make the water crossing iffy, you might want to hike from the Randolph trailhead to the Borden Creek trailhead. But this will add around 1.5 miles to your hike.
After crossing Borden Creek, we turned right on the Borden Creek (200) trail and walked another half mile to the parking lot to complete our hike. We were off the trail at 4 pm, giving us about 6.5 hours of hiking to cover 10.6 miles, as measured on our GPS. Our usual experiences with the Sipsey remind us of Ulysses Everett McGill’s exasperated comment in O Brother, Where Art Thou: “Well, ain’t this place a geographical oddity. Two weeks from everywhere!” The Sipsey is a geographical oddity in that no matter which source you use to estimate the length of your hike before you set out, you will hike at least 10 miles. My paper map of the Bankhead suggested that the hike would be 9.0 miles. The Sipsey Wilderness Hiking Club’s website suggested it would be 9.3 miles. Just be advised: if you think you’ve planned an 8 or 9 mile hike in the Sipsey, be prepared to hike 10!
Though we’ve described a fairly long hike, if you’re looking for a short waterfall hike you can make with the kids, leave from the Sipsey River picnic grounds, take the Borden Creek trail half a mile, cross Borden Creek, and walk another half mile to Falls Creek Falls. If the kids still have some energy, you can head west another quarter mile to let them play in the big rock overhang on the north side of the trail. One thing to note — if you are parking at the picnic grounds, you’ll need to get a $3 day use pass for your vehicle. There’s a stand in the parking lot where you can get an envelope with a ridiculous overlong form attached. Put the cash in the envelope and deposit it in the drop box.
So now that we’ve completed the Sipsey River trail, there are only a few official trails left for us to conquer in the Sipsey Wilderness. But that still leaves plenty of hiking, and then there are still trails to be explored in the Wildlife Management Area and other parts of the Bankhead. It really is the gift that keeps on giving!
Here’s the GPS track for this hike.