After having lived in the Huntsville area for almost 25 years, it seems inevitable that we would absorb some aspects of the NASA culture. Neither of us has ever worked for NASA, but we know people who do and party conversations have occasionally turned to space topics. Whether you’re putting satellites or people into orbit, it’s an extremely precise and painstaking performance, and the consequences of failure are wildly expensive at best and a national tragedy at worst. From what I can tell, at NASA it’s not nearly enough to have a Plan B. Every backup system has its own backup system, and that backup system has its own backup system. Sure, the engineering is mighty impressive, but the planning behind it is equally amazing.
In our own little way, we sometimes have a Plan B in mind when we set out on one of our little adventures, particularly if we’re heading somewhere for which the navigational clues are somewhat obscure. We don’t usually have a backup to our backup, but when we’re hiking somewhere off trail we do have a backup plan, and as we get smarter, we get better backup strategies — such as bringing headlamps even if we don’t think we’ll need them (learned the hard way on this hike, and on another unintentional twilight adventure at Lake Guntersville State Park a few years ago).
So after the record-breaking Christmas Day rain, I had in mind to hike to some waterfalls, since they were likely to be in fine form. If you’re looking for waterfalls around here, I’d say your best bet is to head to Waterfall Central, also known as the Bankhead National Forest. There are plenty of scenic falls we’ve not yet visited, so after some Internet research I decided we’d have a go at finding Hurricane Creek Falls. Given that information on how to actually find the falls was rather sketchy online, as a backup plan I also thought we might visit Caney Creek Falls. It’s in the same general area, with an easy to find trailhead. After all the Christmas eating, we were looking to throw down a few miles. Also, we had some new Christmas loot to try out!
Our first destination was Hurricane Creek Falls, which is on the southeast side of the Bankhead. To be specific, it’s in the Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area, so we would get a chance to break out the orange vests that Santa brought us since we foolishly insist on hiking in WMAs during hunting season. I didn’t have much luck on finding specific directions to the falls. <rant> What is the deal with people who write online about the Bankhead? They LOOOOVE to post beautiful pictures and say how wonderful their hike was, but they completely clam up on the details of how to find places that aren’t on one of the Sipsey Wilderness trails, even when people ask them point blank. It’s an infuriating elitism, in my opinion — like they are saying “I found a wonderful magic place that I want to brag about and keep to myself, because if anyone else sees it, it will become less magical.” There’s a tiny bit of merit to that viewpoint, as the hiking experience would be affected if you paved all the trails and put up flashing signs. But come on, people — the Bankhead is far from overrun. Stop bogarting the beauty! </rant>
We knew that Hurricane Creek Falls was near the Hurricane Creek shooting range, off Highway 33 south of the Cranal Road turn that leads into the heart of the Sipsey Wilderness. I had found a reference to starting the hike on Forest Service Road 238, just north of the shooting range. Our map of the Bankhead Forest showed a road in that general area, but it was labeled as FS 242. And to make matters worse, we have somehow mislaid our GPS somewhere in the house, so we wouldn’t have the ability to locate or mark waypoints on this trip. So despite my rant above, this blog post won’t have GPS coordinates or a GPS track to help you recreate this hike. As it turns out, that might not be a bad thing….
We followed our usual route to the Bankhead, taking I-65 south to Highway 36 in Hartselle and driving through Danville and Speake until Highway 36 tees into Highway 33 in the Wren community. Along the way, we noticed quite a bit of water in the ditches and a couple of flooded houses, but the roads were fine. After turning south on Highway 33, we drove 13.4 miles to a forest service road about 3/4 of a mile north of the shooting range, and turned right and parked by the gate. The road was labeled as FS 238, so it looks like our online info was correct and the map was wrong.
The gate was actually open, and the gravel road was in pretty good shape by Bankhead standards, but we had come for a hike so we decided to hoof it until the road ended. All we knew about the route was that it was about a five-mile hike that started somewhere on that road, and ended up on Hurricane Creek close to where it flowed into the Sipsey River. From looking at the map, it looked like the road would end in about 1.75 miles, at which point we would bushwhack down to the creek and then follow it to the Sipsey. After what seemed a too-brief walk, we came to a gate across the road, but it clearly continued past the gate. Since we didn’t have the GPS, we weren’t sure if we had walked far enough to be at the “end” of the road or not, but we knew that even if we overshot, eventually we would end up at the Sipsey River.
As we continued past the gate, we came to an area which showed signs of a recent fire. There were odd markings on a tree, and beyond that, a tree with a large gall that sort of resembled a buffalo’s head. Wandering on a bit farther, we came to a grove festooned with various orange and black paint markings and occasional blue tape markings too. It wasn’t meant to be navigational. Any ideas of what’s going on here? Our working theory is that the trees are marked for a forestry study, since different types of trees were marked, and all of the marked trees appeared to have some fire damage at ground level.
The road split here, and we decided to continue to the left, sort of to the southwest. We figured that we’d come to the end of the road soon, but instead we glimpsed something green through the trees, and a few minutes later emerged into an open field with a pond nearby. At this point Ruth got the bright idea of using a compass to determine our position, then using Google Maps and terrain view to figure out roughly where we were. It became evident at this point that we were west of where we had planned on making the turn and bushwhacking down to Hurricane Creek, but since we didn’t have the GPS and a reliable way of making our way back to a waypoint, we thought it would be more prudent to stick to the road, perhaps all the way to the Sipsey, then bushwhack along the riverbank to the Hurricane Creek.
After about .25 miles, we came to a second open field, with a curious structure at the far end. It was a pen, with a plywood door attached to a pulley to trap its prey inside. Given its height and size, we think it’s a feral pig pen. I wouldn’t call it a trap, since it wasn’t rigged with a trigger, although I suppose it could be easily set up as a trap. It was a sobering reminder that wild boars are a reality in the Bankhead, and that they can be dangerous. After a snack break, we continued on the road and soon came to an even more explicit reminder — the first feral pig wallow that we’ve ever seen. The road had a big mudhole in it, and trees next to the mudhole had hog rubs on them. Feral pigs wallow in the mud, then rub against nearby trees to remove mud, dried hair, and parasites. And to top it off, there were tracks in the mud next to the mudhole. Yep, we were in hog country!
After the hog wallow, the road came to another “end” — but did it? Though overgrown, it was clear that a roadbed continued to the west, so we decided to keep plugging on in hopes of finding an easy route to the Sipsey. We worked our way westward until the road finally ended for good at a small berm. It looked like the end of the line, and we could hear water, so we plunged into the forest and headed south to the Sipsey. It wasn’t easy going, and we figured out that with the recent flooding it would be a very long, hard slog of at least half a mile, plus one unpredictable creek crossing, to get to the Hurricane Creek/Sipsey junction. It was around 2 pm, and so we took a minute to ponder our options. We could fight our way along the Sipsey, find a way to make a creek crossing, and probably find Hurricane Creek Falls, though we didn’t know exactly where it was. Then we could bushwhack our way up the ridge and probably intercept FS 238. But there was no way of knowing how long this would take, and without the GPS our ability to backtrack was limited. So with reluctance, we decided to do the smart thing and retrace our steps back to the road and hike back to the trailhead.
Yep, it was time for Plan B. We were determined to see a waterfall, so if we hoofed it back to the truck we could still make the short drive to Caney Creek Falls and take the shorter, more-traveled trail. After we got back to the more maintained portion of the road, the pace picked up and we hustled back. Along the way, I spotted this little ringneck snake on the road. We had to coax him out from under some leaves for a photo opportunity.
After getting back to the truck, we turned right (south) on Highway 33 and traveled for 5 miles to Winston County Highway 2, then turned right and drove 3.7 miles to a parking area on the right, marked by a crudely-lettered sign. Now that’s more like it! Though this was clearly not a Forest Service sign, someone took the initiative to make it easier for people to find one of the Bankhead’s treasures. Thanks for sharing, friend!
The trail to Caney Creek Falls starts as a heavily-eroded gravel road. There’s a Forest Service sign that says the falls are approximately 1.5 miles past the gate. Without the GPS we don’t have an accurate measurement, but we think the actual distance is about a mile — perhaps a little under a mile, in fact. The road eventually gives way to a nice wide trail, with an interpretive sign about .25 miles into the walk. As we neared the falls, we could hear the sound of rushing water, and the trail, which tended downhill, suddenly changed from pines and hardwoods to hemlocks and descended sharply downhill to the left. In about 100 yards, we arrived at the upper falls.
This 30-foot fall was roaring, with water pouring over both flows. The falls drop into a wide plunge pool, normally easy to cross on stepping stones, but the water was flowing pretty powerfully and the stones were partially or completely submerged. A crossing was a daunting prospect, so I set up my new tripod (thanks to my sweet daughters) and snapped a few photos from the south side of the falls. Ruth worked her way to the back of the falls and quickly got drenched. Luckily, she was in her new Ex Officio top and bottoms (another Christmas present), so it wasn’t long until her clothes dried out.
We knew that there was another fall about half a mile downstream, but there’s not a well-worn trail, so we abandoned the effort after following the creek for a few minutes. I was hoping to cross and work my way back to the upper falls to get some photos from a different vantage point, but either the bank was too high to get to the creek, or the bank was low and the creek was too high to cross without wading. We weren’t afraid of doffing the boots and crossing a creek, but the truth is we were getting short of daylight and knew we had a mile to cover on our way back. So we’ll have to come back another day to get more photos and check out the lower falls, but at least we saw one beautiful waterfall today!
So as usual, our trip to the Bankhead didn’t work out quite as we planned. We thought we’d see one, maybe two waterfalls, and hike around 7 miles. Instead, we hiked around 9 miles, saw some interesting forestry markings, signs of feral pigs, a ringneck snake, and finally, one waterfall. Our mission was to get some exercise, see some parts of the Bankhead we haven’t visited, and have some adventures. It might have ended up being Plan B, but it was mission accomplished.