When I was planning the hike for this past weekend, my first thought was to go up to Middle Tennessee and explore some of the waterfalls and trails we’ve not been to yet. It’s a beautiful area and we haven’t been up there in a while. Then my dear husband suggested a trail in the Sipsey Wilderness that we hadn’t done either. Ah Sipsey…oh, I “tried to make up my mind” – so I told myself anyway – but really, who did I think I was fooling? I love the Sipsey. I can’t resist it. So to the Sipsey we went, to hike trail #207, Braziel Creek trail.
The turnoff to the 3 mile gravel and dirt road to the trailhead is on Cranal Road, .7 miles west of the intersection with AL 33. The road leads to a nice gravel parking area with room for plenty of cars and even horse trailers. I believe that the first time I ever hiked in the Sipsey Wilderness, we came down this road, only then it did not end in the nice big parking lot. We just found a wide spot beside the road next to the trailhead and parked. Apparently, this area became so popular they were having problems with too many cars clogging up the road, so they put up a gate about 1/2 mile back and bulldozed out a nice big lot. It was probably a good investment. We got there mid morning on a Sunday to find the lot pretty full and saw more people on a Sipsey hike than I can remember!
While I think the trail mileage is from the actual trailhead, to get there you first have to hike that 1/2 mile down the gravel road. Several groups who looked to have camped out overnight passed us on the way back to their cars, including one group of a few adults and mostly young girls. Go Girlpower! I’m always glad to see girls enjoying camping and hiking and all those kinds of things. The road leads to a gated-off bridge over Borden Creek and there are actually 3 trails that start here: the #200 (Borden Creek trail), the #203 (Lookout trail), and our target, the #207.
The 203 and 207 start off together, down a set of steep rock stairs just before the bridge. People being people, there is a wildcat branch of the trail that goes along the creek edge, though an “official” looking trail is further away from the bank. Views of the lovely turquoise-blue Borden Creek can be had from either trail and besides, the 207 gets you up close and personal with Borden Creek soon enough. In .2 mile there is a signpost for the 207, pointing straight across the creek. What is it with us and water crossings in the Sipsey in February?! The last time I did a river crossing, and by that I mean one where you actually are in water mid-shin or deeper, was last February, in the Sipsey. That cold water would feel really good in, say, August. In February, it’s almost painful. But it’s a short-lived pain and this time I actually had an appreciative audience of sorts. A young family with a small boy noticed us taking off our boots and stopped to watch as we picked our way carefully across. In my memory, they applauded when I reached the other bank, but maybe I just made that up.
In some respects, the toughest part of the crossing was figuring out how to get up the bank and back to the trail. In order to avoid the deepest spots in the creek, I ended up angling upstream a bit from what looked like the best spot to climb up the bank. I came out on a sandy ledge next to the creek, and the only way to the trail from there was up a sheer bank with yellow jackets buzzing around. Great choice. We made it with no stings or falls down the bank, though, so I’ll take it. At the top, however, we were faced with a mess. Obviously recent rains must have caused the creek to be really flooded because the whole bank here up to probably 6 feet above the water was just a mass of branches, leaves, pine needles, and other stuff dumped by the creek. It’s the kind of thing where your leg could suddenly plunge a foot down through what looked like solid ground. It would be a great way to break a leg! We made it just fine across the mess to an obvious trail stretching left and right. Hmm. Luckily, the book we were using as a guide (Johnny Molloy’s 50 Hikes in Alabama again) was pretty clear about this. The way to the right is what he calls a “user created” trail, and we should go left. Left we went, taking care to note the pink ribbon that would remind us where the ford was on the way back.
The trail heads back downstream along Borden Creek before coming to the confluence of Borden and Braziel Creeks, where it curves away uphill. The views from this section I thought were beautiful – the land drops steeply off to your left and way down at the bottom you can see the blue-green glint of Braziel Creek winding through the rocks and trees. At .5 mile the trail heads even more steeply uphill, but then at .9 it comes back down to creek level. This was our lunch spot – a lovely tree trunk next to a pool of blue-green water. At 1.3 miles the trail and the creek both make a sharp bend to the right. Straight ahead a small creek flows into Braziel Creek and people have made a trail down to the creek to get a better look, but right is the way to go for now. At 1.6 miles, Clifty Creek comes in on the opposite bank. At 1.9 miles, the trail heads up and away from Braziel Creek and at 2.2 miles sort of becomes mostly a shallow streambed. Molloy’s book calls this “coming alongside an intermittent stream.” Ha! I say. The trail becomes the creek is how I describe it. It’s not deep or anything but you are basically walking through a creek.
Molloy’s book talked about a nice waterfall right after “crossing the stream,” so Chet and I took off up the first likely looking small stream. There was no trail, so we just pushed our way straight up the hill to a tiny little drip of a waterfall coming off the bluff. It wasn’t very impressive, but we took pictures anyway. Then we spotted what looked like a very faint path along the base of the bluff, so we decided maybe we’d just gone up a creek too early and we should follow along the bluff to the next one. That’s exactly what we did, and though our “faint path” turned out to be mostly down to wishful thinking, we were rewarded with a very nice fall.
There wasn’t a path to this one either, so we just picked our way down the much more substantial creek here to get back to the trail. At this point, there was supposed to be a beautiful rockhouse, described by Johnny Molloy this way: “Many other rockhouses can be unappealing – the floor may be sloped or muddy or water drips from the ceiling. However this rockhouse is open and sunny. The roof starts about 15 to 20 feet overhead. Fallen boulders form dry seats.” Sounds nice. Never saw it. Re-reading the book after the fact, maybe we weren’t supposed to come back down the creek after seeing the falls, but it wasn’t very clear. At any rate, we got back on the trail and turned right, expecting the rockhouse. Instead, in .2 miles we came to what we called “the gates” – two giant boulders on either side of the trail. Chet called it the gates to the grasslands, because there was a lot of grass on either side of the trail after that. I called them the gates to mudville because, grass or no, the trail itself was basically just a vast mudpit for long stretches. Yuck.
About .3 of a mile beyond the gates, we came to a spot where there looked like there were a couple of campfire rings or campsites, but the trail disappeared! Ok, not really. It took us a few minutes to figure it out, but basically it took a very sharp hairpin turn towards the left and exited at the back of one of the campsites.We looked at the map, decided once and for all we’d missed the rockhouse and were probably halfway between the falls and the end of the trail, and decided to push on. We really weren’t sure how long this part was and once again we were in the Sipsey in the afternoon in winter and a little worried about losing light. I particularly didn’t want to make that river crossing again in the dark. We’d started out at about 10:45, lost at least an hour to lunch, stopping to take pictures of flowers and waterfalls and that sort of thing, and it was 2:30. We agreed that if we hadn’t reached the end of the trail by 3:00 we’d just turn around. 15 minutes later, we slogged the last uphill stretch to the intersection with the 208 (Northwest trail). Success! And we might even make it back before it got dark.
The way back was just a matter of retracing our steps and going as quickly as we could. On the last section of trail, I had spotted something red and shiny on the ground right on the trail ahead. I was thinking it was plastic trash or something equally unappealing, but when we got to it, it was a red mylar “Happy Valentine’s Day” balloon. It was completely intact, except for the fact that all the helium had leaked out. On the way back, I couldn’t resist picking the balloon up. A Valentine – from Sipsey to me, right? Once again I could not resist.
We did make it back in time to cross in the light, though the water seemed much deeper this time around. I walked the rest of the way back carrying that red Valentine balloon. It wasn’t quite deflated enough to roll up and put in my backback, but I couldn’t bring myself to pop it, so I wrapped the string around my hand and put up with it flapping around behind me in the breeze. I confess that more than a couple of times I thought I’d startled an animal in the bushes only to realize it was the forgotten-about balloon, snagged on a branch. I guess when I think about it, Sipsey is sort of like that for me. It’s always close by, sometimes forgotten about in the jumble of daily life, but all I have to do is pay attention and there it is! Would it be too corny to say “filling my heart with joy”? Maybe so, but it’s not too much of a stretch.