I believe I may have already mentioned, once or twice, my love for the Sipsey Wilderness area, so it should be no surprise that on a recent beautiful spring day I talked Chet into yet another excursion over there. My selling point this time was that there was a hike described in 50 Hikes in Alabama by Johnny Molloy that we really needed to do – “Big Tree and East Bee Branch Falls.” I think any time we have talked to folks familiar with the Sipsey about trails over there, they ask us if we’ve been to the Big Tree. It was always a little embarrassing to admit that, often as we’ve hiked over there, we have never made it to this famous landmark. I figured it was high time to fix that.
In our defense, the Big Tree isn’t that easy to get to. It’s not really on the way to anything else and though there are several different routes you can take to get to it, none of them are short. The shortest route I’ve seen is an 8 mile round trip, which is a pretty full day of hiking for me. We went with the route used in the book, which was described as 5 miles one way and starts at Borden Creek Trailhead. You get to the trailhead by turning off of AL 33 onto Cranal Road, then in .7 miles look for the sign to Borden Creek Trailhead on your right. Parking for trailhead is 3 miles down the gravel Forest Service Road 224. The road is blocked off at that point so you pretty much can’t go wrong. We had been here just a few weeks ago and right away noticed a new challenge – the heavy winds in the area earlier in March dumped a tree across the road in a way that blocked both the entrance to and the exit from the horse trailer turn around area. Having no horses to deal with, we simply parked a little farther back in the parking lot and then ducked under the tree to walk on down the road.
The official start for our trail is at the gate across the Borden Creek bridge, which is about .5 mile down the gravel road from the parking area. Walking down the gravel road, I heard more bird song than I remember hearing in a while. The blue sky, crisp air, and bird song just brought joy to my heart. At the bottom of the road, Borden Creek Bridge curves out over the river and back over to the other side. It’s a lovely spot. The views up and down Borden Creek from the middle are beautiful. Once on the other side of the bridge, there look to be trail options right and left along the banks of the river, but the actual trail just follows the old FS 224 roadbed straight ahead. Also once known as Lawrence County Road 5, this road has apparently not been used as a road in a long long time, because shortly after crossing the bridge, it narrows down to a single-track path. The trail climbs steadily uphill for .4 miles, and it was in this stretch that I saw the one and only blooming buckeye tree. This is the perfect time of year to find loads of these eye-catching red blooms, and I was sort of hoping for and expecting to see quite a few. I’m glad we saw one anyway!
After this initial climb, the trail levels out and follows along a ridge top. There are a couple of places where it dips down a bit and rises back up, but for the most part, it’s very easy hiking. As we walked along, we started noticing evidence of a fire along the trail. In late October into early November 2015, there was a wildfire burning in this area that burned nearly 2,000 acres in the Bankhead Forest. That sounds really bad and I’ll be honest, I was reluctant to come here for a while because I didn’t want to see “my” Sipsey burned to the ground. It wasn’t that kind of fire, though. According to Forest Service incident commander Joe Smith, the fire mostly only burned “surface fuels like leaves and grass and not trees.” Oh sure, the trees we saw had black sooty burn marks up their trunks, but otherwise seemed fine with nice healthy green leaves popping out as you’d expect this time of year.
This section of the trail is a bit wider and there are open areas off to the side that may have once been fields. We wanted to check one out, so we headed off the trail where I noticed that apparently some trees did burn in the fire. There were these black burned holes in the ground where tree trunks must once have been anyway. I wonder if those were trees that were already dead when the fire came through and that’s why they burned up but others didn’t? In any case, it made for a bit of tricky footing as you had to watch for sudden holes in the ground. The field turned out to be not that interesting – it was mostly an open area taken over by wild onions with a few saplings starting to take it back over – but on the way back, Chet was astounded to see that Sipsey had left me yet another valentine! Yup – we found another heart shaped Valentine balloon there in the leaves next to the trail. That’s two Sipsey hikes in a row with a Valentine balloon! I love you, too, Sipsey.
Soon enough, we came to the intersection with trail 204. Our book described the 204 as a “much less brushy” and more traveled trail than the 224. I didn’t think the 224 was “brushy” or overgrown at all! Maybe the fire cleared out all the brush. At any rate, the 204 leads generally down hill through woods that are mostly hardwoods, including lots more pretty blooming white dogwoods. In a little less than a mile, the trail splits. The trail sign just points left to the 204. The right fork isn’t really marked, but it is the 204A, also known as the northern end of the East Bee Branch Canyon trail, and it’s the one we wanted so right we went.
After passing some pretty large trees, including one with a huge canker all the way around it, this trail started descending into the canyon. The vegetation changed to more magnolia, mountain laurel and hemlock and we could hear the falls up ahead. I should point out here that the 204A isn’t actually an “official” Forest Service trail and so isn’t maintained. Footing is actually pretty tricky in a few spots, and the trail can be hard to figure out. If you stick with it, though, you will be rewarded. One tricky spot was almost right at the top of the falls. We could tell where we needed to end up, but didn’t really see a clear way to get there. There were several possible trails down, all of which were either steep, slippery, or both, so we just picked one that seemed the most reasonable and headed for the sound of the falls.
Coming from this direction, the trail comes out on the top of East Bee Branch Falls, where the stream goes over a small cascade, settles out for a short stretch, and then suddenly drops over a lip of rock to drop 90 feet to the canyon floor. The view from the top is pretty impressive, but I couldn’t wait to get down to the base of the falls, so we didn’t hang around too long before heading on down the trail that led along the edge of the canyon. Our book described a “break in the canyon walls” that was supposed to be where we turned down into the canyon but we never really did find any such thing. The trail as we experienced it led along the upper edge of the canyon, through two rockhouse areas with falls, before it finally just narrowed down to nothing and we could go no further. We turned back and ended up each taking slightly different scrambles down to the path on the canyon floor. I still don’t know what the “right” way to get down there is! I guess that’s what you get on an unmaintained, unofficial trail.
We turned upstream to follow the trail along the bottom of the canyon back towards the falls and soon came to the Big Tree. This tree is the largest yellow poplar in Alabama. It is 25 feet around and towers 150 feet in the air. It’s no sequoia or giant redwood, but it’s still pretty impressive. Just behind the tree, we could see East Bee Branch Fall streaming down from above, and off to the left, another unnamed fall – similar but smaller – also fell into the canyon.
This is an absolutely lovely spot, and we had it all to ourselves for a little while, so we sat on a large boulder with a great view of both falls and ate our lunch, then scrambled around getting all sorts of pictures. Another couple with their sweet dog showed up after a while, and Chet and I decided to go ahead and get out of their way.
As we scrambled back up past the top of the falls, we spotted a trail running along just below the trail we had come in on and wondered if maybe that was a better way to get back. Right at the beginning of it, we were delighted to find a big bush with yellow trumpet-like flowers. We’d been seeing these flowers on the ground in several spots on the hike and were wondering what they were. We were happy to get a close-up view of them at eye level. When we got home and looked up that flower, though, we realized we had done a very dangerous thing. Those flowers were yellow jessamine. To quote from our flower book Wildflowers of Tennessee the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians, “All parts of this plant are extremely poisonous; eating just one flower has been fatal to children. Contact can cause dermatitis.” Yikes! Good thing I didn’t pick up a bunch to put in my hair or something!
The hike back was uneventful, though on the long side. We always joke that if we go to the Sipsey, no matter what the posted trail mileage, we will walk at least 10 miles. Taking a 4.5 mile trail? We’ll still walk 10 somehow. It just never fails. This day, though, we were expecting about 10 miles – maybe 10.5. Our final trail mileage? Go here to find out.