We’ve made quite a few hikes in the Bankhead National Forest, though most have been in the Sipsey Wilderness portion of the forest. I was thinking that it might be interesting to try some lesser-known hikes, and the Owl Creek non-motorized trail system looked intriguing. There are three interconnecting loop trails of varying lengths in the east-central section of the forest, and since we were non-motorized ourselves we headed out bright and early one weekend morning to check out the middle loop, also known as the Brushy Creek horse trail.
The Owl Creek system is a multi-use system of three trails — Brushy Creek, Key Mill, and Pine Torch — designed for use by hikers, bikers, and horse riders. We didn’t find many reports online from hikers, so we didn’t know exactly what to expect. But this being the Bankhead, we had a few expectations:
- The Bankhead Forest will try to kill us.
- We will get lost.
- Trails will only be marked at their trailheads.
- Sources will disagree wildly on the trail’s length.
- No matter what the sources say, you will hike at least ten miles.
After consulting paper and online maps, we decided to hike the Brushy Creek trail for two reasons: it was purportedly the shortest of the three loops (2.5, 3.9, and “approximately 6,” according to our sources), and it was the middle loop that linked the entire trail system, so we thought it would give us the best flavor of the three trails. We took I-65 south to Highway 36 in Hartselle, headed west past Danville, and turned left on Lawrence County Road 86. This road starts out as paved, but switches over to gravel around the boundary of the National Forest, where it passes the entrance to Indian Tomb Hollow and continues up and over Dillashaw Mountain. We turned right on County Road 89 (paved), then passed Shiloh Church and turned left onto County Road 73 (Brushy Creek Road, unpaved). In about .8 mile, the large gravel parking lot is on the left. We had driven straight to the Brushy trailhead without any navigational difficulties, and the gravel roads were in very good condition. We usually manage to find them either full of bone-rattling potholes or huge slippery wallows, so this was a bit of a surprise. We were the only ones there, which wasn’t a surprise.
The Brushy Creek trail starts from the back of the parking lot down a wide and mostly level gravel road. I had previously downloaded a Forest Service map in my PDF Maps app, and after my phone puzzled over the mysteries of the satellites for a few minutes, a dot representing our position appeared on the map. After that, we knew fairly precisely where we were on the trail at any given time. We’ve used that app on Land Trust trails, but this was the first time we’ve tried it in the Bankhead, and it worked well. On our last trip to the Bankhead we had dashed off without a map, but today we had electronic and paper maps, and were determined not to get lost.
After walking .5 miles down the road, we arrived at the Brushy Creek loop. The intersection isn’t terribly dramatic — a wide trail takes off to the right, and the road continues on, now marked with a blue diamond. We decided to take the loop clockwise, so we continued on the road. The trail was well marked, with blue diamonds frequently visible. The first .3 to .4 miles of the loop, on the eastern side, are pretty much level, with gentle turns along a wide ridgetop. At about .4 miles from the start of the loop, the forest recedes and the trail passes through an open grassy area. We noticed several trees marked with orange bands of paint, but don’t confuse those with trail markings. The roadbed was a bit overgrown with grasses in this section, and a large gravel pile blocked the road. Just on the other side of the gravel pile, the trail angles off to the left and re-enters the woods. This was the only part of the trail where the route wasn’t obvious, but the blue diamonds appear very quickly once you re-enter the woods.
When we first started the hike, I commented to Ruth that I wondered how many snakes we would see today. It seems like we’ve seen more snakes than we used to on our walks, though to be fair the majority of our walks have been serpent-free. About 200 yards after entering the woods, we got a partial answer to my question: “more than zero.” I spotted a four-foot gray rat snake (also known as a chicken snake) draped across the trail. It wasn’t hard to spot, since it blocked most of the footpath. This was a remarkably laid-back snake. It didn’t retreat as we approached. Instead, it stayed motionless while we snapped photos and gingerly crept past its tail to continue on down the trail. After we had passed it, apparently the snake decided we weren’t a threat and it slowly oozed its way on across the trail.
We had formed a few general impressions of the trail so far. First, it was really easy walking, mostly level and easy to follow. We did notice this stretch of the trail was a bit buggy, but we had brought repellent and kept up a brisk pace. Another impression was that the trail surface was variable, ranging from large gravel to small gravel to sand. Overall, the trail was quite a bit sandier that we expected, seeing as it was far from any large creeks or rivers. I noticed quite a bit of sandstone at the surface.
After entering the woods after the gravel pile, the trail narrows and slopes gently downward for about a mile to its intersection with the orange-diamond Key Mill horse trail, the easternmost of the three interlocking loops of the Owl Creek trail system. We continued to the southwest, following the blue diamonds. Shortly afterward we met the only two people we would see on this hike, two horse riders out enjoying a fine morning. We stepped aside to let them pass and exchanged greetings. One of the horses was jumpy at the sight of us, but calmed down a little after we hid our hiking poles behind our backs. Horses have the strangest notions sometimes. We let them get a head start, then about .1 mile after the trail intersection we crossed Coal Branch. The creek was shallow and not very wide, but had a decent amount of water considering that it had been pretty dry in these parts for the past week or so. There was an amusing improvised trail marker here.
This next stretch of the trail was best for spotting wildflowers. We saw white milkweed, hairy skullcap, hyssopleaf skullcap, and mountain laurel in this stretch. For the record, we identified several others in bloom elsewhere on the trail: oak leaf hydrangea, partridgeberry, spotted wintergreen, fleabane, thistle, dog hobble, two-flowered Cynthia, and a couple others we didn’t identify. This stretch of the trail runs for about 1.3 miles from the Key Mill intersection to the intersection of two Forest Service roads. The trail was again mostly level, through somewhat denser woods, with a short rise as the trail climbed out of a shallow hollow. We noticed here, and in other places, that sections of the trail that were particularly low or potentially boggy had been gravelled. Normally, horse trails can be chewed up and muddy, but the combination of the gravel, good drainage, and the recent dry weather meant this trail was almost completely dry, and the one or two small muddy areas were easily skirted.
When the trail crossed Brushy Creek Road next to a small stand of orange coneflowers, we stopped for lunch on some benches next to a backcountry campsite. At this point the Brushy Creek trail intersects the yellow-diamond Pine Torch horse trail. You can continue west on the Pine Torch trail, the longest of the three interlocking loops, but we stuck with the blue diamonds and headed north. The Pine Torch and Brushy Creek trails actually overlap here, and the trail is marked with blue and yellow diamonds.
The trail gradually climbs and winds through a section of woods marked by fire. The understory opens up here, with more grasses and more light. After around 1.7 miles, we reached the split where the Pine Torch trail branched back to the northwest, and the Brushy Creek trail, now back to its blue markers, headed east. These trail intersections were extremely well-marked.
We crossed Brushy Creek Road one more time, about .2 miles from the blue-yellow split, and shortly thereafter crossed Coal Branch again, this time a mere trickle up close to its source. About .75 miles from the blue-yellow split, we completed the loop and emerged onto the access road. From there it was an easy stroll back to the parking lot. It had taken us a little over three hours to cover a 6 mile hike, which is a pretty fast pace for us. Here’s the GPS track for the hike.
Of course, we had planned on this being a ten-mile hike, so it was a mild surprise to find it was only a six-miler, and we didn’t get lost, and the Bankhead didn’t try to kill us at all. The trail was very well marked and very well maintained. It wasn’t the most scenic walk we’ve had in the Bankhead, but it gave us a good sense of the Owl Creek system. One side benefit of the trail actually coming in at one of its reported distances was that we had time to drive to the Pine Torch church and cemetery. This historic log church was built around 1850, and is the oldest standing building in the Bankhead Forest, and one of the oldest log churches in Alabama. The original hand-hewn logs are impressive, though the flooring and roof are later additions. We ambled around the swept-sand cemetery behind the church, which has some pre-Civil War gravestones, and this fine marker for the late Mr. Joel Meherg, a man who must have really loved to fish.
So, this was not our typical Bankhead hike. It went more or less exactly as planned, on well marked trails, and was quite a bit less than ten miles. Leave it to the Bankhead to surprise us — by not surprising us.