Three Within Thirty: Short Hikes to Cool Places in the Bankhead National Forest

We’ve had a lot of rain around here recently, so when it was my turn to pick our hike I thought it would be a good idea to see groundwater at its most photogenic — in the form of a waterfall or two.  And when you think of waterfalls in North Alabama, one place springs to mind immediately — the Bankhead National Forest and its Sipsey Wilderness.  It’s been too long since we’ve been to the Bankhead, which regularly tricks us into ten-mile hikes and tries to kill us on every visit.

But I had a plan for this trip — instead of throwing down a single long hike, I planned three short hikes to places just a little off the beaten path.  All three are well-known to the locals, but we’ve never visited them.  The theme of our trip: three within thirty, or three hikes to cool places no more than thirty minutes from where you parked.

We took our usual route to the Bankhead, following the interstate down to AL-36 in Hartselle, and then followed AL-36 west through Danville until it teed into AL-33.  We took AL-33 into the National Forest and turned right onto Cranal Road, the route to three different trailheads in the Sipsey Wilderness.  However, our destination was Mize Mill Falls, which isn’t reached from one of the official Forest Service trails.  We passed the Sipsey Recreation Area, crossed the bridge over the Sipsey River, and parked on the south side of Cranal Road at the first dirt road, about a half-mile past the bridge.  There’s room for three or four vehicles here on the road shoulder.

The trail starts on the north side of Cranal Road, across from the dirt road.  Since this isn’t an official trail, there is no signage marking the trailhead — only a couple of orange ribbons hanging from trees flanking a narrow passage into the forest.  I had read that this trail was a little dodgy, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it had a well-established footbed, descending about 20 feet and bending to the right.  The trail was narrow and a bit rooty and rocky during the descent, but quickly leveled off and widened as it passed through a shady hemlock grove.  We could hear the sound of rushing water from where we parked the car, and when the trail leveled out Turkey Foot creek was off to the left, with the water now sounding like a gentle roar.

We wandered over to the sound of the water and looked down into a small canyon onto the top of Mize Mill Falls.  Turkey Foot Creek passes through a tight spot here and drops around 20 feet to the canyon floor.  We could tell it was a little beauty, and were eager to get to the bottom for a better look.  We returned to the trail, dodged over/under a few small fallen trees, and reached an apparent end of the trail.  However, the trail takes a sharp left here and heads downhill for another short, rocky stretch before leveling out after descending another 20 feet or so.

The trail again seemed to stop above a cleft between two boulders, but the only way to proceed here is down.  It’s only a drop of about eight feet, with good handholds and footholds, and to make things easier there’s a rope you can grab.  After getting to the bottom, at a lower level on the canyon wall, a small bluff stretches off to the right, with a trail along the bottom.

We could see the creek was just about 15 feet below us, and we had one more descent to make, with the lower reaches of the canyon wall to one side and a drop-off on the other.  The route here is narrow and requires some care to navigate.  We brought hiking poles with us, and we were glad of it.  As I was picking my route to start the final descent, I planted a pole, picked out where to step, and lifted a foot in preparation.  And then….

In all of our hikes, only once have we seen a venomous snake, and that was only after someone pointed it out to us, well off the trail.  This would be our first close encounter, as my next step would have landed squarely on this copperhead.  Fortunately for both of us, I spotted it in time and was able to hop backwards while shouting, “Snake! Snake! Snake!”  There wasn’t really any way around it, so we watched it for a few minutes and snapped some photos and video.  The snake figured out we weren’t prey, and it wasn’t prey either, so it calmly and slowly slithered off to the side to hide under a tree trunk, and I slipped on past and made the last climb down into the bottom of the canyon.  Ruth followed suit, and we crossed the creek on stepping stones, then turned left and walked into the natural bowl filled by the gorgeous Mize Mill Falls.

This is a very photogenic fall, tumbling in two cascades over three drops.  Its setting is stunning, with a large overhang to the left, and a bluff to the right.  There’s a sizeable though shallow plunge pool, which was beautifully dappled by the morning sun.

This little canyon is terrific!  If I had done better research beforehand, I would have known that Turkey Foot Falls is just a little downstream of Mize Mill Falls, and we could have gotten two waterfall visits with very little effort.  In fact, some maps list Mize Mill Falls as “Upper Turkey Foot Falls,” so apparently they are quite close, and there is some disagreement on what this waterfall is called.  It won’t take much convincing to come back for another look at the other waterfall, though.  We ate our lunch here, admired a butterfly that was also enjoying the canyon, and took bunches of photos and some video, then retraced our route to the car.  The copperhead did not put in an appearance on our way out, to our relief.  The total distance on the hike, according to the GPS track, was only about .35 miles round trip.  It took us about 26 minutes to get from the trailhead to the base of the waterfall, though at least 3 minutes were spent freaking out about the snake.  For the record, I’m not afraid of snakes.  I am, however, afraid of stepping on them, especially if they take offense.

Our next destination was on the western edge of the Bankhead.  We headed west on Cranal Road until it teed into County Road 2, also known as Kinlock Road, and turned north.  The road is paved for a little over two miles before turning into a gravel road after a sharp bend.  Shortly after that, “No camping” signs start appearing along the right side of the road, and if you’re there in the summer, you’ll start seeing vehicles parked on the road shoulder.  We found a spot to pull in and continued north, toward a bridge over Hubbard Creek.  However, before getting to the bridge, a set of steps leads off to the right and down the embankment to a trail that parallels Hubbard Creek.  You can hear the sound of rushing water pretty much as soon as you park, because you are at probably the most popular swimming hole in the Bankhead — Kinlock Falls.

We turned right on the trail and headed downstream.   Almost immediately we could see the top of the falls, where the creek is shallow enough for a crossing.  Like most falls, it doesn’t look all that impressive at the top.  We continued downstream and passed a rope swing on our way to the top of the bluff overlooking the falls, then settled in on a nice flat rock outcrop and took in the scene.

And what a scene it was.  Kinlock Falls is a cascade-type waterfall, dropping around 40 feet from top to bottom along a natural water slide.  The drop isn’t too steep, especially on the creek-left side, and while we watched a couple of people rode inner tubes down the waterfall into the very deep plunge pool.  There’s a rope along one side of the waterfall that the tube riders used to climb back up for another trip.

I’ve seen pictures of Kinlock Falls before and didn’t think that much of it. However, it’s much better in person, as you see the scale of it and hear the roar of the water.  Hubbard Creek is quite wide at the bottom of the fall, and deep enough to allow people to use the rope swing or even to jump in from the top of the bluff where we were sitting.  We spoke to one daredevil, who said it was a lot of fun but also pointed out that there are boulders on the bottom of the plunge pool, so you’ll need to pick your landing spot carefully, especially if you’re using the rope swing.  You can see the boulders easily from the top of the bluff.  About 100 yards down from the falls, the creek becomes shallow again, but the area between the shallows and the falls is a glorious swimming hole.

The natural setting is lovely, but this is a much-trafficked (by Bankhead standards) area, so there is a problem with litter along the trail and on top of the bluff.  There are no bathrooms or changing facilities, and no garbage cans either.  Also, getting from the trail down to the top of the bluff necessitates a short scramble downhill, but there are plenty of tree roots to use for leverage and/or footing.  The trail continues on down to the creek level, but will require some more scrambling to get to the water.  We were there on a summer Sunday morning, so there were only about a dozen people swimming and sliding, but by the time we left after lunchtime there were quite a few more cars and trucks and motorcycles parked along the road.  We didn’t bother to take poles on the hike, or to even bring the GPS.  The walk down to our  observation point took about five minutes.

It was time to move on to our third destination for the day, which was only about half a mile north on Kinlock Road.  The name “Kinlock” comes from the former home site of David Hubbard, an early settler.  Hubbard was a prominent politician, serving in the Alabama, U.S., and Confederate States legislatures.  He built a plantation house and a mill in southwest Lawrence County, where the small community of Kinlock grew around the plantation.  This general area of the Bankhead National Forest is known as the Kinlock Spring Historic District,  owing not only to the historical significance of the plantation and mill, but also to the many archaeological sites in the area.  The best known of these sites is the Kinlock Shelter, an enormous rock house used by the Yuchi tribe, and later by the Cherokee.

There’s a small parking area on the left that can hold two or three vehicles, and just past that parking lot is a gated Forest Service road that offers parking for another two or three vehicles.  We took a look at the historic marker for Kinlock, a plaque next to a trail that leaves from the parking area, but before we headed into the woods we walked back up the road to where I had noticed a column partially hidden in the woods.  About 50 yards south of the parking area on the east side of the road, the base of two columns, which I presume are from David Hubbard’s house, are still standing.  The house was built in the 1830s, though eventually Hubbard moved in the 1860s or 1870s, and eventually the house was abandoned.  However, it was in good enough shape that it was used as the headquarters for Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1403 when their camp was established in 1933.  The house burned in 1935, but the camp lasted until 1938, and was then converted to a summer camp for the 4-H Club.  We walked around the site of the camp, where there are still foundation stones visible and four piers for a structure that had some sort of plumbing in it — perhaps a wellhouse?

We returned to the parking area and took the trail that started at the historical marker.  It entered the woods and only a few yards later passed by Kinlock Spring, an important water source for the area.  The spring was still running, with one of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen standing guard on one of its walls.  Though this is not one of the developed trails, the footbed was mostly level and well-established, and even broad as the trail went west, then north.  At one point the broad and flat trail crossed a bed of sandstone, passing through a grove of young pines.  The showiest wildflower of the day, Curtiss’ milkwort, was in bloom along this stretch.

The trail continued to the north, where at about .2 miles from the trailhead it teed into a gravel Forest Service road.  We turned left and about 300 feet later, the trail re-entered the woods on our right.  There aren’t any blazes and there’s no signage, but the trail is pretty obvious.  It continues mostly level for another 500 feet, at one point splitting left and right.  Stay to the left — we followed the right fork for about 100 yards and it didn’t look like it was going anywhere.

The trail then steeply descends into a hollow.  Footing is a little challenging in a couple of places, though we saw young children handling the descent with relative ease as we were climbing back out later.  The trail passes through a boggy area, and then, through the trees, the massive Kinlock Shelter announces its presence.

Friends, this is a BIG shelter.  It’s around 300 feet wide, up to 70 feet tall, and up to 100 feet deep.  Its overhang is taller and wider than Russell Cave National Monument or Cathedral Caverns, in case you’ve ever been to those sites.  At one end, a cave continues back into the hillside, which we didn’t explore.  It’s old — excavations have found evidence of human activity for thousands of years.  It’s still used as a ceremonial site, and for people who know what they’re looking for, there are ancient petroglyphs still visible carved into the stone.  Sadly, we do not fit into that group, but the sheer size and the orange and green tones of the sandstone make this a beautiful and impressive site.

After taking some time to soak in the atmosphere, we reluctantly saddled up and retraced our route out of the hollow back to the trail, and then back to the gravel road.  We turned left onto the road and decided to just hike it to its intersection with Kinlock Road, just a few feet up the road from the parking area.  The total distance for the hike, according to our GPS track, was about .875 miles, though some of the mileage includes our meandering in the old CCC camp.  It took us about 20 minutes to get from the parking area to the shelter.

The Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness have so much to offer, and we enjoyed our short hikes to these three (slightly) hidden treasures.  Though they aren’t reached by official maintained trails, the routes to Mize Mill Falls and Kinlock Shelter were easy to find and mostly easy to follow, though there are no trail markings and they don’t appear on official maps.  Kinlock Falls is the easiest to find — when Kinlock Road becomes a gravel road, just look for parked vehicles on the right side of the road and head for the sound of water.

So for once the Bankhead didn’t trick us into any ten-mile hikes, though as usual it did try to kill us. Well, not really — as Ruth pointed out, it just reminded us that it could kill us if it wanted to.  It’s tough love from Mother Nature, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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