Do you find yourself pining for a short, scenic hike, not too far from Huntsville, with an educational component and some cool natural features? Well, I opine that you can’t do much better than the Payne Creek Demonstration Area in the Bankhead National Forest. This outdoor classroom has two short trails that won’t leave you supine afterwards. Though you won’t see a porcupine, or a pineapple, or have to make your way across alpine terrain, you will see examples of a cool forestry project to restore shortleaf pines to their historic habitat, a really striking rock shelter, and if you time things well, a waterfall too.
I promise you won’t find such terrible puns at the Payne Creek Demonstration Area. Opened in 2010, this lesser-known site in the Bankhead National Forest is a forestry project in progress, with one trail on a ridgetop with signage explaining the methods by which the US Forest Service is restoring the balance between shortleaf pines and loblolly pines in the Bankhead. A second trail descends into Payne Creek Canyon, where Payne Creek meanders southward past undercut bluffs to flow into the Sipsey River. The trails offer different experiences, so we hiked them both.
One of the biggest challenges for this hike was to find the trailhead. Though the Bankhead National Forest is encouraging people to visit the site, especially to ease some of the overuse of Caney Creek Falls, it’s not actually mapped or signposted very well. But, the good news is that it’s simple to find. Access is via a pullout on the east side of Alabama Highway 33, one of the main north-south routes in the Bankhead. If you are approaching from the north on Highway 33, the pullout will be on your left about 6.8 miles south of the Cranal Road/Highway 33 intersection. If you pass a Bankhead National Forest sign or cross the Sipsey River, you’ve gone too far. There’s ample shoulder parking for 5-6 vehicles, and as you look to the north you’ll see an old gravel road blocked by bollards, with a sign identifying the demonstration area.
Though the trails aren’t specifically signposted or blazed, the route is obvious – just take the gravel road past the sign. You’ll pass one of the stars of the show on your left: pinus echinata, the shortleaf pine. A few yards afterwards, there’s a picnic table and the first of several informative signs describing the effort that is underway here. I don’t want to steal their thunder, so I’ll summarize. The shortleaf pine is one of several southern yellow pines native to this area. After the widespread logging in this area (before its days as a national forest), the Civilian Conservation Corps was tasked in the 1930s to rebuild the forest. The optimal solution at the time was to plant loblolly pines. It was a reasonable choice, as they were another southern yellow pine native to the area, and they are relatively fast-growing trees. Though the project was successful, it changed the balance of the species in the area, as historically the forest was a more homogeneous mix of shortleaf and loblolly pines (with hardwoods too, such as red and white oak and American beech). The current effort is an attempt to return the forest to a more natural state.
We continued along the road to another sign, which said simply “Midstory removal.” This is one of the four techniques used to rebalance the mix of trees in this area. That’s the general theme in this teaching forest — for each technique used, there’s another sign with more information in front of a plot where the Forest Service has used the technique. In this case, midstory removal is the removal of younger trees, by digging or chainsaw, to enhance the development of other trees (shortleaf pines, in this case).
Just a scant 300 feet from the start of the trail, we had arrived at a trail split. The gravel road continued to the left, with a wooden arrow affixed to a signpost pointing in that direction. However, a trail branched off to the right, with a large welcome sign describing Payne Creek Canyon. We decided to postpone our forestry education for a little while, and took the right fork to descend into the canyon.
I’m not sure this trail has a formal name, but let’s call it the Payne Creek Canyon trail. It’s a lovely trail — about five feet wide, well-engineered, sloping gently downhill. Periodically, signs identify some of the noteworthy trees along the way: bigleaf magnolia, American beech, white oak, red oak, mountain laurel, hornbeam, just to name a few. The trail was carpeted with the huge (over a foot long) bigleaf magnolia leaves and bronze beech leaves.
Not far from the trail’s beginning, a small creek formed along the right side, flowing along merrily as we descended. We soon crossed the creek on a metal bridge, and just yards later crossed again twice on the same type of bridge. Finally, after a fourth bridge crossing, the creek dropped over a ledge and disappeared, and the trail stopped its descent at about .35 miles from the trailhead and continued along a bluffline to the left. Oddly, the last bridge left us on the wrong side of the creek, but the creek crossing was easy and shallow, well away from the edge. Warning signs advised, “Watch out — steep bluff.”
The trail continued along the bluffline for around 500 feet before reaching a not-so-obvious turn. A couple of small trees lie across the more obvious route, and a slightly worn footbed bends downhill to the right. After a short and slippery descent to the right, another of the tree ID signs came into view and we knew we were on the trail. In fact, we were at the bottom of Payne Creek Canyon, and Payne Creek itself was flowing ahead of us. The footbed continued to the right, but we made a beeline for the creek, which wound southward to our right in front of a bluff. After a quick look upstream and downstream, we continued along the footbed to the south.
We could hear the sound of falling water as we neared the bottom of the canyon, and about 200 feet later we emerged from the trees by a massive rock shelter, with a small waterfall fed by our disappearing creek on the trail above.
The rockhouse was a large one, though not as massive as the Kinlock shelter, with a small sandy beach at one side of the overhang. You can easily travel behind the waterfall, which I did in search of a good location to photograph the waterfall. The light was awkward, necessitating a barefoot crossing of Payne Creek, and the interposing foliage and an unsightly fallen pine right next to the waterfall made for some necessary contortions to get any kind of decent photos. We joked about how we usually save our Bankhead creek crossings for February, so this was a comparatively balmy stroll through foot-deep water. The waterfall was kind of bashful, so please take my word that it’s much better experienced in person.
After enjoying a quick lunch, listening to the waterfall and soaking in the atmosphere, we retraced our steps uphill back to the gravel road, where we turned right to resume our forestry education. On one side of the road, a plot demonstrated the commercial thinning technique, in which mature trees were harvested, thus clearing the way for young pines to thrive. Just a few feet later, on the other side of the road, the shortleaf pine planting technique was on display, with little pines peeking out among the died-off deciduous understory plants. Finally, the road ended at an area in which the fourth technique, a prescribed burn, had been used for planting site preparation and restoring the biological community. All in all, the gravel road had continued for about .15 miles after splitting with the Payne Creek Canyon trail, so the walk back to the car was a quick one.
All told, our GPS track says we covered 2.2 miles in our ramblings. Some of that was a little off-trail exploring down in the canyon. I think this mileage might be a little suspect, as the distance from the Payne Creek Canyon trailhead down to the rock shelter is only about .7 miles, and the length of the gravel road section is only about .25 miles. I think the rock overhang may have done some odd things to the GPS track in that area, and the actual distance is probably closer to 1.9 miles.
Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable little hike on a crisp fall day. What we learned about the shortleaf pine reforestation project increased our appreciation for the U.S. Forest Service and their efforts to be good stewards of the people’s lands. The trip down into the canyon was in many ways a typical Bankhead hike, with bluffs and creeks and waterfalls and rock shelters galore, along with a generous smattering of ferns and wildflowers (not in bloom at the time). This seems like it would be a good four-season hike. I guess you could call it evergreen.