Regular readers of this blog will know that Ruth and I are always on the lookout for adventures in the Bankhead National Forest. We’ve hiked quite a few trails in our closest National Forest, and decided that a recent rare dry weekend day would be a good time to try an off-trail jaunt to a couple of waterfalls we’ve never visited in the Sipsey Wilderness portion of the Bankhead.
It’s not difficult to find photos and descriptions of waterfalls in the Bankhead, and after a little research I found an account posted by a geocacher of a trip to Eagle Creek Falls and Deer Skull Falls. I’d heard of Deer Skull Falls, but didn’t know anything about Eagle Creek Falls, and since it was a relatively short hike to visit them both we decided to try something a little more rugged than our usual fare.
One of my pet peeves about Internet posts about off-trail places in the Bankhead is when people post photos and vague descriptions of how to get somewhere, peppered with various disclaimers to the effect of “this is a wonderful place, but I won’t tell you how to get there yourself because it’s so dangerous and only a very experienced hiker such as myself could possibly get there safely.” Poppycock! Yes, there are inherent risks in hiking in general and backcountry hiking in particular, but if you go in with sufficient information, proper equipment, and a tiny bit of common sense you’re generally going to be fine. Having said that, this off-trail hike is easily manageable for most hikers in decent shape, so don’t let the lack of a groomed trail keep you from visiting these Bankhead treasures.
So what are the must-knows about this hike? Access is easy, right off Cranal Road (more about that later), but the trail is poorly marked at first, then isn’t marked at all. In fact, after about 1/3 of a mile there isn’t really a trail to speak of. Instead, you’ll be navigating alongside a creek for most of this hike, with frequent water crossings over a relatively shallow creek (depending on rainfall, naturally). Since you’re going to be off-trail most of the time, good footwear is a must. You’ll need something stable like boots or trail runners, but the key thing is to be able to avoid wet feet (or have a plan for embracing the wet feet and bring water shoes to change into). The creek crossings are generally pretty easy and at least at the time of our visit in late March, the creeks were rarely more than shin-deep at worst, and usually not more than shoe-top deep. The total hike is about 3 miles, 1.5 miles point to point, returning the same route. About 2.3 miles of that distance will be on a creekbank or in the creek itself.
This is a relatively short hike, but be sure to allow plenty of time because your progress will be slower than usual as you will pick your way across the creek dozens of times (not exaggerating). I also strongly recommend hiking poles or at least a walking stick for stability. The incline/decline on this hike is minimal, especially after you make your way from Canal Road down into the hollows. Also, because there is no marked trail, you’d be wise to carry a map and/or GPS, though the navigation is really simple.
So, let’s start hiking! First, you’ll need to get to the starting point. We made our usual approach to the Bankhead from the east, taking Highway 36 west through Hartselle until it tees into Highway 33 in Wren (the corner with the Warrior Mountain Trading Post). After turning south (left) on Highway 33, in about 9.6 miles turn right onto Cranal Road (County Highway 6). Cranal Road forms most of the southern border of the Sipsey Wilderness. About 2.4 miles after passing the Sipsey River Recreation Area (last restroom access), FS Road 212 on the left (marked with a sign for Wolfpen Camp) is one potential parking spot to access the trailhead. The actual starting point for this hike is on the right (north) side of the road about 100 yards farther to the west, where there’s a small dirt pullout into the woods that can accommodate two or three vehicles, so you might be able to park there.
The dirt pullout immediately forks as it enters the woods. Both forks quickly dead-end. You’ll want to take the fork to the left (the one perpendicular to Cranal Road). This is obviously an old dirt road, but it quickly narrows into a track with an easily-discernible footbed. The trail is not marked as such, but you might spot some orange flagging tied to a small tree, or even spot a faded white paint blaze or two.
The trail heads due north for about 300 feet before turning west and beginning a gradual descent into a hollow. This section of the trail has a few downed trees, easily crossed or circumvented. There are signs of a recent fire on the north side of the trail, though I don’t think this is from the Big Tree wildfire of October 2015. A small rivulet began running just off the left side of the trail as we descended, gradually growing into a streamlet. After descending 140 feet in elevation in about .4 miles from the trailhead, the trail’s footbed pretty much ceases as the streamlet flows into Eagle Creek, which flows west to east. Turn right to follow Eagle Creek downstream. For clarity’s sake, in the following paragraphs when I refer to the left or right bank of the creek, it’s from the perspective of facing downstream.
At this point, the next .25 miles of the hike is a series of creek crossings as the banks narrow on one side, then the other. It’s not difficult to find a route, and it’s easier (and more scenic) to walk along the creek banks than to try to find a way higher up the slope. At .65 miles from the trailhead, a feeder creek flows into Eagle Creek from the west, and a large flat area on the right bank of Eagle Creek is an obvious camping area, with a fire ring. We continued on past the camping area on the right bank, and about 350 feet downstream we reached our first waterfall, Eagle Creek Falls.
From photos I had seen I knew this was a cascade-type fall, so I didn’t expect much. But the photos don’t do it justice! Eagle Creek roars over an approximately 20-foot drop, about 30 feet wide, with a shallow jade green plunge pool at the bottom. The trail descends the left side of the falls (from the perspective of facing the falls), with a couple of big stepdowns to manage. Once at the bottom of the falls, there’s plenty of room to wander and admire, and we spent several pleasant minutes there resting and taking photos.
We continued down the right bank of the creek after Eagle Creek Falls (the left bank quickly becomes too steep to navigate), following the creek as it wound past overhangs and the ever-pleasing interplay of mosses and shadows. Another waterfall drops down from a small fold on the right bank about 450 feet downstream of Eagle Creek Falls, though we didn’t explore this particular one. Instead, we kept zig-zagging from bank to bank, heading downstream.
Now we must pause for a moment while I ruminate on a matter of comparative physiology. I’ve always maintained that the female of our species has a more highly-evolved brain, and I proffer my own wife as an example. There she was, about 50 yards ahead of me, just starting to navigate a tricky crossing of Eagle Creek – evaluating options, looking downstream to plan her next several moves. She was probably also processing many other things in the background unrelated to the business at hand — who can say what happens in the highly-evolved brain during a moment of zen? I, on the other hand, was putting my primate brain to a more basic task, which means as usual I was the one who saw the snake she must have just stepped over or past. “I’m thinking that it might be better to head upstream, then cross on those rocks over there, because the right bank looks like it’s flattening out. We’ll make better progress there,” she called out, pointing the way. “Snake!” I croaked, no doubt baring my teeth in an apish grimace. “Where?” she cried, seeing that I had left out a vital piece of information. “Up here, by me,” I hooted. It was a lovely little brown water snake, I think — definitely non-venomous, and not in the least bit threatened or in any hurry to get out of my way. It was about three feet long, and well camouflaged against most non-monkey brains. I bring this up because this is at least the fourth time I’ve seen a snake after (or as) Ruth walked past or over it, oblivious. I detoured around little beauty, and we both went our merry way.
About .25 miles from Eagle Creek Falls, we could hear another waterfall plunging down a canyon cleft on the left side of the creek. This one seemed worth checking out, so we detoured just a few feet to admire what is probably a seasonal fall that drops around 40 feet or so as a feeder creek empties into the canyon.
After resuming our trek down Eagle Creek, we came to a point where it looked as if the creek flowed into a cliff face. It actually just makes an abrupt bend to the right, flowing at shoe-top height over a broad, flat shelf. As we pondered whether we should make another crossing here, we met a group of hikers on their way out and watched them just plod across the creek with no worries about getting wet feet. Inspired by their example, and frankly a little fed up after all the creek crossings, I suggested that since we had brought water shoes we might as well put them to use. Off came the boots, and we put on the Keens and just strolled down Eagle Creek. Yes, it was a little cold at first but much better than our usual January or February Sipsey creek crossing.
The creek was a little deeper here, with one or two tiny dropoffs of about a foot, but still we were making good progress with good footing. The creek is mostly flowing over a series of flat shelves here, so you could probably do this barefoot if need be. About .25 miles past the abrupt bend, or .6 miles from Eagle Creek Falls, Little Ugly Creek flows in from the west. Eagle Creek and Little Ugly Creek merge at this point, continuing east to soon drain into the Sipsey Fork. Our next waterfall lies upstream on Little Ugly Creek, so we turned left (west). Though there are no formal trail markers at this junction, there’s an unmistakable marker of a rock stuck through a split in a sapling on the left bank of Eagle Creek. There is also a faint orange paint blaze on a larger tree nearby.
We splashed our way upstream on Little Ugly Creek, for which I’ll make the obligatory comment about how the creek isn’t ugly at all. Though not as wide as Eagle Creek at this point, it is deeper in some spots, so we took a more amphibious route. After about .1 mile, we came to Deer Skull Falls.
Deer Skull Falls is actually two waterfalls. To the left, Little Ugly Creek drops over a shelf maybe about 10 feet tall, plunging into a deep blue pool. To the right, an unnamed feeder creek cascades from high above, with a final plunge of about 15-20 feet into a shallow pool. The two waterfalls are separated by a rock outcropping which would lead one to believe that the two falls have the same water source, but that’s not the case. Both falls have striking red-orange patches in the rock face, which I’ve seen described as iron-rich mineral deposits.
It’s pretty amazing to see two such different, photogenic waterfalls in a 1.5 mile walk from the road. It was a little too cool to pop into the Little Ugly Creek-sourced Deer Skull Fall’s plunge pool, but I bet it would be a superior swimming hole. I’ve read accounts of people continuing upstream on Little Ugly Creek to find rock shelters and possibly even remains of stills, but there isn’t an obvious trail and we didn’t have time for further explorations. We met a couple at the falls who had bushwhacked their way from the Johnson Cemetery on Trail 202, so that is an option for getting to Deer Skull Falls, though you’ll have to thrash your way up and down some steep slopes. We retraced our steps down Little Ugly Creek, keeping to the banks this time, and turned upstream on Eagle Creek to make our return.
There is one tricky bit of navigation to handle as you retrace your route. Unfortunately, our GPS had conked out so we couldn’t confidently retrace our route back to the hollow we followed on our way in. We knew we’d just need to look for a hollow with a creek flowing into Eagle Creek from the east, after we had passed Eagle Creek Falls and the camping area. The first such little hollow had a creek, but didn’t seem to have a reliable footbed. I scouted about 100 feet up the hollow and actually spotted a faded orange blaze on a tree, but it didn’t seem right. We continued upstream on Eagle Creek, and within a couple of minutes came to some creek crossings that we recognized, and the next hollow had a faint footbed that eventually led us back uphill to the trailhead.
So we had quite the little adventure — a moderate hike, with little elevation change, and two gorgeous waterfalls (not counting a couple more seasonal falls), all off the beaten path. It was another glorious day in the Sipsey, which never disappoints.