In­sider’s Guide: Bankhead Na­tional For­est, AL

Ex­plore hard­wood forests, airy cliffs, and sand­stone caves in north­ern Alabama.


The in­sider The Bankhead—which in­cludes the Sipsey Wilder­ness—is Jan­ice Bar­rett’s back­yard. And as out­reach co­or­di­na­tor for the ad­vo­cacy non­profit Wild South, she takes full ad­van­tage of it. Bar­rett leads hikes ex­plor­ing the wilder­ness’s caves and ridges all year.

Canyon coun­try The swim­ming hole be­low 40-foot Caney Creek Falls is no se­cret. But most hik­ers stop at the falls 1 mile in—leav­ing the off-trail ex­ten­sion deeper into the canyon all for you. Con­tinue down­stream on the so­cial trail along the South Fork of Caney Creek an­other .8 mile to reach a 20-foot cas­cade Bar­rett calls Lower Caney Creek Falls (there’s no of­fi­cial name). From here, the trail dis­ap­pears and the sand­stone walls deepen to 50 feet. Hike on and keep your eyes peeled for shal­low over­hangs; these rock shel­ters were used by pre­his­toric in­hab­i­tants 10,000 years ago. Turn back at the junc­tion with the North Fork of Caney Creek for a 5.9mile out-and-back.

Golden hour day­hike To­ward the end of Oc­to­ber, you’ll find a fiery pal­ette of fall col­ors on any trail in the Bankhead. But for a view that’s next-level idyl­lic, make like a pho­tog­ra­pher and chase the light: “The Rippey Trail runs north-south, and on a fall af­ter­noon, when the sun is shin­ing from the west, it’s a beau­ti­ful scene,” Bar­rett says. For a 7.5-mile out-and- back, fol­low Rippey Trail 201 along a ridge thick with north­ern red oak, hick­ory, su­gar maple, and Amer­i­can beech. Then hang a left on Trail 206 to de­scend into the Sipsey Fork canyon, a short-but-steep drop with ex­pan­sive views over the for­est’s mo­saic of reds, or­anges, and yel­lows. Trace the river for a half mile, then head back on Trail 206 to link back to 201. Off- trail overnight In the Sipsey’s lit­tle-tracked north­ern reaches, “you can drop down any canyon, fol­low a stream, and find beau­ti­ful places to camp,” Bar­rett says. Her top pick for those with nav­i­ga­tion chops: the roughly 5-mile, par­tially off-trail loop link­ing the Lick Branch and Thomp­son Creek ar­eas. From the Bra­ziel trail­head, im­me­di­ately head cross- coun­try to the south­west and fol­low the un­named creek. Pick your way down into the canyon, where an­kle- deep Lick Branch flows be­tween sand­stone walls and lime­stone out­crop­pings. Scout an es­tab­lished camp­site un­der

the trees, then ditch your pack and ex­plore the side canyons rid­dling the area—you might find un­named wa­ter­falls and more rock shel­ters. Next day, head west to Thomp­son Creek, then climb War­lick Ridge back east to hook up with the Gum Pond Trail back to the road and your car.

Mul­ti­day epic Get a grand tour of the Sipsey on Bar­rett’s fa­vorite trip: a four- day, 40-mile loop that me­an­ders through each of the re­gion’s ecosys­tems, from up­land forests to sand­stone canyons to fern-filled gul­lies. The lo­gis­tics are a bit in­tense, but it’s worth it: You also get abun­dant sea­sonal wa­ter­falls (Novem­ber through May) and a first­hand look at the area’s hu­man his­tory, from post-Ice Age shel­ters to 19th- cen­tury whiskey stills. Fol­low Trail 203 from the Flan­ni­gan trail­head on the wilder­ness’s east­ern edge down to Bor­den Creek, then link Trails 207, 208, and 210 to camp un­der the for­est canopy near mile 9.5. Day two’s hike stays high on a ridge for al­most 7 miles, con­nect­ing Trails 210 and 223. Day three, fol­low Trails 208 and 206 past Eye of the Nee­dle (a tight boul­der squeeze) and Ship Rock (a prom­i­nent, prow­shaped bluff) be­fore tak­ing Trail 209 east along the Sipsey Fork. To fin­ish, link Trails 209, 200, and 203.

Birder’s camp­ground Avian en­thu­si­asts pitch their tents at the quiet, 13-site Brushy Lake Camp­ground for a peek at great blue herons, king­fish­ers, and, in spring and fall, mi­gra­tory species such as or­chard orioles, yel­low-throated vireos, and war­blers. Not among the binoc­u­lar set? Launch a kayak or ca­noe from the camp­ground and pad­dle the day away on 35-acre Brushy Lake or 10 miles along Class I and II Brushy Creek to Hick­ory Grove Road (portage around the dam on the south­ern shore). Trip plan­ner SEA­SON Year-round PER­MITS None CAR CAMP­ING $ 5/night ( first- come, first-serve) MAPS Bankhead Na­tional For­est and Sipsey Wilder­ness by Carto- Craft Maps ($ 5 each); car­ CON­TACT bankhead-nf

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