All my photos from this hike can be seen on Flickr. Pardon the poor quality, they’re from my poor old iPhone 4.
Between Christmas and New Year’s I was really wanting to go backpacking. James (my usual backpacking partner) and I had been talking about going somewhere, but still hadn’t decided on a date or location. I had a few days off and somehow talked Cassie into letting me go on a quick overnighter by myself, which I’ve never done before.
I had been to the Sipsey Wilderness before, but the last time was well over ten years ago. It’s in northwest Alabama, only about an hour and a half from our hometown. As I was driving out there, I was impressed with the remoteness. I hit a dirt road 30 minutes before arriving at the trailhead.
I arrived at the Thompson Creek trailhead about 11:30am on December 30th. It was very cloudy and never got above 40 degrees that day, but the chance of rain was very low.
I was hiking the 206-209-204-224-208 loop, one of the more popular loops in the Wilderness, because it hits a couple of the more picturesque trails. The numbers refer to official Forest Service designations of trails.
The first trail, 206, follows Thompson Creek as it heads down toward the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River. Not only are you walking next to a beautiful creek, but there are waterfalls coming off the cliffs and some interesting rock formations.
After a few miles on 206, I turned east onto 209, the trail that follows the Sipsey. Shortly thereafter I turned onto “204a,” an unofficial trail that parallels 204 and Bee Branch. Unofficial means it is not maintained by the Forest Service. Unfortunately, Sipsey was visited by a tornado a few years ago, and this area was particularly hard hit. In several places I had to climb over large trees that had fallen across the trail. (See photo below.) This made for slow going.
Trail 204a is popular because it is the quickest route to East Bee Falls and “the big tree.” East Bee Falls is a rather impressive waterfall pouring down into the valley from the cliff above. Less than 100 feet from its base is “the big tree,” or the largest yellow poplar in Alabama.
I reached the waterfall and tree as dusk was approaching. I took some pictures and started filtering some water (with my new Sawyer Mini water filter), because I intended to walk out of the valley up onto the ridge to camp for the night and there’s no water source up there. As I was filtering my water, it began to rain, which was not supposed to happen.
By the time I finished filtering water, it was dark enough that I needed to turn my headlamp on. I started trying to find the trail that would take me up out of the valley. At this point it was well past sunset and the last bit of light was starting to fade. My headlamp was illuminating my breath and the rain, making it even harder to see.
Eventually I gave up on trying to find the trail and decided I should find a campsite for the night. I was in a valley, so there wasn’t much level ground. I had passed a couple of small campsites on the way in, so I backtracked down 204a, climbing over many of the same trees I had just a few minutes ago, now in the dark.
It took about 20-30 minutes to get back to a small campsite. I setup my tarp to sleep under. This was my why first time to sleep under a tarp. In the past I’ve carried a tent or relied on shelters. By this time the rain had slowed to a sprinkle. Later, as the temperature dropped into the twenties, I saw the slightest bit of snow.
I cooked my supper of “Alpine Spaghetti” (with pepperoni) over my new alcohol stove (very similar to this one). I was almost too tired to eat, but I forced myself to eat and do a few campsite chores before getting into my sleeping bag for the night.
In the morning I consulted my map and determined I was camping at the confluence of East Bee Branch and West Bee Branch. It was a nice little campsite (photo below), surrounded by bald cypress trees. The temperature was in the low twenties, so I quickly made breakfast and packed up my gear so I could hit the trail and get my internal heater going.
I headed back toward the waterfall to try to find the trail that would take me up out of the valley. Even in the daylight it took me a few minutes to find the trail. It was unmarked, and went up the side of the valley at about a 45 degree angle. A few minutes later the trail went by the top of the waterfall (photo below).
It didn’t take long to get to the top of the ridge. The rest of the day’s hike was mostly level or downhill and was not nearly as picturesque as the day before. I had heard that wild boar had become a problem at Sipsey, and I saw a couple of wallows and rubs along the trail (photos in Flickr set). I stopped for a quick lunch and made it back to my car by 1:30 in the afternoon. I made it back to Belmont in plenty of time for New Year’s festivities.
It was my first backpacking trip in almost a year, and help me evaluate my fitness (better, but still lacking) and some new gear and techniques. I’ve been backpacking again since this trip and have another trip planned for this weekend, so expect more reports soon.