209 - Sipsey River Trail Map
Moderate - Difficult. This long trail crosses and follows the Sipsey (Fork of the Black Warrior River). This one has it all - flowing and falling water, rocks, bluffs, wildflowers, camping, hiking challenges - definitely one of the best trails in the Wilderness, albeit requiring a little effort.
The trail begins and ends entirely within the Wilderness and can be hiked with equal pleasure in either direction. This description arbitrarily starts from the western side, from where trails 201, 206, and 209 all converge.
For those interested in the short, maybe half a mile, western portion, the Randolph Trailhead provides the closest access. Follow trail 201 - Rippey for some two and a half miles to where it ends and meets 209 (and 206). Turn right. The hill down to the river is quite steep and can be slippery when wet, its usual condition except during periods of Exceptional Drought.
At this point, you find yourself at the river which must then be forded. The water level can be anything from ankle- to neck-deep and the water temperature in winter can easily be 50 degrees Fahrenheit if not lower. Not surprisingly, many hikers skip this part of the trail and just pick up the trail on the other side of the river.
This western terminus of the eastern portion of the trail (whew) can be reached from the Thompson Trailhead. Follow trail 206 - Thompson Creek for about three miles until the creek flows into the river. This point is just past the rock formations known as Eye of the Needle and Ship Rock. From here, keep going straight along the Sipsey and you end up on 209 after about a half mile.
Why does the trail swerve like this? This section of the Wilderness is actually private land. It is owned by the Rippey family and there is a cabin up on the ridge. It is perfectly okay for hikers to tread this well-worn path but it is another thing for the Forest Service to route an official trail here. Both trails 206 and 209 have these little diversions.
East of the river, 209 meanders south and then more or less east for another mile and a half to East Bee Branch. Like most of this trail, the terrain is not especially flat but has no serious changes in elevation. What can be challenging at times are the numerous streams and rivulets that feed into the river. Most can be just stepped over but the banks can be treacherous. Some crossings are bridged by fallen trees, providing help for those with a sense of balance.
East Bee Branch feeds into the Sipsey. Its canyon is about three-quarters of a mile long, quite spectacular at the end with waterfalls, bluffs, caves, and the Sipsey Wilderness' greatest hit, the Big Tree. This is a popular destination and numerous campsites surround this area.
Shortly past East Bee Branch is the junction of 209 with the south end of trail 204 - Bee Ridge. Trail 209 continues easterly for another mile and then turns south, meeting trail 202 - Randolph after about a half mile. There are large campsites at this juncture on both sides of the river. From 202, you have about three miles to go.
Past the 202 junction, 209 continues south but soon turns to the east-southeast which is its direction for the remainder of the trail except for a quarter-mile adjustment north at one point. Another large campsite, popular with groups, is not too far west of that northerly twist.
About a half-mile before the end will put you at one of the better waterfalls in the Wilderness, Fall Creek Falls. In drought years (think 2007), the flow may be reduced to a trickle but even so, this is quite the scenic spot. The bluffs to the west along the trail ain't so shabby either.
Trail 209 ends at the confluence of Borden Creek with the Sipsey. From here, you can get to the Sipsey Trailhead by crossing the creek and following the river south for scarcely half a mile. But you have to cross the water which presents the same issues as at the western end. Alternatively, follow the unofficial but well-trodden West Borden trail for two miles along the west side of Borden Creek up to the bridge adjoining the Borden Trailhead. Which way you go depends mainly on where you have parked and if you would rather walk or swim.
Trail 209 sports numerous campsites with several larger ones as noted above. Water is readily available from the river and finding a flat spot is not all that difficult. Be aware that this is one of the most popular trails and campsites are first-come-first-served. Don't expect to come traipsing in at 5 PM on a beautiful Saturday in October and find your ideal spot unoccupied.