Sipsey Wilderness
Trail 202, Waterfalls (reprise)

Date: Saturday, December 13, 2008
Location: Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Alabama

Trails: 202 - Randolph, cross country bushwhacking to the falls
Waterfalls: Feather Hawk Falls, Deer Skull Falls

Members: Gary, Larry & Mimi, Mike
Guests: Johnnie

Ash and Beech trees growing together A twenty hour period of intermittent heavy rain began falling on Wednesday evening and occasionally reached an intensity not experienced in this region for several years. Though the worst had tapered off by late Thursday afternoon and in spite of sunshine returning all day on Friday, runoff continued to swell the area lakes and streams. According to Alabama Power, Smith Lake, which is fed by the Sipsey, rose seven feet. That's unusual to say the least.

Though the rain certainly brought welcome relief to drought-stricken Alabama, it was not exactly favorable for the planned club hike along trails 202 and 209 which would have required two water crossings. In response to an email on Friday asking about the prospects for the hike, I sent a response to all the club members suggesting that we would probably have to improvise on our route but I tried to encourage everyone to come anyway. Maybe I should have left out the prediction that the water would be "waist-deep, flowing right along, and 50 degrees Fahrenheit".

On Saturday, only five showed up but we were ready to go at the Randolph Trailhead by 8 AM. The original hike plan would have necessitated spotting a vehicle at the Picnic Grounds end point. There was not even any discussion of doing such thing; sight unseen, we all knew we were staying on this side of the river.

We found trail 202 pretty much as remembered, only with a few more fallen trees to be stepped or climbed over - nothing too serious. In the vicinity of the trailhead, we saw/heard a few hunters, this being a gun deer hunt day in the WMA. We also came upon one other hiker (and his two dogs) on the ridge just before the descent to the river. Other than that, we basically had the place to ourselves.

The waterfall in the canyon at the end of the trail is frequently unimpressive but today it splashed splendidly. The river water, showing a greenish hue and unexpectedly clean with little debris, nevertheless still matched my prediction, although no one was crazy enough to climb down the steep bank and stick a thermometer in it. I neglected to mention that the overnight low temperatures for the entire preceding week had been in the mid 20's Fahrenheit. As a matter of fact, we found small pockets of snow along the trail!
Waterfall near end of trail 202
Feather Hawk Falls
We decided to revisit Feather Hawk and Deer Skull Falls, especially since, unlike on our hike there last April, we actually knew where they were and how to get there. Nothing like excessive rain if you want to see waterfalls and Feather Hawk ranks as one of the best ones out here.

But of course it wouldn't be a SWHC hike if we didn't present ourselves with an opportunity to get lost. Gary suggested we angle up the bluff back to 202 and then approach Deer Skull from its top side. The first part was easier said than done; we were almost back to the river and clambering up some steep slopes before we finally found a place to cut through. We emerged at that marvelous spot just at the top of bluff where you (when walking east) come out of the gray brown scraggly stretch and suddenly you are overlooking this magnificent hemlock forest and the whole world is green again. Trail 202 is worth walking just for this moment.

After about a quarter mile back the trail, the surrounding undergrowth thinned sufficiently that we could proceed cross-country without too much bother. With our usual unfailing accuracy as it were, we arrived right at the top of the northeastern fork of the two cascading waterfalls that constitute Deer Skull Falls. En route through all the groups of trees in this National Forest, somewhere near the county line, we passed a metal sign reading "420 Stand" nailed to a tree. Someone asked if they were numbering deer stands. We went ahead as if nothing happened.

All things considered, I think we really wanted to be a little east of the top of the falls. The steep and slippery banks forced a change of direction, but we fought our way through belligerent Mountain Laurel and were grandly rewarded with a top-side, right-in-the-middle view of both sides of the falls.

We arrived at the bottom with less challenge and stopped for lunch. The sky remained basically cloudy but with occasional sunbreaks. Deer Skull Falls ranks as another spot worth the effort of figuring out how to get there.

After lunch, we backtracked up the hill, trying to avoid the thickets we encountered on the way in. We set a WNW course and once we reached the ridge, the terrain flattened out considerably. After about a half hour of easier hiking, we unceremoniously rejoined trail 202.

No surprises on the way out. We visited both sides of the Johnson Cemetery, the west side still sporting the spiffier plastic flowers. We arrived at the trailhead shortly past 1:30.

Deer Skull Falls
SWHC at Deer Skull Falls, December 2008 Bottom line: a smallish but nice hike. Trail 202 is a pleasant enough walk but much of it follows an old road and a rather flat one at that. On the other hand, too much bushwhacking can get old fast, what with always having to watch out for branches, vines, holes, and all sorts of obstacles coming at you both high and low. So this hike achieved a nice balance and allowed us all the time we wanted to linger at the pretty spots.

Post Script: I am always intrigued by the "Dueling GPS" contests between all participants, usually Gary and Mike. When we reached the Sipsey, Gary's GPS indicated that we had already crossed and re-crossed the river. Marvelous technology this GPS - allows you to ford raging rivers without even getting your feet wet!

For more photos (in better resolution), please see Mike's Picasa Web Album Trail 202 Hike.

Submitted 19 Dec 2008
Text: Larry Barkey
Photos: Mimi Barkey, Mike Henshaw, Johnnie Morin

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