Sipsey Wilderness
Trail 202, Four Waterfalls

Date: Saturday, April 12, 2008
Location: Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Alabama

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

Members: Anthony & Jennifer, Bart & Jennifer, Gary, Larry & Mimi, Mike
Guests: Doris, Emma, Judy, Sandy, Shelby; Nathaniel & Tonia

Sipsey Wilderness Hiking Club, April 2008 We all gathered at the Randolph Trailhead more or less at 8 AM and hit the trail by 8:15.

Trail 202 had obviously been subjected to some sort of maintenance within the past six months because between the trailhead and the cemetery we could walk three abreast. The path had always been wide but not this wide. Not that it matters but there are municipal park pathways that are more unkempt.

Past the cemetery the trail resumed its normal proportions. The waterfall in the canyon where 202 meets the river actually had water, not just the usual trickle, and gave us a good intro to the rest of the day.

A couple from Mississippi, Nathaniel and Tonia, joined up with us this point and stayed all day. I think we promised them an easier hike than the one they were intending. I think we lied.

We arrived at the river about 10 AM. Our first off-trail waterfall quest was Feather Hawk Falls. We followed the logical extension of 202 north to the first feeder stream, crossed that (first mistake of the day), and fought our way east through small bushes and briars, climbed over downed trees, and ascended and descended steep banks to finally arrive at a spectacular waterfall, dropping at least 75 feet, the water making enough noise that we had to shout to be heard.

After a 20-minute pause, we decided that since the north side of the creek had not been such smooth sledding, for the return we would try the south side. We soon found ourselves on what appeared to be an old logging road. It was not in very good shape but really improved on the tangle on the other side. We definitely noted where it came out for future reference.

We headed south without crossing the river for about a mile to our next destination at the junction with Little Ugly Branch. The not-untrodden path along the west/south side of the river from the end point of trail 202 to the Little Ugly was not too bad, with blowdowns posing more of a problem than the smaller stuff. We encountered several places with numerous butterflies feeding - Tiger Swallowtails (both morphs), Zebra Swallowtails, and the occasional Hummingbird Moth.

Feather Hawk Falls
Butterflies Break time

We reached Little Ugly and stopped for lunch before attempting Deer Skull Falls. We kept to the right side of the stream on the approach. The hiking was difficult due to the steep banks and downed trees. But in retrospect, this was better than what we ran into later.

After about fifteen minutes, at the fork in the stream, we veered right for about another tenth of a mile. We arrived at Deer Skull Falls at yet another fork in the stream, only this one with a waterfall on each side. To the left was the wide end of an apparently long series of cascades, some of which were visible by adjusting your position. The right side is more vertical with a thinner stream but fed from on high by numerous smaller falls. The whole panorama is simply stunning. Again we had to shout for conversation even fifteen feet away.

Another group of four hikers was there when we arrived. They had come over the other way from the middle of trail 202 but they acknowledged that they had had to cut their way through.

Deer Skull Falls
Eagle Falls We followed the other side of the stream back to the first fork. The route from there to Eagle Falls was not a choice of one side or the other. We had to cross the stream four or five times at least. While you could usually find stepping stones or very shallow water, those without waterproof boots achieved a certain level of resignation, especially by the end of the return walk, of course not helped by the gloating of those with waterproof boots. Scenically, Eagle Falls was not exactly up to the level of the previous ones but offered a very nice display.

But hiking up and down banks and crossing streams eats up the time. It was 3:30 by the time we made it back to the lunch spot. The level of exhaustion ranged from sore-feet-but-still-smiling to passing out. A couple of people had cuts from tumbles or sharp branches.

Fortunately the worst was behind us. The path out of Little Ugly and back along the river to Wolfpen Canyon was like what we experienced in the morning. And the path along Wolfpen Canyon itself had moments of clarity though with enough up-and-over spots to remind us that we weren't out of the woods yet.

Wolfpen Falls, however, was a bit of a letdown. In fact some of the minor falls we had passed during the day had more to offer visually. But we clambered up a steep slope to the top and then followed the ridge south to the highway. Despite some Dueling GPS Receivers competition we came out fifty yards from Gary's truck. The hiking club members pretended that we had known all along that we knew we were doing. Everyone saw through this.

The end almost in sight
About to ride off into the sunset It was 5:30 PM by the time we returned to the trailhead and our vehicles. But in spite of the late hour, I think everyone realized that they had managed to take in some of the best scenery the Sipsey Wilderness has to offer and that experience alone somewhat compensated for how tired we all were.

To view these and other photos (in better resolution), please see Mike's Picasa Web Album SWHC Waterfalls Hike.

Submitted 2 May 2008  
Text: Larry Barkey Photos: Mike Henshaw

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