Sipsey Wilderness
Bootleg Trail, Bee Branch, Big Tree

Date: Saturday, December 12, 2009
Location: Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Alabama
Trails: 206 - Thompson Creek, unofficial Bootleg and East Bee Branch Canyon,
           and sections of 204 - Bee Ridge, 224 - Bunyan Hill, and 208 - Northwest
Members: Danny, Gary, Larry & Mimi
Guests: Jeff, Ron

The original plan had been a loop hike from the Thompson Trailhead down 206 to 209, across to 204, up to 224 to 208 and back. That route would have taken us almost 12 miles and probably 6 or 7 hours.
Bee Branch Canyon Scenic Area
Mimi and I woke to a weather forecast predicting 100% probability of rain and/or sleet by early afternoon at the latest. But other than cloudy skies and a prescience of imminent precipitation, nothing had yet materialized in our area. So we decided to go anyway and maybe just cut it short if/when the rain started. Gary and Danny, whom we met up with at Jack's in Double Springs, were of like mind. Ron and Jeff joined us there as well.

From the trailhead, we followed 206 but only as far as Whiteoak Hollow, about a half mile if that. From there we followed the unofficial "Bootleg" trail over to the magnificent canyons of the Bee Branch area. The trail, what there is of it, starts on the south side of Whiteoak Hollow, gradually rising up to the old 205 trail. A short jog on that onetime road, first left and then right, put us on another narrow but noticeable path. We followed this down a hollow where a feeder stream of Bee Branch flows in the center. There were some very steep parts here, our footing not at all helped by the abundance of rain that had fallen earlier in the week. But once down on level ground again, we could appreciate the beautiful bluffs that were all around us.

Bee Branch itself had widened to about 12 feet but, at only a few inches deep, was easily forded. We angled over to East Bee Branch, similarly wider than usual but not deep, crossed that and continued up the East Bee Branch Canyon trail to the Big Tree.

With distance as the only concern, this route is probably the shortest way to the Big Tree. We left at 8 AM and arrived just before 10:30. The distance must be about 2.5 miles. But the hiking was tough at times with numerous fallen trees to get over/under/around, the two stream crossings, and that one treacherously steep downhill. As a point of information, the 4.5 mile return trip along more or less level and established trails also came in at 2.5 hours. This Bootleg route is not something I think I'd want to hike too often. There are easier ways to get to see the canyons around Bee Branch.

We enjoyed lunch at the Big Tree, having the place all to ourselves. Both waterfalls gushed at the top of their form. We climbed the hill and followed the more conventional path back to the Thompson trailhead.

The rain held out until about 2 PM. The group got separated after lunch with some wishing to walk faster than others so I don't think everyone escaped the wetness.
Sipsey Wilderness Hiking Club 12 Dec 2009
East Bee Branch Canyon Waterfall A few comments about trail conditions: East Bee Branch Canyon is not an official USFS trail and is not maintained. So it always has had more blowdowns than the others. But it was much more of an obstacle course this year than it has been. Even near the Big Tree, two large beech trees have toppled over. We did not have much difficulty getting up the sometimes slippery hill to 204. The evergreens encroaching on trail 224 make me almost claustrophobic in some places but it was okay otherwise. The western end of trail 208 has had some work done on it and now is clear and wide enough for wagons most of the way. We were slowed down by water running down the eroded middle of the path as we approached the trailhead but that would not be the normal condition.

As far as scenic beauty goes, this was quite the day. The scenery in and around Bee Branch is drop-dead gorgeous. Trails 204 and 208 were contrastingly desolate but marvelous with the sky, bark, and fallen leaves all sporting the same dull colors, highlighted here and there by the bright green foliage of isolated scrappy hemlocks.

December is not the best month for plants and wildlife but we did notice Hepatica and Tiarella cordifolia (with seed pods). We heard and some reported seeing feral hogs near the Big Tree. I was too busy paying attention to where my feet were to watch much for birds but managed a Hermit Thrush, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, a Winter Wren, and the ubiquitous Dark-eyed Juncoes.

Submitted 17 Dec 2009
Text: Larry Barkey
Photos: Danny Millwood

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