Sipsey Wilderness
Thompson Trailhead Loop Hike

Date: Saturday, February 16, 2013
Location: Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Alabama
Trails: 208 - Northwest, 224 - Bunyan Hill, 204 - Bee Ridge, 209 - Sipsey River, 206 - Thompson Creek
Members: Erika (Robin), Junior, Larry, Mimi

SWHC Hike 16 Feb 2013 For once the advance notice of this hike's details was posted with accurate expectations as to distance and difficulty. Apparently not everyone was enticed by the prospect of twelve miles/eight hours of hiking, especially considering that the morning temperature was predicted to be at or below freezing. So it was just the four of us and, while we might have enjoyed some more company, things didn't work out badly at all.

The weather forecast led us to anticipate cool temperatures and mostly cloudy skies. The day was definitely on the cool side but with much more sun than expected. Nevertheless we needed most of our layers of clothing all day and it was not advantageous to linger for very long on the breaks.

Our route was a loop based from Thompson Trailhead, proceeding in a clockwise direction. Up the hill on 208 and over to 224, south about a mile to 204, all of 204 (the real 204, not the Big Tree branch) to the river, 209 connecting with 206 at Eye of the Needle and back to the trailhead. Twelve miles is an estimate – could be a half a mile more or less. Here's how we found the trail conditions:

208: mostly clear with only a few fallen limbs easily avoided, the egregious stuff all out of the way. We stopped to rest at the junction with trail 223 where there is furniture (logs) to sit on. That's about an hour from the trailhead.

224: A couple of recent blowdowns needed to be stepped over or around but the horseback riders who maintain this trail have accomplished near miracles in restoring the width to what a horse and wagon trail is supposed to be. This was a short stretch, about 0.8 miles, which we managed in about 45 minutes.

204: Most debris from the 2011 tornado damage has been removed from the trail but some other large trees have fallen. While these do block the path, we encountered nothing too difficult for us to get by. Even if we had been carrying larger packs, we would have been okay.

Trail 204
Sipsey Fork
The southern half of 204 in winter has numerous scenic viewpoints up on the ridge. These overlook the river and the bluffs on the other side. The flora were delightful with plenty of rhododendron, holly, and hemlock for greenery and all these stark, leafless hardwoods for contrast, all gloriously ensconced in a blue sky background. This trail is definitely underappreciated.

There is one steep incline not too far from the river which required us to pay attention to slippery rocks and where our feet were landing but nothing serious. We encountered two backpackers near the end, the first people we had seen all day.

We stopped for a snack by the river. It was 11 AM by now. A group of ten Boy Scouts and dads passed by.

209: This is the most popular trail out here and I sometimes forget just how gorgeous it can be. We were mesmerized by the turquoise water running over the shoals, the numerous small white sand beaches, and all the surrounding trees and rocks and boulders.

What caught us a little off guard was the amount of water in the feeder streams. For most of them, we could easily step over on stepping stones but Bee Branch presented more of a challenge. Mimi dared to cross over on a slippery log; the rest of us splashed through three yards of shallow water. Erika needed to change her socks afterward but she had stopped in the middle to admire the scenery, that probably not being the recommended procedure in this situation.

We stopped for lunch at 12:30 just shy of where 209 crosses the river. Two more backpackers and their dog passed us. Everyone was feeling a little tired but with the sky clouding up, we felt the need to move again after 30 minutes.
River Trail 209

Once off the "official 209" and on the private land connector to 206, we came upon one of the worst hit of the April 2011 tornado-damaged areas. Most of the trees have been removed from within the trail bed but some new ones have filled the void. At one point, the path took us down over some boulders; none of us remembered this spot before which makes me think the trail has been re-routed. That option might have been simpler than trying to clear the mess over what used to be the trail.

206: The Eye of the Needle area is a real study in what a tornado can do. Today we found the area overrun with campers, the cynics among us speculating that that is due to the ready availability of firewood. We intended to climb up to the Eye but couldn't figure out the way through all the tents and downed timber.

All right, I have to make my environmental pitch here. The Sipsey Wilderness is a federally defined Wilderness Area – it is not a park. The idea is that this region is allowed to revert to its natural condition. I am sorry folks, but that ain't gonna happen if you have groups of 30 or more camping in one small section. Group size is not supposed to exceed 10. We did not observe any violators but heard some reports. It's like this – if you want Wilderness, then LEAVE NO TRACE. I don't like to preach these things but I like the Sipsey and do not wish to see it trashed.

White Water
Auburn Falls Area We ran into Mark Kolinski and his Wild South volunteers removing privet along Thompson Creek. Soon after we came to Auburn Falls which was in splendid form with plenty of falling water.

Trail 206 had more blowdowns in our way than on the other trails and the surrounding woods are arguably half on the ground in some places. The trail was recognizable at least. The whole area is so changed that I cannot remember what it looked like before. This trail used to be one of the pretty ones – beautiful wildflowers nestled in pristine forest. Now it's more stark with huge fallen trees lying at every possible angle. I can't say it's uninteresting and frankly it kind of appeals to my admittedly aberrant taste, but this is not the same 206 experience one would have had prior to April 2011.

Always on the lookout for wildflowers, we found some Trilliums making buds and the Windflowers (Rue Anemone) were in bloom. But it's not spring yet. We were back at the trailhead at 2:50. When walking, our average pace may have exceeded 2 mph, just what you'd want on a cool winter day. No injuries, not even any blisters, were reported.

For these and other photos, please see our Picasa Web Album Thompson Loop, February 2013.

Submitted 23 February 2013
Text: Larry
Photos: Mimi

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