Sipsey Wilderness
Trails 203 and 200

Date: Saturday, 15 Nov 2014

Location: Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Alabama

Trails: 203 - Lookout 200 - Borden Creek

Members: Bart, Gary, Jane, Larry, Mimi, Wayne

Guests: Luke (Gary's six-month-old Border Collie)

Bart, Jane, Wayne, Larry, Gary, (Mimi behind the camera)

The overnight low of about 27 degrees Fahrenheit shaped the day's weather. Despite ample sunshine, the coolness never let up, especially when we stopped walking or encountered a section where the height of the bluffs prevented the sun from reaching the trail. We even saw icicles in one spot. Such cold air is rather uncommon for Alabama at this time of year.

We met at the Sipsey Trailhead, left four vehicles, and piled into Wayne's Ford F150 (with Gary and Luke in the back) for the fifteen minute ride to the Flannagin Trailhead which is the northeastern end of the trail 203.

The not surprising volume of leaf fall did not help us any while we were trying to figure out where the trail went. This trail is not used much – probably because many people find it difficult to follow and much too easy to get lost on; it twists and turns so much that you don't ever seem to know quite where you are or even in what direction you are heading. We knew all this out front and in spite of being on our guard, we still had trouble in several places.


The first section meanders through a woodland area until reaching a small stream. So far so good but once we skipped across the shallow stream, it took us nearly ten minutes of trial and error to locate the trail again. Things improved after that but we still encountered two or three places where we had to stop and guess which way to go. But in these situations, we were able to find the correct path much more quickly, without any Oh-No-We're-Lost anxiety.

Trail 203 for all its difficulties is absolutely gorgeous in many spots, especially when you have bright sunshine filtering down through autumn foliage. Though many of the trees had shed their leaves, the American Beeches were still adorned in various shades of yellow-green. And it was fun crunching though all the Big Leaf Magnolia leaves lying beneath numerous enclaves.

We arrived at the Borden Trailhead in about three hours and stopped for lunch at a campsite just barely into trail 200. Even at this point, trail 203's confusions continued to dog us. Mimi and Bart, bringing up the rear, had stopped to take a photo, somehow managed to get turned around, and we had to send Luke out to locate them. Not a big deal.

We had no such problems on trail 200 though we did have to climb over a number of downed trees but no more than have been there for as long as I can remember (not that you should particularly trust my memory). There are a number of alternate paths and opportunities to mess yourself up if you want to work at it. The Fat Man Squeeze was successfully negotiated by all, including the dog who ran it twice.

Frost Flowers

The more serious concern for trail 200 is the soil erosion. Much of the route is fairly wide and easy to walk. But in several places, the trail becomes very narrow with steep banks on both sides. A few more flash floods could easily wipe out the pathway in these sections entirely, effectively shutting down the whole thing. The Forest Service is aware of the problem and is addressing it but I do not know the status of this project.

Anyhow, this was a really good day hike. We covered about seven miles in a little under six hours. Ignoring the minor delay due to the lunchtime rescue, but allowing time to just stop and gawk every now and then, this might be how long one should allow for this hike.

By the way, in addition to all the splendid scenery, the highlight of the day for many of us might have been the phenomenon known as Frost Flowers. These little sculptures of white ice around the bottom of plants occur when the temperature of the air has fallen below freezing but the ground has not. The plant sap oozes out slowly and freezes, the pace resulting in some exotic shapes. Gary (predictably) knew all about it but the rest of us had never seen these before. Live and learn.

Click here for more photos.

Submitted 18 Nov 2014

Text: Larry

Photos: Mimi