Date: Saturday, 15 Feb 2014
Location: Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Alabama
Trails: combination of old logging roads and cross-country bushwhacking
Members: Bart, Charlie, Gary, Larry, Mimi, Sherry
Charlie gets the credit for this one. He suggested this bushwhacking excursion starting from the Gum Pond Cemetery and ending at the Thompson Trailhead; he knew the route and managed not to lose anyone.
We met at where the access road to the cemetery forks off Forest Service Road 223, this point being 1.2 miles south of the junction of FS 223 and FS 229 or slightly less than half a mile north of the Braziel trailhead.
Due to untypically heavy snow during the week, numerous branches had been weighted down and were now partially obstructing these unpaved forest roads. The mud resulting from snow melt plus rainfall from the previous evening made for less than ideal driving conditions but we all managed to arrive at the starting point by 8 AM.
Though the air temperature was just below freezing, we had plenty of sunshine as we set out down a seemingly well-traveled trail branching off from the near right side of the cemetery as you approach it on the access road. The path follows a former logging road westward and was fairly easy to hike with not all that many blowdowns to climb over or get around.
After a mile or so of up and down three ridges, we came to Mattox Creek and another old logging road along its side. Mattox merged into Thompson Creek after less than half a mile. We followed Thompson Creek more or less southward for the rest of the day, ending at the Thompson trailhead where Gary had left his truck earlier in the morning.
The trail conditions deteriorated as we got further away from convenient access points and by the time we arrived at this gorgeous section where the creek bank is lined with slabs of limestone, there was no trail to speak of. Little branches snapping in our face became more common than not. We had to push our way through fields of cane in some places and the briers were always in contention.
The steepness of the bank of the creek and other terrain aspects sometimes forced us to climb up, away from the water. The reward for this effort, however, was usually some fabulous view and in one place, a fifty foot waterfall. Some braved icy leaves on the ground and climbed around behind it. We stopped for lunch nearby after managing to get down again.
Although no one had given it much thought, we should have realized that with the melting snow and overnight rain, that stream crossings might pose some difficulty. That turned out to be the case only twice. Though the water was flowing pretty quickly, we managed to toss in sufficient stepping stones to get across the six or seven foot width of Lick Branch. A smaller stream further along measured only about four or five feet and another makeshift stone bridge again solved our problem. All other streams could just be stepped across. Our boots got wet but no one fell in the water or got a boot full.
The basic pattern of the hiking along Thompson Creek consisted of a relatively level area followed by the worst terrain we had seen all day. This happened several times with the slopes in the bad sections being even steeper and the ground more muddy underfoot than the last one. Once thanks to our GPS devices, we knew the creek was going to take a turn and we were able to take a shortcut and save ourselves a quarter mile of fighting briers and brambles.
Okay, so it sounds like this whole experience was awful. It was not. Except for being caught a little off guard by Lick Branch, everyone knew what they were getting in for and while perhaps a little shorter distance might have been welcomed, no one was complaining. The reason for this positive point of view was the opportunity to immerse ourselves in some of the most beautiful, pristine scenery that exists in the Sipsey Wilderness. The creeks themselves with their turquoise water and limestone rocks are mesmerizing. Bluffs rise above them on both sides, some with waterfalls, one with a spectacular two-tier drop, glistening in the afternoon sun.
The area features an abundance of trees, either situated on a rock or growing out of the banks, with long roots reaching to the water, some of the roots being lengthier than the height of the tree. Even without interesting exposed roots, the size of some of the pines and poplars is enough to make you feel small.
We saw evidence of beavers and pigs, the former being nothing serious, the latter a big problem.
We arrived at Thompson Trailhead at about 3:20 after a little over seven hours of hiking. GPS told us we had walked 6.73 miles. So not over one mile per hour. We usually manage at least twice that on the regular trails so today's pace provides some idea of the difficulty of bushwhacking this section of the Sipsey.
It was a 45 minute ride back to Gum Pond Cemetery, all on unpaved forest roads. We had managed to ford streams and fight off branches, briers, and cold water all day but as we pulled out of the parking lot at Thompson, some innocent-looking sticks under the wheel managed to throw up a branch which struck the right-side mirror, breaking the glass and knocking the mirror from its case – a reminder that you shouldn't let your guard down for a minute out here.
These days we have photos posted both on our Picasa web album at Sipsey Bushwhacking February 2014 as well as other postings on Facebook and who knows where else.
Submitted 18 Feb 2014