Date: Saturday, 17 Jan 2015
Location: Sipsey Wilderness, Bankhead National Forest, Alabama
Members: Bart, Charlie, Gary (and dog Beauregard), Jane, Larry, Wayne
Guests: Allen, Brad, Dale, Keith, Matt, and two Tracy's; Rich from Haleyville showed up with a contingent of Boy Scouts, LDS elders, and others, 11 all told
This from the get-go was a make-it-up-as-you-go-along type of excursion. Some wanted to camp at the Rippey Cabin either one night or two. The main attraction – convenient from the cabin – was White Creek and the Valentine Pool. This is one of those places in the Sipsey Wilderness that many have heard of but have no idea how to get there.
Okay, so we all followed Charlie but it is not that hard to locate. Start at the Randolph Trailhead. From there, take trail 201 north to the junction with trails 206 and 209. The Rippey Cabin is accessed off trail 206 about a tenth of a mile further but trail 209 is what you want to get down to the river. Then turn right downstream maybe half a mile to the first feeder stream. That is White Creek.
Then the going gets tougher. Just from practical considerations, you need to get over the creek before climbing up the steep paths to the bluff. Today this crossing posed no problem but the water level was fairly low. The steepness of the path is the same at any time. It's really fend for yourself and find your way to where you want to go. It is possible to both get great views of White Falls from above and walk under the flow but this requires some strenuous climbing up and down. Valentine Pool is located just above the top of the higher waterfall and under the smaller fall above it.
But I am ahead of myself. It was perfect weather for hiking with the temperature in the upper 30's (Fahrenheit) at the start at 8 AM and almost 60 by 3 PM. The sun shone all day but one should be aware that not all sections of these trails are in the sun.
We broke into several groups (to comply with the ten-person limit on group activities) before setting out on 201. Easy, in great shape. A couple of step-over blowdowns but with no detours or serious crouching required.
It took about 50 minutes to arrive at the 201-206-209 junction. We continued on 206 and turned off to the Rippey Cabin, somewhat surprised at how much more evident the "trail" was than on previous attempts to find the place. There is one serious blowdown necessitating a detour where you need to pay attention to where the trail is so you can reconnect. But other than that, it was fairly obvious where to go.
Met up with Charlie and Gary and the dog plus three other backpackers at the cabin about 9:15. Hung around for awhile waiting for the air to warm up before heading out down the hill behind the cabin to intersect with trail 209. Turned left and carefully found our way down the watery cascade to the river. Slippery leaves posed the biggest problem.
Though we did not need to ford it, the river was crossable, about knee-deep. We cheered/jeered on the other three backpackers attempting it. But we stayed on the west side and followed the "not official" but obviously well-used trail downstream to the first feeder stream which is White Creek. A few trees to climb over en route but nothing serious.
From there bushwhacking became the norm with no discernible trails; clear areas suddenly turned into mini-jungles of vines with branches in your face.
After about a quarter mile we crossed the creek and clambered up to the bluff on a rather steep incline. I had forgotten all this mountain goat activity from the last time so this hike was definitely more taxing than I remembered (not that one should trust my memory).
This exertion paid off big league when we found ourselves not only walking next to fabulous rocks but with a magnificent waterfall in the near distance, a waterfall that we were able to climb down under and walk behind. This experience was not easy due to the steepness of the slope and the slippery mud with generally nothing to grab onto. (I would hate to suggest that the younger participants may not have found this effort so challenging but nobody was exactly dancing up and down these hills.)
After crossing under what is the lower falls, we scrambled up again on the other side, including a couple of big steps and not-too-tall rock passages, to arrive at the upper fall which spills into Valentine Pool.
Once there, it is worth descending the steep slope down to the water. Besides the really pretty view, you get to stand at the top of the lower falls (or as close as you can stomach the idea of standing on slippery rocks on the edge of a 75 foot drop).
We returned along White Creek the way we came. Obstructions in the area were not all that numerous. The issues today were the steepness of the slopes compounded by wet leaves, mud, and in several places, ice. Not everyone climbed up to Valentine Pool but all made it to the Falls.
We hiked back the way we came, following the river upstream to 209. But then we continued north along the water (on another "unofficial trail") to connect with 206 just past some lovely rapids. We continued back around the end of the bluff and then up through rhododendrum forest to the Rippey Cabin "driveway" where the day hikers said good-bye to the backpackers. The newly warm sunshine made for a very pleasant walk back to the trailhead.
In conclusion, all I can say is that this destination is really worth pursuing and not that difficult to find. But it does require the ability to ascend and (worse maybe) descend steep slopes which might be slippery. Even those who do not usually favor walking sticks were appropriating something to use along the way.
I cannot report on the camping experience but the hike was great.
Submitted 22 Jan 2015