Being unemployed on your birthday does have at least one benefit – you can go hiking regardless of what day of the week! That is exactly what I decided to do since my wife had to work all day and I really didn’t want to be at home by myself while the weather was beautiful. There are many areas of the Sipsey Wilderness that interest me, so I researched some areas that I had been wanting to explore for some time and made a plan for a reasonable day hike.
As I opened my eyes that morning, the weather was perfect and I was ready! Maya (my yellow lab) has been having withdrawals from our adventures as it had been way too long since the two of us had any quality time in the woods together. My pack was ready, so I grabbed a quick shower and loaded up the car. As I was backing out of the driveway, something didn’t feel right. Then I noticed the “check tire pressure” light was illuminated on the dash. Oh No, that could mean trouble! Sure enough, my back tire on the driver’s side was flat.
Maya was returned to the back yard as she looked at me with a strange expression. She must know the significance of my hiking clothes and pack. After putting on the spare tire and providing the wife with an update, my new destination was in order – the tire store About an hour later (minus a screw and a nail in the same tire), I was on the way to the woods. A little flat tire was not going to rain on my parade!
My start time was a little delayed – that wasn’t a big deal. My plan was to park at Thompson Trailhead, go south until Whiteoak Hollow, and follow Whiteoak Hollow almost all the way to the end. I was then going to find a spot to climb the ridge and follow the old ridge road trail (that hopefully wasn’t too bad) to a spot I picked out on the map that I thought I could climb down into West Bee Branch. I wanted to explore West Bee Branch and see the waterfall at the head end and check out a few other areas of interest. When I had finished exploring West Bee Branch, I was going to take the unofficial trail back over to Whiteoak Hollow. If time allowed, I had another area or two that I wanted to see.
I set off right at 11 am – about two hours later than I had originally planned. First off, Whiteoak hollow is beautiful! There is a resemblance of a trail, although the further you go into the hollow, the less visible the trail becomes. The navigation is easy – just follow the creek and there are remnants of previously used campsites along the creek. The creek bottom is fairly flat, mostly free from storm debris, and there are even a few waterfalls not too far from the creek.
I didn’t venture far from the creek since my time was a little shorter than planned, but there are hints of waterfalls further up than I had time to explore. There were a couple of deep holes that would be great for swimming or cooling off and several cool rock formations. One thing that struck me as odd, though, was this green slime looking stuff growing the creeks in Whiteoak Hollow. I haven’t noticed it anywhere else in the Sipsey Wilderness. My favorite spot was where the creek made a 90 degree turn on a rock. In another location at the base of a small waterfall, a small stone had carved out a large hole in a larger rock from the movement/vibrations from the water.
Near the far end of Whiteoak hollow it appears that most people take a left at the last creek and climb out to trail 208 a short distance away. I had considered continuing East to Trail 224 (also a short distance away), but decided to backtrack and climb the ridge between Whiteoak Hollow and West Bee Canyon. I saw some old tree carvings although I forgot my chalk to outline them so I couldn’t really make out more than the big “T.”
Following a large drainage to the south, I saw an old logging road and decided it would probably be a bit easier. This logging road intersected with the old road/trail traversing the ridge. Not wanting to go all the way to the Whiteoak Shortcut to the Big Tree, I saw a spot on the map where I thought I would be able to climb down to West Bee. From the ridge, it appeared easy enough, so I headed south following the second drainage down. Although there wasn’t a trail, it wasn’t too rough and I dropped elevation rapidly. Then I heard water. At my elevation, that wasn’t a good thing. In front of me was a 6 foot or so waterfall, but just beyond that was a fairly tall waterfall and there wasn’t any way down in the immediate area.
From looking at the map, there was another drainage just a bit more Southwest from my location. Not wanting to climb back out to the ridge trail just to descend again, I spotted a pig trail. Literally. It was well worn, full of tracks, and it meandered in the direction I needed to go. Unfortunately, it was fairly close to the edge of the bluff and was only cleared about 3 foot tall. Maya had no problem following it, but there were several places that caused me to go around because I wasn’t crawling under the deadfall.
What was only about a quarter of a mile but felt and took much longer, I found a spot where I could safely climb down. I did find a piece of old metal at the base of a small waterfall, but no other evidence of a still, and figured it was storm debris. I slowly and carefully made my way down to West Bee and found a spot for a much deserved lunch.
I quickly discovered why not much is said of West Bee Branch. Because it sucks. It is a narrow canyon with steep terrain, full of huge boulders and downed trees, and the hogs have had a field day tearing up the ground. There was no resemblance of a trail whatsoever that I could find. After my break, I ventured upstream wanting to see West Bee Falls, but navigation was tough and slow. I wasn’t having fun. After looking at the time, I had to make the decision to turn around.
My wife was told about my approximate “get out time” of 4 pm and my tentative route before I left. I try really hard to stick to it so she doesn’t worry – ESPECIALLY when I’m by myself. I wasn’t going to make it to West Bee Falls and back out in time on this trip and be anywhere close to my time limit. It takes me about an hour to hour and a half to travel from the Big Tree to the trailhead using the Whiteoak Hollow shortcut so that was used to determine when I needed to head back.
I reluctantly turned around and began the bushwack downstream. The suck factor was a 12 on a scale of one to ten. After what seemed like forever, I came to the trail leading up to the ridge and over to Whiteoak Hollow. If you have been this way, you know it’s a little climb, but I was so happy to finally see a trail! I climbed up and over Whiteoak with my legs screaming the whole way. I returned to the car and headed home. As soon as I got a signal, I sent my wife a text letting her know I was on the way. The text was sent at 4:06.
I had covered about 6.5 miles with the majority of if being “off trail” and lots of it being “off-off” trail. What did I learn? Whiteoak Hollow is beautiful and I will probably go back. As much as I want to see West Bee Falls (just because I know it’s there), I’m not sure it is worth the suck factor to get there. West Bee Branch is the toughest terrain I have seen in the Sipsey Wilderness, and not very scenic by Sipsey standards.
I saw lots of new things, had a great time with my dog, and was glad to be out without injury, and FINALLY sitting down in the car headed home. THAT’s a good day in my opinion.