I had been looking forward to this trip for a couple of reasons. First, it had been too long since I have done an overnight trip in the Sipsey Wilderness. Second, our group contained a great mix of people and experience. A couple of the guys were prepping for a section hike on the AT in June, several had very limited exposure to the Sipsey Wilderness and it was the first multi night trip for one Cub Scout. Lastly, after this trip, I will have hiked all the official trails in the Sipsey Wilderness. The smallest of exception is the section of trail 209 from the 202 junction to the junction of Ugly Creek and the Sipsey River.
Our plan was to drop cars at Randolph and then drive around and depart from Gum Pond. Friday night we were hiking trail 208 to either Hagood Creek or the Braziel Creek area. After camping at one of those locations on Friday, our plan for Saturday included the rest of trail 208 and having lunch around Thompson Trailhead once we were back on water. Saturday afternoon we were going to hike 206 and camp somewhere around the headwaters of the Sipsey River. Either Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning, a trip to Ship Rock and Eye of the Needle was planned along with a stop at the Rippey Cabin on the way out using trail 206 to trail 201. Of course, we would end at Randolph trailhead, drive around and pick up the other vehicles, and go home. Well…… that was the plan.
After meeting and introductions, our group left Decatur, AL right at 3 pm on Friday. After dropping a couple of vehicles at Randolph Trailhead (our finish point), we loaded up and drove around to Gum Pond Trailhead. Six people (including a father and son) and two dogs headed into the woods around 5 pm. We made good time and quickly came to Hagood Creek, snapped a few pictures, and headed on to Braziel Creek. After a total distance of 2.5 miles we had crossed Braziel Creek and found the large campsite where the spring supplied our clear and cold water for the night.
Hammocks and tents (yes, those things) were set up, firewood collected, water filtered, and food was prepared. Just about dark we heard a large pack of coyotes making a bunch of noise in the distance, but that was the last we heard of them. We reviewed our plans for the next day and had social time around the campfire until people started calling it a night and drifted off to bed. Going to sleep that night we were prepared for the storm in the weather forecast Friday night from our last weather update.
Saturday morning came without rain as we all slowly made our way to the campfire for breakfast. Finally, we were all packed up and hit the trail as the only rain was a short light drizzle as we packed away our gear. As we were leaving the Braziel Creek Campsite and headed West on 208, we climbed the ridge and saw a lot of burned material on the South side of the trail. We speculated that these may be backfires from the fire in the Sipsey Wilderness last Spring since the valley below seemed to be untouched, but we weren’t sure.
As we made our way down the ridge, a decision was made to alter our plans and take a left on trail 224 since several members of our group had never been to the Big Tree, including the youngest member of our group. He was pretty excited, so we decided to go. We took a left on trial 224, followed it to 204 where we took a right, then took another right on trail 204A. Of course, this brings you to the top of East Bee Falls which was flowing well. We climbed down and enjoyed lunch and a well-deserved long break at the Big Tree. Surprisingly, we were the only ones there the entire time.
After another discussion, we decided to take the Whiteoak Hollow Shortcut to Thompson Trailhead as that would be much shorter (and quicker) than retracing our steps back to trail 208. Every time I go down East Bee through the blowdown it does seem to be getting better but it still isn’t a lot of fun with a full pack. After the multiple over/under from the blowdowns, we came to the junction of East and West Bee for a quick break. After another short discussion (you see the trend?), we decided it was silly to climb out to Thompson when we would just hike South back to trail 209. With a sigh of relief, we headed to trail 209 on a much shorter and easier route.
I have not been on trail 209 since the Christmas Day flood and I was not quite prepared for the condition of the trail. The power of the raging water has totally changed the dynamics of the trail along the river. Whole banks and campsites have been washed away. Tons of sand now cover the trail so it is like walking on a beach in many places. There are sections where groups of large trees have had the soil washed out from under them and the trees are now just laying down. I’m so glad I hiked all but a very small section before the flood. It will take years for this area to recover and it will never be the same as it once was. One thing I did notice was the evidence of wild hogs. It was everywhere. There were some sections that appeared as someone had a tractor and tilled up the area.
We took a nice long break at the large campsite just East of the 209/201 junction. After hiking less than a mile, we made a quick stop at the Sipsey Rapids, Ship Rock, and Eye of the Needle. Of course, there were lots of people in this area. After a quick scouting trip, we decided it was best to cross the Sipsey River just below the rapids. We were going to get wet since the water was up a bit and our vehicles were on the South side of the Sipsey River. I think to the amazement of the people watching, we crossed the mid 50-degree water. The water was mostly below knee level with a few deep spots. The temperature of the water was quite a shock to a few people. The current was fairly brisk and the rocks were slippery but we all made it across without any major incident and climbed the bank to claim the large campsite just above the rapids (another change in plans from camping at the head waters). From my information and best estimate, we covered about 8 miles on Saturday.
A quick service announcement…. I normally use one certain kind of battery in my GPS and it performs very well. Using my battery of choice, I can usually use a set of batteries for several trips. I did put in a fresh set of the non-preferred battery right before I left. I believe I may have left my GPS on overnight on Friday, but by Saturday afternoon my GPS had drained the batteries. I do know it was 6.5 miles from our campsite on 208 near Braziel creek, through East Bee, down on trail 209 to the intersection of White Creek and the Sipsey River. That is all the official data I have for this trip because my batteries were dead at that point. Use good (name brand/type) batteries in your electronics. Luckily, I mostly use my GPS for tracking and use map and compass for navigation. Service announcement is over.
Our guest of honor – squidbilly – stopped by and joined us after pulling privet on the West bank of Thompson trailhead Saturday afternoon. Some fishing was done in the calm deep water above the rapids, but only received one nibble. The temperature was significantly lower Friday night with the clear skies and there was a bit of wind although it quieted down by bedtime. Most of us did not stay up nearly as late after the full day of hiking, but much laughter and social time was had by all Saturday night.
Sunday morning brought plenty of sunshine and warmer temperatures was we all slowly climbed from camp to gather around the fire. After breakfast we slowly packed up and headed out to Randolph trailhead. We stayed on the South bank of the Sipsey River and went West to meet up with trail 206. Taking a left, we climbed up to the ridge. We dropped our pack at the end of the driveway and went down to see the Rippey Cabin. Leaving the Rippey Cabin, we hiked out to the Randolph Trailhead using trail 201 covering around 3.5 miles on Sunday.
That makes a trip total of about 14 miles on a wide variety of Sipsey terrain and saw some of the Sipsey Wilderness highlights including East Bee Falls, the Big Tree, Ship Rock, the Eye of the Needle, and the Rippey Cabin. We waded across knee deep mid 50-degree water and had two great nights with old and new friends. To the best of my knowledge everyone had a great time and everyone came out safely without injury. And that is the end to another adventure in the Sipsey Wilderness.
As a side note, there were lots of flowers in bloom. My wife loves flowers so I search for them while I’m hiking – it also forces me to slow down and enjoy the scenery as well. Here are the ones I found this weekend.