Please please note that we cannot just blindly recommend any of these hikes without some idea of whom we are talking to. The following hikes are loops (or short-stemmed lollipops) and are of varying length and difficulty. Only you can determine the suitability for your own purposes and abilities. This information is meant to help you make such decisions. In other words, we are not responsible if you go off and do something stupid based on what you read here.
– 206-209-204-224-208 loop hike from Thompson TH
South on 206, do not cross river, continue to merge with 209, south and east to 204 (or Bee Branch), north to 224, north to 208, west to trailhead; 10 miles approximately; can be done reverse but the walking is easier this way.
– West Borden/200-209-204-224 loop hike from Borden TH
West Borden (or 200 if crossing Borden Creek is an option), 209 west to 204, north to 224, south to trailhead; at least 12 miles, maybe 13; good in either direction though 200 is generally considered more attractive than 224 - so do you want to save the best for last or see it when you're fresh?
– 223-210-208-223 loop hike from Braziel TH
South on 223 to 210 on the left, south on 210 all the way to 208, west back to 223, then a backtracked quarter mile north to the trailhead; could be 13 miles; reverse direction works too though 210 requires more effort than the two horse and wagon trails.
– 201(-206)-209-202 loop hike from Randolph TH
Take 201/202 from the trailhead then 201 north to where it meets 206 and 209. Choice: either continue north on now 206 and follow it around to where it meets the river OR turn right on 209 and down the bluff to where it meets the river, either way cross the Sipsey (both crossings equally problematic) and turn south on 209 (or its extension if crossing from 206), south and east to 202, recross the river and follow 202 back to the trailhead. Reverse direction just as good. Figuring out where 206 crosses the river is anybody's guess but not usually a serious problem; you find the trail again eventually. Including the 206 stint, this will be about 9 miles, otherwise about 7.
– 200-West Borden loop hike from Sipsey TH
This hike depends on the possibility of crossing Borden Creek. If the water is either too high/too cold (or you would rather just not do this), then forget it. But a really nice 5 mile-ish hike is to hike north up 200 as far as the Borden Trailhead, cross the bridge and return via the west side of the creek, crossing (there's the rub) where Borden meets the Sipsey. Works in either direction.
The Sipsey Wilderness is an official Wilderness Area and does not actually have any camping areas despite appearances. The idea is to "Leave No Trace", like no fire rings, no failed attempts to burn cans, no smoldering campfires and above all else, no left-behind trash. Who wants to hike in a landfill?
For car camping (where you can pitch your tent not too far from your vehicle), the usual answer is Borden Trailhead. People have been camping along both sides of the creek for quite some time (see rant above). For a forecasted gorgeous weekend in the spring or fall, get there early. First come, first served.
A relatively unknown option might be the so-called hunters camps, all being free camping areas not far from the Wilderness. Two of these are along highway 33. Camp McDougle (mile 14.4 on AL 33, east side) even has a chemical toilet. The Allred Camp (mile 17.8 on AL 33, west side) is totally primitive. A third such location is the Wolfpen Camp which is just south of the Cranal Road (the road where the picnic grounds are) about 6.3 miles from the east end at AL 33 or 4.4 miles from AL 195 at Rabbittown. This one is also totally primitive.
Another possibility is Gum Pond Trailhead though you will need to bring in your water. Same story for Braziel. The others are not really suitable for this sort of thing.
Backpacking "Weekend" trips
The Sipsey Wilderness is an official Wilderness Area and does not actually have any camping areas despite appearances. The idea is to "Leave No Trace", like no fire rings, no failed attempts to burn cans, no smoldering campfires, and above all else, no left-behind trash. Who wants to hike in a landfill?
Rant over, by "weekend" I mean a one or two night overnight, whatever days it might fall on. Particularly for those have not been here before, the highlights are Eye of the Needle, the Bee Branch Canyon area, and almost anywhere along the River Trail. To access these, popular camping sites include:
– The south end of trail 206 near Eye of the Needle. There are numerous spots here and further along the river.
– The junction of Bee Branch into the Sipsey. If too overrun, continue east; it's not all hard rocks and steep slopes.
– Anywhere along the west side of Borden Creek and the eastern end of trail 209. Fall Creek Falls is more desirable for its scenery than its hospitality for camping but that has never stopped anyone.
– Water Level
The depth of water in the Sipsey and the tributary streams varies with the weather which lately has become less predictable. In general, there is more water in the spring and less in the fall, the turning point being approximately calendar year end.
At any time of the year, during severe storm/heavy rainfall conditions, any of the streamside locales are subject to flash floods. Even well-staked tents can be washed away. If you are camping on a heavy weather weekend, just be aware of this and head for the higher ground.
During drier periods, the streams are usually only ankle deep if that; during severe drought, some dry up completely. In the wetter months, expect anything from calf- to thigh-deep. Under extremely wet conditions, it may not be possible to safely cross some streams. (It is usually a good idea to consider contingencies when planning a hike.)
The bottom line here is that if you are on a hike with some streams between here and there, you may have to take off your shoes and roll up your pants in order to get across, whether you like it or not. In warm weather, maybe this is an incentive; even in January, it's hardly the end of the world.
We have a link to a USGS gage on our website that gives clues to the water level. It takes some effort to decipher the actual numbers but definitely beware of spikes in the graphs. (The gage itself is installed at the bridge near the Sipsey River Picnic Area trailhead.)
– Water Crossings
The only trails with any bridges are 224 with the bridge at the Borden Trailhead and 208 with bridges across Hagood and Braziel Creeks. These are largely to accommodate horse traffic. Any other stream crossings require fording the stream. For the difficulty thereof, see comments above.
– Availability of Drinking Water
First of all, you don't want to be drinking the water without either boiling or otherwise treating it. You might get away with it but there are just too many animals and other contaminants out there. As for where to find water, see the individual Trail Descriptions. Some trails are better than others in this regard.
– Wild Animals
The only real concerns are the snakes and the ticks. The snakes are not active in the colder weather but are out and about during the summer. Only three are poisonous, however. The others may scare but won't hurt you. The bad guys are Timber Rattlers, Copperheads, and in or near water, Cottonmouths also known as Water Moccasins.
The ticks are less ubiquitous in the winter than in the warmer months but are found even in January. The good news is that insect repellent does keep them at bay or at least somewhat. But you will want to check yourself during and certainly after a hike. Even with ignoring concerns about Lyme Disease, the itch from the bite of an embedded tick will drive you crazy for a week or more.
Feral hogs are a big problem in the Sipsey Wilderness. The pigs, having figured out that the authorities are hamstrung with all these conflicting regulations, have moved into their Garden of Eden. From a practical standpoint for hikers and campers, the hogs may be destroying the environment but usually run away from the humans. Unless you actually go out of your way to threaten one, particulary a sow with young, the hogs don't want anything to do with you.
There have been no reliable reports of bears in the Bankhead for years. The old-timers tell tales of black panthers (Florida panther, puma, mountain lion) but the old-timers will tell you almost anything you'll listen to. Raccoons will probably sack your food-laden backpack given half a chance. The other forest animals are simply to be enjoyed whenever you might chance to see one.
– Poisonous Plants
Poison Ivy is abundant in some areas, especially in semi-cleared areas - trails edges being a prime example. But certainly pay attention near campsites and when stepping off the trail (perhaps to use the "rest room"). Poison Ivy loves such areas due to less competition from other plants. In such places it can take advantage of its toxicity to out-compete other flora. If hiking with a lot of exposed skin, definitely pay attention to those little three-leafed plants. There is also some Poison Oak though it is less common.
We sometimes hear stories of vandalism and break-ins but these are rare. None of the club members has ever had any problem at any of the trailheads either during the day or when leaving a vehicle overnight or longer. Our advice is simply to use common sense. Certainly lock your vehicle and don't tempt the nefarious by leaving valuables out in plain sight.
If parking for longer periods such as three days or more, you might want to consider the Sipsey Trailhead. Yes, there is a $3 a day fee but the lot is quite open, visible from the paved highway, and since it also serves the popular Sipsey Picnic Grounds, this lot sees more traffic than the others. In short, there are just more people around and no one is likely to mess with your car. Second choice might be Randolph, also for its drive-by visibility. The other trailheads while probably perfectly safe are more remote, out in the woods, and not subject to the same level of scrutiny.
The Forest Service requests that campers (not day hikers) obtain a camping permit during gun deer hunt season which usually runs from mid-November to the end of January. The permit is free and can be picked up at the Bankhead District Rangers Office on AL Hwy 33 about a mile north of US 278 in Double Springs.
Campfires are usually allowed. Please make sure they are completely extinguished before leaving a campsite. Ideally, scatter or bury the ashes and return fire ring rocks and "furniture" back to where they were, i.e. Leave No Trace. This is a Wilderness Area, not a state park.
Occasionally during very dry periods, the Forest Service will issue a ban on campfires; signs and notices will appear at the trailheads. You can always just telephone the Bankhead District Rangers Office at 205.489.5111 and ask. Backpacking stoves are still okay even when campfires are restricted.
– Cell Phone Coverage
Don't count on it since reception is spotty at best. You will probably have better luck up on the ridges than down in the valleys. AT&T seems to connect more reliably than some of the others.
– Rest Rooms
There is a one-person, chemical privy at the Sipsey Trailhead which is generally in decent condition. None of the other trailheads has any facilities.
Sipsey Wilderness Hiking Club
If you haven't figured it out already, this is a fairly loose organization of people who enjoy hiking and who happen to like the Sipsey Wilderness. Our membership encompasses everyone from backpackers who will spend two weeks scaling mountain peaks to those who think camping is a Westin without a pool.
We have a formal Volunteer Agreement (contract) with the USFS which permits us to perform maintenance on the Mitchell Ridge Trail. While not everyone's cup of tea, we do have sufficient participation to get the job done, including compliance with the somewhat bizarre regimen of certifications required by federal law.
Guests are welcome at all our events. Well-behaved dogs as well.
It is not necessary to attend the business meetings. All the minutes are posted on our website and notices are sent out half a week before. Any member who cannot make it to the meeting but has an issue to raise can simply email or otherwise communicate it to one of the officers. We really don't expect anyone to drive round trip Birmingham or points distant to Double Springs on a Tuesday night.