Bankhead Forest Exploring

The William B. Bankhead National Forest -

One of the Deep South’s finest pockets of deep woods, Alabama’s William B. Bankhead National Forest has a potential for adventure and natural beauty you’d expect of a bigger, wilder place. The forest’s 180,000 acres encompass pine-clad and hardwood forest, burbling streams, deep gorges, and an arkful of wildlife. Bankhead is part of the Warrior Mountains, the western terminus of the Appalachian Mountains; before Europeans arrived, the forests here had been hunted for some 12,000 years by the Choctaw and Cherokee peoples.

Bankhead’s jewel is the Sipsey Wilderness, sometimes called the “Land of a Thousand Waterfalls.” A maze of upland ridges and deep, lushly grown canyons, the Sipsey’s irregular topography is the result of a meeting between the limestone geology of the Cumberland Plateau and flowing, falling water — a lot of it. Thread your way into one of its deeper hollows and you’ll find stands of giant, ancient trees; in typical southern Appalachian fashion, they’ll likely be a diverse lot that includes yellow pine, eastern hemlock, and cucumber magnolia all jumbled together. And the music of falling water will almost certainly be heard wherever you go, likely from more than one quarter.

Bankhead is also home to the Sipsey Fork, Alabama’s only National Wild and Scenic River and a fine canoeing stream. The southeast quarter of the forest winds around part of  Lewis Smith Lake, excellent for bass and bluegill fishing and all other types of water fun.

Hike into Bee Branch Canyon
The intense popularity of the Bee Branch area has resulted in its taking a beating over the last decade, but Alabama hikers have good reason to make for this spot. Choked with boulders and canopied by the deep shade of old-growth trees, the canyon is walled by tall bluffs from which numerous waterfalls cascade. It’s a fairly mellow four-mile hike from the Thompson Creek trailhead to the end of the Bee Branch Canyon, but you’ll want to take your time working your way into the heart of this lovely place.

Bushwhack Deep into the Sipsey
While places like Bee Branch Canyon and Thompson Creek see fairly heavy hiker traffic, the Sipsey also has a fair piece of terra incognita within its spacious confines (at more than 25,000 acres, it’s the third-largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi. Hikers with solid backcountry skills can forge off into the relative unknown in the Quillan Creek area, a lush, trailless area where there’s always another waterfall to discover round the next bend. A few days and nights in the Sipsey backcountry will give you a deeper feel for the subtle pleasures of this wilderness: the wildflowers and luxuriant mosses that carpet the understory; the tremendous diversity of tree species in the hollows; the bottomless greens of an old-growth Appalachian forest.

Ride the Owl Creek Trail
Whether you’re pedaling an iron horse or in the saddle of the old-fashioned kind, Owl Creek’s 30 miles of trail fit the bill. Do the whole bit or cut it down to loops of varying length; you can also spend the night at the primitive Owl Creek Horse Camp. It is a moderately paced trail, great for bikers of all levels. There’s more multi-use trail in Bankhead — try the Black Warrior Horse Trail, which explores 25 miles of the northeastern part of the forest. As you pass under hardwood trees and through wildflowers, you will see sandstone cliffs, deep gorges, and quick-moving streams. A great variety of southern birding can be done while on this path.

Fish Brushy Lake
Brushy Lake is a 33-acre lake located within the rustic Brushy Lake Recreation Area. Here you will find a remote lake that offers largemouth bass, catfish, and bream fishing. Several campsites lie nearby to provide a great respite to the tired angler. Fishing at Brushy Lake is open year-round.

Camp at Houston
The Houston Campground is located near Double Springs in the southern part of the forest. At Houston, you are right in the middle of a bunch of forest activities. The sites are situated along Lake Lewis Smith and provide Kentucky spotted bass and hybrid striped bass fishing. Nearby is historic Looney Tavern, Little Natural Bridge, and the Houston Civil War Jail.