Monday, August 29, 2011

The Big Tree-Sipsey Wilderness Area-Bankhead National Forest-Preferred Hiking Route

Main waterfall that is the backdrop of the Big Tree.
Of all the E-mails and facebook requests I get concerning this Blog site, the majority seem to all ask the same question "What is the best route to get to the Big Tree?". I decided it was time to help some folks out with this blog. I cannot answer all the E-mails and facebook requests, but maybe I can answer most of them here with this short article.

Second waterfall to the left of the Big Tree.
First, of ALL the reports of people getting lost in the Sipsey Wilderness, most all of them center around people either going or coming from the Big Tree. The majority of people know and respect the woods, but even the most skilled woodsmen have been turned around getting to this giant icon for the south. Being respectful of mother nature and her elements are the key to taking off on this trip. A pair of sneakers and a bag of M&M's will probably get you there and back, but if anything goes wrong, you might just find yourself spending the night on the ground, or hovering by a fire wishing you had told someone where you were going while search parties are planted thoughout Bankhead looking for you.
A view of the top of the Big Tree. Notice the large trunk compared to others trees around.

Big Tree visitors pause and relax after a long hike to get there.
If you decide to take a hike to the Big Tree whether to camp or to just take a day hike, PLAN AHEAD! Pick a FULL day to go do this. Don't hit the woods at 2:15 p.m. and expect to dash in and come out. Don't take small children that will tire out fast, otherwise, plan on sore shoulders and a very ill child by the end of the day. There is NO RELIABLE CELL PHONE coverage in the Sispey Wilderness Area. If you are an amateur radio operator, there is a repeater in the forest you can reach. It is the 146.960 Moulton repeater. There is also the 442.425 repeater but does not cover the wilderness area as good. Both are sponsored by the Bankhead Amateur Radio Club. They are open for all amateur radio operators to use. KNOW the area or get familiar with the area to some extent. I am a member of some clubs that hike and kayak, and I am totally amazed that some people have NO ideal of where they are, how to get out, or even where to start. They simply just "go with the crowd". Most of the time, that is fine. At one point in your life, it won't work, and YOU have to take care of yourself. On this trip, take lots of water, some food, a coat, jacket, and/or rain jacket, and a good pair of boots, not tennis shoes. Be prepared to get sweaty, dirty, and use every muscle in your body. This is a moderate to extreme hike for most people, so if you only hike in the city parks or on flat ground, you are in for a surprise! The reward however if you go and make it (and you will), will give you the honorable title of working for a goal and saying "I've been there!".

Nothing pleases me more than taking people to go see the Big Tree. Many groan, complain, and fuss the entire way at me and everyone else. Within one month after the trip, they are so glad they went, and will proclaim "it was worth every mile". I lost count at 14 times going there, so this place is old hat to me. Do I carry a GPS and map with me after this many times? YOU BETCHA, and I ALWAYS WILL!

There are about 4 ways to get to the Big Tree, but to cut down confusion, I am going to cover 3 of the most popular routes. The third, is my preferred and the shortest. The MAIN route that most folks take is by sticking to the trail. They either park at Cranal
A vertical panoramic view taken in March 2016. This puts the tree in perspective.
Road and Take Trail 201 or 202 and make their way down to 204 and camp along the way. Locals call this the "city slicker route" with all due respect. This is the route that would seem the most "logical" to follow given you don't know the area and you follow the U.S. Forest trail system. This is the killer hike route and most folks that do this, do it to camp. A few wandering soles take this route for a day hike, and come back calling it "the day hike from hades". Another route is to park at Thompson Creek Trail head, and follow Forest Service Trail along Thompson Creek taking FS206 and hit 209, and it will take you to the Big Tree. This appears to be the most popular route. This carries you through the Kings Cove area and a popular landmark called Ship Rock. Many camp here because it is basically a hugh rock that looks like the bow of a ship. There is also the Eye of the Needle in this area. It is a hole in the rocks near Ship Rock that allow you to cut through the cliff area and shorten your long route around Ship Rock down by Thompson Creek. On this popular route, you will meet your friends, neighbors, your brother, your cousin, your cousin's mother, etc. I am just kidding, but you get it now. This is the major highway route that many take to the Big Tree and camp along the way. Another blog is written about this route, so read it if you are interested in this "major highway route" that most folks take. It is 5.5 miles one way and is relatively flat. If you like this route, then use it. If you w
ant shortest time and least distance, then read on further!

For this blog, we will focus on my favorite route introduced to me back in 2002. It is off any "official" U. S. Forest Service Trail, and cuts time and distance in exactly half. It is a mere 2 miles in or a 1.5-2 hour walk in, and the once barely visible footpath, is a "pig trail" of high foot traffic that many are taking now. The first thing to do is get you a Sipsey Wilderness Map available at most any local store around the forest. Read this blog and then study the map. I have uploaded some pictures of my GPS tracks on here but they may not show up good enough for many. Look on your map and find Thompson Creek Trailhead. FS 206 and FS 208 start here. It is at the end of the Northwest Road. Park your vehicle here and tell your friends at home this is where you are parking.  At this point, since you have taken the time to read my blog, I want to let you in on a little secret on the area that very few know about. If you are a history fan, take note. If you just want to move on to the route, then skip down to the next paragraph.When you park at Thompson Creek Trail head, take just a few minutes to warm up by visiting a very old cemetery that few know about.  Leave your day pack and just take your camera and yourself. Now for some history. During the 1800's, this area was teaming with people living in the mountains. In fact, there was a house located up on the hill overlooking where you are parked on the road just before the bridge at Thompson Creek Trail Head. When you park your car, most people pull off on the right side of the road before the bridge at Thompson Creek Trail head. To the right of where you park on the road, up about 100 yards on the side of the hill overlooking the parking, is an old cemetery with 3 graves marked by white PVC pipe. There are no tombstones, only rocks marking the sunken in graves. This was the home of the Davenports that lived here during the late 1800's. The story goes that the father was killed by a falling tree, and a daughter committed suicide. It is unknown about the other grave. If you hike this steep hill up by your car to the flat spot, it is really a beautiful view of Thompson Creek in the winter time. You will notice where the home used to sit, and an old road bed that came up the hill from the Northwest road that you came in on to this spot, almost to the top of the hill. This entire area was known as "King Cove". When some wealthy people from Colbert County Alabama purchased large plots of land out there back during those times, the locals nick named the area "King Cove", for being wealthy, it must be owned by Kings. The motorway that later was carved through the forest was bearing the name King Cove Motorway for many years.  That name still appears on maps to this day.
Take your camera and snap a few pictures of this neat spot on the hill. If it could talk, it would certainly tell you some interesting stories. After you are finished looking around, make your way back down to your car, gather your pack and belongings, and lets hit the trail.

To Begin Your Journey:
Take FS Trail 206 at the Thompson Creek Trail head. Follow on this trail with Thompson Creek on your right side. Soon you come to a stream crossing that feeds into Thompson Creek. This stream is in White Oak Hollow. Cross the stream, pick the trail back up for about 200 feet, and the trail continues on beside Thompson Creek and has a sign pointing to the right telling you that 206 is to the right. This is where you "part your ways" with the FS trails. You will notice a Y in the road at this point. You will bear to your left and start going up White Oak Hollow. You are leaving the U.S. Forest Service Trail 206, but no worries. Your hiker friends have beat this trail to a pulp so you can easily see the trail. Follow the trail going up into White Oak Hollow. It follows beside this tributary stream and to the right of it. Soon, you will see that the trail is starting to go up the hill and to the right side of White Oak Hollow. You will see that it starts going straight up and is heading to the southeast of White Oak Hollow. It is here on this incline, that your stamina will be tested! The incline gets steeper and steeper as you are proceeding up and out of White Oak Hollow to the southeast. You can stop along the way (and you will out of breath), and notice the pretty rock out croppings to your right. A stream you start joining and winding back and forth across leads you and directs in in the right direction as you are making your way out of White Oak Hollow. When you get to the top of the hill and look back down on White Oak, you will notice you are standing on an old logging road at the top of the canyon. It leads you to some awesome hideout camps, but sorry, not to be talked about in this blog! After you sit down and take a short break with water, you then head on southeast and cross the logging road. You are headed back down into another canyon. Follow closely the trail and stay on it. If you are not familiar with the area, it is from here on that people get their "doubts", but have no fear, a solid trail is in front of you if you pay attention. Lets head on....
The trail that goes down into the canyon used to be nice and straight. With hurricanes in the past pushing trees down, it has turned this part of the trip into a zig-zag cross country course. As of this writing (August of 2011) it is still in this shape. It is kind of aggravating having to zig-zag back and forth but will change with time as the downed trees start to rot away. When you descend down, you will go from open forest land and slowly start getting into my most favorite part of the Bankhead National Forest, the hemlocks! The trail will start to take you down into a steep part of the canyon, and this is where it can get dangerous, depending on your skill and hiking level. The is the only area where I preach a sermon to those with me to take your time and be careful. The trail takes you down into a small waterfall and very slippery part. You have to negotiate down into the stream bed area and then follow the rocks of the stream bed for about 100 feet. Take your time here! People have left behind ropes to help you get down, and they may or may not be there. When you walk on the rocks, be very careful. I know a lady that went with us on one hike and slipped and fell on her bottom here. She felt pains from it for a year. After you have successfully negotiated this area, you are home free now as far as difficulty levels. This area when you come back up will go much faster than coming down. It is harder to come down a slick slope and rocks than it is to climb up one. After you reach the bottom of the canyon, take the time to walk slowly and admire the tall and beautiful bluff walls of the canyon to your left. The stream you came down will be on your right. This area is a good place to just stop and absorb some of the hemlocks and cliffs. As you walk on down the trail, you will come to a stream you will have to cross. It feeds into the stream to your right and they merge together here. This is WEST Bee Branch and this is the area where many folks get turned around and shortly after become lost . Cross this stream and DO NOT TURN LEFT. Many people do this. You will want to cross the stream and continue on downstream with the stream remaining on your right. If you were to turn left and march up West Bee Branch, you are going the wrong way! They do it so much that there is a trail beat down going on the right side of West Bee Branch! Wrong way folks! Many people do this and get into really rough country with the dense foliage, turn around and get confused. Most simply give up and return back to the truck or car. Where they went wrong is turning left at the first stream (West Bee Branch) and they should be going on down further to turn left on East Bee Branch. Continuing on our hike, as you walk the heavily beaten trail with Bee Branch on your right, you will come down to a flat area on the other side of the creek. Before you get to this flat area though, you will notice lots of trees down through this area as well. A "microburst" from a storm sent many trees down beside the stream and across the trail. It too, zig-zags back and forth. There is going to be a small little 8 foot wide hole in the middle of the trail (about 4 foot deep) you will have to climb down in and back up along this trail. Again, take your time throgh this. As you come down to the flat area off to your right on the other side of Bee Branch, this is going to be the intersection of East Bee Branch and Bee Branch. The trail runs right into East Bee Branch and Bee Branch will be on your right. After you cross East Bee Branch, turn left NOW, and walk UP East Bee Branch. The trail is on the right side of East Bee Branch and makes it's way up the canyon, slowly gaining elevation up above East Bee Branch. The trail is about a half of a mile long and leads you right to the Big Tree. Looking back on where we have come from: The most important thing I can stress here is when you come down from the slick rocks and canyon with ropes I talked about, do not take the first stream you cross to the left, but cross it and go on down to the second stream and THEN turn left heading up into the canyon. Do this and you will not get lost as so many do.

While you are at the Big Tree, but sure and check out the two massive waterfalls that are nearby that add "icing to the cake" rewarding you for your long walk. Take the time to eat your lunch there, taking in the scenery and the sounds of the waterfalls. Notice the orange iron ore seeping out from the canyon walls, an element used in making steel by the old timers of long ago. Also notice a rather large "ball like" hole in the side of the canyon beneath the largest waterfall. Strange? If you are adventurous, work your way up the canyon to the top where you can look down at the Big Tree and the canyon. This is better to do in the wintertime where you can see further.

Plan your trip, take water, plan on leaving Thompson Creek Trailhead about 9-10 a.m. to start your journey, and plan on getting out about 4-5 p.m. This is for day hikers. If you are overnight backpacking, well, I could write 6 blogs on things to do and more places to go on that, so I will save that for another day. I hope you enjoy your trip should you decide to go. If it helps you any, I have taken some elderly men in their 70's on this hike. They were in good shape and they all made it fine. Just prepare yourself for sore muscles the next day. This shorter route is far more strenuous than the relatively flat 5.5 mile route, but will take half the time! I hope this blog has been helpful to you. If so, set a date on the calendar and get going! I prefer winter months to do this myself. There is far more to see with the leaves gone and no ticks, chiggers, snakes, and mosquitos. Everyone has their own special times they want to go so any time will do. I hope you get to see this "giant icon" that attracts everyone in the South. If you do, then you can say "I have been there!" the next time someone mentions "The Big Tree".

On the maps above: The first map shows Thompson Creek parking. You can see "tracks" or also called "snails trail" left by previous trips with my GPS. It basically marks wherever you walk. You can see on the top map the area where instead of crossing the first stream and turning right on FS Trail 206, you will turn to the left and proceed up White Oak Hollow for a short piece. The second map shows where when you descend down into the canyon, you will cross West Bee Branch, go on down to the next stream (East Bee Branch), and then head up to the Big Tree. Almost everyone else that does not take this short route will be joining you on the trail going up East Bee Branch.

Politically Correct Statement: The writer of this blog assumes no responsibility for the safety of persons reading this blog and taking this hike. It is the hikers responsibility to know the area and to assume their own responsibility for the correct clothing, gear, weather, emergency plans, and skills needed to perform this hike. This article is for informational purposes only.

UPDATE-8/30/2011-Since I have posted this and ran it on facebook, one of my good hiking friends who went there in June has informed me that due to recent storms, tornadoes, and high wind events, Thompson Creek Trail and Northwest Road have been closed. In addition, the wonderful route that I have described above has been "decimated" as well with trees down. Since this is not an official U.S. Forest Trail as I explained above, don't look for this route to be cleared, ever. I will try and post more information as I get it from hiking friends.
This is a little known waterfall and bluff shelter you hear on your right as you are descending down into the hemlocks and the worst part of the journey, the canyon stream crossing. .
First Section going down-Muddy and steep. Take it slow. Easier coming back out of this. See text below.
Second Section-Steep with rocks to step work down and cross a small stream. Beautiful canyon once you get through this.
Here is your reward for coming down the steep bank. Take a minute and absorb the beauty.

 The above pictures show the most treacherous area of the entire short route journey to the Big Tree. At your halfway point after you come out of White Oak Hollow and down into the other side, you have to go down this steep muddy bank and cross a stream. Be careful through here. Coming back from the Big Tree is not as bad since you are climbing up. Going down, it's easy to slip and fall. The path going to the big tree in this picture would be from right to left. The stream you cross is on the left side.

UPDATE! 2/2/2013-Thompson Creek Trail has been totally cleaned up by the U.S. Forest Service. A tornado that came through the area in 2011 knocked down trees around Ship Rock, leaving it exposed more and definitely shines as a shining monument approaching it on the trail. On the short cut route to the Big Tree which is what this blog is about, it is rough but passable. It is still your best route to go see the Big Tree if you want the fastest route.  I personally walked the short route over half way on this day and it is indeed still open. There are lots of trees down from hurricanes that passed up from the Gulf Coast, and some trees down from the 2011 tornado. As you come down into the canyon shown here, trees leaning to your right on the ground were from the past hurricanes. Trees leaning from right to left (SW to NE) were from the F1 Tornado that come through Ship Rock and crossed over this way. As a result of all this mess, there are lots and lots of switchbacks, but their is a human traffic trail still wore out. You can get through all of this, you just might have to wind around downed trees. The wore out trail is easy to follow so this continues to be a faster way to get to the Big Tree.
2/2/2013. This is what it looks like on the other side of White Oak Hollow and start coming down. I turned around and snapped this picture. The well worn foot path  is there but with many switchbacks to go around the trees. A Hurricane went through here in the mid 2000's and a tornado came through in 2011. I saw this place 8 years ago, it was beautiful with a green grass forest floor. You simply walked down the hollow and followed the stream. 
UPDATE-February 2016-Several people have E-mailed me with some helpful tips after reading this blog and going the short route. First, we never said this was the easiest route! It is the shortest route meaning less miles, faster time to arrive there.  If you want long straight trails for the most part that is about 2-3 times further in distance, than the long route is better for you using U.S. Forest Service trails. If you want the shortest route, shortest time in and out, then the short cut is the ticket. Also, a couple of my readers have topped White Oak hollow and missed the trail going back down into the next hollow that takes you by West Beech Branch and the ropes I talked about people using to go down the steep bank. Since there are about 4 different trails where people have made or 4 different paths to the top of White Oak Hollow during the last 100 feet before you top White Oak, make sure you go UP AND OVER  into the next hollow once you reach the old logging road on top of White Oak and you will pick up the trail again. Some have walked too far to the right or too far to the left on top of White Oak Hollow on the old road and missed the trail. REMEMBER THAT WHEN YOU TOP WHITE OAK HOLLOW ON THE OLD LOGGING ROAD, YOU WILL WANT TO GO ON OVER AND DOWN ON THE OTHER SIDE INTO THE NEXT HOLLOW. DO NOT TAKE THE ROAD TO THE RIGHT OR LEFT ON TOP OF WHITE OAK TOO FAR. JUST CONCENTRATE ON GOING OVER INTO THE NEXT HOLLOW AND YOU WILL PICK UP THE WORE OUT TRAIL. Since several tails have been cut to the top of White Oak hollow during the last 100 feet before the top, it is confusing to  people which way to go once they get to the top. Happy Hiking and be safe! Also remember that THIS WAY IS NOT AN OFFICIAL U.S. FOREST TRAIL SO IT HAS NO TRAIL NUMBER! The U.S. Forest Service does not endorse or even recognize this route to the Big Tree.