Friday, April 13, 2012

Canoeing Sipsey River in the Bankhead National Forest-Alabama

Writing about an area you live 30 minutes from can be somewhat boring for some places, but living this close, to this kind of beauty, well hey, I am more than happy to tell you about it! We are talking about the Sipsey River canoe and kayak "standard run". This standard run that the locals call, is about a 9 mile stretch from the Sipsey River Recreation Area on County Road 60 (also called Cranal Road) to the  takeout that is underneath a large bridge on Alabama Highway 33 going to Double Springs. This is a half day to full day, to even an overnight trip if you want. The main thing to remember is timing it right for the water levels. We will discuss that later on.


If you want to plan to do this trip then you will need to have two vehicles of course to start with, and you will need to watch water levels and the weather closely. This run is very popular almost all times of the year except the dead of summer when it is very dry. The best times are January-May, with February and March being about the peek times because of rainfall. Sipsey is not regulated by man and is regulated by God and the weather, so prior planning is important to ensure a fun trip. Poor planning will result in dragging your canoe or kayak down the river with a rope rather than riding in it. A great place to start watching the water levels and learn more about this river is to go to If you explore this site, you will see a whole page devoted to tips and water levels to watch for. Remember too, that canoeists over the years have always referred to the "level" or "gauge" being the gauge on the side of the concrete bridge for years. More recently, the U.S. Governments gauge that can be viewed on the internet is viewed as "cubic feet per second".  Most people just have problems using that as the gauge, so they always go back and refer to the old fashioned system of the "gauge on the side of the bridge". It is measured in feet. From my experience, if you want an easy float trip with little challenges, look for a 1-1.5 foot guage. The website I spoke of above will help you in converting the "wooden gauge" or "gauge at the bridge" to cubic feet per second. Sipsey can offer anything you want just about, from a Class IV to a Class I. In other words, never take Sipsey lightly as being easy. It all depends on mother nature. I have a friend who has canoed and camped Sipsey for some 13 years. He almost died by drowning on the Sipsey and will tell you in hair tingling details of being trapped under his canoe in ragging water about on his last breath, so he has great respect for this river. As with any trip, expect to be turned over and pack accordingly by securing everything in your canoe or kayak. Throw everything in the canoe not tied down at certain times of the year will guarantee free "gifts" to those on the river at some point in time. I remember like yesterday, floating down Sipsey and finding a dazed and confused guy standing in about 3 feet of water holding his kayak, soaked to the bone. He simply said "If you see a Magellan Meridian GPS floating down the creek, it's mine".  I thought, that's about a $400 item. I guess he will tie the next new GPS he buys down, because that one is gone!

Be prepared for stunning scenery, as this is a National Forest and there is nothing but God made materials all around. Park one vehicle at the take out on Highway 33 going to Double Springs. The takeout is easy to find because it is the ONLY large bridge span you will encounter on your way traveling through the forest going on Alabama Highway 33 to Double Springs. Bear in mind, that you are parking your vehicle on private property and not on forest property. It is done all the time, and the people that own the property allow this knowing hundreds of people want to paddle Sipsey, and this is the only place to really park your vehicle and use this place as a takeout. I have recently been disturbed at the number of garbage that is piling up around that area. I realize at some point, the people who own this will get tired of this and say, no more! At that point it will become about impossible to practically take this trip with no really good takeout point. On the put in side, park your second car or truck at Sipsey Recreation Area on County Road 60 or Cranal Road as it is called by locals. Be prepared to pay the U.S. Forest Service $3.00 for the privilege of parking on property you help pay for. It is good for one day. If staying overnight, then add another $3.00. You will fill out a form and hang it on your windshield or put on your dash. Everyone that comes from out of town always asks "is my vehicle safe here?". I have parked at the recreation area many times over many years, and only once in about 10 years did I  hear of a short rash of cars being hit at those two places. Most of the time you are safe to leave it there. Keeping important items out of site is important as it would be anywhere you park and leave your car. They have an upper parking lot where I recommend parking and a lower parking lot where you will cross a very old (I remember playing on it in Boy Scouts in the 1970's) wooden bridge. Take this route to park and put your canoe in the water, then park it up on the upper parking lot. Security wise it is safer and theft wise it is a better more open place to park. Also, bear in mind there is absolutely NO cell phone coverage in the forest except in some high places or on the southern end of the forest, so tell your loved ones where you going because there is no calling for easy help.

The Trip

If the water levels are right, you can shoot down and finish this trip in about 3 hours, but I highly recommend you plan a full day, or even an overnight. The majority of folks take the one day trip. There are many hidden waterfalls along the way and breathtaking bluffs that are hidden back in the trees, but you must stop at least at one place, Hurricane Creek Falls. It is located on the left just past the 100 yard dash. The 100 yard dash as it is called, is a long stretch of class II  water that you shoot down as the river gets narrow. A lot of people camp here overnight and watch people come down this stretch for entertainment. For many amateurs, if they are going to get dumped out then this is the place. If you do camp here and want to be a good samaritan, then take an extra garbage bag with you to help haul out trash that "low life folks" left behind at the popular camping spot. There is nothing more sicking than sitting around the camp fire with 22 empty beer bottles and cans surrounding you. This last time we camped there, mice would come out at night while we were around the campfire. A sign that too much garbage is being left behind this at this place! When you are on the trip, take your time when floating down the river, listen to nature, and try and absorb the spectacular scenery. I have been all over the United States and all over Alaska, and still to this day, Bankhead offers scenery that cannot be found in other places.

Hurricane Creek Falls

As I mentioned earlier, just down from the 100 yard dash, start looking for the first creek or inlet on the left. This is the area you will want to pull in and park your boat. Walk about a quarter of a mile up the creek and canyon to see the stunning Hurricane Creek Falls. Take the time and sit down to watch, listen and absorb the beauty of this waterfall and the canyon it spills in to. You will not regret it. There are several other falls along the way to see, depending on the water level, the time of the year, and the amount of time you have to see them. Hurricane Creek Falls is "a must see" in my book.

Many of the locals in North Alabama and Eastern Mississippi have this trip slotted just about every year, and its popularity is growing. The run and water itself is really nothing spectacular, but the color of the water, the beautiful bluffs, foliage, moss, and scenery around you cannot be described nor seen in almost any other place. Remember that monitoring the water level is important or else you will have hiked dragging your boat down Sipsey, or missed the narrows of death from the ragging current. Sipsey can toss both of those at you without prior planning. Have fun!