Only a short 90-minute drive northwest of Birmingham, Alabama there is an incredible wonderland -- the Bankhead National Forest. The forest encompasses 180,000-acres of mixed woodlands, 25,000 of which have been set aside as a true wilderness area called the Sipsey Wilderness.
The forest is known as the Land of a Thousand Waterfalls, and for good reason. As you hike one of the 90 miles of recreational trails past tall moss-covered bluffs, beneath deep rock shelters, and alongside the many rivers and streams that vein through the land carving out an incredible canyon, it literally looks like there is a cascade tumbling down the sandstone walls around every bend. Some are named; most are not. There are so many waterfalls that for the first-time visitor, it seems daunting to choose which ones to visit.
Fear not! I have compiled for you a list of nine of the best (and my personal favorite) waterfalls in the Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness that you shouldn’t miss. All of these waterfalls can be found year-round except for one; but remember, even a year-round waterfall can disappear during extended dry periods.
The trails in the forest are not blazed but, for the most part, are well-worn and easy to follow. With that in mind, you should still carry a GPS with you and have a little knowledge of how to use a map and compass (and bring them with you) as a backup. GPS signals and cell phone reception can be spotty at best. Intersections between trails are marked with wooden signs showing the names of the trails and directions.
Alright, let’s lace up the old boots and take a hike through the Land of a Thousand Waterfalls.
1. Kinlock Falls: A Gorgeous 25-Foot-Wide Cascade
A must-see when visiting the Bankhead National Forest is the spectacular Kinlock Falls, a sparkling 25-foot-wide, 15-foot-tall cascade that is only a short quarter-mile walk from the shoulder parking area on Kinlock Road in Winston County. There is not an official trail to the falls, but it is an easy enough walk along a path that has been well-worn over the years to view the cascade from a bluff. For the more adventurous, a careful pick-your-own-way down to the base of the falls is rewarded with glorious swimming in the falls’ deep, cold pool, which has been a favorite with locals for as long as anyone can remember. Keep in mind, there are no lifeguards, so swim at your own risk.
It is an easy walk to the bluff. The hike to the pool is a moderate climb down. Keep in mind that what goes down must come up again. To appreciate the falls, plan on spending a good 30 minutes, longer if you plan on swimming.
2. Caney Creek Falls: The Most Photographed Waterfall In Alabama
One of the most recognizable, and arguably the most photographed, waterfalls in the Bankhead National Forest is Caney Creek Falls, a stunning 30-foot-tall punchbowl waterfall that spills down over the top of a rock ledge into a mesmerizing turquoise pool. The rock ledge is deep and tall enough for you to walk behind the curtain of water.
The reason Caney Creek Falls is so popular is that it puts on a different face for each season: In spring, it is framed by brilliant white and pink mountain laurel; in fall, fiery autumn colors illuminate the scene; in the dead of winter, the spray sometimes freezes, holding the falls in suspended animation; and in summer, it’s a great swimming hole.
The waterfall is an easy one-mile hike (two-miles total out and back) from the narrow parking area on Winston County Road 2 down a long-forgotten dirt road that eventually turns into a narrow dirt footpath and heads moderately downhill into the gorge to view the falls.
Plan for a minimum of a one-hour to hike to the falls and at least an hour to take it in.
3. Fall Creek Falls: A Fun Hike For All Ages
The hike to Fall Creek Falls is simply a great walk in the woods and is the perfect introduction to hiking in the Sipsey Wilderness for hikers of all ages and experience. This relatively flat and easy walking hike uses Trail 209 (the Sipsey Trail) for a 2.2-mile out-and-back hike to the 25-foot-tall ribbon waterfall that tumbles down the sandstone wall of the canyon, crashing to a halt on the boulders below.
The trail begins at the Sipsey Wilderness Recreation Area on County Road 60/Cranal Road and meanders along the banks of the beautiful clear waters of the Sipsey Fork for a half-mile until it reaches the confluence of the Sipsey and Borden Creek. This is where you will need to kick off your boots, roll up your pants legs, and get your feet wet as you ford the sandy bottom creek to pick up the trail again on the other side, a wonderful respite in the heat of summer. For your safety, if the river is running high and is fast flowing, consider hiking to the falls another day.
It takes about an hour total to hike to the falls, but plan extra time to gaze into its glistening spray.
4. Turkey Foot And Mize Mill Falls: A Twofer Hike To An Incredible Plunge Waterfall And Cascade
For a more challenging hike, travel a mere half-mile west of the Sipsey Wilderness Recreation Area on Winston County Road 60/Cranal Road for a 0.8-mile out-and-back hike to two waterfalls -- the beautiful 20-foot plunge waterfall Turkey Creek Falls and the wide 20-foot-tall cascade known as Mize Mill Falls.
Turkey Creek Falls is tucked away in a little dark green moss-covered alcove of the gorge that has been carved by the creek over the centuries. And when the creeks are really flowing, Mize Mill Falls roars down the gorge’s walls over multiple sandstone tiers, its sound engulfing you as it bounces off the canyon walls.
The first tenth of a mile of the hike is easy enough and allows you to view Mize Mill Falls from the top of a bluff. The challenge comes after that when you must clamber down a steep 50-foot rock wall to reach Turkey Creek. The climb may be too challenging for some. When you reach the bottom, you follow the rocky, boulder-strewn creek upstream to the base of Mize Mill Falls.
Expect a one-hour hike for the average hiker and allow extra time to enjoy both falls.
5. Feather Hawk Falls: A Stunning 70-Foot Plunge Waterfall
Another easily accessible and stunning waterfall in the Sipsey Wilderness area is Feather Hawk Falls. Named for its namesake creek, Feather Hawk is a stunning 70-foot waterfall that plunges down a towering sandstone channel, crashing to a halt on its boulder-strewn base. The dark alcove of the channel is brightened by brilliant green moss.
This hike uses Trail 202 (the Randolph Trail) which begins at the Randolph Trailhead on Winston County Road 60/Cranal Road. Once an old logging road, the level path is narrow and can be overgrown at times, but you’ll be treated to beautiful blooming and fragrant magnolia and dogwood trees, wildflowers including yellow lady slippers and shooting stars, an amazing array of wildlife like whitetail deer, wild turkey, eastern phoebes, and belted kingfishers, and pass an old cemetery from the 1800s. The last quarter mile is a 300-foot drop into the main canyon and the banks of the Sipsey Fork where a short hike upstream leads you to the falls.
The hike is a 6.4-mile out-and-back that should take the average hiker four hours to complete, but again, leave plenty of time to linger and enjoy lunch along the river and waterfall.
6. Sougahoagdee Falls: The Forest’s Most Beloved Waterfalls
Sougahoagdee Falls is arguably one of the most beloved waterfalls in the Bankhead and Sipsey Wilderness. The waterfall is a wide curtain cascade that is 70 feet tall. This breathtaking year-round waterfall cascades over a deep rock ledge into a bowl-shaped blue-green pool, and the ledge allows you to walk behind the curtain.
While the waterfall flows year-round, it is best experienced from spring through early summer when rains are plentiful, the creek runs full, and the greens of the moss and plants surrounding the falls are vibrant and light up the hollow.
The complete hike from the trailhead to waterfall and back is an easy walking 4.5-mile trek that begins at the Brushy Creek Trailhead on Hickory Grove Road in Winston County. You’ll follow the Brushy Creek Trail that meanders along the banks of the creek before arriving at the waterfall. The hike itself takes about 2.5 hours.
7. Bee Branch Falls: A Challenging Hike Through The Sipsey Wilderness
For those of you who are into backpacking or want a longer, full-day hike, then a hike to Bee Branch Falls is just what you need.
The hike is an 11.3-mile out-and-back that winds through impressive boulder-strewn landscapes, past tall and moody green moss-covered bluffs, and culminates with a visit to Bee Branch Falls, a gorgeous 70-foot-tall ribbon plunge.
This is one hike where you should bring your GPS but also have some knowledge of orienteering (using a map and compass) and bring the basics with you. While the trail uses three popular and well-worn trails -- Trail 202, Trail 209, and Trail 204A -- there are many game and social trails that branch off and could get you off track.
The hike takes you along the same route as that to Feather Hawk Falls, but when you reach the Sipsey Fork, instead of turning around, you have to cross the river to pick up the Sipsey Trail. Once again, if the river is high, consider doing this hike another day.
Camping is allowed anywhere in the wilderness area as long as you follow the National Forest Service’s dispersed camping rules, which can be found on their website.
8. Eagle, Deer Skull, And Little Ugly Falls: An Off-Trail Hike For Those With Orienteering Skills
An amazing trek for those of you with orienteering skills is this 4-mile out-and-back off-trail hike that leads you to not one, not two, but three beautiful cascades.
The adventure begins just 2.5-miles west of the Sipsey River Recreation Area, where you park in a narrow gravel pull-off and bushwhack your way down along a seasonal creek bed to the banks of Ugly Creek (this is why you need to have a GPS and map and compass). From there, it’s pick-your-way to the north along the banks of the creek until, at mile 0.7, you arrive at the first waterfall, the 20-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide cascade known as Eagle Falls.
From there, continue up the creek and pay a visit to the twin cascades of Deer Skull Falls. But wait! There’s more! By climbing carefully -- and steeply -- up the right side of Deer Skull Falls for less than a tenth of a mile, you will arrive at the gorgeous 10-foot-wide cascade known as Little Ugly, which is anything but ugly.
You should plan on a minimum of three hours to complete the hike (not including breaks and time to appreciate the falls).
9. Braziel Creek Falls: A Beautiful, But Hidden, Seasonal 30-Foot Cascade
Hidden away deep in the Sipsey Wilderness section of the Bankhead is an incredible 30-foot tiered cascade, Braziel Creek Falls, and by hidden, I mean hidden. Braziel Creek Falls is a seasonal waterfall, which means you can’t expect to find it if you plan on hiking in the heat of summer. Plan your hike for late fall through early spring when the rain is plentiful and the cascade is dazzling as it tumbles down its sandstone channel.
This 4.6-mile out-and-back hike begins at the Borden Creek Trailhead on and uses a short quarter-mile section of Trail 203 (the Lookout Trail), where it’s time to get your feet wet again and cross Borden Creek so you can pick Trail 207 (the Braziel Creek Trail) up on the other side. The path then follows the tannin color water of Braziel Creek for about two miles before it starts heading uphill and arrives at the falls.
The hike -- with time to linger in the spray of the falls -- takes about three hours for the average hiker.
These are only a few of the many, and I mean many, waterfalls you can explore in the Bankhead National Forest and the Sipsey Wilderness. They highlight the phenomenal waterfalls awaiting you. Before heading out on your own to explore, visit the non-profit Sipsey Wilderness Hiking Club’s website for detailed trail information including maps, directions to trailheads, detailed trail descriptions, and additional safety tips.
To fully experience the wonders of the forest, you should plan on making a full day of it, but remember, you will be far removed from the nearest town. Be sure to pack along plenty of snacks, a lunch, and water. Your travels will take you alongside many streams and rivers. If you plan on using these as water sources, be safe and filter the water before drinking.
If this will be your first time hiking the forest, you may want to consider joining the volunteers at Wild South on one of their many guided hikes. Visit their website for a complete listing of upcoming hikes.
If you’d like to make it a longer stay, consider bringing the RV or tent and pitch camp at the beautiful Corinth Recreation Area on the south side of the forest. The recreation area has twin campsite loops with many sites located directly on the banks of Lewis Smith Lake, giving you a stunning morning view. All the sites are improved with electricity, water, and picnic tables, and many have full RV hookups. Learn more and make your reservations at Recreation.Gov. Also read up on: