He said “It took me forever to walk out of there. I thought I was going to die!“. That was my impression of what to expect when I first visited the Randolph Trailhead located in Alabama’s Sipsey Wilderness within the Bankhead National Forest. This area consist of approximately 25,000 acres near Moulton. It is known as the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi. It’s beauty is made up of steep sandstone cliffs, deep canyons waterfalls and mesmerizing hemlock forest.
Having made steep hikes, I was not overly concerned, but this was looking like fun because I enjoy the challenge. The map shows a 500 foot descent from the trailhead to the Sipsey River confluence to trail 209. Something over 7.5 miles in and out did not seem bad. Additionally, a quarter mile social trail hike to see Feather Hawk Falls would top it off! Feather Hawk Falls is 75 – 100 feet high and its creek flows into the Sipsey River.
Meeting with fellow Wild South Volunteer Wilderness Rangers, Kim and Noel, we started out on trail 202. It’s a rather unassuming trail that is more of an old road for the first mile or so. At one point it branches off at a fork with a marker listing 201 (Rippey Trail) to the left. However, we stayed right down the 202. This road leads to the Johnson Cemetery that has been there since at least the 1800’s. It is split by the forest road with a smaller one on the left and the larger on the right. There is a certain reverence and sense of past coming across an old cemetery almost as old as our country in the middle of what most would consider nowhere.
Many of the marker stones are unreadable, but the area is well maintained. The earliest known grave that I discovered was from a lady, with the last name Johnson, born in Kentucky in the 1780’s and died just short of 100 years old. The area is reachable by the road maintained by the forest service for anyone who has a family connection to the burial yard.
Moving on, the road is blocked by a mound and quickly turns into that familiar wilderness trail. It appears that there is an old overgrown road beyond this mound, but it quickly disappears as the trail leads off to the right and you are absorbed into the forest. Thus far, the trail is only a slight decline from trailhead to the cemetery, so I do begin to wonder when the hills are going to appear.
After about 2 miles, you will come across a large oak worthy of a photo along with remnants of an old truck slowly being returned to the earth. I have heard that there was a home at this location in the past, but if this is true, the forest has taken it away.
After passing this section, the trail turns into the Sipsey that I have come to love. Hemlocks begin to appear and the trail tightens up. Also the canyons begin to appear around 3 miles in. The gradual decline has now revealed the deeper sections from our almost flat walk out. You will pass a couple campsites as the canyon trail and switchbacks guide you to the bottom at the Sipsey River.
Though not terribly steep, you will need to be careful and watch your footing. The trail will guide you down to the confluence of Feather Hawk Creek and the Sipsey River. A trail marker sign at the river will direct you across the river if choosing to pick up trail 209. The ford across the river should be assessed on any visit for crossing safely. On this day, it was slow flow and little more than calf deep. The ford is well marked with large rocks across the river. If you not crossing, follow the small Feather Hawk Creek trail (social trail) a quarter mile or so up to Feather Hawk Falls.
Reaching the falls, you will see that the waterfall is beautiful and expansive. During the wet season, it can be quite large. On this trip, it was a moderate steady flow that had formed ice sculptures from the previous night.
After a quick lunch, we started our hike back. In typical volunteer ranger patrol fashion, we picked up any trash (which was little), extinguished a coal bed from a previous campfire, and marked any needed areas for future trail maintenance. Even with these stops, our ascent back out the Randolph trail was fairly constant. As mentioned at the beginning, my perception was that this would be a difficult hike out. I did not find it so and would give the trail a moderate rating because it is very friendly. Walking surfaces are mostly good, plenty of switchbacks, gradual elevation changes and the one area with a steeper elevation change is short lived. However, if you need to do some cardio, take note that it is worth mentioning that this trail is a walk out and gradually up.
In all, Randolph is a great trail and offers many things. It’s a look back in history, flat leaf littered forest, canyons, rivers and waterfalls in a roughly 7.5 – 8 mile in and out trip. If you wanted to hike in at Randolph and pick up the Sipsey Trail to either Borden or Thompson for a through hike, it offers a lot. Don’t forget that the trail is also connected to the Rippey Trail with the notable Rippey Cabin and wildlife and plant life it presents.
Remember, if you go, Leave No Trace, respect the resource and take lots of photos.
You have an adventure waiting to happen,
Chip (t.n. Flott)