Waterfalls and Wilderness: Bikepacking Bankhead National Forest

One of the cyclists on the Bankhead trip wore a high-visibility jersey
One of the cyclists on the Bankhead trip wore a high-visibility jersey Michael Lambert
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Bikepacking is a relatively recent phenomenon, although its roots run deep. It has grown in popularity in recent years and helped spark interest in adventure-style races like the Trans-Am and Tour Divide. In the same spirit as early pioneers like Thomas Stevens, these modern-day enthusiasts also traverse the landscape on two wheels.

Similar to the routes of early touring cyclists who also packed the necessary cargo on their bikes and took off across the country, bikepacking often takes place off the beaten path. Bankhead National Forestis one of those locations, situated in the northwestern corner of Alabama near Double Springs in Winston County.

Double Springs serves as the gateway to this incredible location for cyclists coming from the south. Just past city limits are more than 180,000 acres of protected national forestland and a multitude of lakes, streams, and waterfalls.

Within the sprawl of the Bankhead Forest lies Caney Creek Falls, whose substantial flow and impressive height make it one of the most aesthetically pleasing waterfalls in the state. From Tuscaloosa, it’s 80 miles to reach this riparian wilderness, making for a challenging, but not overly aggressive, overnight (or longer) bikepacking trip with the reward of camping within earshot of flowing waterfalls. Here’s how to do it.

The Route

Point-Of-View shot taken while pedaling north of Tuscaloosa.
Point-Of-View shot taken while pedaling north of Tuscaloosa. Michael Lambert

Gravel and dirt roads are plentiful in Alabama. These seldom-traveled roads are sometimes referred to as “fire roads” within the bikepacking community and often serve as an ideal route for cyclists as they are generally devoid of motor-vehicle traffic. The problem for us was that we needed to plan a route that would both keep us off of major highways while also providing a direct path towards our destination.

An example of the type of trail bikepackers often seek.
An example of the type of trail bikepackers often seek. Michael Lambert

This meant that we’d be traveling about 20 miles on Highway 43 through Northport and past Lake Tuscaloosa, which was not ideal. Highway 63/Gorgas Road at mile 20 marked the beginning of the more suitable rural pathways that led us north to Berry and, ultimately, to Double Springs.

Berry is the approximate halfway point when traveling to Bankhead National Forest from Tuscaloosa and is also the last stop for food and water before reaching Double Springs at mile 80. So, if you’re planning on using this northern route as a means to plan your own Bankhead bikepacking overnight, consider refueling in Berry prior to the last push toward the national forest.

The Site

Caney Creek Falls long-exposure photograph taken at night.
Caney Creek Falls long-exposure photograph taken at night. Michael Lambert

From Bankhead National Forest, it’s an additional five or six miles to reach Caney Creek Falls. But it’s not the easiest place in the world to find. The gate that leads to the falls is marked with an unpretentious wooden sign on County Road 2 that is hard to see in the dark. The best and easiest way to find this waterfall is to start about a mile north of Double Springs at the Bankhead National Forest District Rangers Office. Head north from the office about three miles on Highway 33 before taking a left onto CR 2. Once on CR 2, travel approximately 3.7 miles before you see mailbox 9916 and the nearby gate. Once past the gate, a 1.5-mile hike/bike trail descends over sandy soil toward the falls.

The gate that leads to Caney Creek Falls on CR 2.
The gate that leads to Caney Creek Falls on CR 2. Michael Lambert

But reaching the cool microclimate of the falls makes all the effort (and hassle of finding them) well worth the effort. Camping at the falls is about as Fern Gully as it gets, offering a refreshing antidote to the heat and exertion of the ride. Savor the coolness of the falls and the refreshing sound of falling water—you’ve certainly earned it.

How to Pack for Your Trip

What you choose bring along or leave behind on an overnight adventure by bike is extremely important. The fact that you’ll be pedaling the weight of everything you bring along up and down hills, along trails, and back home means that very often less is more. A few insider tips:

Food:

The menu from an establishment in Double Springs.
The menu from an establishment in Double Springs. Michael Lambert

If you’re planning to cover the 80-plus miles to reach Caney Creek Falls from Tuscaloosa in a single day, be sure to pack small, packable snacks that provide sustained energy, such as energy bars, granola, and the like. In addition, think about what you’ll have for dinner while camping, and plan to make stops at convenience stores, restaurants, and gas stations when possible rather than packing all the food you need in an overnight scenario.

Water:

Natural water sources may be used as a means to acquire potable drinking water only with the aid of iodine tablets or other means.
Natural water sources may be used as a means to acquire potable drinking water only with the aid of iodine tablets or other means. Michael Lambert

Bringing along enough water is a critical consideration for any bikepacking trip. Pedaling at a rate that is sustainable and drinking water throughout the day will help you gauge consumption and figure out how much you need. Temperature also plays a significant role in terms of the amount of water that is necessary, so use a shakeout ride and training to determine your specific needs.

Tools:

Two examples of bikepacking rigs surrounded by tools from a bike shop.
Two examples of bikepacking rigs surrounded by tools from a bike shop. Michael Lambert

Standard with any bikepacking rig is at least one spare tube, preferably two, a multi-tool, tire lever, air pump, tire boot, headlight, and taillight. These tools are available at every bike shop and should be tested prior to departure, even on a shakeout ride. Knowing how to change a flat, boot a tire, and adjust a derailleur are critical skills as well.  

Apparel:

One of the cyclists on the Bankhead trip wore a high-visibility jersey.
One of the cyclists on the Bankhead trip wore a high-visibility jersey. Michael Lambert

Proper cycling apparel has real advantages when spending a long day in the saddle. The chamois, or padding, that comes with almost every variety of cycling bibs or short helps your butt comfortable and, thus, your trip more enjoyable. In addition, helmets, polyester or Lycra kits, and clipless pedal/cleat combinations are more or less standard for cyclists everywhere. However, many long-distance cyclists also choose to wear more casual clothing. Either way, trial and error is the best way to determine what works best for you and your body.

Bikes:

The author's bikepacking rig prior to liftoff.
The author's bikepacking rig prior to liftoff. Michael Lambert

There are seemingly endless interpretations as to what makes the best bicycle for any type of trip. Working within a budget is possible while still getting a bike that will suit your needs on the road. For this trip, consider a road bike with enough tire clearance to make traversing the gravel a little more manageable while not sacrificing speed.

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