Why Winter is Best for a Trip to the Sipsey Wilderness

This rich ecosystem draws plenty of visitors during Alabama’s peak hiking and camping seasons.
This rich ecosystem draws plenty of visitors during Alabama’s peak hiking and camping seasons. Chuck Clark
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Alabama’s Sipsey Wilderness stands out in the Deep South as an anomaly of natural beauty and conservation. Hiking past hundred-foot rock faces, river canyons, hemlocks and countless waterfalls, you may think you are deep in Appalachia rather than northwest Alabama.

A little backstory on the Sipsey Wilderness: in 1975 it became the first designated wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. It now consists of roughly 25,000 acres within the larger Bankhead National Forest. The Sipsey River and several tributaries run throughout the diverse terrain, ranging from thick, brushy forest to river canyons to rocky ridgelines to hardwood swamp bottoms. Massive lime and sandstone rock formations—and the dozens of resulting waterfalls—are defining features of the Sipsey Wilderness.

This rich ecosystem draws plenty of visitors during Alabama’s peak hiking and camping seasons. But the environment of the Sipsey and its special combination of natural features also makes it a great destination for colder months. If you’ve only visited the ‘Sip in spring, summer or fall, here are several reasons you should consider visiting in winter.

You’ll Avoid Hot, Sweaty Conditions

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Even if it is freezing cold, hiking and camping are much more enjoyable when you’re not sweating buckets from the very first step. Paul Gandy

As uncharacteristic as it may feel, the Sipsey is still in the heart of the South, and the humidity in late spring and summer often make it feel especially hot. But, by the time the leaves begin to turn, the humidity has usually dissipated and the temps stay cooler. Winter in northwest Alabama can be quite frigid at times; I have personally frozen my butt off by underestimating it before.

Even if it is freezing cold, hiking is much more enjoyable when you’re not sweating buckets from the very first step.

The other benefit of cooler temps is that you can fully take advantage of a campfire at night. In hot, humid months after a day of sweaty hiking, the thought of a campfire isn’t exactly comforting. But, in the winter a campfire is a source of rejuvenation, a makeshift community center of eating, laughing, and unwinding, not to mention warmth.

Fewer Nuisances

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In the winter a campfire is a source of rejuvenation. Paul Gandy

In the Sipsey Wilderness, the only threats as far as wildlife are snakes, ticks, and mosquitoes. While mosquitoes are more of a nuisance than anything, they can certainly compromise your sanity on a long, summer hike. Of course, as the hot temps disappear with the onset of fall, the "skeeters" follow suit.

The activity from ticks also dissipates in the colder months, although they can be found year round. You should check yourself during and after any outing in the Sipsey, but at least in the winter, the little bloodsuckers should be scarce.

Snakes pose the most significant health threat to humans of any wildlife in the area, with three venomous species native to North Alabama: the copperhead, timber rattler and the water moccasin (aka the cottonmouth). During the warm months, constant vigilance for these snakes is paramount. However, they stay inactive during the winter months, so count snakes as something else you don’t have to worry about much in the winter.

Unobstructed Views

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In the winter, visibility increases exponentially, and the forest takes on an entirely different aesthetic. Paul Gandy

While they mostly affect the aesthetics of the wilderness, the leaves from trees (or a lack of them) can have a big effect on your Sipsey experience.

During the fall months, the Sipsey Wilderness brightens with every hue of yellow, red and purple, as the leaves of the deciduous trees and shrubs turn. But once they fall, visibility increases exponentially, and the forest takes on an entirely different aesthetic.

Because you can see farther in the woods, you can better appreciate the natural wonders the Sipsey has to offer. For instance, hiking south on trail 206 in the leafless hardwood bottom, you can see the towering rock formations like Ship Rock and the Eye of the Needle in the distance.

In the winter, the bare trees also allow good views of the many beautiful waterfalls in the wilderness, including favorites like Fall Creek Falls and Feather Creek Falls. Typically, waterfalls in the Sipsey are more impressive after a good rain, and the wilderness still receives enough occasional rainfall in winter to make the falls really crank.

Much of the Sipsey Wilderness was once logged, so it’s largely comprised of second-growth forest. However, there are some stands of old-growth timber in certain areas, including Buck Rough Canyon and the banks of the Sipsey River. These are rare havens for such trees, with untouched tulip poplars, beech, hickory, oak and even hemlocks growing to spectacular heights. With most of the leaves on the ground, it’s easy to make out where these old-growth stands start and end by obvious differences in tree height, circumference and breadth.

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The visibility in the winter also helps with navigation on the trail. Paul Gandy

Many hikers come specifically to check out a large and renowned tulip poplar, known simply as "the Big Tree." The regional icon stands more than 150 feet tall with a circumference that exceeds 26 feet. The Big Tree paired with the nearby 90-foot East Bee Branch Falls makes a great destination for an out-and-back hike.

The visibility in the winter also helps with navigation on the trail. As is the case with many Wilderness areas, the trails in the Sipsey have minimal signs and markers, putting a premium on being able to recognize landmarks.

Due to the tricky navigation, it’s a good idea to do your homework before a trip and compile maps and trail descriptions. As you begin planning a winter trek, be sure to check out the Sipsey Wilderness Hiking Club website for details on trails.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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