Unnamed Canyon, Bankhead National Forest, AL 03/01/19
Trails: no trails
Length: 8 miles
Every now and then on one of these off trail forest adventures I like to gamble. I like to pick a spot where there’s no information about it, a spot where maybe there’s a waterfall, maybe there isn’t, and go see what it offers up. This was one of those days, and our reward that day was 14 waterfalls, amazing bluffs, and a re-dedication to trusting my instincts in the woods. Where is it? Well, this is another one I’ll leave to folks to figure out. Where’s the fun in it if I spoil every little known place in Bankhead?
After deciding to make a loop hike out of it after studying the map, Ryan and I set out from the road down a side drainage where I estimated it’d clip into where the hemlocks start. It’d save a long leg and time from another starting point we’d discussed, and in the end, give us an opportunity to see an additional falls. The initial section was easy enough, thanks to a fire from last year or maybe the year before. Many of the lower trunks throughout the forest here were still charred. The path down into the hollow beyond was wet, steep, and quickly crossed an old road leading down from above. This was has long since been reclaimed by nature, but at least make hiking a bit easier. I stopped to note and photograph a large group of spotted wintergreen, and some fungi I don’t know the name of. Once the road leveled out a bit, it became home to large clumps of wood sedge in bloom. An underground stream peeked out briefly, a terrific sign for later for what we were hoping would be a great day finding waterfalls. The road soon split, leading off to the left back up another finger and out of sight; we continued downstream through ferns in winter dormancy and a dry stream. Past a fallen tree the stream reemerged and joined another stream from the right. I considered us going upstream briefly, but gut instinct said any falls on this side branch were downstream. I honestly wasn’t expecting falls here at all, not even being the main channel. This junction did hold a bit of history, as an old moonshine still [or the cut out of land for it at least], was positioned dead center where the two streams met. It still had portions of a rock wall built around one side of it, but that’s all not lost to time. The old road began to fade away a bit, and with that came a few cascades on sharp faced submerged rocks that looked cut, but weren’t.
Ahead I could see the tell tale sign of a waterfall in the woods, a sort of horizon line. I often see this before I hear the falls, regardless of how large they are. Ryan had already picked it up, but neither of us were expecting this 20ft beauty. The hemlock canyon below was so open and clear, and every boulder covered in moss. We searched on the right side of the creek for a way down, skidding down slick leaves to gain quick access to the rock wall forming the half moon of the shelter behind and surrounding the falls. The left side of the shelter was a bit undercut, with boulders jutting out just above head level. The far side of the shelter offered the only spot for anything dry, but I only briefly stepped into it before following Ryan downstream to get a better view of the small cascades just below the large falls and plunge pool area. It’s amazing how fast we came upon this falls. We were roughly 20 minutes from where we parked, if that. Another five minutes or so of walking downstream past a washed out area/landslide was a nice cascade about 15ft in length. Joining it from our left was another little stream, and I could already see the falls from where we stood. I ventured upstream, passing a small falls a few feet high before another cascade to reach the stair stepped falls above. The lower half of the two step falls was about 10ft high, flowing in a narrow channel eroded by the upper tier. There was no canyon aspect to this falls, just enough rock exposed for a waterfall, and then back to land again. That made getting above the falls pretty easy, though my attempt to reach the middle level was thwarted by extremely slick leaves. I love sitting in the backs of small shelters like this and just looking out over everything. Ryan didn’t follow to the top of the falls, where I found another 3ft or so drop, and while it did pale a bit by comparison to the lower falls, I enjoyed documenting it at least.
Back downstream, we picked up an old road bed on the left side of the stream, following it quickly down to where either side of the creek was bordered by 8ft of striated rock. The whole area was full of mosses and some ferns, and was very much the feel of a rain forest. Ahead, the land dropped off a bit of a shelf into a low floodplain, wide and open. There was no evidence of prior camping here, but this would be a great spot for it. When we reached the stream, it was hard to believe this wasn’t the main stream itself. It was as wide as Parker Creek, Caney or even Clifty Creek. I remarked to Ryan that this had the feeling of being Quillan Creek somehow, and he agreed. There were lots of small cascades here, and we explored the gurgles over fallen logs and deep holes worn from rocks swirling in soft bedrock. Then we found something I hadn’t seen before. Large rocks with concave grooves surrounding most sides of the rock itself, almost like concentric rings carved out of it. Back upstream we found an area where this layer of bedrock is breaking off in large chunks, revealing a bluish rippled layer of bedrock beneath. What we found then were the broken holes being carved into the upper layer and washed downstream.
Continuing upstream, we crossed just below a small cascade where a small stream joined in on the far side. With the large rock outcroppings we were already seeing we knew this likely held a falls. Ryan spotted a small boulder with tree roots clasped around it like an eagle’s claw. Even after all the recent rains, the waterfall within earshot of the rock was fairly low flow. Enough water came off the 20ft or so bluff though to bounce down several small shelves in the striated layers before reaching a sandy plunge pool. Midway down the bluff, one of the shelves tilted, and water flowed out of view and back again to form a second channel farther to the left. In the shelter behind, there was evidence of an old fire, and the honeycombed ceiling revealed bird nests, crickets and even a few spiders. I pointed out a spot to Ryan, a fossil enthusiast, that appeared to be shell impressions in the roof, but we never concluded what they were.
Back on the main channel, we stopped for a drink next to the cascade, the bedrock full of different colors here. The long stripes of reds and oranges (iron seeps) emanated from the land side of the stream, but oddly not the small undercut overhang of a boulder on the far side where I usually find them. We followed as best we could upstream on the west side of the water until the land became too steep, crossing by a fallen hollowed beech with a corkscrew pattern to the remaining trunk. Soon another stream split had us venturing up a right fork, where a 4ft falls/cascade came into view. As with many in Bankhead, this had a fresh hemlock blocking the best view of it. Quickly around a bend a large rock shelter appeared, with a falls nestled behind large mountain laurels and a boulder pile.
We crossed downstream a bit on a shallow spot in the rock bottom creek where it cut a narrow channel before falling into a small wide cascade. Upstream the stream split around a small boulder pile atop a wide elongated striated cascade about 15ft in width and 10ft in length. From here the boulder pile we thought was blocking the falls was nothing more than an arm extending out from the right side of the bluff. By far the best shelter we’d seen on the hike, it extended higher than the falls, which was maybe 15ft high to where it first touched rock, add another 7ft or so if we’re marking to the plunge pool. The shelter to the left was dry and mostly devoid of rocks and debris, and no evidence of being bothered by man. We followed it along to the falls, passing a small spring, before climbing the boulders up to get behind the falls. This almost ended poorly, as one of the large rocks Ryan grabbed on to gave way, he went ahead and pushed it to eliminate the threat. The other side of the shelter was nothing but a jumbled mess of rocks, slippery only because they were covered in a fine layer of dust/silt. At the back of this shelter was an unusual outcropping, a long thin piece of rock jutting down from the main wall, completely flat, and only a few inches thick. It appeared that lower portion had broken off, and after examining it a bit, the backside was attached to a different layer of bedrock. It was the only piece of rock oriented vertically layer-wise too. The view of the falls and shelter was the best from this side, with an open area just outside the shelter that allowed us to photograph the falls and most of the shelter at eye level instead of shooting up at it. At the far end of the little box canyon I noticed what looked like a pair of faces in the rocks singing. I thought of calling this “soul canyon” or “singing rock canyon” but I’ve never been one to name things that aren’t already named. I’d rather just let it be.
Back on the main stream, we continued toward the head of this canyon on a steep slope and through thick young hemlocks at times. Ahead we could hear the roar of more cascades, even as we passed small ones. Shortly we came upon what looked like another split in the creek. To the right, the stream roared around a bend while a very low flowing falls fell from the left branch. A large boulder, the size of a two story outdoor shed seemed to split the two. Ryan hung back, photographing the cascades while I went up the dry channel. In front of the barely flowing falls was a long rock shelf about four feet high. The water ran the length of this shelf, falling close to the large boulder. This falls was probably 10-15ft high, but before I could investigate it further, I caught sight of something the other side of the boulder: a massive cascade or a waterfall up ahead feeding the main stream and hidden by the bend. After staring at it in disbelief for a minute or two, I went to find Ryan, eagerly motioning him up. I told him this was possibly one of the best waterfalls I’ve ever come across in Bankhead. He said that was a bold statement, and it is. I’ve probably seen several hundred waterfalls in the land of a thousand waterfalls through all my years of hiking, and this gem was something special. 20-25ft tall, the wide small upper falls splashed and formed a 10-15ft wide fountain of spray that crashed on a pile of boulders below behind a deep, beautiful blue-green pool. We stopped on a spit of land in front of it and had a snack, and while Ryan photographed it from atop a rock outcropping, I hung low against a log jam, finding a small cascade to frame with it. Around to the right of the falls we found a spot to sit and take a longer break. The benefit of finding something like this so early in the day was we could sit and enjoy it for a while. The pool in front of the falls was likely 10ft deep, and if one could get here in the summer, what a wonderful cool off spot it would be. I made my way around to the falls behind the rock shelter to the side, finding a way out to a boulder in front of it for a great photo-op. Ryan went a step further, ditching his shoes in order to get out and sit on a rock straddling between the falls and the deep plunge pool. We gave thought to continuing upstream, but I knew there was nothing that would top this upstream given the terrain, and we still had quite a long route to tackle before calling it a day. I hung around at this falls though until Ryan pressed for us to go on, and we both agreed this is a spot we’re returning too, maybe even camping nearby in the fall.
Headed back downstream, we didn’t stop for much until passing the feeder stream we came in on, and only then to survey a plethora of fungi growing on dead trees. One of which was a large beech, with old carvings that looked like “x lor 18?” The “x” likely was a boundary marker, as we did also find a metal stob in the ground not far from here. It was disheartening to see the date degraded. There’s only a few trees I know of in the forest still standing with dates to the 1800’s carved. Rather than climbing around a large boulder, we crossed in a shallow spot as the creek made a hard bend, following a dry secondary stream path that creates an island here in high water. We picked up an old road bed nearby, making the trip downstream faster, passing striated rock formations as the terrain on the far side grew steeper. I set off up a small stream to our right, tracing it quickly uphill to yet another waterfall, the seventh of the day. The plunge pool areas was mostly concealed by 7ft high boulders in a ring, and the falls fell off a pointed triangular shaped nose of a rock, forcing the flow into two main channels bookmarking a wider face of flow. From a profile view the falls took on the look of a face, a bit monkey like. We’ll call this one “crying monkey falls”. Maybe that’s a bit much. At any rate, there’s quite a bit of storm damage here, and the only shelter from a storm at this spot is up to the right of the falls, where there’s a crevice that descends a bit and then seems to open more toward the back. I’ve no idea how far back the little passageway went, if anywhere at all. There’s no easy way down here.
We followed the bluff for a while, slowly wandering back down to the creek, passing more small cascades before stopping at one with a wide pool in front. Soon the stream narrowed, with the striated rock outcroppings forming high banks on either side. We rock hopped the first section, before retreating and staying above for a bit on the left. Around another bend, we crossed versus staying on high ground, as the mountain laurel thickets had returned. The high rock banks began to extend out over the stream itself, like on Collier and Eagle Creeks. After a small trickle of a falls [# 7.5?], another bend had us walking a narrow island down the center before hopping to the right side and staying there until we reached the junction with a larger creek. The stream ,here narrowed to almost half it’s size it’d been for a while, added a long jetty of sand out into the big creek.
Satisfied with our time so far, we decided to gamble on my map reading and head upstream a bit to the first side stream that joined in in hopes of finding a quick falls. The large main creek was wide, but not deep. Some pools existed for sure, but much of it was knee deep or less. Through all of the silt we could see the rock bottom. Both sides were lined with tall mountain laurel, a few old growth pines and now a mixture of deciduous and hemlocks. Following an old road bed it wasn’t a five minute walk to the next drain. Impressed by this and still following the road, I figured we’d find the next falls reasonably fast. I’d be wrong. Tired of fighting the near impenetrable underbrush, we got off the old road and stepped as best we could through the less thick growth close to the creek bank. The land surrounding was narrow, steep, with a rock wall already on the far side. It soon disappeared, but not before finding a tiny cascade opening into a wide circular silt filled pool. The open canopy above indicated a good bit of storm damage, and we’d soon find a whole lot more, as Ryan could hear the falls up ahead. Shoes already wet, I just trekked upstream through the water instead of circumventing one fallen tree. Numerous blow downs here partially blocked the view of this falls, approximately 15ft high and almost as wide. Venturing around to the left side, I could see this falls was split into two main channels well. With more fallen trees atop the falls, I wondered if the split was natural or artificially dammed up. Behind the falls the water falling through the hemlocks was an entrancing effect. It was like one giant outdoor shower I just wanted to step out into, if it weren’t the first of March.
Ryan was calling out for me, motioning to come above the falls, so I found the easy way up on the left he did. The far right of the falls was a high steep slope covered in dead trees. Above, I found the split was indeed caused by a small dammed up area from the fallen trees. That wasn’t what Ryan called me for, though. It was the tranquil double cascade that was honestly more scenic than the falls below. The lower cascade fell just a foot or two from a long angled shelf onto a wide egg shaped rock that fanned the water out into the small deceptively deep pool just above the main falls. The upper cascade was more like a miniature waterfall, partially hidden by mountain laurel. There was some temptation to explore further upstream, but in the essence of time and all we had left to see we pushed on. The way back to the main creek wasn’t easy. After battling the old road again we decided to go up and over the small ridge dividing where we came in on and this drainage. We cut down through a huge thicket of mountain laurel, and I soon realized we were off a bit and almost walked in a circle back to where we were. Back on course, we forded the stream we came in on, climbed the high bank on the far side using tree roots and saplings, and began our trek downstream. It wasn’t long though before we abandoned any attempt to stay dry here. Both Ryan and I made our way down creek side, walking the slick exposed rock, following it until it was a risk of falling trudging through the water than the rock itself. We passed through a small rapids, which wouldn’t even register a Class 1 on the scale, and continued downstream. Unobstructed views like this are almost a bit of a rarity for me, especially in winter.
Creek walking in early March is certainly not ideal, but after the initial muscle shock wore off, I commented to Ryan that it wasn’t that bad. He reminded me they call this hypothermia, not acclimatization. At this point the water we were trekking in was only ankle deep or so, but it’d soon grow deeper. We passed a nice series of rapids that would have been fun in a kayak, but it was a bit weird to see this up close. We made the length of the sharp bend in the creek, and the banks were still covered in thick mountain laurels. What a sight this area must be in May when they all bloom! Behind it all, bluffs around 100ft high could be seen in the distance. I caught up to Ryan, who was also taking the time to capture a lot of these great scenes up and downstream. The water soon went from knee deep to waist/chest deep in a pool at another bend, and we crawled on all fours uphill on a game trail of some kind until surprisingly finding an old road. To say the area was overgrown was an understatement. A combination of storm damage and severe fire has made this area nearly impassible, even in winter. The huge stark bluffs stood out so prominently here, and I argued against fighting our way up to them and staying with the creek instead (later, we’d both be glad we did this). Tripping and bumbling our way back downhill, we entered an odd little spot behind a massive boulder completely devoid of vegetation nestled in a small grove of hemlocks. Ryan took a break on some beautiful moss covered rocks creek side, while I sniffed around the sandy ground for prints, finding coyote tracks and some scat beneath a small sheltered area on the backside of the house sized boulder. Though the hemlocks soon disappeared, the high water still remained, and we forced our way as bed we could downstream until Ryan found one of the oddest things I’ve seen out in the forest here: a ladder. Bolted to the backside of a tilted boulder partially in the water, the ladder was about 15ft tall, going all the way up to the top where we climbed. On the left side of this boulder another ladder was bolted flat to the surface leading down to the edge. Was there another ladder here? We couldn’t tell, and it wasn’t worth the risk to find out. The view from atop upstream was quite nice, and the vantage point for seeing the extent of the bluffs was the best so far.
Ahead, the hemlocks returned, but were so low and thick it forced us out into the water again, in a particularly fast section with Class 1 rapids. I found a long metal bar bolted to the bottom of the creek here, and maybe some slight evidence of an old road across on the other side. Was this some remnants of an old ford or bridge? To my left a small rock shelter opened up, and the land had grown incredibly steep close to the water’s edge again. Ryan was just sort of standing and staring ahead in the distance (I never can keep pace with him). Passing more rapids and catching up with him, I saw the deep dark of a 30-40ft tall rock face in a hard bend in the creek again ahead. With the large boulders it was a stunning scene. The water became much deeper here again, and with my feet sinking in the silt, I decided to cross and fight through brush while Ryan stuck with the water. Close to the water’s edge I found a piece of rebar, possibly an old boundary marker but oddly placed none the less. The extent of my bushwhacking was probably not more than 50 yards it was so dense. I opted to just get back down to the water and deal with however deep it was. We took some time to explore the large rock face in front of us, with the lowest 10ft of rock undercut. Seeps and drips ran the entire length of the rock face, though nothing substantial stood out as a falls.
As I rounded the bend ahead of Ryan, I stopped in my tracks, in awe of the bluff before me. I’ve seen a lot of tall bluffs in Bankhead before, and most of the tallest are within the wilderness boundaries, but a few spots are exceptions to that rule. This bluff was easily close to 100ft high, possibly more, and there was nothing on the topo map to suggest such a find. To our right I could hear water running, and wanted to go see the falls since I was literally right at it. Ryan skipped it in favor of studying the bluff some more. The falls was almost your standard issue seasonal falls, with a small shelter, falling in a narrow stream from about 15ft up. I trudged back down to the knee deep waters, still thick with sand here to alternate poses in front of the grand bluff, staying here until we could stay no longer. Past the next bend, the tall bluff was soon gone, concealed by the hemlocks. The creek grew wide, and was deceptively deep in pockets, and full of basketball sized loose rocks in spots that made walking with the current a bit of a challenge. Hemmed in on both sides now by the steep bluffs, with only a bit of land on the right side now, we were forced to stay in the water. I tried to stay up and out as best I could on the left side against the rock wall, despite how slick it was. Ahead, I could see the deep green colors that indicated water deeper than we could handle, and crossed above a nice rapids, taking some of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken in Bankhead upstream and downstream. Ryan eventually abandoned his efforts to continue downstream, crossed, and we both had to climb up the near vertical bank grabbing tree roots and trunks of anything we could find. The moss here was so thick, and so soaked from recent rains it also soaked us in the process of trying to get to higher ground. We ended up on a small shelf of land about 10-15ft above the water, with another portion of bluff equally that high on our right. At a choke point, Ryan managed to knock loose most of a fallen tree to crawl through a narrow section beneath it. A fall here was a long drop to creek bottom, and a really bad place for an injury. Making it past there, we followed another game zigzagging down the rock shelf until reaching the creek again.
We were a piece downstream of the deepest section, and at a point where a large rock bar/island had formed. Either side featured a nice small cascades, with a deeper narrow channel against the far banks. Unfortunately for us, that’s where we needed to be, and we walked another rock bar downstream to keep out of the deeper water. Across the creek, the climb up the bank was easier, but quickly ascended to where we were high above the water again. I found more coyote tracks in the sand here so this must be a crossing spot for the animals too. Soon we found the junction of the feeder stream we were exiting on and stopped for a break. Doing a double take, I noticed a nice tall falls literally right behind me across the creek. There was so much rush of water I simply didn’t pick it out from it all, and was too focused on the next stream to notice. I’m sure an upper falls existed on this one, but the lower falls was nice enough, another of the narrow stream 15ft falls, but this one fell on a rock bottom, forming a small cascade all the way to the larger creek. The bluff it fell from seemed to be a never ending extension of the one we’d been following for a while. After a break we pumped up the pace a bit up the feeder creek, as time was getting away from us. We only had a few hours to go several miles, expecting to find more waterfalls in the process. It wasn’t ideal. The lower portion of the stream quickly turned into a narrow box canyon with high rock walls not unlike Collier Creek, if more land here.
Already wet, and not wanting to waste time fighting brush and downed trees we just hiked straight up the middle of the stream. The rock was slick, and with the reflection of the water in our face, I had to poke ahead with my staff to avoid stepping into holes knee to waist deep around the first few small cascades. Around a bend I finally tired of sloshing through water, and chose instead to duck and weave the young hemlocks. A large piece of orange flagging danced in the wind on the west side of the creek, but I couldn’t find any others, and I’m unsure what it’s marking here. Across the other side, a tiny shelter likely only a few feet high with a falls trickled in, but I didn’t have the willpower to find a way up the rocks and steep bank to check it out. Another bend brought more prominent cascades, deeper water, and a series of blowdowns that forced both of us back on land. A stretch of open land with small mountain laurels made the hike easy for a bit, at least until we turned off to the right to explore waterfall #11. Another in a list of multi-tiered falls we’d seen, this one was one of the better flowing side falls as well. There was no easy way to access the upper tier, but the middle tier fell about 5ft before splitting around a rock on the shelf below, and falling another 8ft onto a pile of rocks. A number of large boulders blocked the view, mostly, and there wasn’t a plunge pool until lower down a long narrow stretch of cascades, close to where the rock shelter retreated back into the hillside. From what we could see of the upper falls, it was one half long rock slide and the other half free falling in nature, before another long slide to the middle portion of the falls.
Back on the main stream, it’d be a little while before we found anything else of note, and we mostly stuck by the stream despite the thick young hemlocks and mountain laurel. There were occasional things of interest, like an old road coming down from the ridge on the right, and a bluff on the left sporting a barely flowing falls that probably sees no flow if not after a heavy rain. Soon we’d come upon an old road bed bordering the stream, following it through a garden of sorts of waist high mountain laurel. Off to our left across the creek there was a sizable enough falls to make us stop and take a break to see it a bit. Free-falling in a narrow stream just a few feet across, during high flow the width of the falls is probably closer to 5-6ft across. This falls was about 15ft tall, and splashed below on bedrock that formed a long rock slide/cascade until reaching a small pool of water about 50ft downstream. Time was not on our side at this point, so we didn’t reach the base and explore what looked like a nice shelter behind. Crossing on a large fallen hemlock, the little canyon grew narrower and the land steepened to the point we were back to creek walking or staying dry on sandbars in some of the bends. When the stream narrowed further, a 4ft falls popped up, bordered by boulders on either side. Above the falls and to the left, another small branch feeding in held waterfall #13. Approximately 30ft tall, it slipped off the top of the bluff in a nondescript spot that offered no real shelter behind it, but flows often enough enough to expose the bedrock in a small channel all the way to the main stream.
Ryan had already jogged ahead, hearing something I didn’t in the distance. When I caught up with him, I found him crouched, photographing a cascading waterfall that ran about 100ft in length. At the top and bottom were small free-falling falls of about 4-5ft high. To the left of the cascade was a rock shelter, mostly wet, full of seeps, covered in moss. This is one of the more beautiful unnamed cascades I’ve found hiking off trail in Bankhead. We stayed here and ate another snack. I didn’t care about time at this point, just wanting to enjoy it all. When we finally did move on, we found a way up and out on the opposite side of the small box canyon. I took a side route to get up close with the uppermost portion of the falls. I lingered long enough Ryan came back to make sure I hadn’t fallen. Above the canyon, the land quickly flattened out as it usually does, but there was a smaller walled out section of the cascade, an upper section with three more cascades that would have been a little risky and difficult to get to, so we continued on. From here it was nothing more than a trek through fairly open forest, full of deciduous trees and large holly trees that seem to enjoy the creek edges above the canyons. When the stream divided, we ventured left, stopping at times to photograph small cascades and their deeper than expected pools out front. These little stream fingers are no more than a few feet across, but the pools below can sometimes be large enough to swim in! Picking up an old road bed through pines that showed burn scars, we lost the road in an area of springs making a wash of it all, before finding the road again. Seeing the ridge and the sharp line that means a road in the distance, we followed it uphill back to the main road, making a short road walk back to the car.