Payne Creek Canyon, Bankhead National Forest 8/3/19

Trails: no trails

Length: 2.5 miles

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It’d been several years since I last led a hike for Wild South, or feels that way anyway. I’m making an effort this year to get back to doing things I once enjoyed, and cut away those things I do for the sake of doing them. Of all the kinds of volunteering I’ve done, sharing special places with people in the woods and play my role as part tour guide, part woodland imp is my favorite. Wild South leads a number of hikes to this canyon, which, despite it being a bit on the less obvious side in terms of a trail, is a reasonably easy hike. I knew in advance that the natural trail Wild South built years a go was largely lost to the forest service grading it with gravel and putting in small metal bridges. Signs telling tree species continue down into the canyon, which maybe takes away from the wild aspect of it, but this isn’t wilderness area, and the signs do lend to a lot of talking points and teaching opportunities. Payne Creek is a jewel of a place, and the namesake cascades that was our destination point is one of the best summer swimming holes in the entire national forest.


Many in the group of eight had never been on a Wild South hike, or in a case or two, hiked in Bankhead yet. It was great to see Rita Gilbert, someone I don’t get to hike with enough. I’d forgotten it, but a previous hike together was her first grandson’s first outing; this adventure’s hike was her other grandson Kellan’s first true hike as well. I’m honored she wanted his first hike to be with me, it means a lot. I also recognized another name on the list, Randy Piggott, someone who helped lead the charge seven or eight years ago with putting a dent in the graffiti at Rainbow Mountain Preserve in Madison, AL. At that time I was part of now defunct Madison Greenways & Trails, Inc. organization, and ended up serving as a liason of sorts between the group and the Madison Police Department. Some of the other faces I’d seen maybe on previous hikes or other Wild South functions. With the introductions out of the way, we made our way down about 20 miles from Moulton to start the hike. It’s easy to miss the parking area for the Payne Creek Demo Area, as it’s known. The full name is something like Payne Creek Shortleaf Pine Demonstration Area & Outdoor Classroom or some such, but nobody calls it that. I ended up driving past it and turning around at the put in/take out for kayaks near the river, and backtracking to where the “trailhead” is near the Bankhead National Forest sign on the highway. The sign for the area is seated a bit down the trail, and largely out of view of the road. It’s worth noting that there’s two trails here. One leads up in a loop through the pines, or once did. The other leads down into the canyon itself. Since I last visited, a lot of things have changed. There are now picnic tables, though the grass around them is knee to waist deep, and the road/trail here at the entrance is gravel. There are informational signs talking about what they’re doing with the upload portion of the demo area, as well as a welcome sign to Payne Creek Canyon where the trail to the canyon starts. The trails are mainly used for presentations and hikes for school kids, but it really makes a great alternative to other areas in the national forest overrun with people.


The start of the true trail is met with a sign not dissimilar to the one on Caney Creek, which talks more of the need to protect riparian environments. This one focused on Canyon Corridors, a unique land management type that effectively gives those areas near the same protections as they would receive if they were designated wilderness areas. Wild South was instrumental in mapping Bankhead National Forest, and getting hundreds of miles of corridor protected for future generations. Despite the gravel, it’s nice to see the path has weathered a bit since it was put in. As I do on all the hikes I lead, I lumbered along, allowing time to stop and photograph things and encourage conversation. The scattered signs along the trail identifying the trees provided some talking points, as did wood spurge, woodland sunflowers and wild peas, the first and some of the few summer plants we found in bloom. Much more prolific were ferns, both down in the dry drainage to our right and covering the hillside on our left at times. There are few meanders in the trail, leading straight downhill before crossing the stream, still dry, on a small metal bridge. The southern magnolias (cowcumbers) were towering through here, and I’d hoped to find one still in bloom despite it being so late. We found the seed pods instead. Passing leafy elephant’s foot in bloom, we crossed the stream again, now with a trickle of water. Recent rains have helped the water table here for sure, and I was surprised to find small pools along the way. We crossed a third bridge back to the right, with the bluff becoming obvious ahead of us. Just before crossing a small rock bridge, really the only evidence of the trail that once was, I ventured “off trail” to peek over the edge, making sure to inform everyone of the danger and what I was doing. The small trickle of water was a little more now, and we looked to luck out seeing this usually intermittent falls with at least some flow.

Past the bridge, the trail follows a bit of an old road, with a few minor rock outcroppings on the hillside to the left, before dropping straight down into the canyon, veering away from the old road that continued on uphill again somewhere. We quickly entered the magical hemlock forests, and everyone was impressed with the scenes, and the 40-50ft rock bluff in front of us. For many, they’d not yet encountered bluffs this tall on a hike here yet. There are places where there are bluffs easily three times this high, but this is a good introduction to them none the less. Though I wanted to hike upstream, I told the group I did want to venture just a hair downstream so they could see the nice falls and shelter Janice usually takes folks too. It’s a huge shelter, maybe 100ft long, with a rock jumble at the back and a level or two to walk along about 10ft above the creek itself. Situated in a hard bend, much of it is undercut, and a number of plants, mosses and liverworts call it home. Also calling it home is a large colony of filmy ferns, my favorite fern. Along the way we passed lots of interesting creatures, but holding the small southern toad was my favorite of what we found. It seemed mostly content to sit in my hand while everyone took photos. Along a sandy area at the shelter we found numerous swallowtail butterflies; nearby I spotted the bright red fruits of a large jack-in-the-pulpit. I’d forgotten how much beauty this canyon holds.

Upstream back at the first wall we marveled at, I stopped to show everyone one of the native orchids, rattlesnake plantain, just out of bloom here. A few weeks ago they were in full bloom in north Georgia, and had hoped they’d hang around for everyone to see. We also spotted some small cinnabar-red chanterelle mushrooms. I love the bright pop of color they provide to a forest floor. There was much discussion as to whether to walk in the woods or in the creek bed, and I told them there are no rules here, really, whichever you’re comfortable with. I prefer to walk the rocky bars in the creek. It’s a better chance of finding little creatures, fun rocks and you can move faster up the canyon that way. There was no time frame for this hike, just a desire to reach the cascades that I knew they would all love before the forecasted storms moved in. We found more small toads in the rocks here, and I found a heart rock for Robin, which always makes me happy. A small trickle of a falls flows here off the facing 15-20ft rock bluff as the creek again bends, this time to the left. Small cascades soon took over the rock bars, and we were forced up into the woods to hike, though this is mostly a hemlock filled canyon, and there’s very little undergrowth to deal with. As the canyon walls receded a bit, the canyon widens. Most people at this point were still trying to keep their shoes from getting wet, and this was a tricky crossing for it. I usually quickly abandon hope of keeping feet dry on an off trail hike, and my spotting cranefly orchid in bloom was enough to go ahead and dunk my feet now. There was just a small patch of this on a high embankment, which is odd as it’s a very prolific species in the national forest here. There’s a delicateness to it I’ve always enjoyed.

Across the creek, we stopped for more mushrooms and to photograph the thick bark of a tall almost old growth pine. We followed an old road bed that popped up for a while before abandoning it to get a better view of a rather large rock shelter on the far side of the creek. I related a story of how I’d found sifting screens and such here years ago, but never knew if it was for digging in this shelter, which is completely full of rocks, or had washed downstream from somewhere else. Continuing on, we passed through the trickiest section of the whole hike, using a game trail to round a hard high bend around this section of creek it’s too deep to wade in. To my surprise as we crossed a fallen log, we found one rattlesnake plantain in full bloom, and took a short break to take photos. The land was starting to choke out against the bluff, and I ended up leading us through a few brier and brush before getting to a large exposed rock adjacent the creek where we decided to take a break. The rock wasn’t barren though. It held a plethora of mosses and liverworts and ferns of such diversity it’d take too long to name them all. From here, the group split a bit, with most of us just sort of trudging through the ankle deep water and along a long rock bar that got us the rest of the way across the creek. Several were asking how much further, or where exactly we were heading to on a map, and I discovered I had cell service in this canyon, and pretty great service at that. (Unfortunately while looking up the map to show everyone I learned of the passing of Robin’s fur baby Lucy at the age of 15.) Soon everyone was back walking in the creek, following the long winding rock bars through the canyon until deeper pools pushed up on dry land again. I spotted the only snake of the hike here, obviously a water snake of some kind, but in the bright sun it’s skin was almost pink in color beneath the water. It quickly disappeared into some brush, and we never got a photo.

We were close to the head of the canyon. Despite being years since I’d ventured here, memory serves well, and after we rounded the undercut rock bank in the next bend, I knew exactly where we were. In the wet season, there are two additional waterfalls to see besides the main cascades. There’s also an upper cascades we wouldn’t get to see as well, or see up close. Soon the unnamed falls on the left appeared. It was wet from the recent rains but with no obvious flow. As we crossed to the far bank I nearly lost my balance following a pileated woodpecker as it flew overhead and downstream. They are such large and beautiful birds. This whole location is pretty striking. There’s a waterfall on either side of the creek to view, a bulging rock shelter ahead overhanging the creek, and a beautiful pointed moss covered boulder that really shines when the sun is out. I decided not to make the climb up to see the second waterfall as I assumed it would be dry, but a few others ventured up to see it. It’s in this area that one has to make the climb to get up and over the top of the upcoming cliffs to reach the upper cascades too. Instead, we continued upstream through the mature hemlocks before wandering down to the water again, much more shallow and warmer beneath the rock overhand. A large old tree trunk was wedged, aged to the point of being driftwood. Much like Collier Creek in a way in this stretch, a large fallen tree stretches from the top of the shelter to the woods on the far side, and I shared the time years ago friends and I hiked and a few of them witnessed a bobcat coming down the tree on Collier Creek that day. Soon the landscape changed here again, with the rock wall retreating and large vehicle sized boulders lined the far side of the creek. The vibrant green moss covering them rippled with the reflections of water below. Ahead was the only real storm damage of the hike to circumnavigate. A brief foray in the woods brought us back down to another rock bar where hemlocks had fallen from above, but were still green and growing.

Through the boughs I could see the shimmer of sunlight off the top of the upper cascades, and that put a smile to everyone. The canyon turns tight again, maybe 30ft wide with tall 50-60ft walls dripping water from seeps. Many folks walked on ahead, but I hung back to helped a few navigate the crossing. Right where the the fallen hemlocks were was a rounded lip of a cascade that filled the deeper pools below. So shallow was the water here it’s easy to cross without getting your feet wet. There’s enough land on the north side of the creek here to walk and even string up a hammock on if you wanted to and enjoy the falls. Making our way up the falls itself, I was surprised as how well it was flowing. I knew from the amount of water in the creek the whole way it would be in good form, but it was flowing as well as I’ve seen it in winter months. Crossing the creek one last time, we all set up shop for a lunch on the large boulders to the far right of the falls in front of the plunge pool. The falls itself is a series of three or four cascades for a total height of about 20ft including the upper cascades. A large pool, deep enough for Randy and Rita’s grandson Kellan to swim in was about 20-30′ or so in circumference. I waded in about knee deep, taking note of the pockets of air bubbles signaling an area rich in underground springs. Everyone else was amazed as well, not really expecting to see a falls flowing like this in August in Bankhead. They’re few and far between.

Wanting to get closer to the falls, I crossed the boulders most were sitting on and waded out to what looked like an old fallen tree only to discover it was a rock so covered in mosses, lichen and liverworts it’s completely concealed. After about half an hour or so, the sky began to darken, and the wind calmed. Several folks said they heard thunder in the distance. Luckily we were in a spot where there were lots of rock shelters, and we could take cover if needed, but the need never arose. We ventured downstream anyway, and the storms fizzled and reformed just close enough to drop the air temperature and splatter a few raindrops on us. In a shelter near the falls we discovered what looked like a tunnel in the sandbar, and I traced it for about 20ft before finding the opening to the burrow on the far side of the shelter. Several portions of the tiny tunnel had collapsed though. I took the time to head up to the second falls I’d skipped earlier, finding it in low flow. I was surprised this falls had any flow at all. On our way out, we ended up on the far side of the creek following the bluff, passing more rattlesnake plantain in bloom. The large shelter we passed earlier in the hike we now were hiking through. It’s amazing how much the brush and trees have grown in front of the shelter since I last visited. Inside, lots of alum root were in bloom, and we all scattered making our way down the boulders slick with dust. The rest of the hike out was uneventful, and the climb out of the canyon brought the heat and humidity again. Reaching our vehicles, I thanked everyone for coming. It felt good to be in these woods again. It felt great to lead a hike again. Time willing, it’s something I intend to do more of. For now, it was time to head home.

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