Armstrong Creek, Bankhead National Forest, AL 2/7/20

Trails: no trails

Length: 5 miles


How else to ring in my 40th birthday but with a day off and a trip to Bankhead National Forest? I awoke to snow flurries here in Huntsville, AL, too, the first I can remember of it snowing on my birthday. To my surprise were photos online of snow covering the ground in Bankhead as well. Overnight a narrow band produced 1-2 inches of the good stuff across the northern periphery of the forest, and I ended up abandoning my original off trail plans (and almost got stuck in mud turning around in a hunter’s camp), and setting off down a stretch of Montgomery Creek that some call Armstrong Creek, which is what I’ll call it here as well. It’s been years since I last hiked in snow in Bankhead, and the most memorable time came on a trip almost 10 years ago. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve hiked in snow! It’s a rare treat!

Heading uphill toward Cheatam Knob I was surprised at all the snow, and the welcome sign to Bankhead National Forest in the snow with the pines surrounding it was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen that sign. I stopped and chatted with a family who were also taking photos of it. Afterwards I drove south toward my original destination, but after seeing the snow quickly disappear, I turned into the Red Hunter’s Camp, completely empty this day, and nearly got bogged down trying to follow the loop of a road that’s in very soft soil here. Back at the pull off for the sign, I broke open the map, and studied where along Penitentiary Mountain had enough public access for me to make a hike out of it off trail. I set out driving, and parked at an unmarked road at the extreme headwaters of Armstrong Creek. This day the gate was shut, but it is used as an access road for the TVA to reach high tension power lines several miles down.

Studying the terrain, I didn’t expect waterfalls this hike. I didn’t really know what to expect because it’s not an area I’ve looked at too much on a map. It was nice to set off kind of blindly down the trail and just let every little thing be a surprise. I almost hiked the road for a while to get further down into the drainage, but I’m glad I didn’t. I would have taken away a lot of my snow hike if I’d done that. I walked it just a short piece before plunging off through the thick crunching snow. There’s a certain feel to the air hiking in snow, and a certain smell and feel that permeates the Bankhead National Forest. The warmth of the last several weeks and of the water itself kept the surrounding little bit of land adjacent the creek snow free, exposing some leaves that add a little color other than the striking contrast of dark trunks and bright white landscape. Thankfully the sky was still cloudy, and there were still a few flurries flying around. I had hoped that the snow would start back up again. Along my drive in on Highway 24 out of Decatur I drove through some of the best snow squalls I’ve seen in a while.

Heading downstream, there were peeks of moss and ferns in the thick snow, and that bright green was a nice contrast as well, though I hated that it was melting just a bit. As the creek grew to about 5ft wide, little cascades, some barely worth mentioning, began to pop up. It added a nice blast of sound to an otherwise quiet landscape. I crossed as the stream made a small turn at a bend, where the channel was suddenly cut about 4ft deep. Thick moss on either side formed a bit of an overhang. Shortly ahead another well flowing stream joined this one, and each had a little cascade at the junction, with the main channel forming a small 3ft high falls.

Ahead and adjacent the creek was something of a surprise: a rather large moonshine vat. It’s not as large as the one I found last month, but it was still approximately 6ft across. In a first for me, a large tree grew in the center of the vat, pockmarked with holes from an ax. Beside it sat a stack of stones. Were these placed here by the moonshiners all those years ago? It is a beautiful spot to relax, a deeper pool nearby and the small rapids just ahead. The more I wandered downstream, the more little cascades I found. Crossing the creek, I came upon two other spots where moonshine vats once stood, but all that remains now are the circular rock retaining walls. These were odd, situated high up on the slope from the water, where a nice 4ft falls gushed through a jumble of large rocks. Across the way, a small line of rocks began to creep out from the hillside, the beginnings of a bluff. It didn’t last long, but made me wonder what might come further downstream.

The snow began to thin just a little, and I briefly started to follow an old road bed uphill that was a sludge of mud from a spring and thought better of it. Instead I followed along with the small cascades, finding a waist deep pool right beside a large poplar tree. One of the large roots spanned the creek, creating a small cascade into the pool. To the left of the tree was an intermittent stream feeding in. The terrain on that side of the creek was extremely steep at this point, covered in young deciduous trees, though taller pines were evident much higher toward the ridge. About midway up was a small cascade, though there was no way to easily reach it. As the snow began to fade away, it was becoming evident just how narrow a band of snow this was, less than a mile swath southward from the road. How far it extended north I do not know, though. Before it all went away, I stopped to make a few snowballs at least and pelt a tree. It’s been too long since I’ve done such.

Not far from where the snow began to give out a bit, so did the water in the stream. It ended in one last small cascade into a round pool, which lasted for about a hundred yards or so until a feeder stream gushing in from the right refilled it all. I never really found evidence of where the main channel truly resurfaces. I followed an old road bed on the same side as the feeder stream for a while, as the forest floor became alive with green and the yellow flower tufts of wood sedge in bloom. Small bluff features began to appear on either side of the creek. I followed one just tall enough for me to walk under for about 50ft with several springs gushing forth. It would be good shelter in a rainstorm, but perhaps not to camp under.

The next little bend in the creek brought another small feeder stream in from the left, and more substantial rocky outcroppings. In the distance though, I could hear the rush of water, and continued on, finding a significant stream joining in from my right, and a 4-5ft high cascades where they met on the main channel. This was enough water to warrant investigating upstream, and I found a small falls flowing over a semicircular rock about 3ft high not a tenth of a mile up it. Upstream were more little cascades, including an interesting spot where water has worn a hole in a fallen tree across the creek and was shooting water through it like a cannon! As I was admiring more little spots along this gurgling stream, I noticed two tufts of white well uphill moving through the forest. It was all I saw of two deer quickly moving through the woods. When I feel like I’m being watched in the woods, I usually am. I’m just glad it wasn’t a pig this time.

Headed back toward the main channel I found a deer femur bone in the wash area of the small feeder stream joining this secondary channel. There were no other bones around. Was it carried to this spot? Back at the main channel with the cascades/falls, I had to cross above the falls because of a high cut bank on the far side, and then made my way to the bottom. I wanted to see how deep the hole in front of the two cascades was, but there was no easy way to test without falling in. Maybe I need to invest in a piece of rope with knots tied in foot lengths for this kind of thing.

Just downstream of the falls was another well flowing stream joining in from the left. I stopped to check out an old beech tree, with the initials “R.H.S.” just visible in a crease in the bark where the tree has hollowed and seems to be folding in on itself a bit. Barely 100yds upstream is a hard bend in the side stream, and several 3ft cascades flowing down. I crossed above them, shortly finding the stream splitting into two fingers, following both up a hair as both had nice little cascades.

Back on Armstrong Creek I stayed high on the bank for a bit, finding another large beech tree with initials carved, though the only letter I could make out was an “H”. The whole canyon here was beginning to widen at this point, and I made my way back down to the creek as I prefer to rock hop or just be close to the water in general. There were beautiful views downstream here, and hints of the earlier snowfalls, pockets of it still on trees with mosses and small ferns protruding out. I found a number of fungi through here, including a small lion’s mane nestled in the hollowed crevice of a tree creekside. At another bend in the creek an intermittent stream joined from the left, rock filled and steep all the way to the ridgeline. Armstrong Creek had become deep in spots, forcing me to stay higher on the banks, admiring a nice cascade and it’s pool from afar. The sun also had broken out, making waterfall photography a bit difficult.

I made my way downhill and stepped out onto a large flat rock with a nice cascade just below me. Videoing the walk across as I usually do, I slipped on the final rock, smashing my camera hard on the rock and my right leg on another. The splash from landing knee deep in the creek soaked me up to almost my waist. I was already wet, so I just stood there until the pain from my leg eased a bit and crawled up to the top of the bank. I’m almost used to this, and didn’t think much of it until the camera suddenly flashed a “lens error, shutting down” message. I’d seen that before too, but I quickly realized the retractable lens had been bent in the fall. It was extended and took as hard a hit as the camera body did. The 13 seconds of video it took of my fall was the last it ever took. At this point, I think many people would have found the nearest way out and gone back home. Temps in the low 30’s, partially soaked, and a broken camera. I’ve photographed entire trips before with my cell phone for one reason or another. With it nearly fully charged, I soldiered on.

I loved the view downstream just below where I fell, though. This ended up being the section with the most water, and the banks were steep, and the creek full of rocks. I of course had to cross again, though I just trudged through the water. I found the winter leaves of cranefly orchid on the far bank, the first wildflower of the hike. With the banks high I followed along a shelf, or what could have been and old road bed. Well uphill I could see bluffs emerging. I stopped to photograph spotted pippsisewa, also not in bloom before heading up to those bluffs. It was impossible with the high banks to hike along the stream, and I was curious as to what the bluffs would offer up. The bluffs were about 15-20ft tall, completely striated, but no hint of a cave anywhere. I followed them around the corner to a draw where I could hear water flowing, and the best waterfall of the day. I’d just broken my camera. Just my luck.

I hiked uphill to the uppermost part of the falls, a two tier semi-cascading falls about 12ft in total high. Downstream a bit another cascades fell among a jumble of small rocks for about 6ft or so. Now that I knew there were waterfalls around, I opted to stay high and not hike back down to the water for a while. The canyon here was quite wide, and one couldn’t see the opposing bluffs on the far side for the distance and thick trees, even with no leaves around to obscure views. With the high steep banks, even Armstrong Creek was mostly out of view as well. The next draw brought another falls, slightly shorter and a series of smaller cascades instead of a larger drop. Continuing on, I decided to stay near the bluffs, finding an opening that looked like it might have been a cave, but also appears to be used by animals deep in an almost sinkhole right next to the bluff. Ahead at a bend in the rock wall was small steep gap that would have led up and behind this disconnected piece of bluff. With my leg hurt, I hiked slightly downhill, passing a large sinkhole. The next drainage was completely dry, and the topo map suggested the terrain was becoming less conducive for finding more falls for a while, so I ventured back downhill, spotting a rock overhang adjacent the creek and a small cascade.

Attempting to get down by following a game trail ended up with me losing my footing and sliding for a bit before managing to stop the skid. Crawling over to the boulder to keep from sliding further, I managed the rest of the way down to the slick limestone in the creek, the area a jumbled mess from several large fallen beech trees in the creek itself. The water at this point had becoming almost a trickle. Just downstream, the water completely disappears again. Through here I heard an odd sound, a combination of what a woodpecker sounds like and what a tree sounds like as it’s splintering, ready to fall, rocking in the wind. I followed the creek for a bit before getting back up on land, passing a trio of young trees flagged with tape. As soon as it reappeared, the creek quickly dried up again, and I ventured back down, finding older flagging on a tall beech on the opposite side adjacent a dry stream feeding in. On the right there was evidence of an old fire ring, not used in decades maybe, from the amount of moss growing on the rocks. I spotted a large beech tree on the far side, growing at an odd angle. Crossing the creek to photograph it, I found a tree carving along part of the trunk that read “M?TTIRRY 1913”.

Ahead another feeder stream joined, this one also dry. I crossed to the right and kept on an old road as there didn’t seem to be any water for the foreseeable future. Someone many decades ago had been through here with a chainsaw, and the cut section of log was still laying just to the side of the large fallen tree. I followed the old road for a short distance before I noticed what looked like a bit of an island forming in the creek, even if both channels were dry. While walking this I spotted an old chimney in what would have been the floodplain of the creek. It also appeared to be in the middle of the old road.

Catching movement in the distance, I was shocked to see a lot of rushing water in the creek ahead. Walking up to the edge I found one of the largest springs I’ve ever come across in Bankhead National Forest, second maybe to that one on Elam Creek. This one lacked the rocky bluff that one had ( it poured from the bottom of a boulder filled hillside), but it surpassed the volume of water of that on Elam Creek. This also erupted into a 10ft wide creek instead of a wide deep pool dammed by beavers. I followed downstream a piece to try and find a way over. Oddly, the dry stream joining about 50 yards downstream of the spring was where I needed to exit Armstrong Creek. The water here was rushing, and at least knee deep. I wasn’t worth a fall, so I backtracked to the spring source and found a way across some moss covered boulders. Along the way, I found my first blooming wildflower of 2020, a few hepatica just beginning open their eyes.

I walked up the dry branch for a while after falling again on leaf covered rocks that injured my hip. At the junction of another feeder stream, this stream produced a small cascade, just enough to wet the slick limestone and force me back up on land again. IU followed as best I could, passing high above a jumble of boulders on what would be a beautiful waterfall on any other creek. After blow downs forced me to cross, I climbed high on the far bank and followed the creek as it weaved back and forth with just an odd puddle here and there. Crossing again, I dropped down to see a 3ft falls, or spring that didn’t quite have enough force to reach over the edge of the angled bedrock. Just as I was about to give up on seeing water again, it returned above the falls. It offered up a few small little cascades here and there, but I was more taken with the sinkholes scattered along the way.

The woods here were again covered in wood sedge, full of blooms, and they lasted until I split off the last stream finger and found an old road. Here also was the first sign I’d seen all day of wild hogs. Despite the freshly disturbed ground, I never saw any hogs themselves. I also found a nice section of witch’s butter fungi on a fallen tree. Soon this old road led to the top of the where the main gated road joins in. I don’t know if this road is seasonally open, but there were still evidence of tire tracks in spots. It was a several mile walk back to the car, and while most treks like this are uneventful, I passed a power line cut with large transmission lines. At some point I had to have passed beneath these lines in the canyon too, but I have no idea where. You could see for miles in every direction here. It was really an odd sight in Bankhead National Forest. Continuing on, I found that this was indeed an WMA game opening site. I also found that the snow was still hanging around the closer I got to the car, especially on north facing stretches, or the odd tree stand abandoned. While not covering the ground, it was still enough at times to make more snowballs and toss around. It was a great day for an adventure, and to ring in my 40’s. I’m ready for what comes next.

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