Bankhead National Forest spans over 180,000 acres of protected land in northwest Alabama. It is home to the Sipsey Wilderness (the “land of a thousand waterfalls”), and Sipsey Fork, Alabama’s only National Wild and Scenic River. The rugged beauty of this forest draws visitors year-round. Hiking, kayaking, fishing and camping are some of the most popular ways to enjoy this Alabama treasure.
Bankhead was first designated as a National Forest in the early 1900s. At that time, quite a bit of the forest had never been cleared. In this way, Bankhead is special, at least compared to the other forests in Alabama—Conecuh, Talladega, and Tuskegee. When these forests became forests in the 1930s, they were, for the most part, a wasteland. This make Bankhead so much more special. Sure, large portions of it have been cleared, and over the last century, it has seen it’s fair share of logging. But large swaths untouched, old-growth forests still cover portions of the landscape. For Alabama forests, this is unusual.
About the Forest
Bankhead National Forest has more old-growth forest than any other forest in Alabama. This is important for both wildlife habitat and the biodiversity of the ecosystem. These other-worldly forests have a canopy largely consisting of Eastern Hemlock, White Oak and Tulip Poplar, American Beech and Sweet Birch. For Bankhead’s residents—bobwhite quail, turkey, and gray and fox squirrels to name a few—these forests are a safe haven.
The forest has quite a few relics from past residents too—Native Americans. In fact, Bankhead is one of the best places in the South to find petroglyphs, rock carvings, and other ancient history. Kinlock Shelter, for example, is one such place. It is the home of a Native American Winter Solstice ritual. The Yuchi tribe was the first to use it, although others have used it since.
Archeologists have discovered large piles of stones, which they believe to be burial mounds from thousands of years ago. Indian Tomb Hollow is another remarkable place with a remarkable story. But if you visit these sites, please be respectful. Don’t take anything and leave it like you found it.
Recreation in Bankhead National Forest
Bankhead has six main recreation areas. Clear Creek and Corinth are the two most developed areas. They have RV campsites, boat ramps, restrooms and swimming areas. Both are built around Lake Lewis Smith. This lake is a deep, clear lake with 500 miles of shoreline and steep, rocky bluffs. Kentucky Spotted Bass and Hybrid Striped Bass are the most popular fish in the lake.
Brushy Lake Recreation Area is much smaller with 13 campsites. It is built around the 33-acre Brushy Lake. The recreation area offers picnic sites, boating and fishing.
Three areas in the forest have been designated for primitive camping—Allred Hunting Camp, McDougal Camp, and Wolf Pen Hunters Camp. McDougal and Wolf Pen have drinking water and vault toilets. Allred has neither of these.
Camping in Bankhead National Forest
Campgrounds are within the recreation areas listed above. For RV hookups, stick with Clear Creek or Corinth. If you want a bit more of a wilderness experience, try one of the others.
For those wanting the ultimate wild experience, dispersed camping may be the answer. The Forest Service allows dispersed camping throughout Bankhead National Forest, including Sipsey Wilderness.
Sipsey Wilderness is the largest Wilderness Area in Alabama, and the first designated east of the Mississippi River. The lower ranges of Brindlee Mountain make up much of Sipsey. Technically, Brindlee is an isolated portion of the Appalachian Plateau. Geologically, Brindlee is mostly sandstone and limestone. Because of this, Sipsey has many waterfalls. This explains it’s nickname, “land of a thousand waterfalls”.
A number of old-growth forests still exist within the wilderness. There are also a number of remarkable hiking trails. In order to have the most complete view of the wilderness, try the Sipsey Wilderness Trail System. This is a 36-mile, moderately difficult, but gorgeous loop.
Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River is a protected National Wild and Scenic River. It begins below the Smith Lake dam and discharges into the Mulberry Fork. For trout fishermen, it’s one of the area’s finest rivers. In fact, one of the only places to catch rainbow trout in Alabama is in the Sipsey River, below Smith Lake Dam.
The Sipsey River Trail is a 5-mile stretch of the Sipsey River that runs through the Wilderness Area. For fantastic views of the untouched wilderness, the river trail is your best option.
Visit Bankhead National Forest
Bankhead National Forest is one of Alabama’s purest forests. Experience the rugged beauty of the Sipsey Wilderness Area. Hear the whispers of ancient American history with Native American rock carvings. Enjoy the serenity of Sipsey Fork. If you have the chance to visit Bankhead, take it. Soak up the natural world, and make the most of it. But most of all, please treat this precious forest with care. Leave it better than you found it.