The Sipsey Wilderness, part of Bankhead National Forest in northwestern Alabama, is the third largest Wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. The wilderness has an abundance of waterfalls, and the color of the water in the streams is opal blue. The Sipsey Wilderness has a good deal of camping, hiking and canoeing options.
Much of the wilderness was once logged, but new growth forests have now taken hold in the logged areas. Some old-growth forests can also be found in the wilderness. The most significant are about 260 acres (110 ha) along Bee Branch Gorge and Buck Rough Canyon.
Faults in the 1964 Wilderness Act made it essentially impossible to designate a wilderness area anywhere east of the Mississippi River. Mary Ivy Burks of Birmingham worked to establish a Sipsey Wilderness Area in the Bankhead National Forest at a time when many believed that "The Wilderness Act" should apply only to the western part of the United States. She was in the forefront of what became known as the Eastern Wilderness Movement. Her work to secure the Sipsey Wilderness in the Bankhead National Forest was her crowning achievement.Alabama would be the agent of change, as a strange union of environmentalists, loggers, bird watchers, and others joined together to push to change the Act to allow for the designation of Sipsey as a wilderness area. Thanks to a bill introduced by Senator John Sparkman, the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975, the wilderness was finally designated with an original size of 12,000 acres (4,900 ha). The wilderness would be expanded in 1988. Thanks to the changes made to the Act, dozens of wilderness areas have been designated across the United States. The Sipsey Wilderness helped to show that a smaller plot of restored land in the eastern US could be a wilderness just as much as a larger tract of virgin land in the west.
Sipsey's rugged landscape is what has kept it wild. The wilderness covers land where a low plateau has been carved into a thickly forested maze of canyons and hollows. These canyons and hollows are not that deep, but they are quite steep. When you add this fact to Alabama's heavy rainfall, you get the wilderness's specialty: waterfalls.
Flora and fauna
Much of the wilderness was once logged, but new growth forests have now taken hold in the logged areas. Some old-growth forests can also be found in the wilderness. The most significant are about 260 acres (110 ha) along Bee Branch Gorge and Buck Rough Canyon, which include old Eastern Hemlock, American Beech, Sweet Birch, White Oak, and Tulip Poplar.
The Wilderness lies roughly 2 hours east of Huntsville, the closest commercial airport. From Huntsville, take I-565 to Decatur. When 565 ends, continue onto US-72 going east. After about 5 miles, take a left onto US-72. Take another left onto AL-24 (Moulton St) after about a mile. Follow for 18 miles, then left onto AL-33 and follow for another 14 miles. Take a slight right onto Cranal Rd and after another 4 miles you will arrive at the Sipsey River trailhead and parking area.
Fees and permits
$3 at the 209-Sipsey River Trail Head, other trails and parking areas are free of charge.
Being a wilderness area, the only way to get around in Sipsey is your own two feet.
The wilderness area has several waterfalls that can be reached by its network of hiking trails.
Camping, hunting, fishing, and horseback riding are allowed in the park.
Haleyville and Moulton are the closest towns to Sipsey, with many of the national and regional fast food chains being present. Nesmith's on Court St in Moulton is a family-owned place serving tasty burgers and the typical American fare.
Backcountry camping is allowed throughout. There are no designated campsites in Sipsey itself, but a primitive campground called Wolfpen is located off of Cranal Rd past the Sipsey River trailhead. The closest campground with RV hookups is about 45 minutes away on Bear Creek Lake near Haleyville.
There is a Days Inn in Moulton with rooms from $55. There is a motel in Haleyville with cheap rooms, a large residential population, and a poor local repitation.
One of Sipsey's biggest draws, its high bluffs, is also one of its biggest dangers. The bluffs are often hidden behind thick brush. Watch where you walk.
Venomous Copperhead snakes are quite common in the Sipsey Wilderness. Watch where you are stepping, and you should not have any problems with them.
The Jesse Owens Museum and Memorial Park, dedicated to the sprinter who won gold for the US at the 1936 Olympics, and the Oakville Indian Mounds Site are both located in Oakville about an hour east of Sipsey.
The longest natural bridge in the Eastern United States can be found about 50 minutes to the south at Natural Bridge Park, off of US-278.
50 minutes to the east lies Dismals Canyon. The nature preserve is known for "Dismalites", strange glowworms that can be seen on night-time tours.