Pictured above: Kinlock Falls, photographed by Abraham Rowe
The landscape of the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area (MSNHA) moves from the flat valley floor of the Tennessee River to the hills of the Highland Rim and the Cumberland Plateau, creating a variety of hiking experiences. Many of our favorite sites—such as Bankhead National Forest—have rich cultural stories to learn. Bankhead National Forest also has an astonishing degree of biodiversity in plants, animals, and trees—a reminder that Alabama is one of the most biodiverse regions of the United States.
Bankhead National Forest, known as the “land of a thousand waterfalls,” is one of four National Forests in Alabama. The forest is full of waterways, gorges, rock bluffs, and over 90 miles of hiking trails. The stories of the people who lived in the forest for thousands of years appear in the rock shelters, occupied by indigenous people, and in old homesites, cemeteries, wagon roads, and churches constructed by Euro-Americans. Unlike those in much of the state of Alabama, the Bankhead National Forest escaped heavy logging pressures in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, meaning there are still stands of old-growth forest within its boundaries. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked on many projects in the forest. They built roads, dams, firebreaks, and bridges; maintained telephone lines; constructed fire towers; fought forest fires; and developed recreation areas. The forest is also home to Alabama’s only National Wild and Scenic River—the Sipsey Fork of the West Fork River. Today visitors to the forest can camp, hike, gravel ride, mountain bike, ride horses, enjoy ATVs, kayak, canoe, and more.
There are many options for hiking in Bankhead. Over 26 miles of equestrian riding and hiking paths make up the Owl Creek Trail System, which is clearly designated and convenient to access. When hiking the trails, be mindful of horses and yield to riders. The system offers three loop options, ranging in length from 6 to 12 miles.
Many trails in the Sipsey Wilderness can be accessed from the Sipsey River Picnic Area and Trailhead parking lot, or park at the Braziel Trailhead to hike trails in the northern part of the wilderness. Because the Sipsey is a Wilderness Area, the trails are not marked with blazes. Navigating this system can be more challenging than in other areas of the forest. No matter the hike or forest plan, remember to bring a map. Detailed trail maps are available at the Warrior Mountain Trading Post in nearby Moulton, Alabama.
There are also many unofficial—or social—trails in the forest. These trails are not managed by the National Forest Service and do not appear on official maps. However, they include beautiful locations, and many of these appear on All Trails. An absolute favorite is the four-mile round trip trail to Sougahoagdee Falls. Despite not being clearly designated, the trail is straightforward to follow, and the waterfall at the bottom is worth the trip. The hike itself is moderate, but the drive into the forest to the trailhead involves many miles of gravel roads. A shorter option (approx. 1.5 miles out and back) is the Turkey Foot Falls and Mize Mills Falls. The trail is easily accessed from the Sipsey and includes two waterfalls along the way.
If exploring these recreational areas on your own feels intimidating, numerous initiatives and groups operate guided hikes in various locations across The Shoals and the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area. Wild Alabama offers many programs in Bankhead National Forest. The League of Outdoor Women —which is a program of the MSNHA—has monthly events for women and can often be found on the trails of Bankhead. Other hiking opportunities in the forest are hosted by Girls Who Hike Alabama.
Explore our upcoming Events + Workshops from Alabama Chanin and The School of Making and add on more adventures. #travel
A note on safety and protocol:
Wherever you choose to hike, remember to let someone know your location and when you expect to return. Pack water, snacks, a first aid kit, and a map. Always practice “Leave No Trace” hiking, and always strive to leave the forest better than you found it.
Written by Carrie Barske Crawford
Carrie Barske Crawford is the director of the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and an affiliated faculty member in the history department at the University of North Alabama. She teaches courses in exhibit design, museum interpretation, and women’s history. She is also an avid hiker, backpacker, kayaker, maker, gardener, and equestrian, and a dear friend to the Alabama Chanin and Project Threadways teams.