A day trip to Bankhead National Forest to see waterfalls has been on our list for a while. It’s around an hour and a half drive from Athens, so it’s been hard for us to coordinate schedules and time off work to go. We decided spring break was the perfect time. We only had a short time frame to go, so we attempted to leave early on a Thursday. Despite our best efforts, it was around 10 am before we finally got all 5 car seats installed in my van and hit the road.
It was a sunny, beautiful day as we headed south on I-65. We exited at Hartselle and continued west toward Bankhead. The National Forest is very large and depending on where you are headed, you could enter a number of different ways. As we neared the trailhead, we ended up on gravel roads for the last 5 miles or so. While they were high quality gravel roads, I was honestly a little uneasy with our carload of kids and lack of cellular service. I was making note of areas where we had cell service in case I got a flat tire and had to walk back. I used to drive on roads in much worse condition than this for work when I was an archaeologist. Back then my car was full of adults prepared to hike all day with plenty of survival skills and vehicular knowledge to share. Needless to say, my passengers weren’t as well equipped on this trip. Luckily, we had packed a picnic and extra water, so I knew we would survive until I could get help in case of an emergency. And, as you have probably gathered, we didn’t need it!
We made it to the trailhead which is unmarked and really isn’t much more than a pullout on the west side of the road. Google maps accurately led us straight there. Of note, I downloaded offline maps in google maps for most of the National Forest, so that I could navigate without cellular service. I also subscribed to All Trails and downloaded maps for the hikes I considered for the day. I left Irene with the kids in the car and took a quick jog down the trail to ensure we were in the right place. We were! It’s only around 0.2 miles to the bluff overlooking the waterfall. To be honest, I did not measure this distance, but I was out and back very quickly. So, we unloaded the kids and our picnics and hit the trail.
Before embarking on this empty trail with a bluff, we had a brief safety chat. It was a warm spring day, so we talked about snakes. Our littles ones don’t always stay on the trail, and I didn’t want anyone stepping into a brush pile as the snakes were waking up and hungry. We instructed them to stay between the adults. I led the way and Irene brought up the end. Everyone followed directions surprisingly well, and we reached the bluff in minutes. We set up on a few rocks to enjoy our picnic with views of the falls.
While the kids ate, I ran ahead again to check out the remainder of the trail. There is one big step down and brief section that was very close to the bluff, but otherwise it was very easy to get down into the canyon with the falls. After everyone finished eating, we led them carefully down the trail. I went first and lowered the kids down the big step. Then it was easy going for just a short distance to the falls. There are enchanting overhangs, a great swimming hole, wildflowers, ferns, and plenty of boulders to sit and rest or eat a snack. We stayed down there for a while taking photos and enjoying ourselves, before we hiked back out.
This hike was the perfect distance for our crew. All Trails list it as 0.4 miles “out and back”. I am never clear on whether this is the total distance or one way. Either way, this hike is under one mile, easy enough for small kids, and leads to a beautiful spot! I highly recommend it, if you are in the area. Just be aware that you will not have cell service and this isn’t a frequently visited area during the week. Take all your usual safety precautions. Let someone know where you will be and what time to expect you back. And always remember to Leave No Trace!