One of the things my family treasures most about living in the Tennessee Valley is having easy access to natural spaces. Whether it’s a city greenway, Monte Sano State Park, or one of North Alabama Land Trust’s numerous properties, we are never far from spots to walk a trail, splash in a creek, or just poke around in the woods. Sometimes we like to go a little farther from home and spend a day in one of Alabama’s wilder areas. For last week’s adventure, we joined other families for an excursion led by Wild Alabama. Their Wild Wednesday program offers great summertime fun off the beaten path!
Bankhead Forest is Magical!
My 9-year-old son and I headed out into the woods of Bankhead, otherwise known as the Land of a Thousand Waterfalls. It is one of Alabama’s four National Forests, and it’s only 50 miles from our house in Madison (that’s about 1.5 hours in case you’re like me and are really asking how much time it takes when you ask how far something is).
One of my favorite things about Bankhead is being surrounded by Bigleaf Magnolia trees. The leaves are two feet or more in length (one of the biggest of any native tree species in the U.S.). In late Spring and early Summer, they have large, lovely white blooms. The blooms resemble regular Magnolia blooms, but this tree is actually in the poplar family and not related to other Magnolias. (Psst, If you can’t make it to Bankhead, one of these beauties can be found at the Huntsville Botanical Gardens).
My son loves the sandy beaches. Yep, you read that right. The sandy beaches of NORTH Alabama, nestled below high canyon walls alongside creeks and rivers.
Bankhead can be intimidating, though, with it’s 180,000 acres and 90 miles of trails. I’ve been taking my son to Bankhead since he was three, and I started visiting two decades ago, but we still choose trailheads that are marked and used frequently, and we don’t walk too far. Wild Alabama education coordinator Janice Barrett led us to a spot we’ve never been and to a waterfall we have never seen. I wouldn’t do a good job of telling you exactly where to find this waterfall. It has no name, and the trail is unmarked. The best I can do to direct you is tell you to turn right on an unmarked dirt road off of County Road 2 in Winston County. And so it goes for countless spots within Bankhead. Unmarked. Unnamed. Limited cell service. Untamed. (I hadn’t broken the news yet about cell phones, had I?)
What to Expect at Wild Wednesdays
In addition to stress-free navigating, Wild Wednesday excursions give families access to staff and volunteers who are knowledgeable, passionate about protecting Alabama’s environment, and eager to share. Janice has been involved in conservation work in Bankhead since the early 1990’s.
Leave No Trace
After a leisurely picnic lunch on the beach, Janice and Maggie, director of Wild Alabama, talked to us about Leave No Trace principles. The kiddos created art with sand and other natural materials they found on the ground. They deconstructed their art to leave the area as they found it. We left only footprints and took only photographs (one child was determined to try and cover up our footprints as well, but energy was only poured into that endeavor for a few minutes).
Ecologist and field researcher Joseph Jenkins studies the section of the Sipsey River we were exploring. He was right there with us, waist-deep in water, giving each kiddo a turn to help him catch fish with a seine and telling us about two specific animals he studies. Having missed what he said, I asked him to repeat the names of the animals. He lifted the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a realistic tattoo of a Flattened Musk Turtle and a Black Warrior Waterdog. Both are endangered, but they are also special because they are found only in and around Bankhead National Forest.
You may not have heard the name Waterdog (I hadn’t), but you’ve probably heard something similar: Mudpuppy. The Black Warrior Waterdog is a salamander that spends its entire life under water. We weren’t fortunate enough to see those two rare animals, because in addition to dwindling numbers, they are both mostly nocturnal. We did get to see a critically endangered plant. If I didn’t have an expert with me, I wouldn’t have even noticed it. It didn’t look much more to me than grass growing up through a sidewalk. The Kral’s Aquatic Plantain is interesting and mysterious, though. It grows in certain types of rocky cracks on the river bottom and blooms once each year for only 24 hours.
Learning a Lifelong Love of Nature
My son learned some new things that day, but what he’ll probably remember will be the pure fun that came from playing outdoors. That’s okay with me, and that’s okay with the Wild Alabama team. They know that having good experiences in nature and falling in love with certain places leads to conservation, which is why they allowed the kids (and adults) to have plenty of uninterrupted time to just play and explore.
If your family wants to see more, learn more, and connect more to Alabama’s wild spaces, I definitely recommend joining Wild Alabama for one of their programs.
Wild Wednesdays fill up fast. Email Janice at email@example.com to register or be placed on the waiting list.
2023 Summer Schedule
- June 21 – Summer Solstice at Kinlock Shelter and Kinlock Falls
- June 28 – Payne Creek, Bankhead National Forest
- July 5 – 1-Mile Hike, Bankhead National Forest
- July 12 – Brushy Lake, Brushy Lake Recreation Area
- July 19 – Low Water Bridge
- July 26 – Sipsey Fork
- August 2 – Sipsey Wilderness Trail 200
Wild Wednesday Details
Location: Varies – see above
Hours: 9:30 AM – Afternoon
Cost: Free, but reservations required!
View Website & Sign Up
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Heather Morgan is from Enterprise, Alabama, but she traded the allergies of the coastal plain for the allergies of the Tennessee Valley. She is a former outdoor environmental educator who enjoys walking in the woods, splashing in creeks, and searching for insects, snakes, and other critters. When at home, she spends more time outside than in, especially in her pool or on her back porch where she can keep an eye on her bird feeders and her gardening fails. She and her husband moved to the Madison area 18 years ago after meeting at the University of Alabama. They, along with their 9-year-old son Luke and 13-year-old German Shepherd mix Anni, moved into Madison City proper in 2020. What Heather likes most about the area is the overall kid friendliness, the schools, and the abundance of natural and other green spaces. When she’s inside, she can be found cooking, reading nonfiction, daydreaming about international travel, and watching broody, British detective shows. She is a stay-at-home mom and Co-founder of I Vote Madison, a non-partisan voter engagement organization.