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Sipsey Wilderness March 2010 and an Interesting Hemlock

Goodness, y'all keep moving around so much, yet I find you every time. Better luck outsmarting me next time! ;)

This will be my first post in well over a year. I apologize for not keeping up with the list until now. But indeed, I am still here, and have signed up on the new list. After a few problems probably relating to my crappy laptop and shoddy Internet connection, I begin my report of a trip taken earlier today.

The photos here are linked via Photobucket. I have no idea what this will do to bandwidth, but feel free to relocate the images or remove the links, whatever's better. And most of the images have been cropped for faster upload or emphasis.

I have been to the Sipsey Wilderness/Bankhead NF in Lawrence and Winston counties, AL, several times before. On this trip, we chose a trail that began just across the river from the Recreation Area ( ) . Labeled "Trail 200", this trail passes under a large road bridge before descending into the forest. The path parallels the river for about a mile, and then turns right at a fork in the waterway. Moderate to large rock bluffs lie roughly 200' off to the right of the trail, occasionally giving way to beautiful waterfalls and occasional caves. The overstory on the trail is largely comprised of large stately tuliptrees, but beech, oak, ash, hickory, buckeye, sycamore, and maple also occur, among others. Pines are infrequent, and many of those that do occur are dead due to pine beetles. American holly makes a frequent appearance, some attaining respectable proportions. ( )

However, perhaps the most recognizable and widespread component of the forest here is the majestic eastern hemlock

nice hemlock reiteration). A disjunct population at the far southern edge of its range, and thus far adelgid-free, the species mostly fills the understory and mid-canopy, with a few trees competing with the tulips in the canopy level (the hemlocks just across the river, however, are far larger and make up a large portion of the canopy level foliage). They seemed to come in patches, with nearly pure groves immediately followed by completely hardwood forest. The hemlocks here, while much smaller than their kin in the Smokies, are happy and healthy, providing luscious shade and cooling the waters of the nearby river. In fact, it was just over 70 degrees today, but near the rock bluffs where the water spilled off the rocks above and the hemlocks thrived, the temperature dropped dramatically. This would prove very refreshing in the summer!

The highlight of the trip for me, though, was at the furthest point in the trail we were on; not willing to cross a creek intersecting the trail area at a small cleared area, I decided to wander towards another bluff to the right of the trail. Climbing over a few rocks and beech roots, I headed towards an area with slightly higher (and wetter) bluffs in search of waterfalls. The trees here were as tall as I had seen up to this time, but one particular tree caught my eye - and held on to it! An eastern hemlock on a small hill rose about 50 or 60 feet to a broken top.

The size of the trunk wasn't really spectacular

but the lack of taper was - at least for Alabama. A few small branches were still keeping the tree from becoming a snag, so I was pleased to see that it was still alive, at least for now

however, I am not sure if eastern hemlock will recover with so few branches, thus I don't really expect it to live much longer. I would have then moved on, until I saw a fallen log lying on the ground a couple of feet from the trunk of the damaged hemlock

The pictures don't really do the fallen trunk section justice - it was the size of a respectable hemlock tree in itself!

- with my hat for a size comparison)Judging by its looks - with no needles yet still a few small branches near the end - it had fallen in the past couple of years, breaking into three pieces on some large rocks below (it could be, though, that the farthest part of the fallen mass was from another tree, but it did line up relatively well with the biggest part of the log). It was probably near 50 or 60 feet long at the most, with a respectable reiteration not too far from the thickest end, and across the creek a long-dead crown of small branches

But looking near its base, I could find no evidence of a large hemlock stump, or any evidence that it had been uprooted. Then I noticed that the size and shape of the thick end of the log

matched very well with the broken top of the hemlock tree a few feet away. The gears in my little devious brain began to race, and I started to wonder if perhaps the fallen log was indeed the snapped-off top of the slow-tapering hemlock. The location would have been about right, though it was a little off to the side

however, there was no evidence of another top on the ground, so I can only assume that the trunk on the ground was once part of the standing tree. If that was the case, the well-sheltered tree would probably have been close to 120' when fully intact. Granted, the intact tree would have been smaller in volume than the hemlocks in other areas of the Forest that I've seen, but pretty impressive for this part of the trail. Here's a quick (and rather poorly-made_ stitch of the tree

with the top of the fallen trunk visible in the background on the bottom left. The tree wasn't a giant, and would have been all but ignored in a place like GSMNP, but words cannot express the feeling I got from exploring the fallen log and imagining what the tree would have looked like intact. I felt like an early explorer coming across a fallen giant! And though far from a giant, the tree is special to me, and left me feeling accomplished.

With that overly-long ramble out of the way, I will say that we immediately thereafter returned on the same trail we came in on, stopping to take pictures of some larger trees along the way

I also admired the wildflowers and native plants that were beginning to show up thus far in this early spring (links at bottom of page) . But the second highlight of the trip was probably the beech roots.

The buttressing of this species, with wide-spreading, extremely shallow roots, reminds me of tropical rainforest trees and giant fig trees.

One must be very careful in these woods to avoid tripping over beech roots! One tree, in particular, impressed me with its tenacious grip on the rock it grows upon near a bluff

- note the size of the roots!) . I don't think beech bark disease has reached Alabama yet, or if it has, I saw no sign of it.

All in all, it was a short yet very enjoyable trip to the woods. If for any reason anyone on the ENTS list wanted to come and see these woodlands, I would be more than happy to lead the way on the trails that I know. The forests aren't as big as they are in virgin stands elsewhere in the east, but the groves of living and green hemlocks are certainly a pleasing sight after seeing the destruction across the Appalachians (I've actually talked to a ranger about HWA management plans, but she seemed to think that the adelgid wouldn't reach here because of the humidity; I doubt that's the case, but I do hope that the isolated nature of the stands will help in keeping this population intact). I look forward to going again in a few months, and perhaps next time I will remember to bring a tape measure!

Flowers and native plants:

Yay for water!

Sorry for the overly long and overly-linked report... I can edit it if necessary.

by Zachary S
Wed Mar 24, 2010 11:47 pm
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Sipsey Poplar, May 2010


Here is an important trip report that I unfortunately have procrastinated for almost two months before posting. Sorry about that!

Well in any case, you can add me to the list of ENTS that have visited the "Sipsey Poplar", the largest known Tuliptree in Alabama, and the current state champion. I think Marcas Houtchings visited and measured the tree in 2007, according to the ENTS website, measuring a 26'8" circumference, 151' height, and 73' spread. The locally famous tree is located deep in the Sipsey Wilderness of Bankhead National Forest in Lawrence County, less than an hour's drive from the house.

Way back on May 28, me, my mother, and a family friend (Will Salter, who is also a member here) took an 8-mile round trip to the tree. The trail we took was in itself unremarkable and fairly easy hiking, mostly through scrubby second-growth pine and hardwood. But it was easy to tell when the trail started to descend into the older growth, with large oaks and tuliptrees becoming common. When the hemlock began to appear, it was clear that our destination was not too far ahead. Indeed, after a few steep descents, I spotted the giant tree straight ahead. A slow-tapering tuliptree twice the size of any other I have ever seen in Alabama is hard to miss! And the part of the tree I first noticed turned out to be the tree's upper trunk, as there was a huge vertical drop between me and the tree; the base was far below my position! We maneuvered along a narrow trail and dropped down a steep incline (with the help of beech roots) to reach the gorge the tree was in.

While larger trees exist in the Appalachians, this tree stands out dramatically from the surrounding woodlands - its trunk is more than twice the size of the trunk of any other Tuliptree I have seen or measured in the state. Indeed, unlike in the Smokies where giant tulips are so common that they are frequently ignored, the Sipsey Poplar dwarfs all surrounding trees, almost as if a freak of nature - albeit a beautiful one. I suspect the tree was able to reach this size because it is near a constant water source and protected from wind, not to mention being in a very difficult area to reach with logging equipment. Photographs, especially at this time of year, do the tree little justice: the scale of this tree is remarkable. The tree also produces an interesting level of taper. A description provided by Jess Riddle a few years back of this tree, judging its shape from photographs, is rather accurate. He noted that the tree was shaped much like a coke bottle; that is, a columnar trunk to 20 or so feet off the ground, followed by visible taper, then returning to columnar again about 60 feet off the ground. This suggests a smaller volume of wood than other tuliptrees with similar DBH, which I believe is the case. However, once the initial taper subsides, the trunk tapers very little until its awkward thrust of branches begins. And despite its taper, I fully believe the tree is much larger than any other Alabama tuliptree at all points of the trunk from base to crown.

The tree produces very little if any foliage along its straight clear fluted trunk until the trunk divides into two large branches somewhere around 100' off the ground; above this point, multiple very large horizontal branches extend probably 40' from the trunk on all sides of the tree, producing a fairly extensive canopy for a tree its size. Then again, it stands somewhat alone in a bit of a canopy gap, so it doesn't compete significantly with other trees. The crown shape (see photo) is perhaps odd, but a shape I've seen quite frequently on tall tulips in the Bankhead NF. The bark is another interesting feature: as can be seen in the photos, the lower bark's characteristics resemble that of truly gigantic tuliptrees I've seen elsewhere in photographs, as opposed to the more common tuliptree bark pattern.

Returning to the measurements listed by M. Houtchings, I wasn't able to confirm anything over ~22' CBH (though I could have measured a bit high), and, though my perspective on tree heights may be somewhat skewed (and it is impossible to ascertain the true top of the tree from below when the trees are in leaf), the tree didn't seem especially tall to me compared to nearby hickories and beech; perhaps the trunk's massive size played a role in my impression of the tree's height, but I would be a bit surprised if the tree was well over 130'. If the tree is 151', as measured multiple times, I would be very interested in seeing the measurements of the beech and hickory trees that reach canopy level yet begin below the level of the big tree's base. However, I could easily be wrong: I a, just not used to seeing such huge trees!

The tree stands in a small area of virgin forest along Bee Branch Gorge , a location which retains the potential for other significant discoveries. This cove contains numerous beech, hemlock, magnolia, hickory, and occasional tulip and oak. M.B. Davis documents these sites, along with other potential old-growth sites in AL and other eastern states, in the old-growth listings on I would love to one day see an ENTS expedition to the gorges of Bankhead NF and surrounding sites. Hell, I'd be glad to lead the way if anyone is ever interested! I would also love to see if the Forest Service is interested in propagating the tree (though the feasibility of collecting seeds from a tree this tall so far in the wilderness seems a bit outlandish), as, judging from the size of the tree, it must certainly be in the latter part of its long life. I don't know how long tuliptrees can live, but it will be a sad day when the giant dies or falls over.
Nearby beech and hickory reach over 100'.
Fallen beech trees in the Sipsey Poplar grove, creating a substantial canopy gap.
I call this the Atomic Bomb Tree!

Despite the elation of finding the tree, not everything about the trip was so great. We learned the hard way that spring/summer in Alabama is NOT the best time to hike long distances in the woods! We were covered in ticks by day's end, and our water supply was exhausted very quickly. Also, I was so covered in sweat before we even got to the tree that I had no dry clothing at all to wipe the sweat off of my face with.

I wanted to write a more extensive report, but unfortunately I just can't think of much else to say. In any case, this was definitely an experience, and we plan to return this fall or winter, perhaps with a few other people.

by Zachary S
Tue Jul 27, 2010 1:05 am
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Dismals Canyon, July 2010


Dismals Canyon is a hidden natural gem, surrounded by mundane farmland in rural Franklin County, Alabama. Within the space of a few dozen vertical feet, the landscape changes from typical oak-hickory woodland to canyon old-growth hemlock and tuliptree.

Though reminiscent of Sipsey Wilderness, this tiny natural wonder holds a distinctive charm that I believe cannot be found anywhere else. This is probably one of the most unique privately-owned places in the world. It also contains a remarkable number of species, both animal and plant - perhaps the most famous species here is the tiny dismalite, found in few places on earth outside of Appalachia and Oceania.

The history and general description of the site can be found at the above page and other locations throughout the Web; truth be told I haven't read up enough on it to detail this amazing place, but I do have a lot of tree information to share from this location. I strongly suggest looking up information on the park's many caves and waterfalls - these features alone are well worth the visit!

The dominant tree species of the canyon include hemlock, tuliptree, sweetgum, beech, and oak; holly, magnolia, and mountain laurel fill the understory. The most impressive tree here, however, is certainly the eastern hemlock. The disjunct population in northwest Alabama produces some fairly hefty specimens, and very healthy trees at that. Adelgid has NOT been reported at any location in the state yet, and numerous hemlock trees are present along certain waterways in valleys throughout northwest parts of the state. The trees in Dismals Canyon are bigger than any other I have measured in the state, but I have only been to a handful of sites containing hemlock. Regardless, the trees present an awesome sight. Dismals Canyon contains what once was Alabama's champion hemlock (The Bankhead NF now contains Alabama's champion) , at 138' tall, 8'9"cbh, and a 50' spread; however, I doubt the height on the tree was ever much over 100', if that much, and I measured other trees in the area with a circumference over a foot thicker. Regardless, one of the big tree's two trunks (connected at the base) was pretty much destroyed in an ice storm a few years back. I believe I found the 'big tree' on the trail, and it appears that the dead trunk has peeled off the tree, leaving a single trunk standing.

A large (>8.5'cbh) hemlock with a partly dead top and two large reiterations, not far into the trail.
Spreading beech roots cover a bank near the Fishing Hole. Seen in the foreground are remnants of a mill built at Rainbow Falls that was destroyed in a flood in the 1950s.
Large ancient-looking hemlock with a species name plate. The moss and lichen covering the trunks of the hemlocks evoke images of the Pacific Northwest.
Another large hemlock right along the main trail.
A fallen tuliptree and beech become the base of a new creek crossing, under construction when we were there.
A huge hemlock snag, presumably either victim to an ice storm or destroyed by a falling giant hemlock just uphill.
The hemlock that I presume to be the former Alabama champion. These pictures could easily be mistaken for photos of a Sitka spruce in the Pacific rainforest!
The splintered base of a large fallen hemlock alongside the tree presumed to be the former champion.
Very tall sweetgum along the latter part of the trail; 8'7"CBH
Gnarled old mountain laurel such as these are abundant throughout the Canyon. I would love to know the ages of such individuals!
Big sweetgum; 10'2"CBH, though two trunks above about 7'
Rainbow Falls, at the entrance to the canyon.
View of the canyon from the visitors center and entrance. As can be seen, the canyon is very easy to miss! Hemlocks are visible behind the scraggly pines near the center of the image, and Rainbow Falls lies to the left of the deck. The water in the pool behind it is used as a swimming hole on hot days.

8' 7"
10' 2" (Two trunks above ~7')

8' 6"
9' 0"
8' 3"
9' 6"
9' 5.5"
9' 9.5"

I'm pretty certain that there are hemlocks in the Canyon over 10'CBH, but some parts of the canyon were not open to the public. The trees in the area are generally not as tall as those in the Sipsey Wilderness, but have comparable trunk diameters, and appear older. Still, the comparative isolation of this site makes it a truly remarkable place; no other valley or gorge in northwest Alabama that I am aware of can compare in any way, though I imagine Little Rivers Canyon in northeast Alabama is beautiful as well. Seeing the massive hemlocks growing along the creek only further increased my concerns of HWA eventually arriving in the state. I do not believe that the isolation of this population will save the trees here from devastation, but I do think that the relatively small number of trees would make treatment less difficult. Unfortunately, the rangers that I have spoken to do not seem particularly concerned at the present time with the threat. One suggested that HWA could not survive in Alabama's high humidity but I doubt that is the case; the only saving grace I see would be the isolated nature of the stands. Also I am not well-versed in the population dynamics of the adelgid - would the adelgid arrive in large numbers to these stands and quickly decimate the area, or would the small number of trees keep the population very low? What happens when they reach the southwesternmost part of hemlock's main range? Would they skip on over to NW AL on planted specimens? I fear these questions will be answered in due time by the sucking bastards, but at least for a little while there is an excellent opportunity to observe mature hemlock stands here in the southern reaches of the Cumberland Plateau. I suggest that anyone wanting to see them should visit soon.

I eagerly await returning to Dismals Canyon later this year, where I will hopefully have more time to measure and photograph!

by Zachary S
Tue Jul 27, 2010 1:21 am
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Re: State Champion Tulip, KY's tallest

If there are 160'+ tulips in AL, I'm certainly not aware of them; they would pretty much have to be in the Bankhead NF (with a very very slight chance of encountering one in a perfect situation in some other random cove in the northern third of the state) and I know ENTS has explored a little of it - Will and Jess measured one to 144' several years ago - and I've been through a huge chunk of it without seeing anything that I would wager would top 160. There is at least one 150', the 'Big Tree' in the Sipsey Wilderness (and I'm not even sure it's 150 now with a crown configuration suggesting breakage and rather flat-topped regrowth from a somewhat taller peak in the past) and probably a handful of others in sheltered coves within the Wilderness, but honestly I would be shocked to find a 160 footer. Maybe there are a couple, and there probably were a few in the past, but definitely none anywhere much beyond that. That said, some of the coves in the national forest and associated deep ravines throughout Winston and Lawrence counties have probably never been explored by anyone capable of or interested in measuring tree height.
by Zachary S
Wed Nov 27, 2013 10:31 pm
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Sipsey Wilderness in November


On the morning of November 16th, for my 23rd birthday, my grandfather and I took a trip a couple of counties over to the Sipsey Wilderness of the Bankhead NF, as we do with some regularity. The weather was expected to be cool and cloudy with rain beginning by late evening, with pockets of dense fog; however, we dealt with bouts of unexpected rain. This led to humidity being rather extreme, but also bathed the landscape in an ethereal mist that perfectly complemented the stark late-fall landscape.

Fall color is well past peak here, and the cool and windy conditions as of late have helped the stragglers drop their leaves fairly quickly. But the Sipsey Wilderness is gorgeous in any season.

Steep bluffs on either side of the Sipsey River provide a beautiful and imposing frame for the dense old-growth forest located within their shadow.

The Sipsey River Picnic Area trail, probably the most heavily traveled trail in this part of the park, does not contain the largest trees in the Wilderness, but nevertheless is flanked by very tall tuliptrees and beech, among others. Not having height measuring equipment, and until I get some assistance in college not being that great at the mathematics required anyway, I can't be certain, but many of the trees in the more sheltered prongs and coves easily top 100' with some poking past into the 120' range. Other areas of the Wilderness contain taller trees and an even greater diversity of species. Regardless, the tall leafless spires of tuliptree trunks pierce the November sky like sentries, their stark contrast in the low light giving a breathtaking character to this magical landscape.

The largest tree that I have personally measured on the trail is a chestnut oak, which if I recall is roughly 14' around at breast height. It's located well above the trail, between a large boulder and the bluff that it fell off of eons ago.

Of course, relevant to the group and Eastern forests in general, the most notable facet of the forest in the Bankhead NF is the disjunct population of Eastern hemlock, reaching very near the southernmost point of their native range in this area. While a large chunk of the national forest, which extends well past the border of what one would consider the 'core' with old-growth forest into drier hardwood and pine forest, is relatively devoid of hemlock, the coves in the core of the park are full of hemlock. They form nearly pure stands in some areas, casting a shade so deep that noon feels like daybreak. The picnic area trail contains countless smaller hemlocks and several very large trees, 6-8' in circumference.

The forest here has an increasingly rare distinction - dense hemlock coves completely free of adelgid.

In my years of visiting the forest, I've yet to see a single sign of the dastardly invader... but they're coming. The Forest Service expects them to arrive in the Bankhead NF probably by 2015-2017, and if nothing is done, they will make short work of this very small isolated population. My talks with a ranger have led me to believe that they have not put forth much effort to prevent or treat the spread of adelgid; one person I talked to even said she didn't believe they would ever thrive here because of the humidity. Being familiar with GSMNP, I can assure anyone that humidity is NOT too much of a factor in keeping adelgids under control.

Until then, though, the forest remains gorgeous and lively, with the only widespread mortality being in pines which fell victim to beetles during a drought a decade ago and various trees that have fallen in the many storms that have swept through the forest in the last few years. Some trails have been absolutely devastated by storms, particularly in April of 2011, but the picnic trail only has a handful of fallen trees here and there, most of which have been dislodged from shallow rooting in the rocks and bluffs that flank the valleys.

For anyone who loves forests, the Bankhead is a gem, and arguably the most beautiful place in the entire state. The rest of Alabama has some of the most intensive and frequent logging found anywhere, despite being mostly forested, and such an undisturbed swath of forest is easily discernible even on satellite views.

It's an absolutely magical place to visit, and a true diamond in the rough in a state with very few pockets of virgin wilderness. It's definitely worth a visit, even in the shadow of GSMNP just six hours away. This wilderness on the very southernmost tip of Appalachia is truly a treasure worth preserving for future generations.

These images plus several others can be found in an Imgur folder I made whilst writing this post.

- Z S
by Zachary S
Thu Nov 28, 2013 7:44 pm
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Re: State Champion Tulip, KY's tallest

Aside from the genetic and mechanical factors (wind, ice, animal damage, etc.) I kind of wonder if drought plays a role, at least here in AL; while we're usually among the wettest states in the eastern US, when we have droughts they're rather extreme, especially when combined with intense summer heat. Perhaps tulips don't mind heat or drought, but we get extreme drought and relentless heat waves together with a vengeance sometimes, probably with higher temperatures and less rainfall than in the droughts in their core range. In July and August 2007, for example, we had a 2-3 week stretch of highs over 100 degrees every day (for most reporting stations in the state, at least) with virtually no rain, a drought that had persisted since May. I don't know right off of any other areas in the range of tuliptree except perhaps for MS and western TN have had stretches quite that long of temperatures that high with rainfall that scant. Furthermore, there's no super canopy height to protect trees here, and the deep coves which harbor tall trees here seem much smaller and narrower overall so any tree well above the average canopy would be very prone to all sorts of issues perhaps more so than in GSMNP and other areas of great tulip growth. I could certainly see 160' happening, but unlike in neighboring states to the north and east, they would be VERY rare.
by Zachary S
Thu Nov 28, 2013 8:28 pm
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Re: Blue Gum Superlatives, invasive yet impressive

Burlingame, you say? Ironically, I was just there (for a convention) and admiring the downtown area's glorious trees back in April. Including, of course, the many towering eucalyptus lining the streets. Unfortunately I had no tape measure with me, but next April, maybe I'll think to bring one.

Anyone who is in the area is HIGHLY encouraged to check out the park at Burlingame High School and the area surrounding the adjacent 19th century Southern Pacific depot; beautiful giant trees of myriad species abound.

Some Burlingame eucalyptus... mostly along Carolan Ave. or adjacent streets, or the park along Airport Blvd.
by Zachary S
Sat Jul 04, 2015 6:12 pm
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