Given that we like to spend time outdoors, and we at least dabble in social media, perhaps it was inevitable that we would find a way to participate in the #GoPlayHsv campaign that the City of Huntsville ran for National Parks and Recreation Month. Throughout the month of July 2018, every day the city spotlit a different recreation activity, facility, or event. It just so happened that the theme of the day for Saturday, July 28 was the Goldsmith-Schiffman Wildlife Sanctuary, in southeast Huntsville right on the edge of Owens Crossroads. We’ve never been to the sanctuary, and it looked to have around 3 miles of trails, along with views of the Flint River and freshwater ponds, and maybe, if we were lucky, we might even see some turtles! When I proposed the trip to Ruth, I knew I had her at “turtles,” since longtime readers of this blog know how she feels about them.
The Sanctuary is over 375 acres of river bottomland with fields, swamps, and sloughs donated to the City of Huntsville in 2003 by the Goldsmith and Schiffman families. In the roughly 15 years since then, improvements have been gradually added, though it is still very much a passive recreation site. The rules are pretty simple: no pets, no vehicles, no camping, no hunting, and no fishing; but yes hiking, yes biking, yes wildlife observation, and yes wildflower viewing. There are no permanent facilities in the Sanctuary yet, though there are aspirations for an interpretive center.
Access to the Sanctuary is from one of two gravel parking lots, one off Taylor Road, and the other off U.S. Highway 431, about 1/4 mile south of the Hays Nature Preserve, on the west side of the road. Since this was the featured theme for #GoPlayHsv for the day, we thought there might be a fair amount of interest, so we opted to head for the Taylor Road entrance, since it seemed to have more parking. Actually, both parking areas are fairly spacious, with room for maybe 20 vehicles in each. Contrary to our expectations, however, we didn’t see another soul the whole time we were there, for about three hours on a Saturday morning.
The Taylor Road entrance has an ADA-compliant port-a-potty in the parking area (as a side note, there are no restroom facilities in the Highway 431 lot), and a gravel road leads the way into the Sanctuary. A couple of picnic tables and a wildlife observation platform are in a shaded area to the left of the road, and a kiosk has a large map of the preserve and a small container with trail maps (well-stocked, so way to go, City of Huntsville!). In about .1 mile, gates block vehicles from continuing down the gravel road, but hikers/bikers can easily continue past the gates.
The gravel road continued on to the southeast, but almost immediately after passing the gates we spotted an amazing pink lily in full bloom off the trail to the right. There were a couple of specimens, which we later identified as resurrection lilies. We’ve never seen these in the wild, and it’s always a treat to come across such a showy flower, especially in mid-summer when the aster family is dominating the floral landscape. This hike was off to a promising start! The gravel road is level and shaded, with a beaver-dammed run to the left of the road creating pools in which small fish were darting around and snapping at insects.
At about .25 miles from the parking lot, the little run to the left swells into Jobala Pond, a tree-shaded body of still water about 250 feet across, with aquatic plants, submerged logs, and the occasional croaking bullfrog. At about .3 miles, the sturdy James Long Memorial Bridge crosses the creek that feeds the pond, and a sign and a rustic bench mark this area as Jobala Haven observation point. It’s a nice place to sit and listen to the frogs and bugs and birds. It is, however, not in the place that is marked on the trail map, which has the observation point on the other side of the pond.
This is perhaps the time to mention that the trail map, posted on the kiosks and available online, is, shall we say, a bit fanciful. Luckily, on the map the trails are superimposed on an aerial view of the Sanctuary, which make it easy to use landmarks as navigation aids. It’s a good thing too, because as a general rule the navigational aids from this point up to the northern edge of the sanctuary are either (1) completely missing, or (2) are often misleading when they do exist. With a couple of exceptions, everything north and east of Jobala Pond is poorly marked, when it is marked at all. The ground truth is quite a bit different from the map, and this might be a problem if you’re out in the middle of the Sanctuary when it’s getting dark.
For example, the map suggests that a trail takes off to the left, just past the (actual) Jobala Haven observation point, roughly opposite of the Forest Glen observation point. It might be the Tall Tupelo trail, or it might be the Primitive trail — either is possible, but this segment of the trail is not identified with a trail name on the map. It turns out not to matter much, as there is no signage to suggest a trail junction, and no obvious route. This was confusing, but while we tried to figure out what was going on we had a quick look at the Forest Glen observation point, which also overlooks one end of a pond. And out there in the middle of the pond were some slow-moving shapes, just sticking out of the water — turtles! They were too far away to get a good look, but Ruth pronounced herself pleased at seeing several of her reptilian friends cruising around out in the sun.
After admiring the turtles, we walked east between two copses to look out into a large field. The trail map suggested that the proposed paved greenway skirted the field to the right (southeast), but no trail exists there. The Deer Run trail, according to the map, cuts across the field into a treeline on the east side of the field. The “trail” consisted of a six-foot wide swath of mowed grass. Though it did head in the correct direction, we thought it looked a little dodgy so we went back to the east side of Jobala Pond and tried to find a marked trail, or a footbed, or ribbons, or anything to suggest where we should go to join up with the Tall Tupelo or Primitive trails. Finally, we just headed along the treeline on the edge of the field, in the approximate location of the trail marked on the map. This grass was not recently mowed, and worse, when it had last been mowed the ground was soft, which meant that there were unpredictable ridges hiding under the long grass. After hiking about .22 miles along the treeline, we came to a gap where we could go left to follow the Primitive trail (if indeed we could find it), or right to swing around the northwest edge of the large field on what the trail map called the Tall Tupelo trail.
After a cursory look to the left, where we didn’t spot any indication of a trail, we went right, figuring that according to the map the Tall Tupelo trail seemed to skirt the woods for a while before punching into them for a short distance. After passing through the gap, Ruth spotted a wooden sign lurking on the edge of the woods, and on further inspection we discovered it said, “Trail,” with an arrow pointing into the woods. It seemed a bit odd to be directed into the woods at that particular spot, but we followed the arrow and promptly found ourselves in a trackless grove, with no discernible footbed and no trail markings.
After thrashing around for a few minutes, we gave up and re-entered the field, walking along a mowed strip next to the woods. We passed the alleged junction of the Tall Tupelo trail and a spur trail to the Tall Tupelo observation point, but there was no sign of the spur trail, so we kept moving northwest until we saw another trail sign, this time with a trail name on it. And finally, peering into the woods, we saw a wide, but not recently maintained, track heading generally north. Now we were on the trail for sure, and just in time as we knew this trail went through the woods for a short distance before teeing into the Deer Run trail, on the west bank of the Flint River. The bad news: it was only a passing fancy, as the wide trail quickly narrowed, then disappeared. The good news: there were some orange ribbons marking the intended path, so we went ribbon-to-ribbon for .2 miles until we finally reached the Deer Run trail. Of course, there was no signage at the intersection, but it was clearly a trail running along the west bank of the Flint.
Now that we were out of the middle of the Sanctuary, the hiking conditions improved markedly. The Deer Run trail is a wide dirt path at this point, and supposedly there is a Flint River observation point at the intersection of Tall Tupelo and Deer Run. There was no sign to mark it, but you can easily make your way to the bank for river views. We turned left (north) and walked a few yards when Ruth felt compelled to take a look at the river, and sure enough, there were two turtles sunning on a log! I switched to my ridiculous low-budget 400mm fully manual old school telephoto lens and managed to get one usable photo before one turtle got suspicious and slipped into the water. We’re no turtle experts, and the photo isn’t that sharp, but we think were looking at a yellow-bellied pond slider and a midland smooth softshell. Certainly, they were different species, just from looking at the shape of the head. The slider was a cool customer and hung out on the log until we moved on.
We continued north on the Deer Run trail for around .35 miles, crossing a bridge over a feeder creek into the Flint, then passing a wide opening on the west side of the trail that we think is the other end of the Primitive trail (you guessed it: no signage, no trail markings). Just a few yards afterwards, the trail became a paved greenway and continued on for 100 yards or so to end at the AJ and June Brannum parking area, the northern access point for the Sanctuary. There’s a kiosk with maps in this parking area too, and a sign marking this end of the trail as the Flint River Greenway.
Our return route was to retrace our steps along the Deer Run trail, continuing past the junction with Tall Tupelo, and winding south until the trail leaves the river and heads inland. Just as we reached the area where we had seen the turtles, we spotted a large white bird winging down the river. The Flint River often splits, and the bird settled in an area on the far side of a little island. Luckily, we could still see it through the trees, and again the telephoto was pressed into service, eventually yielding a photo that makes us think this bird is an immature blue heron. We had initially thought it was an egret, but the beak and legs are the wrong color. As always, we’re happy to be corrected by any bird enthusiasts out there.
About .2 miles south of the Tall Tupelo-Deer Run intersection, the Deer Run trail turns away from the river and heads inland, emerging into a small field. A low wooden sign laconically says “Trail” and points across the field, and we followed a set of tire tracks across it and through a gap between groves. Just as we entered the northeast edge of the large field we had previously skirted in our quest to find the Tall Tupelo trail, we spotted another sign pointing into the woods on the east side of the field. The trail map seemed to suggest that the Deer Run trail skirts the woods, then moves into them until intersecting with the Gravel Bar trail, so again we took the signage literally and followed the arrow into the woods. Again, there was no footbed to guide us, and no ribbons either, so we figured our choice was either to walk in the field (which was not mowed here) or to bushwhack through the woods. We tried the woods option, and quickly came across what looked like a game trail that ran above the bank of one of the river’s side channels. This trail eventually worked its way back to the edge of the woods and the field, where we spotted a trail sign crookedly pointing back toward the river. We took this to be the intersection with the Gravel Bar trail.
Indeed, it was the Gravel Bar trail, which is clearly an old road. We started above the gullied roadbed for a few yards before the trail descended into the roadbed, which we then just followed to a shallow crossing of the river channel we had seen earlier on the game trail. There’s a sizeable gravel deposit here, easily crossed at the time of our visit, though it would probably require wading during rainier times. After crossing the side channel, the trail definitely looks like an old road, and .2 miles from the beginning of the trail, we reached a small rocky beach on a bend of the Flint River. It was a lovely spot! The river flowed by with a fairly sizeable current through an S-curve, with a few fallen trees to add to the degree of difficulty for anyone floating this section (which in fact we’ve done, a few years ago). We lounged on the rocks for a while, which were just a bit too sun-warmed for good basking, and Ruth cooled her feet in the river. While drying off, she made a new friend — a butterfly which actually took some persuasion to move along when we were ready to resume our hike.
We retraced our route along the Gravel Bar trail, where we got confirmation that we were in the right place when Ruth spotted a green and white printed sign that said “Gravel Bar Trail.” Of course, it was eight feet up in a tree (sigh). After returning to the Gravel Bar-Deer Run intersection, which contrary to the trail map is on the edge of the field and not in the woods, we took the only viable option – a mowed strip across the field, which is the segment of the Deer Run trail that we had first looked at just past Jobala Pond. From there, we just retraced our steps along the gravel road back to the Taylor Road parking area. Our total mileage for the hike, according to our GPS track, was 4 miles (well, 3.998 if you want to get specific).
This Sanctuary is a terrific resource, and we were a little sad to be the only people there on a Saturday morning. I’ve been pretty harsh on the discrepancies between the trail map and the ground truth, and the trail signage can be most charitably described as aspirational, but if you confine your hike to either end of the Sanctuary you’ll get an easy, level, shaded walk with water and wildlife views. We saw quite a few wildflowers in bloom, including monkeyflower, trumpet creeper, creeping water primrose, blue mistflower, and the excellently-named purple-headed sneezeweed, not to mention those extraordinary resurrection lilies.
Creeping water primrose
If you don’t take the trail map too literally, and make sure you’re there in broad daylight, you can have a fine ramble through several different habitats. When the paved greenway is completed, the interpretive center is in place, and the natural surface trails are better developed and marked, this urban sanctuary will be a real showplace for the city.