I have a confession to make. Chet and I have lived in the Huntsville area for 23+ years now and have hiked trails on Monte Sano, all of the Land Trust properties, local greenways, Bankhead Forest, up into middle Tennessee – and some of those trails many many times. But in all that time I have never set foot on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge! Chet took our girls once when they were little – I couldn’t go for some reason – so he doesn’t have this appalling gap in his local hiking log, but I have no good excuse. I just haven’t gotten around to it! October is one of my favorite months of the year, but it’s an incredibly busy one due to all the non-hiking things we look forward to every year that fall in October (Fiddler’s Convention in Athens on the first weekend, Cemetery Stroll in Huntsville the second weekend, Storytelling Festival in Athens in late October – this year on the third weekend) so we only had a few hours in the morning to get out and hike. Since Wheeler NWR is close to our end of town and has some good shortish hikes, it seemed like the perfect place to go to get in a hike on a weekend with little spare time, plus I got to go someplace I’d never been before, so off we went.
Our first stop was the Dancy Bottom Trail. This one was a little tricky to find. It’s off Red Bank Road just before a bridge crossing Flint Creek, but it’s just a little gravel track that’s not really marked. Sadly, up by the bridge right after you turn in it looks like it’s sometimes used by the locals as a dump site. You drive a short ways down the gravel track until it ends in a slightly wider area. There’s a nice view of the creek here and my first thought was that it might be a good spot to put in a canoe or kayak, but the bank is pretty steep here – there is probably a better spot up closer to the bridge.
No signs or kiosks are visible immediately, but you should see what looks like a trail taking off from the northeastern end of the parking area. As soon as you start down the trail proper, though, you’ll come to the first of a couple of lovely interpretive signs.
After that the going is pretty easy. The path is nice and wide, with a pea gravel footbed so it is very easy to walk on. There are some nicely made signs posted from time to time along the trail identifying trees. These are numbered and I’m assuming if we’d stopped at the visitor’s center first there might have been additional information tied to the numbers. At one point about 400 feet in, it looks like there is a trail taking off to the left. The main trail continues straight ahead so we followed that.
This pleasant walk lasted about .4 of a mile and then the trail turns into a very narrow and overgrown track. We pushed through the plants and stepped over a few downed trees as the trail wound through a boggy area. Soon we came to a bridge over a swamp. At some time prior to our hike, a tree had fallen across it and barely missed taking out the bridge. We were able to just duck under it and cross the bridge which seemed to be unscathed, though the other end of the bridge has seen better days.
Once over the bridge, we came to what can only be described as a mud field. I’ve seen other descriptions of this trail say that during wet weather the area past the bridge is covered with water so it’s not like we didn’t have any warning, but it hadn’t really been that rainy the week before we went, so we were surprised it was so impassable. But impassable it was. We squished around a bit trying to see if we could find a way to get through it, but in the end we gave up and turned around here. The trail is marked on maps available in the visitors center (and online) as being 2.5 miles roundtrip. According to our GPS track, we went only a little more than .5 mile before we turned around.
A little discouraged, we headed back down the way we’d come, but since we felt we’d been a bit short changed on the trail, we decided to take that first fork and see where it went. Well, it was lovely. It led right along Flint Creek for almost .2 of a mile, before cutting back into the woods. Along the creek the footpath is pretty distinct, but when the trail turns into the woods you have to play “spot the ribbons on the trees” to figure out where you’re supposed to go. There have been attempts at improvements of a sort though. We came across a stile over a large tree, and crossed a couple of rough bridges over gullies. It has the look of a trail in the making and hopefully that’s what it was, because it would make a lovely loop hike. We eventually came out back on the pea gravel main trail and just walked back towards the car. Our total mileage for this trail was 1.8 miles. I’d rate it as maybe moderate. The pea gravel section was very easy, but the overgrown section and the spot-the-ribbons section was a bit more challenging.
We hopped in the car and headed to our next destination, the Flint Creek Trail. This trail is off the north side of Highway 67, almost across from the main visitor’s center entrance. It is well marked and has ample parking. There is a dock with a kiosk next to it that has information about the history of the reserve, as well as information about the birds and other animals you might spot there. The trail we planned to hike starts up the parking lot towards the road from the kiosk, where a couple of boardwalks cross over coves. We headed across the boardwalks, stopping to admire the many many animal tracks in the mud and to take in the view from the bench part way across.
After the second boardwalk, the trail heads into the woods. We passed up a trail to the left and continued straight ahead until we saw a pavilion off to the right of the trail. We explored it for a few minutes, though there’s really not much to see there. I suppose it would be a good place to run into in case of a sudden downpour, though.I was a little confused about which trail to follow from here. Had we not detoured to the pavilion the trail seemed to go straight ahead, but there also was what looked like a trail going off to the right side of the pavilion. In the end, we decided to follow our initial trail and go straight. This section of the trail was marked with very nice white letters:
We didn’t have anything to tell us what the letters were all about though. Again, I suspect if we’d visited the visitor’s center first, we might have found out. We did make some jokes about what would happen when they ran out of letters. Apparently the answer is that they just stopped marking things, because “Z” was the last one we saw on the loop.
About the time the letters ran out, the trail curves to the left and back around towards the river. We didn’t have the signposts anymore, but instead there were a couple of really nice benches. Earlier in the hike, the trail runs closer to the highway and there was a fair amount of road noise, but back here away from the road the noise disappeared and It was very nice to sit on those sturdy benches and enjoy the natural noises of the forest.
After a brief sit-down, we continued on around towards the lake and Chet noticed these really cool trees. The first one had a limb growing horizontally right along the ground, and then five or so limbs growing straight up out of it. The vertical ones just looked like trees in their own right until he pointed out that they were growing out of the horizontal limb. We couldn’t tell if the horizontal one had fallen and been pinned or what caused it to grow that way. The second tree we thought at first might be a marker tree pointing towards the water, but in the end we decided it probably isn’t.
Near this part of the trail we were pretty close to the river and I spotted a beautiful white egret wading just a little ways out from the shore. Unfortunately getting to a spot to get a good picture required a good bit of tromping through the leaves so he heard us and flew off with a lot of loud sqawking before we could snap his photo. After rejoining the main trail at the pavilion we went a short ways back towards the boardwalks, and then took the trail marked with the letter “B” – the short loop. Like the big loop, this trail provides some nice views of the creek and a pleasant and level walk through the woods.
I wish our GPS hadn’t died before we started this trail, because I really don’t know how long anything was. The website for the Wheeler says the Flint Creek Trail is 1.5 miles, but there are two loops off of it, and I’m unclear whether the 1.5 miles is for both loops or just the main one.
Finally, after we’d hiked both trails we’d planned on for the day and realized we had a little bit of extra time, we decided to go check out the visitor’s center. Since we were there on a Sunday in the fall, we assumed that the building would be closed, but we thought we’d check it out anyway. I’m so glad we did! It turns out that they are open and staffed 9am to 5pm seven days a week from October through February. In March they reduce their opening hours to 9am to 4pm Tuesday through Saturday. Inside there is an exhibit showcasing the wildlife that you can find in the refuge plus information on the history of Wheeler. The day we were there the information desk was staffed by a very friendly and helpful couple who volunteer a couple of months at a stretch. They can provide maps, good tips on the trails, and information about upcoming events at the refuge. I can’t believe it took me so long to get out there, but now that I’ve been, I’m already planning a few more excursions there. You should go too!