Are you looking for a short, easy, family-friendly hike with several natural points of interest? The Hays Nature Preserve has this and more, and even offers a couple of other options to help burn off some energy in the great outdoors.
The Hays Nature Preserve is a City of Huntsville green space in the Big Cove area, off Highway 431 just south of Hampton Cove. Paired with the nearby Goldsmith-Schiffman Wildlife Sanctuary, around 1,000 acres are preserved for public use, with the majority of the activity taking place at the Hays Preserve. We’ve been to the Hays on several occasions to hike, kayak, and attend ecologically-themed events such as Earth Day, and it’s one of Huntsville’s hidden jewels.
The Hays has a lot going for it. For one thing, the confluence of Big Cove Creek and the Flint River are just steps from its parking lot, with the Big Cove Creek Greenway meandering through and around the tract. There’s a network of over ten miles of trails winding through shady woods and along flowing waters and bogs, with occasional glimpses of the Hampton Cove golf course through openings in the trees. In fact, that’s one of the things I like best about this preserve. A look at the trail map shows how cleverly the trails are laid out so that golfers, hikers, bikers, paddlers, and runners can all enjoy a large tract of land without getting in each other’s way.
I’ve dubbed the hike we’re recommending as the “Walk of Champions,” because you’ll meet two bona-fide champions along the way. It’s a good introduction to the Hays Preserve, as you’ll see varied scenery, walk on different trail types, and probably see some wildflowers and wildlife. The hike described below is a 1.4 mile loop, but there are options you can take to lengthen or shorten the walk as you see fit.
The hike begins at the parking area about half a mile past the entrance on Highway 431. You’ll drive past the education center on the right, a terrific playground on the left, and a fishing pond on the right as you make your way deeper into the Preserve. When the road switches from pavement to gravel, turn right to stay on the paved road and enter a parking area. This hike begins on the east side of the parking area, at the kiosk. This is a continuation of the Flint trail, which begins in the vicinity of the fishing lake and winds generally eastward, intersecting the Flint River Greenway on the west side of the parking area.
The first few steps are on a wide paved walkway, with a narrower sidewalk leading off to the right to a set of concrete steps used as a landing for paddlers on the Flint River. As a side note, we’ve landed and launched kayaks from those steps (signposted as “Cherokee Landing”), and they’re the worst put-in/takeout on the Flint since there’s not really a ramp or beach. I’d guess a fair number of paddlers have gone for an impromptu swim there. Continue past the turn to Cherokee Landing, cross a wooden bridge over Big Cove Creek, and turn left on the now dirt footpath that runs along the Flint River.
This is a picnic area, with a few tables interspersed under the trees. There’s a nice open feeling here, with the river flowing quietly by. We noticed a couple of cameras with long lenses mounted on tripods in this area, pointing up in the trees away from the river, so we took a closer look into the foliage. Sharp-eyed Ruth was the first to spot this magnificent owl. What a beauty! I believe this is a barred owl.
The trail runs along the river for about .1 mile, then forks with the Flint trail continuing for about another .15 mile along the river. For this hike, turn left to continue on the Beaver Dam Run trail. You’ll still have water to your right, but it’s from a small unnamed creek that drains the north-central part of the Preserve. You’ll quickly come to a sign pointing out a beaver dam in the stream. Though you won’t get a close view of the dam, its effect is quite visible, with the creek shallow and sluggish below the dam, and deeper and still above it. This area was particularly good for wildflowers, with butterweed, hairy buttercup, and purple rocket growing on the bank.
Just past the beaver dam, on the left, you’ll find the first of our champions — the Alabama state champion shellbark hickory tree. Champion trees are the largest of their species found in a particular state, with “largest” being defined by a points system that takes into consideration circumference, height, and crown spread. The Alabama Forestry Commission explains it in more detail. Suffice it to say, you won’t find a better shellbark hickory anywhere else in the state!
At about .4 mile into the hike, you’ll come to Glass Lake, a quiet tree-lined pool. Again, eagle-eyed Ruth spotted one of her favorite animals, a turtle, sunning itself on a log. I believe this one is a yellow-bellied slider, though it was hard to say since we didn’t see the underside of its shell, and the top was covered in mud. Still, this was a very patient turtle which craned its head around and stretched its legs while keeping a wary eye on us.
About half a mile into the hike you’ll come to the only confusing navigational point. The Beaver Dam Run trail has transitioned to the Tupelo Tree Path at this point, and there’s a fork at which there’s an old kiosk on the left. Our recommendation is to take the right fork. You’ll see the golf course through a gate on the right. You may also spot a wooden post with a number on it. The good news is that the numbers are keyed to the trail map, which has a description of several notable sights along the way. The bad news is that the numbers on the posts don’t correspond to the descriptions in the latest trail map. The posts are generally in the location of a point of interest, but you will need to find the description that actually matches what you’re looking at.
Shortly after the fork, you’ll see a gravel road heading off to the left. This is the entrance road into the Preserve, so if you need to shorten your hike you can take the road about .4 mile back to the parking area. We suggest continuing on the trail, because there are still some interesting things you won’t want to miss. The trail heads gradually up a small hill, then descends and curves to the left and passes a small cave in the limestone. The trail levels out and heads mostly straight west, with a swamp off to the right full of water tupelo trees. And here we find our second champ, the Alabama state champion water tupelo tree!
About .75 mile into the hike, the trail passes through a wet area, but not to worry — there’s a boardwalk that will keep your feet dry (unless you’re there after a heavy rain). I should mention we hiked this trail the day after a heavy rain, and there were a few muddy patches here and there. The trail was easily passable, but if you’re averse to getting dirty you might want to give this Preserve a day or two to dry out after a heavy rain. Most of it is in the floodplain of the Flint River and Big Cove Creek.
On the other side of the boardwalk, you’ll soon come to a small pond on the left that is described as a “meander scar” of Big Cove Creek. Back in the 1960s the creek was widened and straightened for flood control. As a result, some of the former meanders of the creek were cut off from the main channel and became ponds. The result is similar to what happens when oxbow lakes are formed on rivers, except in this case the channel was altered by Man, not Nature. Even so, Nature has made these ponds its own. We saw two more turtles here. Unfortunately, this is also the place where we had to swat a few mosquitoes, which is to be expected when you’re near ponds in the woods. We were wishing we had brought some insect repellent, but the bugs aren’t that bad, especially if you keep moving.
In about .1 mile, you’ll cross Big Cove Creek on a wooden bridge. At this point you could turn left and join the Big Cove Creek Greenway and head south toward the parking area if you want to lop .2 mile off the hike. We opted to continue on to the end of the Tupelo Tree Path, which tees into the greenway about .1 mile from the bridge over Big Cove Creek.
We turned left onto the Big Cove Creek Greenway and walked on the paved surface about .15 miles south until it crossed the Preserve’s entrance road. This little stretch of the greenway had several wildflowers in bloom, including lyre leaved sage. We crossed the road and took the greenway into the parking area to complete the hike. Here’s the GPS track of this particular hike.
This little hike is just a sampling of what is on offer at the Hays Nature Preserve. It’s not as heavily developed as other Huntsville city parklands (it does have a couple of porta-potties but no other restroom facilities), but this light touch has preserved the flora and fauna of the Flint River bottomlands. With the Big Cove Creek and Flint River greenways in the Preserve, as well as natural surface trails, you can put together walks of differing character and lengths. There’s another access to the Preserve off Old Highway 431 in the Big Cove area. This access is the eastern terminus of the Flint River Greenway, and there’s a large parking lot for horse trailers. The northern part of the Preserve has several horse trails, which we’ve hiked a couple of times without having any idea where we were most of the time. It’s a bit of a labyrinth with pretty much no trail signage. You’re more likely to see deer there, though. And you might pick up a few golf balls too.