On one of our previous trips to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, we noticed that while the Wheeler has relatively few officially designated trails, it has a network of well-maintained gravel roads that are good for hiking and are great for cycling. In our quest to find outdoor activities in which we get a little relief from the Alabama summer temperatures, we thought we’d try out some of those roads on our bicycles.
The Wheeler is a 35,000-acre refuge for migrating birds, scattered in various parcels along the Tennessee River from Decatur to Redstone Arsenal. It’s well worth a visit, with boardwalks, trails, and gravel roads providing access into the sloughs, wetlands, woodlands, and fields. Its wide variety of habitats makes it a great place to watch not only birds, but also many species of reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals. Botanists can also find much to enjoy there, with bountiful wildflowers in bloom almost year-round.
Our particular route for this trip was to drive south on County Line Road, south of I-565, to almost the end of the road. We turned left on the splendidly-named Jolly B Road, and followed it for about half a mile until it forked, with a clearly-marked entrance to the Wheeler. From that point, we drove another half mile down the gravel road to a junction with the more enigmatically-named HGH Road, where a large gravel parking area provides space for several vehicles and even room for a horse trailer or two. I should note that there are no road signs on this part of the Wheeler, so you’re well-advised to have a look at the map before setting out. In the description below, I’m making my best guess as to the names of the roads we traveled. We were the only folks there on a Sunday morning as we unloaded the bikes, put on our blaze orange, and got ready to hit the road. Why the blaze? Though the Wheeler is a wildlife refuge, it’s only a refuge for our feathered friends. Hunting is allowed on the preserve with proper permits, and it’s always hunting season for something in Alabama.
Our route was a simple one. We planned to make a counter-clockwise trip around the Blackwell Run, a body of water referred to as a stream, a swamp, or a lake. I’d call it a body of water about 2.5 miles long, fed by small creeks and runoff, which empties into the Tennessee River. A gravel road (labelled on maps as Blackwell Run Road) encloses Blackwell Run, forming approximately a 7.4 mile loop. We started the loop from the parking area, turning right and heading south along Jolly B Road. The wide, level gravel road made for easy biking. The surface was pulverized gravel and dirt, with occasional potholes that are easily avoided. Most of the route is in partial or complete shade, so we were able to keep cool by pedaling along leisurely and generating a small breeze.
Less than a quarter of a mile into the ride, we got our best look at Blackwell Run, or at least a swampy portion of it, from a pullout on the left. The swamp was an impressive sight, with water lilies interspersed with other aquatic vegetation among the knobs of trees sticking up from the water. Though we didn’t see any waterfowl this time, I expect this could be a good place to spot them. Just a short distance after that, we spotted the first drainage canal and floodgate of the trip. The Wheeler has a complex drainage system used to route water away from some areas, such as fields planted to provide food for the birds, and to flood other areas to create wetlands habitat. This particular one was open, creating a deep, still pool which, to Ruth’s delight, had a small turtle swimming around in it.
One notable thing about this trip was the abundance of late summer wildflowers. We spotted several showy examples along the road, such as halberdleaf rose mallow, tall ironweed, butterfly bush, red clover, common evening primrose, and a couple others we haven’t yet identified.
The flowers themselves were great, but an even better side effect was the plethora of butterflies we saw all along this ride. We didn’t get many photos, but I know we saw at least eight different varieties out flitting about.
About a mile into the ride, we came to a fork in the road. To the left, Blackwell Run Road turns east and runs between Blackwell Run and the river. To the right, Rockhouse Bottoms Road runs westward along the banks of the mighty Tennessee. Though we planned to circle the swamp, we also wanted to try a side jaunt along the river, just to get the flavor. So we went right, on a long curve that quickly put us on the riverbank. There are a couple of pulloffs on the left side of the road that give access to the river. We stopped at one to admire the view, and passed a couple of others with fishermen trying their luck. These pulloffs would also be suitable for launching a canoe or kayak, but I think it would be a bit dicey to try to launch a larger boat from them.
We pedaled along westward, on a nice wide, dead-level road, with shady trees to the left and a soybean field to the right. Rockhouse Bottoms Road continues for four miles along this stretch of the river before turning north and connecting into other roads. We went a little over a mile before turning around and riding past the kudzu jungle on our way back to the junction with Blackwell Run Road.
After resuming our ride around the swamp, we quickly came to the south end of Blackwell Run, a murky green slough disappearing through the trees in the direction of the river. We heard a big splash as we rode past this pool. We didn’t see what caused it, but I’ve read that many of the alligator sightings in the Wheeler have been in the Blackwell swamp. Hmm, something to think about….
The road reached the riverbank and continued eastward for .8 mile before coming to a prominent access point to the river. We wheeled over to have a look and startled a large blue heron, who silently rose from the bank and soared across the river. It might have been Brad, the grumpy blue heron from our earlier trips to the Wheeler but he didn’t hang around for any conversations this time. Ruth couldn’t resist sticking a hand in the river, only to note with mild disgust, “Ugh, it’s like bathwater.” I guess we’ve been spoiled by cool mountain streams!
At this point the road turns northward and away from the river. The surface changes a bit here. It’s still a gravel road, but the east side of Blackwell Run seems to stay a little damper. The gravel is a little larger and is packed down into dense mud, so the ride becomes a little bumpier here. The road also split, with a drier fork to the left and a large puddle blocking the entire road to the right. We went left, which paralleled the road to the right, so I suspect it’s just a workaround for a particularly boggy spot. Property lines cause the road to have a zig-zag effect on this side of Blackwell Run, but the road stretches straight for a least a quarter mile before making a curve to the left or right. About a mile from the river we came to one recognizable landmark on this section of the ride — a sewage treatment plant on the right. The odor wasn’t too bad, but we both picked up the pace along this stretch and soon left the smells behind and entered a very shady (in the original sense of the word) corridor.
This part of the ride was slightly more challenging, with a handful of small inclines, the bumpy surface, and potholes that had a bad habit of popping up unexpectedly as we were enjoying the few downhill sections. It’s still an easy ride, suitable for kids, though keep an eye out for one dip that extends completely across the road about a half mile past the sewage treatment plant. It’s no problem on a bike but would be pretty exciting if you took it at speed in a motorized vehicle.
I was really enjoying being in the shadow of the trees, a cool breeze on my face as I cruised past the wildflowers and among the butterflies. It actually felt like a warm spring day instead of a summer scorcher! But my blissful ride was soon interrupted by a loud pop and the sound of rushing air from my front tire. Yep, it was a flat — a complete blowout. When I inflated the tires at home before heading out, I noticed that they looked like they had some dry rot and would need to be replaced soon. Well, soon is now. We were 7.6 miles into the ride, and I knew we had around two miles at least to get back to the truck. We weren’t carrying a pump, not that it mattered with the tube shot so badly, so repair wasn’t an option. After a quick conference, we decided Ruth would ride on ahead and complete the loop, then come back and pick me up in the truck. Of course, that was assuming she wouldn’t get a flat too! We both had our cell phones, so off she pedaled while I played hike-a-bike along the road, stopping to snap a few photos of butterflies along the way.
Ruth made quick work of the rest of the ride, reaching the north end of Blackwell Run, then continuing westward for about .25 mile before turning south and continuing along the road through the woods until it intersected Jolly B Road just north of the entrance to the Wheeler. From there it was a short hop to close the loop and return to the truck, where she called and texted me to let me know that rescue was on the way. Cell reception isn’t great in that part of the county, but the message got through. Soon she arrived on the horizon, I loaded up the bike, and we turned around and headed back toward Jolly B. After having been in the saddle, it was a surprise that the road was so rough in a truck!
Though I didn’t complete the ride, Ruth made the complete loop to finish a 9.9 mile ride. Despite the abrupt end to my ride, I really enjoyed this trip. The road surface is decent, the terrain is mostly flat, there are very few vehicles, and there are plenty of great views. I’m already looking forward to riding more in the Wheeler. That is, after I get the bikes back from the shop!