Location: Decatur, Alabama
Webpage: National Wildlife Refuge
General Description: The Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is a 35,000 acre complex along the Tennessee River. Established in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt, it was the first wildlife refuge overlaid on a multi-purpose reservoir created by the TVA in 1936 with the construction of Wheeler Dam on the Tennessee River. While originally impounded by the TVA to serve as mosquito control, these areas also produced natural waterfowl foods such as wild millet, smartweed, sedges, and other seed bearing grasses that attracted waterfowl when the area was re-flooded in the winter. Today the refuge provides a mix of bottomland hardwoods, pine uplands, shallow water embayments, and agricultural fields which are leased to local farmers who must leave some of the crop for wildlife. These habitats provide excellent feeding, resting, and roosting sites for wintering waterfowl and sandhill cranes, as well as nesting sites for migratory songbirds and many species of resident wildlife. Visitors are welcomed at the Visitor Center which includes an observation building, hike on the many trails and roads, fishing, and of course observing the wildlife.
1) There is a very nice Visitor Center located just a few miles from the Interstate that is a perfect place to begin. Along with a few exhibits about the natural environments and wildlife to be found on the refuge, there is an excellent observation building within a few hundred yards of the Visitor Center. The observation building provides a nice climate controlled area to view any wildlife in the display pool just outside the windows. There are also multiple viewers available for distance viewing out over the pool as well.
2) Also located at the Visitor Center there is a short (0.3 mile) loop trail , the Atkeson Cypress Trail. The trail begins in a mature, planted bald cypress stand on a nice boardwalk that crosses over the swamp. In mid-October the swamp was dry, however, we found out they would be opening it up to water from the river in a couple of weeks.
3) All of the roads throughout the refuge are open for hikers, but we choose to hike a couple of their marked trails. The closest trail to the Visitor Center is Flint Creek Trail which is a 1.5 mile loop through a bottomland hardwood forest along Flint Creek. This is a well marked and heavily used trail that has been well maintained over time. It is in excellent condition and an easy walk with very little elevation change.
4) Another easy trail is Beaverdam Swamp Boardwalk that is accessed from the frontage road of exit 7 of I-565 just outside of Huntsville. Beaverdam Swamp hosts some of the largest black tupelo trees in the state and is a majestic swamp. Once again, in mid-October the swamp is dry, but you can easily see the effect of long-term flooding of the area. The boardwalk over the swamp is well maintained and makes for an easy hike into the middle of the swamp. The trail is 1 mile long and is not a loop.