Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge: Flint Creek Trail (Blog Hike #511)

Trail: Flint Creek Trail
Hike Location: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: east of Decatur, AL
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: March 2015
Overview: A flat double loop through river bottomland habitat.

Directions to the trailhead: In northern Alabama, take I-65 to SR 67 (exit 334).  Exit and go west on SR 67.  Drive SR 67 west 2.8 miles to the refuge’s Flint Creek entrance on the right; this entrance is located just past the refuge Visitor Center.  Park in the only parking lot at Flint Creek.

The hike: Established in 1938 by a declaration from President Roosevelt, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge protects 35,000 lowland acres near northern Alabama’s Tennessee River.  The refuge is named for Major General Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate cavalry general, elected member of the United States House of Representatives from Alabama, and American army leader during the Spanish-American War.  Fishing and birding are the most popular activities at the refuge, which is a hub of the North Alabama Birding Trail.  The best bird watching months at the refuge are early January for waterfowls and April for spring songbird migration. 
Five trails give hikers access to the refuge, but three of those trails are 1 mile or less in length.  One of the refuge’s longer trails is the Flint Creek Trail described here.  The trail’s location across SR 67 from the refuge’s Visitor Center makes access easy, and the flat terrain ensures a leisurely hike.
Trailhead: Flint Creek Trail
Start at the front of the parking area where the signed Flint Creek Trail heads across the first of two long wooden bridges.  This bridge crosses a wide inlet of Flint Creek about 4 miles south of its mouth at the Tennessee River.  Notice the cypress trees that grow in the inundated areas along this inlet.
Cypress trees along inlet
On the other side of the bridge, the trail passes through a short section of broadleaf forest before crossing another wooden bridge over another inlet, this one shorter than the first.  After crossing the second bridge, the trail splits to form the first of its two loops.  Turn left to hike the first loop clockwise.  All intersections are unmarked, and trail is unblazed for its entire length.  Nevertheless, the path is well-trodden and easy to follow.
The trail heads north back toward Flint Creek and away from busy SR 67.  The noise from the nearby highway marks the only downside to this hike, and it probably also scares away some wildlife.  I did this hike on a mid-afternoon in March, one of the worst times of the year for wildlife viewing here, and all I saw were some common woodland creatures and a pair of titmouses.
The wide creek appears through the brush on the left as you need to negotiate a couple of seasonal wet areas.  At 0.3 miles, you pass an unusual shaped poplar tree on the left.  The trunk seems to lie on the ground for about 10 feet while spawning several branches that are their own trees.
Unusual shaped tree
At 0.4 miles, the first loop ends at an intersection where the main trail goes right and left.  Turning right would take you directly back to the trailhead, but this hike turns left to head for the second loop.  Note that a small pavilion lies straight ahead at this junction.
700 feet later, the trail splits to form its second loop.  Tired of hearing the road noise, I again turned left to hike the loop clockwise.  A few more seasonal wet areas need to be negotiated, and a couple of benches provide opportunities to sit quietly and watch for wildlife.
Wet area on trail
0.8 miles into the hike, you reach the bank of a third Flint Creek inlet as the trail curves right.  A wet woodland appears on the right as lettered posts mark points of interest.  Unfortunately, I could not find a trail guide to interpret the posts.
Wet woodland
At 1.2 miles, you close the second loop.  Continue straight to head back to the first loop, then continue straight again when you intersect the first loop.  A little more flat walking brings you back to the two entrance bridges, which in turn bring you back to the parking area to complete the hike.


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