“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Richard Martin Rails to Trails, Elkmont, Alabama

I’m watching a red tailed hawk soar over an open valley and imagining what this field of green was like in 1864.  In September of that year, Alabama’s bloodiest Civil War battle was raging at this exact spot and over two hundred men breathed their last in these fields.
The battle between Union and Confederate troops over control of the wooden trestle railroad bridge that spanned the valley came to be known as the Battle of Sulphur Trestle and although the trestle is long gone—burned to the ground shortly after the battle by the victorious Confederate troops of General Nathan Bedford Forrest—the remnants of the railroad bed that approached the bridge from north and south are still there.

That old railroad bed has not changed much in the past 145 years.  The steel rails have been removed and the trestle of course is gone, replaced by an earthen berm that spans Sulphur Creek, but the green valley still gently slopes up to meet the low hill where Union forces constructed a fort to defend the railroad line. Sulphur Creek still runs free and clear. 

But everything else has changed.  The railroad line hosts an entirely different crowd today—hikers, bikers, birdwatchers and horseback riders.  Today the Richard Martin Trail, part of the national Rails-to-Trails network, cuts through the middle of this historic battlefield. 

The former Decatur and Nashville Railroad line remained in continuous service until 1986 when it was abandoned.  Shortly thereafter, local resident Richard Martin spearheaded efforts to convert the abandoned route into a recreational trail.  His efforts were successful and the completed trail is now managed by the Limestone County Parks and Recreation Department and attracts hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts.  Martin remains a driving force behind the trial and continues to advocate for trail improvements.

Along the twelve mile length of the Trail, hikers can retrace the steps of Civil War soldiers, visit the quaint Veto Methodist Church constructed in the 1800s, walk past wetlands and across clear sparkling creeks, and stop for a lunch break in the tiny town of Elkmont.  The historic railroad depot still stands alongside the trail in Elkmont, along with a restored railroad car.

The trail is a peaceful natural retreat that is enjoyed by thousands of local residents and out of towners.  On a warm April morning we run into a dozen hikers, a group of birdwatchers, two bikers and a couple of horsemen.  Wildflower walks and other seasonal events are scheduled frequently by the Parks and Recreation Department.

The trail’s genesis as a railroad means that the path is level and flat—those old railroads avoided sharp curves and undulating hills to provide speedier transit for the locomotives and miles of freight cars.  As a result you can leisurely enjoy the wildflowers, birds and wildlife at an easy pace.  The trail is well maintained and the terrain makes for easy pedaling for bikers, although the packed gravel bed requires a mountain bike.  With few exceptions the trail is shaded beneath arching hardwood trees so even on a hot summer day you’re sheltered from the sun.

There is an area of low wetlands south of Elkmont that is prime birdwatching territory.  Wood ducks and warblers frequent the bog and an occasional heron can be spotted.  North of Elkmont the terrain becomes hilly and creeks meander through open woodlands.  Deer, squirrels and rabbits can be spotted along the trail as well as hawks and woodpeckers.  

Along the way, the trail passes over two creeks that are now spanned by picturesque covered bridges.  At the Sulphur Trestle battle site, a local Boy Scout troop has constructed an informational plaque and a wooden bench. 

The trail runs from Piney Chapel Road just north of Athens to the Tennessee state line at Veto.  The Piney Chapel trailhead offers a pavilion, restrooms and a parking lot. The Veto trailhead has restrooms and the restored Veto Church.  The trail is horse-friendly with watering facilities along its length.

Details: From I-65, take Exit 361 west about four miles on Sandlin Road/Route 100 into Elkmont. The Elkmont trailhead, which is about the halfway point on the trail, is on the left, nest to the restored depot and railcar.  The trail hours are daylight to sunset.  No motorized vehicles are allowed.


Wheeling Through Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

It’s flat, but it’s fun.  That about sums up mountain biking in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. You don’t have the challenging and exhilarating ups and downs of Monte Sano.  On the other hand, chances are you won’t have to pass on the right—the roads are not overrun with bikers.  Which is pretty remarkable considering all that the refuge has to offer the two-wheeled set.  There are no single-track trails in the 34,000-acre refuge but there is a surprisingly large network of roads.  The lack of elevation changes, the quality of the trail surfaces, and the natural beauty of the refuge offer easy and appealing pedaling less than ten minutes from downtown Huntsville. 
 According to Kathy Whaley, Refuge ranger, Wheeler has “probably about 200 miles of roads”, almost all of which are open to bicycles.  Many of these roads meander along the banks of the Tennessee River, providing cool and scenic biking on relatively level and well-maintained trails.  And if you absolutely must have some hills to meet your criteria for “real” mountain biking, well you can find that, too.

You need to bike in Wheeler with a different attitude.  Biking here is not for the “I can get there before you can” crowd.  The bikers you meet in the refuge tend to be more laid-back.  Gene Edwards from Huntsville is a good example.  We ran into him on a recent trek through the refuge, leisurely cruising along Rockhouse Road, soaking up the sun and scenery.  Not in a hurry to get anywhere.

Whaley emphasizes that the attraction of biking in the refuge is the very real possibility of viewing wildlife.  Not only does the refuge host thousands of ducks and geese in the spring and fall, but it is also home to white-tailed deer, beaver, hawks and the occasional bald eagle.  Your odds of seeing animals are much greater from the seat of a bike.  Take your camera along and you’re practically guaranteed some great shots.  So we decided to see if she was giving us some PR propaganda.

We started from the Blackwell Swamp area at the end of County Line Road.  If you head south from the parking area at the swamp’s edge and keep bearing left when the road splits, you’ll follow an easy 8-mile loop around the swamp with nice views of vast fields of lily pads, cypress trees, and beaver lodges in the swamp.  We saw great blue herons, hawks, and snapping turtles crossing the trail in front of us.  Deer scampered across the trail within yards of our bikes.  We didn’t see any on this trip, but—if you’re very lucky—you may spy one of the swamp’s resident alligators.  Wildflowers were in bloom, with butter-colored black-eyed Susans lining the trail and the brilliant white flowers of the lily pads floating on the tea-colored swamp waters.

There are a lot of options for bikers. Here are some of the better trails:

Rockhouse Road.  Instead of bearing left and following the loop around the swamp, bear right onto a gravel road, which hugs the banks of the Tennessee River.  This is Rockhouse Road, which heads due west for about 4.5 miles.  Like many of the trails in the refuge, this road is open to vehicular traffic so you may have to share the road with cars and trucks.  But it is lightly traveled and you don’t have to worry about being run down—this is, after all, a dirt road so speeds are slow and drivers watch out for bikers.  When you reach the paved portion of Rockhouse Road, bear right and follow another road back east to the swamp, about 6 miles.   This road is heavily wooded, trees offering shaded respite from the summer sun.

Arrowhead Landing.  Follow old Highway 20 west out of Mooresville and turn left onto the gravel road at the boat ramp sign.  This road follows the western edge of Limestone Bay past Arrowhead Landing for about 3.5 miles.  It dead-ends but you can take a gated road south under I-65 and ride through the backwaters of the Tennessee River.  You can add a leisurely pedal through historic Mooresville at the end of your trip.

Truck Trail.  Starts at the Flint Creek ramp, north of Upper River Road near Highway 67 in Priceville.  This trail goes on seemingly forever, following the south shore of the river on a narrow dirt road, which goes under I-65.  Many variations on this trip will continues through Garth Slough, through Cave Springs, Bluff City, Cotaco Creek, and finally to Slaughter Landing.  Twenty miles of swamps and woods, with a winding and hilly middle run in the Bluff City area.  Because of the length and hills, this is probably the toughest ride in the refuge.

All roads in the refuge are open to bikes.  However, some of the gated roads may be off limits at certain times of the year.  Pick up a map from the visitor’s center in Decatur, 350-6639, to check out these and other riding options in the refuge.