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Monday, March 10, 2014

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.

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