It's true. There is a place less than half an hour from Huntsville that can take just about every demand you could throw at it (except for challenging hills). Its best time of year is what most people around here would call the worst—January and February. But early spring is also an excellent time to visit.
The 35,000 acres that comprise the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge have never, since prehistory, seen much more than farmsteads along 20 miles of the Tennessee River in its gentle arm between Decatur’s eastern edge and the mouth of Indian Creek. Wheeler is considered the easternmost national wildlife refuge of the Mississippi Flyway, and it is a birder's paradise. At present, visitors can expect to experience 2,000 geese and about 75,000 ducks each season. As many as 12,000 sandhill cranes have been arriving recently and as many as a dozen rare whooping cranes now spend a portion of their winter on the Refuge.
One of the outstanding features of this bird-and-people-friendly place is the two-story observation building, created from one-way mirrored glass and which is the perfect membrane between visitors and birds.
Birds and wildlife are the icing on Wheeler’s cake, for sure. But let’s talk about the cake, because it is a sweet one with an abundance of outdoor activities that most north Alabamians are unaware of.
In addition to the birding opportunities, Wheeler also boasts an impressive 100 miles of roadways through the Refuge that welcome everyone from hikers and trail runners to mountain bikers, equestrians, and even cars. Not to mention, there are also plenty of put ins for flat water canoeists, kayakers, and stand up paddleboarders interested in exploring the waterways at the Refuge. In general, the most popular road and trail destinations share the same trailhead parking areas with paddling.
Of note: some areas in the Refuge will be gated through parts of the year, mostly from November 15 to January 15 for various avian migrations. Hikers and bikers can go around gates during these times, but there are two marked areas—one immediately around the Visitor Center and observation building—where human traffic of any kind is never allowed, because these areas are sensitive to breeding and nesting.
Below are some of the most popular and worthwhile access points at the Wheeler Refuge.
White Springs Dike
This spot offers casual access to miles of interconnected canals originally built to serve construction of the Interstate 65 bridges and miles of gravel and dirt roads through the Refuge. Roadside parking is off the eastbound lane of US Highway 72 after leaving Decatur, just after the intersection with US Highway 31. Coming from Huntsville, it is on the left hand side of the bend before the water. Walk or cycle the 13 mile loop or do the 7 mile run that takes you to a gate near Arrowhead Landing (see below, also link to map below). Bikes may need to be equipped with fat tires or walked short distances.
GPS Coordinates: N34.628591, W-86.950339
Mooresville Ramp/Arrowhead Ramp
Turning into the community of Mooresville from Interstate 565 Exit 1, turn right at the stop sign on the main street and drive west about half a mile. Just past the water is a dirt road to the left, the only turn in the area. Follow it for two miles. This ramp provides access to the body of water known as Limestone Bay. Cross the bay on a due south course to paddle Alligator Alley, where their offspring can often be sunning on the banks during warm spring days.
GPS Coordinates: N34.601968, W-86.891976
Blackwell offers access to a breathtaking swamp where gator hatchlings can be seen in the spring, and where there are miles of roads and trails that circle the swamp. From I-565, exit to Wall Triana in Madison, then onto Madison Boulevard heading west 2 miles. Left (south) on County Line Road, 6 miles to Jolly B Road left. Follow the long trail straight ahead or turn left just before the Birding Trail sign for a shorter leg.
GPS Coordinates: N34.575095, W-86.783707
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
3121 Visitor Center Road, Decatur, AL 35603.
Wheeler Map and Information