Backcountry Trail - a Haven for Nature Lovers and Those Seeking Exercise in a Scenic Setting by Alton Wallace
March 12, 2009 - Orange Beach, AL - The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail System provides opportunities to explore the vast undeveloped interior of 6,500-acre Gulf State Park. A wide variety of flora and fauna are found along the system’s five trails, which cross wet and dry pine savannas, coastal wetlands, relict dune scrub and maritime forest. Located just a few hundred yards north of the Gulf of Mexico, the system consists of 7.8 miles of paved trail and 1.75 miles that is unpaved, with further expansion planned.
(Click images for larger view.) Backcountry Trail lined with mossy oaks.
Phillip West & Hugh S. Branyon at Trail
Named for Hugh S. Branyon, the superintendent of Gulf State Park, the Backcountry Trail opened in 2007 with the dedication of a screened picnic pavilion and restrooms at the junction of Rosemary Dunes and Catman Road. The Park collaborated with the city of Orange Beach to pave the trails and build benches, restrooms, covered swings, trailheads with parking, and other amenities. Orange Beach, which donated several large tracts of land crossed by the system, is responsible for trail maintenance.
Orange Beach Coastal Resources Manager Phillip West said the trails
provide opportunities to explore several distinct ecosystems. “There is
always something new to discover,” said West, who has overseen
development of the trail system.
”If you want to go look at blooming plants in the savanna, you can. Or if you want to go to the dune scrub to track animals, you can do that, too. I’ve counted about 20 different kinds of tracks. We’re working on signs to help people identify the tracks, which will be in place later this year.”
Gulf Oak Ridge, a 2.75-mile trail that crosses old-growth maritime forest, runs along a ridge long used as a pathway through the area, West says. “For the most part, it was an existing trail already. For eons, it’s been a natural highway for animals, Native Americans, explorers, you name it,” he says.
When a route was being selected for Gulf Oak Ridge, archeologists discovered a site settled by Native Americans about 4,000 years ago, West said. The original plan was altered and the trail was routed around the site, he said. Massive moss-covered live oaks and Magnolias tower along that part of the ridge, which crests at an elevation of about 38 feet and provides views of the Gulf of Mexico about 1.5 miles away.
“The site is not marked, and it won’t be marked, but there was a pretty good-sized village that archeologists estimate was inhabited by several Native American cultures from about 2,000 B.C. to 1,000 A.D.” West said.
Deer, wild hogs, wolves, coyotes, gopher tortoises, bobcats, snakes, foxes, alligators and many other animals are found along the trail. Rick Sherman, an Orange Beach resident, has seen many of them. Sherman bikes 25-to-30 miles every day to keep his arthritis at bay. Almost all of those miles, he said, are on the Backcountry Trail. “The money they’ve put into this trail, the time, the thought - it’s really wonderful,” he said. “Orange Beach and the Park have done a great job with this. There are some beautiful spots, and lots of plants and animals to see.”
Wild Alabama Bobcat Photo courtesy of the City of Orange Beach
Alligator on Lake Photo courtesy of Risk Sherman
Alligators, Sherman said, are found in several of the Park’s lakes and swamps. “The trail is elevated above the land around it, and the gators don’t like to venture up out of their spots,” he said. ”It’s a great viewing area, as long as you don’t feed them; then you’ve got trouble.”
Signs identify areas of the trail where alligators lurk, Sherman
noted. The gator he calls Sally is often seen near the west end of Gulf
Oak Ridge on the north bank of a small lake. On Rosemary Dunes,
frequently sees a gator he named Lefty because the
seven-and-a-half-footer apparently lost part of his right front leg in a
battle with another gator. Nothing could be done for Lefty’s leg,
said, but West and a couple of city of
Beach employees were able to successfully treat an eye that was infected
during the battle with the other gator.
George, an alligator Sherman estimates to be 15 feet long, lives in a swamp along Campground Road just west of the picnic pavilion. “George is shyer than Lefty. He keeps his distance,” Sherman said. “And that’s a good thing.”
Sherman said flowers bloom along the trail year round. Black-eyed Susans, trumpet flowers, and enormous hibiscus are abundant, he says. Birds such as raptors, warblers, owls and eagles are often sighted, he said, along with migratory species in early spring and late fall.
In winter, when the number of trail users peaks, the mild, sunny days attract “snowbirds” like Randall and Judy Cooley. Randall, a retired superintendent of a national park in Pennsylvania, said he and his wife Judy discovered the Backcountry Trail in December 2007. “We planned to stay here for a couple of days at the park campground, but we fell in love with this place – specifically the trails – and stayed until the middle of April,” he said. “This year, we got here the middle of November and we’ll stay until the first of May. Next year, we’ll be back in November.”
Wild flowers along Rosemary Dune Trail Photo courtesy of the City of Orange Beach
During his 32-year career at the National Park Service, Cooley worked at Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades and other parks. Since retiring and settling in Pennsylvania, he has served on the state’s Department of Natural Resources Advisory Council and its Tourism and Recreation Committee. He has also worked on Pennsylvania’s “Rails to Trails” program, which converts unused railroad beds to hiking and biking trails.
Comfort Station at the intersection of
Catman & Rosemary Dunes
“The Backcountry Trail has amenities like restrooms and water, which I have not seen on very many trails in the country,” Randall Cooley said. “Quite honestly, we’ve hoped there won’t be a whole lot more people that learn about the trail. It’s been great having so much space to ourselves -- but the trail is being discovered. It’s a good trail in many ways. You’ve got convenient trailheads with good parking, and its configuration allows options to make the trail long or short, depending on your preferences.”
Judy Cooley noted the trail is used by many people staying in the park’s campground to take care of daily business. “A lot of folks in the campground use Rattlesnake Ridge to get to the post office in Orange Beach,” she said. ”It’s a lot better if you can stay off the busier roads, and the trail lets us do that.”
West said the city of Orange Beach and the Park plan system expansions
that includes a paved trail from Catman Road to the southern end of
Alabama Highway 161, near the junction with
Rattlesnake Ridge at Twin Bridges Road
View of Phoenix West from Rosemary Dunes Trail
Perdido Beach Boulevard. Judy Cooley, who said she walks are bikes on the trail every day, noted the new trail will provide campground visitors access to grocery stores and other businesses on the beach road. “We will definitely use the trail to go the grocery store. My bike has a basket, and if we can buy groceries without getting in the car, it will make our stays here even better,” she said.
Both residents and visitors alike volunteer for trail cleanup days and help provide amenities by funding benches, swings, signage and other user enhancements. A butterfly garden funded by the Orange Beach Garden Club near the picnic pavilion attracts monarch, swallowtail, gulf fritillary and other species of butterflies. Individuals and groups such as the Pleasure Island Rotary Club have donated benches and covered swings.
Twin Bridges Trail Bridge
A private organization, the Backcountry Trail Foundation, has contributed funds that are being used to build restrooms, information kiosks, and a gazebo at a trailhead now under construction on Perdido Beach Boulevard at the western border of Orange Beach. When construction is completed on the trailhead, which is located at the southern end of Rosemary Dunes, many visitors staying in the condominium buildings that line the Gulf of Mexico will have easy access to the trail system.
Rosemary Dunes Trail & Catman Road Trail
“A lot of people visiting our beaches don’t know the trail is there,” said Susan Shallow, chairperson of the Backcountry Trail Foundation. “Unlike the other trailheads, the one being built at Rosemary Dunes will be highly visible because of its location on the beach road – it will be an advertisement for the trail, drawing people to it. And once people get on the trail and see how beautiful the land is, they go ‘wow’.”
Others have contributed to the trail’s development by donating land. Amber Isle, a planned condominium project, donated land for the Rosemary Dunes trailhead. And real estate developers Pat Martin and Paul Munroe own land crossed by Gulf Oak Ridge.
Hugh Branyon, who has been superintendent of Gulf State Park since 1976, said the trail that bears his name has attracted more users than he’d expected. “Word is spreading fast,” Branyon said. “I knew campers would use it, but I didn’t know the local residents and people who are driving 40 and fifty miles to get here would use it like they have. People from of all facets of life are enjoying the trail and that’s pleased us here at the Park.”
Branyon said a trail through the Park’s interior was planned during the late-1970s, but it was never built after Hurricane Frederic hit the area. “The trail opens up an area that’s never been open to the public before,” he said. Not only is it a great place to exercise, but it gives people a place where they can see all kinds of birds, flowers, animals and plants. We get calls every day from people who’ve seen a creature or plant they want help identifying. The trail has been a great addition to the Park.”
Wild Flowers on the Backcountry Trail Photo courtesy of Risk Sherman
Photos, Trail Map & Articles of the Back Country Trail