Story & Pics by Linda Kissam
You won’t often find me and my $250 shoes in the midst of alligators, marsh and power walkers. Nor are you likely to find me in an open golf cart with the wind and elements blowing through my carefully coiffed hair. However, the world of nature is truly fascinating and if it is to remain wild and untouched, everyone – including you and me – must experience, embrace, and support the beauty that is being preserved for us by local communities and government agencies. Such is the wild and wondrous world of the Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail in in Orange Beach, Alabama. It’s the perfect pairing of beauty, brawn and protection.
The Backcountry Trail project is a collaborative effort between the City of Orange Beach (Alabama), Gulf State Park and property owners along the trail’s alignment. Historically, many parts of the trail were utilized by the area’s indigenous peoples, as well as explorers and settlers of the region.
The Backcountry Trail is steeped in lore and local legend. For decades, a creature believed to be part man/part wildcat –The “Catman” — has allegedly lurked along the paths and swamps of the backcountry woodlands.
Just minutes from the high rise condos on Orange Beach, this is the place for you to buckle up in an electric cart with two or more friends for a 2 to 3 -hour guided eco-tour. Winding through the gorgeous Alabama back-country on tiny paths, you’ll see flora and fauna side by side with joggers, cyclists and power walkers as you listen to your guide explain in detail the past, present and future of this special place. You’ll exprience firsthand the pristine trail with four distinct ecosystems covering 10 miles. Untamed and vibrant, expect to see alligators, snakes, marshland, wildflowers and towering trees.
Six trails among six distinct ecosystems make up more than 11 miles of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail complex through Orange Beach, Alabama and the Gulf State Park. This is not a Disney type experience. It’s relaxed and relaxing. It’s inspiring and engaging. There is only one tour at a time going on. Generally no more than two tours a day. Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy your time with Mother Nature. She has a surprise or two in store for you.
On your guided tour expect to experience:
HURRICANE RIDGE TRAIL
Hurricane Ridge Trail was constructed after Hurricane Frederic hit the Gulf Coast in 1979. The hurricane created this natural ridge by depositing sand, twigs, and vegetation from the force of the tidal surge. The 130 mph winds and the many tornadoes uprooted hundreds of trees. Many of these dead trees can still be seen today. Their gray, rotting trunks are one of the many reminders of the power contained in nature’s storms. Try to find animal tracks in the sand, or look for birds, such as woodpeckers and mocking birds, feasting on insects in the trees.
MIDDLE LAKE TRAIL
One of the major trails in Gulf State Park is Middle Lake Trail. It begins at the Nature Center and follows Middle Lake unit it intersects with Hurricane Ridge Trail. Look for alligators floating along the surface. They are seen in the warm months of summer but are experienced at hiding in the grasses along the edge of the canal. Look for their eyes and nose on the surface of the water.
BEAR CREEK TRAIL
Bear Creek Trail is a unique trail because it used to be an old paved road heading to Orange Beach. Since Your guide will help you identify many of the local trees and shrubs. Covering many of the trees and shrubs on this trail is a thick, woody vine called Muscadine Grape Vines. These wild vines are abundant throughout Gulf State Park. The fruit matures in late summer and is slightly larger than domestic grapes. Some of the animals that enjoy these wild grapes are the gray fox, black bear, coyote, raccoon, and many different types of birds.
ALLIGATOR MARSH TRAIL
This is a unique trail that winds beside a small canal offering the right environment for small alligators, turtles, frogs, and other small animals. Tall marsh grasses grow along many areas of this trail. Some of this grass is easy to identify by its saw-toothed edges
BOBCAT BRANCH TRAIL
Bobcat Branch Trail connects Bear Creek Trail to the main campground road. It winds through ¾ of a mile of Live Oaks, Blackberry Brambles, and Holly. Look for some of the dead or dying trees. These trees provide a continuous supply of insects for birds such as woodpeckers. One of the largest and most impressive woodpeckers found in this area is the Pileated Woodpecker.
This ¼ of a mile trail follows a small creek in the campground. If you get out of the cart and walk quietly along this trail, you may see some birds such as the green heron fishing for dinner. The creek is also a home to many different types of frogs, turtles, and lizards. In the sandy areas of this trail, you might notice several different animal tracks. Many animals such as raccoons, bobcats, deer, and rabbits use this trail as an easy path into the campground.
Along this one-mile trail you will see various types of ferns and moss. On the soft pliant earth beneath your feet, you will notice an amazing root system of the trees. You will also see palm-like leaves growing close to the ground along the sides of the trail. This plant is called Saw Palmetto. As the leaves fall to the ground, they provide a wonderful habitat for small animals such as snakes, frogs, and lizards.
MIDDLE LAKE OVERLOOK TRAIL
Completed in March 2000 by a group of winter campers, Middle Lake Overlook Trail crosses over Armadillo Trail and ends at a small pavilion overlooking Middle Lake. Try to be quiet as you approach the lake and you may see turtles basking in the sun or a small alligator swimming nearby.
Middle Lake is one of three freshwater lakes in Gulf Resort State Park. It is approximately 150 acres. The largest lake, Lake Shelby, is about 750 acres, and the smallest is Little Lake. These three lakes are fed by underground springs. The water flows out of the lakes into Little Lagoon and eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. As you look out of Middle Lake, you will notice that the water has a very dark, reddish/brown color. This coloration is due to the release of tannins from the decomposition of plants.
Your guide will stop the cart to give you time to explore the eternal beauty of the Butterfly Garden. Created and maintained by a local women’s club it is a special oasis for festively marked and colored winged beauties. This also makes a great place for a picnic as there is a small enclosed pavilion with picnic benches.
An insider’s deal at $60.00 per cart or $15 per person for a two-hour ride. Up to 6 people can be accommodated. Perfect for couples, singles, families. Bring a camera. There are restroom stops along the tour as well as water fountains. You can bring your own snacks; beverages if you like…and oh yea…don’t forget the insect spray in high summer.
Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail
4849 Wilson Boulevard
Orange Beach, AL 36561