Wheelin’ on the River

Alabama Living Magazine

Long lake overflows with recreational activities

The Tennessee River at Wheeler Lake offers many places where kayakers can enjoy a day on the water. Photo by Justin Powell

By John N. Felsher
Fourth in a series on Alabama’s lakes

At 68,300 acres, making it the second largest lake in Alabama (compared to its Tennessee Valley Authority neighbor Lake Guntersville with 69,100 surface acres), Wheeler Lake provides an abundance of recreational activities.

Named for “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, a congressman and general who fought in the Civil War and Spanish American War, the lake sits in northern Alabama about halfway between Nashville and Birmingham, southwest of Huntsville. Much of its nearly 900 shoreline miles remains wild.

“Those of us who live on the lake love it,” says Tere Richardson, executive director of Athens Main Street. “I was born and raised here, but I lived away for about 20 years. Looking out from my deck, I can see two miles due west across Wheeler Lake. We get some fantastic sunsets. It’s very natural with a wildlife refuge and other wild lands. Even on July Fourth, we don’t see that much boat traffic compared to other lakes.”

Established for wintering waterfowl and other migratory birds, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge occupies about 35,000 acres just off I-65 near Decatur. The refuge provides homes for hundreds of bird species and winters as many as 100,000 ducks and 60,000 geese. Visitors enjoy such outdoors activities as hiking, biking, bird watching and horseback riding through diverse habitats including reclaimed farmland replanted in hardwoods.

“The refuge offers nearly 100 miles of gravel roads, some only open to vehicles during part of the year,” explains David Young, Wheeler NWR ranger. “When closed to vehicles, these roads make great bicycle-riding routes with opportunities to see wildlife. Some gravel roads are a part of the larger regional Singing River Trail.”

Since the refuge exists as a bird sanctuary, it prohibits any migratory bird hunting, but does offers limited small game and deer hunting. Several state wildlife management areas along the Tennessee River also offer hunting.

After a short walk behind the refuge visitor center, photographers can observe and photograph numerous birds including various waterfowl, sandhill cranes and bald eagles. Birders could possibly glimpse critically endangered whooping cranes.

Each year, Decatur and the refuge put on the Festival of the Cranes, which took place in January. At this festival, visitors participate in birding workshops, nature walks, children’s activities and other events. “The Festival of the Cranes used to be just at Wheeler NWR, but it’s become a citywide festival with many events in Decatur,” says Melea Hames with the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association. “Also in Decatur, people can visit Point Mallard Park, which has a water park and golf course. People can also visit the Cook Museum of Natural Science. The Sizzle and Smoke barbecue festival at Ingalls Harbor offers steak cookoffs and grilling. Many major fishing tournaments run out of Ingalls Harbor.”

As the refuge sits on the Tennessee River and a major tributary, many people enjoy canoeing and kayaking the backwaters. Gliding along silently, paddlers can sneak up on wildlife for great photography opportunities.

“During the spring and summer, the Tennessee River tributaries, such as Flint Creek in Decatur and Limestone Bay in Mooresville, make great places to go kayaking,” Young recommends. “At Osprey Point, paddlers can view nesting osprey.”

The second largest lake in Alabama, Wheeler Lake runs 60 miles along the Tennessee River, providing abundant opportunities for sailing, boating and other water activities. Several marinas, such as this one, offer access to boaters.

People also paddle the very scenic Elk River. This major tributary flows into Wheeler Lake from the north near Rogersville. On the north shore, Rogersville sits close to Wheeler Dam and Joe Wheeler State Park.

“If people enjoy watersports, this is one of the greatest places to be,” Richardson says. “This part of the Tennessee River doesn’t have as heavy boat traffic as some other lakes. The Elk River and Second Creek are great places to water ski or water board.”

Hikers can use five trails on the refuge and more at Point Mallard Park. Joe Wheeler State Park covers 2,550 acres and includes 16 miles of hiking and biking trails. The resort park also offers a full-service marina, a restaurant, convention facilities, golf course, motorboat and paddle boat rentals and other amenities. Lodging accommodations range from resort hotel rooms to lakeside cottages or primitive camping.

“Joe Wheeler State Park is on the water and it’s absolutely gorgeous,” Hames says.

Steve A. Graham grew up in Rogersville and keeps his 36-foot-long pontoon boat at the state park marina. He runs Wheeler Lake Scenic Cruises and takes people on the lake two to three times a day on weekends and holidays from late April to early November. Private parties can arrange for special excursions.

“One of the greatest pleasures I get out of this business is taking people on the lake who maybe haven’t been in a long time or ever,” Graham remarks. “The lake is beautiful and I think the hospitality in this area can’t be matched anywhere.”

Easily accessible by elderly people or those with mobility issues, Graham’s boat comes with a restroom and roof. Graham can configure the setup with individual seats to accommodate a specific number of guests. Each cruise takes about 60 to 90 minutes.

“I’ll tell them a little history about the park, Wheeler Dam, the Tennessee River and the importance of the TVA to this area,” Graham says. “We see lots of birds and pretty scenery. In the winter, we see herons, pelicans, geese, ducks and egrets. We don’t see bald eagles every time, but they are around this area.”

For anglers, Wheeler Lake offers good fishing for several species. Like the rest of the Tennessee River, the system can produce trophy catfish. It once held the world record for blue catfish at 111 pounds.

While in the area, visit General Wheeler’s home near Hillsboro. Several buildings sit on 50 acres. Visitors can see many items from the general’s life on display.

“General Joe Wheeler’s home is a really neat place to see for anyone interested in history,” Hames says. “It still has furniture that was there when the general lived in the house.”

Other area attractions include the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Muscle Shoals, the Helen Keller House and Rattlesnake Saloon in Tuscumbia, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville and the Coondog Cemetery near Cherokee.

For more information:

  • Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association
    402 Sherman Street
    P.O. Box 2537, Decatur, AL 35602
  • Alabama Music Hall of Fame 
    617 Highway 72 West, Tuscumbia, AL 35674
  • Athens Main Street
    Tere Richardson, Executive Director
  • Colbert County Tourism
    Tuscumbia, AL
  • Cook Museum of Natural Science 
    133 4th Ave. NE, Decatur, AL 35601
  • Decatur Morgan County Tourism
    350 Market St. NE, Decatur, AL 35601
    800-232-5449 or 256-350-2028
  • Festival of the Cranes
    3121 Visitor Center Rd., Decatur, AL 35601
  • Joe Wheeler’s Home
    John Griffin, Site Director
    12280 Alabama Highway 20,
    Hillsboro, AL 35643
  • Joe Wheeler State Park 
    4403 McLean Dr., Rogersville AL, 35652
  • Mallard Point Park
    2901 Point Mallard Circle, Decatur, AL 35601
  • Rogersville Chamber of Commerce
    36 Wheeler Street, Rogersville, AL 35652
  • Tennessee Valley Authority
    1010 Reservation Road (MPB),
    Muscle Shoals, AL 35662-1010
  • U.S. Space & Rocket Center
    One Tranquility Base, Huntsville, AL 35805
    1-800-637-7223 or 256-837-3400
  • Wheeler Lake Scenic Cruises
    Steve A. Graham
    256-335-2187 or Facebook
  • Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge
    David Young, Park Ranger
    2700 Refuge Headquarters Rd.,
    Decatur, AL 35603


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