Between guided hikes, nature workshops, kayak tours, and special events like the annual Creek Crawl obstacle race, it seems there is always something going on at Graham Creek Nature Preserve in Foley. With nearly 500 acres and multiple year-round recreation opportunities, it’s no wonder the site attracts upwards of 70,000 visitors a year.
“As a city park, it’s free and open to the public from sunup to sundown, seven days a week, and it’s very heavily used,” said Leslie Gahagan, environmental manager for the city of Foley who manages the development of the preserve. But with a mixture of natural habitats including wetlands, forests and tidal marshes, it’s not just humans who benefit from the site.
“Every season there are different flowers blooming and different birds,” Gahagan said. “We also have about 700 species of plants, including 10 on the Alabama endangered list, and we can manage species like the pitcher plant in those wetland areas.”
It was just a little over a decade ago when the city of Foley opened the preserve with a hiking trail and kayak launch, providing residents and tourists with public access to Wolf Bay. Over the next few years, bathrooms and pavilions were added, followed by a sensory outdoor classroom (completed in 2012), introducing art, climbing, gardening, sand and music stations to students of all ages. In 2016, doors opened on the Interpretive Center, featuring a Nature Center exhibit area full of educational displays like live native reptile and habitat reproductions.
Ten years ago, however, “I never could have predicted it would become what it has,” Gahagan said. “The city initially purchased the property for its pristine aquifer resources. A few years in, we started branching into formal education opportunities with camps and field trips. But I’m a biologist by trade, when disc golf was first suggested, I had no idea what that was!”
Indeed, the preserve now boasts three 18-basket disc golf courses, mountain biking and cross county trails, and an archery park. “We do have an advisory board and management plan to make sure we do what’s right for the property and also right for the local citizens,” Gahagan said. “We’ve grown a lot, but we have a plan in place to ensure we maintain the integrity of the park and its purpose.”
To handle all the upkeep and special events, Gahagan said the preserve relies heavily on a community of helping hands. “We have a small staff and couldn’t do it all without the help of volunteers.”
Last fall, a group of Baldwin EMC employees helped to restore areas of the outdoor classroom, which were feeling the effects of the environment.
“We replaced a lot of the rotting timbers which were starting to disintegrate due to it being a wetland area,” said Baldwin EMC Construction Coordinator Mark Byrnes. “I really enjoyed doing it. Helping out at a site like that, in a way that you know you’re making something better for other people in the community to enjoy, was really a great way to give back.”
For Baldwin EMC warehouseman Steve Engel, “It always feels great to help out in a way that will help others get outdoors and get moving.” Engel, who is a mountain biker himself, actually began volunteering at the preserve a few years ago when he noticed overgrowth on the mountain bike trails. “I connected with a few other guys and we got the trail cleaned up and a year or two later we built bridges so the bikes could cross the marshes.”
“For me, the best part of helping out was knowing that a small group of us accomplished in one day a project that would have taken one of the Preserve staff a week or more,” said Baldwin EMC engineer Sol Fleming. “We were able to knock it out pretty quick and let the staff focus on what they need to focus on that day.”
“Our biggest request for volunteers is for our events,” Gahagan said. “No matter the season, though, if we have someone who wants to volunteer, we always have a job for them to tackle.”
Visit Graham Creek Nature Preserve at 23030 Wolf Bay Drive, Foley, Alabama. Follow them on Facebook or go to grahamcreekpreserve.org for information on upcoming events. Call (251) 923-4267 to find out how you can volunteer at the preserve.