Pine Creek Barrens Nature Preserve

I happened on references to Pine Creek Barrens Nature Preserve while in pursuit of an opportunity to get to hike on one of the few Bluegrass Savanna remnants that remain in Kentucky. These savannas are like prairies, but with the unique quality of having massive multi-century old Bur Oaks and Blue Ashes located within the grassland. Unfortunately, due to their small size, scarcity, and vulnerability, these are largely closed to the public. In his book, Kentucky’s Last Great Places, the late Thomas Barnes grouped the grass glades that occur within barrens with these savannas, and wrote extensively of the beauty and uniqueness of this preserve.

Pine Creek Barrens Nature Preserve is a spectacular place on Earth that was protected by the Kentucky Nature Conservancy in the 1990s. It demonstrates four ecosystems; grassed woodlands, open glades, barrens and a mesic hardwood forest in the ravine along Pine Creek. In addition there are numerous sinkholes and limestone outcroppings.

You realize that you are in a unique environment in the first few minutes that you are on the trail. You find yourself in open woodland with under story of grasses and wildflowers. Everything seems dry, the ground feels more firm than usual, and the trees appear to be stunted, allowing sunlight to reach the grasses. Episodically you see the limestone arise through the soil surface, declaring its prominent role in determining the ecology of the place.

The soil overlying the limestone is very thin and is responsible for the sparse undergrowth and stunted trees. For millennia fire has played a role in maintaining this plant community and prescribed burns are still used for this purpose. The trees along this part of the trail included Red Oak, White Oak, Chinkapin Oak, Sugar Maple, Redcedar, Persimmon, Pignut Hickory, and interestingly, Virginia Pine. The grasses included Little Blue Stem, Indian Grass and Prairie Dropseed. As we were about to exit this part of the preserve we came upon a stately hickory that stood well above its neighbors. Perhaps by some good fortune its seed had germinated in a finger of deeper and moister soil that had extended up from the valley that was just below the ridge.

From the woodland savanna we emerged onto a barren where the limestone was even more prominent and soil thin and of poor quality. Along the edges of these more challenging environments we found Post Oak and mature Red Cedar. Somewhat like the Bristlecone Pine out west, they are living in the harshest of conditions and taking what nature throws at them, battle worn, and soldiering on. To me, Post Oak is like an old friend that you see all too rarely, but who you respect greatly for their ability to make the best of a bad situation (#treenerd)

Scattered amongst what at first glance looked like a wasteland or weed strewn rust belt clean up site, were a variety of wildflowers and other forbs that we were not familiar with and could not identify with the guides that we had on hand, but later identified as Flowering Spurge, Slender Gerardia, and Glade Bluets (see photos below).

Due to uniqueness of the ecosystem and a desire to identify plants that we were not familiar with, the first mile of trail took us about an hour and half to traverse, or roughly one third our usual pace. We were engaged with keying trees, using field guides, and photographing the beauty around us.

From here the trail headed down into a ravine that houses Pine Creek. It is a mixed mature hardwood forest with a wide variety of trees, including appearances of American Beech and Tulip-poplar, walled in by limestone outcroppings and coursing along the beautiful Pine Creek with its numerous small water falls and rapids.

The soil here is deeper and the atmosphere moist, leading to a more lush understory. This part of the trail is about one half mile long and leads to a switch back through the limestone that you climb to get back out of the valley. This is the most challenging part of the hike. From here we found ourselves on top of the ridge with great views of the creek below. The trail winds along the hillside and leads to the largest glade, which was near the terminus of this loop trail.

All in all I think that this will be an outstanding hike in all seasons. Parts could be a little treacherous with ice, but each season will reveal new colors, lighting, and textures.


This was an early September hike and the late summer wildflowers were at their peak including Large Blazing Star, Goldenrod, Field Thistle, Tall Tickseed, Great Lobelia, Meadow Pink, possibly Rosinweed, and Obedient Plant (see below).

Fungi and Ferns

Despite the top of the ridge appearing quite dry, there was a great variety of fungi, mosses and ferns throughout the trail. The fungi were particularly dramatic with a color spectrum reminiscent of a color wheel in an elementary school art class.

Odds and Ends

Poison Ivy, False Solomon’s Seal berries, Redcedar (Juniper) berries, mosses and ferns, wild plums, and a Leopard Frog.

Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Pine Creek Nature Preserve is about 100 miles from Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati and about 20 miles below Louisville. It is only 5 miles off I-65.

Parking – good gravel lot for about 10 cars and I have read that it can be crowded on weekends.

Facilities – Porto-let (clean)

Trail Condition – excellent

Benches – we saw a bench on the trail about every mile

Kids – Kids seven and older should be able to do well on the entire trail with guidance (sink holes, bluffs). Kids under 7 may have trouble with the somewhat steep switchback coming out of the ravine. There was however a “bench” trail that appeared to bisect the oval loop trail and would allow hikers with younger children to avoid the ravine section.

Suggested Paired Hike – consider a trail at Bernheim Forest which is 10 miles away and offers a wide variety of trails.



  1. Pat, this is a fabulous initial entry into your blog. We are definitely going to follow in your footsteps to experience this beautiful area, which I had never heard of before now. Looking forward to your next post. Thank you!

  2. This is fantastic, Pat! The storytelling and photos make the hiking description so enticing! Wish I was still in Kentucky to follow your trails!

    • Thanks Pam. Obviously most our hikes will be in the Greater Cincinnati region but some will be from the road. Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and Congaree National Park closer to you on my radar. Was at Savannah NWR several years ago and loved it.

  3. Pat, Excellent blog. Look forward to more of your adventures.
    I think you would enjoy Audobon State Park in Henderson, KY. Some of the largest oak trees I have ever seen. The colors will be stunning in a month.

Leave a Reply