Usually when I talk about “forest giants”, family and friends assume that I am relating a close encounter with trophy size trees. Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest has created a clever twist on that vein of thought with instillation of Thomas Dambo’s large troll-like sculptures, which utilize repurposed wood from the region, along the trails on their campus.
These unique structures, which are made of old wood from skids, barrel staves, and items collected from nature, have been placed at three locations along existing trails, with the conglomerated route now labeled the “Forest Giants Trail”.
The trailhead is located just out the back door of the Education Center, on an asphalt all person trail that runs along two lakes that were designed by the world famous landscape design firm, the Olmstead Brothers, in 1939. A short distance down this trail you get a glimpse of the first “giant”, Little Nis, studying his reflection in the pond.
Up close it is even more impressive. The attention to detail is striking.
And who, exactly, is studying whom?
From here the trail transitions to a gravel path that wanders through Bernheim’s world acclaimed Holly Collection.
We were lucky to catch it at peak berry color. To be honest, the photos do not do the intensity of colors justice. For hollies, the trees were large, many appearing to approach 35-40 feet, and covered from turf to tip with red or yellow berries.
There are many cultivars of holly here, varying in form and color.
When paired with the mistletoe noted along the way, it was truly my kind of Christmas walk.
At this point the trail crosses a prairie dressed in its December finest.
Upon exiting the prairie, we come upon the second sculpture, the massive Mama Loumari, who is with child, and reclines comfortably against a large Dawn Redwood tree.
Again, the details of the sculpture, and the repurposing of the wood are striking. I love how nature has added her own touch, with the leaf fall.
At this site we were immersed in a somewhat mature mixed wood, with both pines and hardwoods, hosting an outstanding collection of chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches who were working the trees, finding insect pupae and other morsels tucked in the bark’s crevices. Notice some of their catches in their beaks. (Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Chickadee, Red Bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Red Bellied Woodpecker, White Breasted Nuthatch, White Breasted Nuthatch, and Pileated Woodpecker)
Nuthatches are one of the few birds that will go down a tree trunk headfirst.
Within 50 yards we found ourselves at the 23 acre Lake Nevin, that was featuring this avian model, a Great Blue Heron.
The Lake Nevin setting is serene with numerous places to just pause and observe.
There is abundant wildlife if you wait for it to show itself.
Here the trail crosses a bridge over a finger of Lake Nevin, traversing a Bald Cypress and Tupelo swamp.
And up over the small ridge you meet the third giant, Little Elina, who is busy arranging stones into the shape of a feather for good luck.
In this open setting she exudes a relaxed sense of whimsy.
This part of the trail is an out and back section and we retraced our path to the meadow . Along the way we caught these birds in flight. (King Fisher, Turkey Vulture, Hawk – Marsh?)
We recrossed the prairie on an alternate path and found ourselves in a different part of the Holly Collection, this time amongst the Possumhaw deciduous hollies. Notice that there are no leaves on these hollies in December.
And the final yards of the trail featured our old friend, the Redcedar, with its contrasting blue berries.
Art Amongst Us:
As we worked our way along this trail we found numerous art imbedments. This, in fact, was one of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim’s original motives when he endowed the forest; to integrate art with nature and to expose all visitors to it. I’m excited to see that the current leaders are still embracing his mission by sponsoring the Forest Giants.
In summary, this is a unique hike, that while not challenging physically, is engaging horticulturally, ecologically, and aesthetically through the arts. I think that it is one of those life experiences that participants, especially children, will remember forever, and a visit on a mild winter day may be a lifetime Christmas memory. Not to sound an alarm, but it would be best to visit before the wildlife consume the featured holly berries. Bring binoculars to enjoy the outstanding birding.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – approximately 20 miles south of Louisville and about 2 hours from Cincinnati, just off I-65.
Parking – plenty of parking at the Education Center asphalt lot.
Facilities – At the Education Center (indoors) and some outdoor facilities along the route.
Trail Conditions – Excellent condition and well marked. The Forest Giant trail is 2 miles long. This hike would be rated easy with limited terrain change.
Benches – All along the trail there are benches.
Kids – Kids will do well on this trail as everything is up close and personal and the terrain is perfect for short legs. I can just imagine their faces upon meeting the giants.
Dogs – Welcomed in outdoor areas while on a leash.
Suggested Paired Hikes – There are numerous hikes within Bernheim Forest, ranging from 0.25 mile to almost 14 miles, with ratings from easy to difficult. Their website has excellent descriptions.