Calli Nature Preserve – North Vernon, Indiana

We switched our hiking destination to Calli Nature Preserve the morning of our outing, trying to find a trail not terribly impacted by the heavy rains the night before. The on-line descriptions of the trails traversing plateaus above the Muscatacuk River suggested less issues with flooded lowlands.

After some initial trouble locating the preserve we found ourselves in a well marked gravel parking area. The promised trail maps were missing, but we printed one out from their website. Initially we struggled orienting ourselves to the trailhead of this loop trail, as it was not clear that the return loop was across the private road, opposite the parking area. Anticipating that the river was just down the slope, we opted to start on that side, and hiked the loop counterclockwise.

The initial setting was a shady mesic (moist) forest with moderately large deciduous trees including Tulip-poplar, Wild Cherry, Shagbark Hickory, White Oak, Red Oak, and Sugar Maple. The understory was primarily low lying non-woody plants, with some Pawpaw trees, and allowed for broad vistas across the terrain.

Soon we were on a gentle slope heading down toward the river that we could hear in the distance. Just above the river we had our first sighting of Eastern Hemlock, perched on the cliff above the river.

Based on the flourish of new growth and adolescent specimens, as noted in the photos below, it is safe to say that they are thriving in this moist setting.

The presence of Hemlocks was mentioned in some of the on-line reports and was somewhat surprising to me as I do not think of Indiana as being in their normal range. However, one can see in the US Forest Service Eastern Hemlock range map below, that isolated populations have been noted in several locations across Indiana. Perhaps they are remnant colonies having traveled down with glaciers eons ago.

This part of the trail puts you in close proximity to the Muscatacuk River and several overlooks would be ideal spots to have a bench to observe the stream valley wildlife. Here a log, if it was not wet from the rains, could have served that function.

We saw plenty of wildlife including this fleeting Kingfisher.

In addition we saw some ducks, geese, and water turtles.

While labeled a river, the Muscatacuk is really a shallow stream. The eastern bank is all preserve land while the western bank appeared to be largely developed with single family homes, well spaced and set back from the river.

It resembled the streams that I spent my youth in; wading, seining for minnows, and fishing. It would be an ideal place to take a child; to wade and to experience the creek ecosystem of minnows, crayfish, water insects and mollusks.

The minnows were abundant, and frequently what you are seeing is the fish’s shadow, rather than the fish itself.

There was ambient traffic noise from a nearby country lane, but for the most part things were tranquil and one could get lost in the hum of the water flow.

Perhaps my favorite spot was where the river flowed beneath this fern covered limestone outcropping midway through the hike.

Closer inspection revealed two red flowers of columbine, one of my favorite wildflowers, integrated within this cool, shady facade.

From here the path began to lead away from the river and we had close encounters with some trophy size trees. First was this fallen Cottonwood tree, with me included for size reference.

Shortly we came upon this majestic Sycamore, well interwoven with other nearby mature trees, creating a full canopy.

One word – Solace.

Another descriptive word about Calli, and one I have seen used on the internet, is diverse. There is a plethora of wildlife to be observed there. This is somewhat surprising since the ecosystem does not change much over the course of the 2 mile trail with perhaps an altitude change of 50 feet.

One of the icons of the mesic forest is the Tulip-poplar and it is present throughout the preserve. Although its name includes the word poplar, it is not a poplar, hence the hyphenated name. Rather, it is a member of the magnolia family. One can see the resemblance in the flower which is pictured in the title photograph, blown to the forest flower by the storm the prior evening, and the photos below.

Sometimes it is what you see on the forest floor that causes you to look up to study the canopy. These flowers, like magnolia, are fragrant.

For a short distance the trail enters what appears to be a flood plain field.

It was hosting some perennial forbs (flowering plants), smaller trees, and this robust specimen of wild grape that was approximately 20 feet by 20 feet. In the late summer and fall it will be a significant source of nutrition for many species. You can see the very early grape clusters in the photo on the right.

Other findings in the field area included stretches of blackberry.

And Common Fleabane.

A new flower to us, noted in the semi-shade along the trail, was the “rare” Synandra. Rare in that it is not present in many wildflower guidebooks and some sources consider it threatened or endangered in areas of its former range. We noted it in a couple locations in the preserve.

Another plant found in abundance was this Viburnum.

The leaf looks like the American Cranberry Viburnum when compared to the other viburnums native to Indiana: Arrowwood, Blackhaw, and Nannyberry. However when one reviews the range map it is not reported to be quite this far south in Indiana. Perplexing.

The late spring wildflower Purple Phacelia, another inhabitant of moist woodlands, was noted in its pastel hues. One identifying characteristic is the stamens that protrude past the petals.

This spring many of our articles featured the flowering spring ephemerals. On this hike it was interesting to see the resultant seed capsules of many of these flowers:



Woodland Poppy

Virginia Bluebell

On macroscopic view perhaps the most interesting was the Woodland Poppy.

The literature did not offer an explanation for the function of the prominent hairs on the seed capsule, which is four segmented, and splits open to release the seeds. These are then dispersed by ants. It does not function as a burr.

Flowers, trees and shrubs are not the only source of color in nature. Some of the most colorful or beautiful can be insects.

One that was pigmented on a grand scale was the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, out courting in fluorescent green.

They were numerous along the trail and are most active in spring and early summer. They are carnivorous, feeding on other insects. They are named for the white spots on the wings, and on magnification this specimen does indeed have six, although the actual number can be variable.

Another was this Cherry Aromatic Millipede.

Found around the world, millipedes are generally more common in moist environments. They are “detritivores”, feeding on decaying matter like old leaves or rotting wood. When threatened the Cherry Aromatic Millipede releases a chemical that smells of cherries, to warn predators of his poisonous nature that involves the release of a cyanide type agent if actually attacked.

The River Jewelwing Damsel Fly has fashion sense. Formal black with bright blue accents.

Damselflies and dragonflies are similar but there are differences. Dragonflies are larger, typically over 2 inches in length and have a bulkier body. Damselflies are usually 1.5 to 2 inches in length and have a thin body as seen above. Dragonflies have larger eyes that nearly take up the entire head area. Damselflies eyes are large but there is clearly space in between the eyes. The wings of the dragonflies broaden at the base where they attach to the body while those of the damselfly taper at the base. Lastly, and to me what is the easiest difference to identify, at rest the damselflies’ wings will be folded together above the body, while dragonflies hold theirs perpendicular to the body.

And the final insect of note, was an early butterfly, the Northern Eyed Brown, sporting earth tones, who is at the lower limit of his range at this southern Indiana preserve.

And finally, we had a laugh when we saw this aborted beaver work. This was a massive tree with a twenty inch trunk and it appears that the beaver eventually gave up.

In summary, it is ironic that we went to Calli Nature Preserve to avoid the consequences of the rain that the region had experienced but found ourselves in a ecosystem where moisture and humidity play such a vital role for the organisms that inhabit the preserve. Virtually everything we observed was dependent on that characteristic of the environment for their well being. The hike is casual and relaxed and has much to offer, including the opportunity for up close interaction with the stream. It would also be a great April hike for spring ephemerals.

My only negatives for the outing are the difficulty that we had finding the “private drive” that leads to the parking area, the absence of a promised map or interpretive pamphlet, and the lack of true benches overlooking the stream.

Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Location – We struggled finding this site initially. There was a lot of road construction causing some detours. In addition the wording on the Indiana Preserve site said “From North Vernon, take US 50 east for just under 1.0 mile to the bridge over the Vernon Fork of the Muscatatuck River. Just after crossing the bridge there is a gravel road on the right.” We never found that entry to the gravel road. What works best is to find the travel circle on US 50 and exit onto Buckeye Street/North Spur Indiana’s Historic Pathways. The private road (North Private Road 40 East) is on the left a short distance from the circle and is labeled such, but we did not see a sign noting that the Calli Nature Preserve was down that road. And yes, at times Google Maps and our vehicle GPS were as confused as we were.

Parking – Well maintained gravel lot for approximately 6 cars.

Facilities – None.

Trail Conditions – The trail is well maintained and is a relatively easy walk. Despite the presence of exposed dirt the trail was not at all muddy despite the wet weather. Unfortunately the map that downloads from the website does not clearly reflect all the trails in the preserve. It fails to show the presence of the “short loop” or the mowed trails in the field that caused some confusion along the way.

Print Map Link:

Benches – I believe that there were 2 along the outer loop, one overlooks the field and one is set back further than ideal from the stream.

Kids – Kids 4 and over should do well here.

Dogs – Welcomed on a leash.

Suggested Paired Hikes – There is reportedly a short hike to an associated waterfall but we did not take this trail.


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