Quiet Trails Nature Preserve – Cynthiana, KY

It was the best of hikes, it was the worst of hikes, it was a day of wisdom, it was a day of foolishness….with apologies to Charles Dickens.

The mid June morning started with much promise and excitement as our eldest daughter, who is a science educator, was joining us on this outing to this Kentucky nature preserve that has been on my list for some time. I had been somewhat reluctant to venture there as on-line reviews commented on poor road signage, one of the photographer’s pet peeves, and slippery footing in wet weather. With 4 days of dry weather behind us, I thought that we should be catching the trail in good condition.

And the good news is that the road signage issue has been addressed.

It was a balmy week and the temperature was 84 degrees when we arrived. We were blessed with partly cloudy skies and a steady breeze. When I looked at the weather forecast the evening before they mentioned a small risk of “pop up showers”.

The trail at this preserve is a loop trail with a single arm that exits to the Licking River shoreline. The trail is formally set up to be traversed in a clockwise route, with the trailhead positioned to the left of the entry gate. I concur with other hikers’ opinions that the better choice is to go counter clockwise, and descend the “Deep Hollow” part of the trail down to the river, and return on the “Challenger” stretch, which has a steady but lesser slope and better footing.

The early trail was down sloping, dappled with sunlight, and rock strewn, but decorated with an array of wildflowers:

Chicory – a European native whose roots can be used as a coffee substitute.

Horse Nettle – a member of the nightshade family, its berries are deadly poisonous.

Wild Rose – proving once again that roses can lead to romance.

Deptford Pink – dainty yet dramatic on a small scale, with flowers being one half inch in size. Perhaps my favorite summer wildflower.

Oxeye Daisy – the photographer’s favorite, because as they said in “You’ve Got Mail”, it is the friendliest flower. This ubiquitous flower is also native to Europe.

American Vetch – one of 17 vetch species that occurs in the U.S.

Shortly we entered a more shaded wood. The trail became a little steeper and the trees larger. The understory was limited, providing views to the ravine and ascending hillside to our right.

Perhaps the most interesting botanical finding of the day was this simple blue “drupe” noted on the trail. This color is quite rare in nature.

Study of the surrounding plant life revealed the source to be this beautiful specimen of Possumhaw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum). The somewhat rounded leathery leaves with fine teeth being the identifying characteristics.

The berries are important for numerous wildlife species and will turn to blue or black as they ripen.

Soon we found the trail arm heading downhill toward the Liking River. On the left we saw this outstanding remnant stone wall with the stones placed vertically.

One can imagine the sweat that went into the efforts to build that wall.

At this point the stones in the trail became a more prominent and challenging feature.

Soon we were in the river floodplain, mostly a field of grasses and forbs, and found this structure.

It is a shelter placed at the exact location of a historic trading post that serviced loggers who floated their logs from eastern Kentucky down the Licking River to sawmills in Covington and Newport. In fact, part of the structure includes salvaged lumber from the trading post.

On inspection one can see the hand hewn markings on the timber. Given its color and apparent rot resistance, perhaps that is American Chestnut wood as chestnut made up 50% of the trees in the eastern forest 120 years ago, before the Chestnut Blight hit.

In this forest opening we also saw these tasty snacks – Raspberries! The ripe ones were dark purple approaching black.

Raspberries can be differentiated from blackberries as their fruit ripens in late June or early July, and the canes are frequently round with tinges of pink or purple and white coloration. Blackberries ripen toward the end of July and have green angular canes.

Also in this area we saw some field wildflowers.

Yarrow – a plant that has been used for many folk and Native American medicinal treatments.

An unidentified member of the pea family.

Soon we found ourselves at the bank of the Licking River, sheltered by large Sycamores.

After taking some stairs down to the bank we were greeted by the scene of the title photo and these views.

I was excited to get to the river having read about the 23 species of freshwater mussels that have been inventoried there. But first I was distracted by the beauty of the valley and the energy of the Licking River.

It was at this time that we first heard a rumble of thunder way off in the distance. As we had partly cloudy skies above us, we naively went about our enjoyment of the setting. I quickly found three outstanding mussel specimens without getting my feet wet.

A healthy mussel population reflects a healthy stream.

On the stone ladened shore of the river were large swaths of American Water Willow.

Which was even more lovely on close view.

There were other interesting sightings among the rocks on the river bed.

Shells of dead mussels and fresh water snails.

But as the thunder somewhat suddenly became more frequent and louder, we realized the errors of our complacency when we pulled up the weather radar.

The app told us that the storm would hit in 12 minutes. The problem was that we were 1.5 miles from our van, the trail was entirely up hill, and we were not Olympic sprinters.

We hustled the best we could as the gentle breeze turned into threatening gusts. The “Challenger” segment of the trail became alive with a swaying trees and snapping sounds.

To be honest I have never been so frightened on a hike, especially after a branch 2 inches in diameter fell and just missed my left shoulder. These were “Quiet Trails” no more. And then the rain started.

The last half mile or so of the hike was in a drenching downpour coupled with a chorus of wind whipping through the trees and percussion added by tree branches snapping and falling.

We eventually got to the parking area and the ladies jumped into the van. I was under the van hatch pulling my field guide books from the soddened back pack when we all heard a loud crash. We toweled off with paper towels from our travel kit and started to leave. We turned left out of the parking lot and faced this image. This was the source of the sound we heard as we got back to the van.

Using Google Maps we found another route home by turning right. About a mile later we came upon this.

Thankfully, with the assistance of our daughter, we were able to able to open the road just enough to allow passage of our van.

We actually had to address three other significant downed trees on our way to a major thoroughfare, and we are thankful that our complacency did not have significant consequences. I could lament that the last half of our hike was aborted and I did not get a chance to study the 10 species of ferns documented in the preserve, but instead I will accept that I put our group at risk by not reacting when we first heard thunder. In this day of instantaneous information, pulling up the weather app would have prevented the dangerous situation that we found ourselves in.

We took a deep breath and headed home.

In summary, Quiet Trails Nature Preserve is a worthwhile outing. It is moderately physically challenging but there is a lot to enjoy along the trail. The real reward occurs at the river valley with the pristine Licking River and the myriad of wildlife. If not for the advancing storm we would have spent more time knee deep in the quick moving waters. I am also looking forward to revisiting the “Challenger” part of the trail as I suspect that is where the 10 endemic fern species will be found.

It was the best of hikes, it was the worst of hikes, it was a day of wisdom, it was a day of foolishness. Indeed! It was “The Tale of Two Hikes”. We will learn from this adventure.

And one last photo of the day.

Eastern Forktail Damselfly – which come in a range of colors and is endemic throughout the United States east of the Rockies.

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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns. Videos by weather warrior Caroline Burns.


Parking – Gravel lot for 6-8 cars. Signage improved.

Facilities – None.

Trail Conditions – Moderately difficult based on terrain. In addition, an abundance of stones on the trail and the slippery surface even with a lack of rain was challenging. The best route is “Deep Hollow” segment down to the river and then back via the “Challenger” segment.

Print Map Link – https://eec.ky.gov/Nature-Preserves/Brochures/QuietTrailsBrochure_color.pdf

Benches – One noted along each segment of the trail, although the one on the Deep Hollow segment was relatively inaccessible due to the slippery terrain leading to it. There is also the picnic shelter on the trail headed to the river.

Kids – Kids 8 and older if they are experienced with hiking.

Dogs – Prohibited.

Suggested Paired Hikes – None. I would suggest that you devote some time to study the shallow river ecosystem. Hunt for some mussels. Catch some crayfish. Do you have a seine net?




  1. A Tale of Two Hikes, indeed. Glad you all made it out safely. Looks like a nice hike. Is the American Water Willow a member of the orchid family?

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