Crooked Creek State Nature Preserve is located in Lewis County, Kentucky, where the upper Bluegrass Region meets the Eastern Kentucky region of the Cumberland Plateau. It is sometimes referred to as Crooked Creek Barrens State Nature Preserve, which gives the descriptive “Barrens”, and demonstrates why this parcel is unique and worthy of protection.
Kentucky barrens, by geologic definition, are characterized by thin soils with limestone rocks at or close to the surface. This generally made them poor agricultural lands but resulted in them hosting many unique plants and associated animal species. With Kentucky’s economic development many of these barrens were lost, making protection of the remaining ones more important.
Crooked Creek is a 723 acre preserve, but the single 1.35 mile trail only exposes the visitor to a small portion of the facility. There are vistas across prairie settings, as in the title photo, where flowering plants (forbs) intermingle with native grasses and interspersed trees such as Persimmon or Post Oak. A large part of the preserve is a oak and hickory forest.
From the parking lot the clearly marked trail heads into a woodland/grassland mix that features many species of white oaks including Post Oak, Black Jack Oak, and White Oak. It was there that we first saw this Giant Swallowtail butterfly,
and had our second sighting of the summer of the Clear Wing Hummingbird Moth.
Shortly the trail opens onto a large prairie meadow and we literally gasped at the beauty.
It was interesting that while we were in Kentucky, we were just a few miles from our prairie hikes of July, across the Ohio River, in Adams County Ohio. Now, just two weeks after our most recent prairie outing, the predominant flowering plants dramatically switched to those that I associate with end of summer and beginning of fall. The meadow was full of these new performers.
Joe-pye Weed, which can grow up to ten feet in height, held its flower heads well above its surrounding peers. It is a favorite of many pollinators.
Goldenrod – 22 species of Goldenrod have been documented in Kentucky and there appeared to be several species within this prairie.
Ironweed – named such due to the resilience of its stems.
Slender Blazing Star – this is a rarer species of Liatris, noted by its isolated “cylindrical” flower heads. In the more common Dense Blazing Star the flower heads are in close proximity to each other.
Flowering Spurge – a plant I enjoy because of its understated simplicity.
Playing a less prominent role in this mid-August floral display were plants that we had featured earlier this summer.
Scaly Blazing Star – another of the Liatris genus.
Rattlesnake Master – one of the 5 rare wildflowers documented at Crooked Creek.
Hedge Bindweed – here being visited by an cartoonish appearing bee.
Nodding Onion – which seems to favor growing on edges where forest meets prairie.
But perhaps the most exciting sighting was not the flowering plants but the large swathes of native grasses thriving on the site. I had seen Big Bluestem before but never is such a robust showing, sometimes on its own, and sometimes intermingling with the flowering plants.
Nearby, on the other side of the trail, there was a thriving colony of Little Bluestem, with a mix of wildflowers.
Soon the trail entered an open oak-hickory woodland with clear trails and rolling grade.
What was evident upon entering the woods was the explosion of mushrooms and other fungi, most likely resulting from the overwhelming rains that Eastern Kentucky had experienced in the week before. There were innumerable species in close proximity. You could find three or four different types of mushrooms within a square yard of forest floor.
Variety was noted in the shapes, sizes, and colors of these fungi. The smallest of these can be appreciated when compared to items in their surroundings.
These are about the size of your fourth fingernail.
There were a broad spectrum of colors as well.
And mushrooms of diverse forms:
The low growing Bolete mushrooms.
The classic mushroom shape of the Destroying Angel mushroom, of the Amanita family, one of the most deadly mushrooms.
Water tower shape of Blusher mushrooms, whose cap “blushes” red when touched.
The asymmetric wavy form of the Chanterelle mushroom.
The aptly named Coral mushroom, a member of the Jelly Fungi family
We were also intrigued by the differences in the stems of many mushrooms.
Some stems had skirt like “rings”.
Some appeared to be wrapped in lace.
Some had fuzzy stems.
Finally, some had textured stems.
While no mushrooms were harmed in capturing these photographs, some had been upended by the forces of nature, or grew in such a way as to allow us to get a glimpse of their intriguing undersides where the mushroom spores are formed.
Finally, having read some horror stories, I have pledged not to forage for mushrooms in the wild, but there was ample evidence that somethings are indeed eating the bounty. As expected, just about everything in the woods will eat mushrooms including insects, deer, squirrels, rabbits, turtles, birds and small rodents. Of note, just because it is safe for wildlife does not mean that it is safe for humans.
As the trail continued through the open woodland you would occasionally come upon small prairie pockets. This one afforded us a nice view across additional preserve acreage.
It was in one of these prairie pockets that we finally saw Prairie Docket flowering, for the first time this summer.
In summary, Crooked Creek Nature Preserve is one of those relatively unknown gems that we had hoped to discover as we launched Footpaths; unique, unspoiled and relatively close to home. I am confident in saying that no matter where you are when you read this article, there are similar gems in your region, and thankfully the internet makes finding them quite easy.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – 1797 Chalk Ridge Road, Vanceberg, KY, 76 miles southeast of downtown Cincinnati.
Parking – Large gravel lot for approximately 12 cars.
Facilities – None.
Trail Conditions – mowed path through prairie and wooded grasslands. Dirt path through the woods. Mostly gentle rolling terrain. The trail is a “lollipop” trail with an out and back path with a loop on the end. The trail is well marked.
Print Map Link – None, but a map at the trailhead can be photographed.
Benches – None
Picnic Tables – None
Kids – kids 4 and over should do well here
Dogs – Prohibited
Suggested Paired Hikes – none