Hilltop Farm Nature Preserve – West Harrison, IN

Hilltop Farm Nature Preserve was our second hike on land owned by Oak Heritage Conservancy, which is based in Southeast Indiana. I was excited to visit as they had just christened the new Upper Loop Trail this fall.

The preserve is 119 acres and located on a former farm that had escaped the development that nearby farms experienced over the past 7 decades or so. William J. and Mary T. Doud, who bought the farm in 1946, donated the land to Oak Heritage Conservancy in 2006, so it could remain a home to the nature they loved.

In the 16 years since, Oak Heritage Conservancy has transitioned it into an outstanding preserve. They have converted 15 acres of hay field into wildlife habitat, with pollinator plants and native grasses, and have constructed 2 excellent trails.

Certainly 2 things that Oak Heritage does well are marking their trails and educating. Spread along the trails are these excellent maps with the always reassuring notation, “You are Here”.

In addition to the maps, there are numerous educational postings, covering a range of topics.

I think that this type of information enriches the outdoor experience, for both novices and seasoned hikers alike, and helps keep the attention of older kids when they are on the trail.

The trailhead starts at the crest of a hill and opens into a pasture that is undergoing plant succession. The trail through the field is wide and well mowed.

Almost immediately I’m challenged to identify the seed heads of this summer and fall’s meadow flowers.

I believe that this is Ironweed and Goldenrod.

This plant had me stymied with legume (pea family) pods being held 4 feet off the ground. By pondering what legumes grow in fields, I was able to identify it as Partridge Pea. Quite different than the Kelly green leaves and bright yellow flowers that adorned it this summer.

We had photographed Wild Senna at its peak color at Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve this past July. Quite a change.

Shortly we turn right to begin the Upper Loop Trail. It weaves over rolling terrain through a mid aged Oak and Hickory wood.

The majority of the hickories are Shagbark, one of my favorite trees. The photo below shows the large thick husks characteristic of Shagbark. While they taste like pecans, which are also members of the hickory family, the thick strong husk make them less appealing commercially.

Other hickories were noted as well including Bitternut. As the name implies, they taste terrible and even wildlife wait to dine on them till late in the season, when other food sources are exhausted.

One of the ways that I identify trees in a winter forest is by glancing at the leaf litter on the floor. In the photo below I see 2 types of hickories (one with 7 leaflets, one with 5 leaflets), some white oak, and I believe a cluster of beech leaves. These would compose a very healthy wood for wildlife.

A small bench was perfectly placed overlooking a wooded hillside.

We left the Upper Loop Trail and headed downhill on the Lower Loop Trail.

At the base of the hill the trail crossed a shallow stream where our footing was aided by some well placed stones.

After we climbed a short grade the trail began to course the perimeter of a large pollinator field which was full of the remnants of last summer’s floral display; with a backdrop of a mature oak, hickory and sycamore wood that lies in the valley of the creek we crossed earlier.

Some of the flower heads I could identify, like this aster below, but I was not familiar with those button tops captured in the title photo.

The Milkweed pods were just starting to open.

Also noted were some native grasses including this Big Bluestem, towering over 6 foot tall.

The trail continued to envelop the field. We had grasses and forbs to our left and mature woods to our right as we walked counter clockwise, with the oaks still offering their outstanding fall colors.

The color is better appreciated on this close up of the same tree.

Even the littlest of oaks did their part, including this Shingle Oak, trying to find a home on the edge of the meadow.

The bottom land was teaming with wildlife. We saw a large doe and could hear several hawks calling. In addition we caught a glimpse of this Cedar Waxwing, high up in an ash tree,

and a group of female Eastern Bluebirds. The females have the characteristic rust colored breast but the back plumage is gray rather than the blue that the males display.

Other late fall colors were noted including these Rose hips, a favorite food of wildlife when ripe.

We also saw a few end of season flowers (Clover, Goldenrod).

Climbing back up the grade we came upon this trophy Osage Orange.

They produce heavy softball size fruits.

The history of the Osage Orange is interesting. In pre-Columbian times its natural range was in a narrow vertical band where Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas meet. Due to the flexibility and strength of the wood, it was favored by Native Americans for making bows, which led french explorers to coin the term bois d’arc (wood of arc), referencing the arc of a bow. That phrase got corrupted to Bodock tree, the vernacular term my Texan friend still uses today. Due to its strength and durability, the wood was preferred for use as wooden pegs in pioneer construction. Its growth habit of developing into a thick network of suckers and functioning as a hedge led to another name, Hedge Apple. These two uses resulted in it being planted across the country.

Perhaps the most interesting photo from this outing was this simple sprig of Honey Locust adorned with lichen.

In Summary, Hilltop Farm Nature Preserve is an excellent addition to the collection of hiking venues that we have in the Greater Cincinnati area. It is a sanctuary in an area of suburban development and within earshot of I-74. Oak Heritage Conservancy has developed the preserve with an attention to detail. I look forward to returning and hiking the rest of the Upper Loop Trail as it appears to traverse a more mature wood.

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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Location – 28976 Stout Rd, West Harrison, IN 47060, 26 miles from downtown Cincinnati.

Parking – Small gravel lot for about 4 cars.

Facilities – None.

Trail Conditions – Mowed path through fields and succession grasslands. Dirt path through the woods. There is a mild elevation change but the grade is easy. Without taking the eastern section of Upper Loop Trail we hiked about 2 miles this outing.

Print Map Link – https://i2.wp.com/oakheritageconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/2022-08-09-1.png?ssl=1

Benches – Yes

Picnic Tables – None

Kids – Kids 4 and over should do well here.

Dogs – Welcomed on a leash.

Suggested Paired Hikes – The two trails together are 2.5 miles.






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