Dupree had been on my list of nature preserves to visit for some time, so when our daughter Caroline, who is an educator, requested that I find a hiking venue for Martin Luther King Day, it was on the short roster of potential hikes. While the 2 hour drive from our Northern Kentucky home would usually disqualify a venue for Caroline, the prospect of seeing the Kentucky River Palisades won over any hesitancy that she had. The Palisades is a 100 mile long series of gorges that feature limestone bluffs arising 220 feet above the Kentucky River.
If your goal is to visualized the bluffs that make up the Palisades, winter is the best time to visit the collection of Kentucky Nature Preserves that border the Kentucky River and feature the Palisades ecosystem (Dupree, Sarah Brown Crutcher, Tom Dorman, Jim Beam). The bare deciduous trees allow for better visualization of the limestone cliffs of the Palisades. The fact that The Nature Conservancy was involved in the founding of this preserve validates its ecological importance.
Like all the other Kentucky Nature Preserves that we have visited, the parking area is generous and well maintained. It featured educational signage providing background information on the preserve we were about to enter.
The Main Trail is a gravel lane that takes you to the 5 other trails of the preserve. It bisects a restored farm pasture that now features native grasses and forbs, resulting in a huge pollinator field.
Caroline and I, both flower enthusiasts, enjoyed the challenge of trying to identify the myriad of flower skeletons enduring halfway through winter. This meadow alone would be worth a visit in the summer months, to enjoy the floral display and the feeding butterflies and bees.
After a mild downhill grade the lane travels through a wood that featured stately Redcedars, many reaching 40 feet or more. I love their muscular architecture in the winter, when they can best be appreciated.
Approaching a bend in the trail we noted some large birds coming and going from a huge Hackberry that was in a declining state of health, but offered numerous open roosting spots. One flew right over us and revealed itself to be a Turkey Vulture. Despite the considerable distance between us and them, we clearly made them anxious. While other trees obstructed our view significantly, patience allowed the photographer to capture this photo of a Black Vulture.
About this same time my companions started commenting on a lovely scent that they were picking up. I however could not perceive it. But I did identify its source – a surprisingly large collection of Witch-hazel populating both sides of the trail. It was Vernal Witch-hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), the first flowering shrub to bloom in the new year, this on January 16th.
It should continue to flower through March. It is less prevalent than Common Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), which is the last native shrub to bloom in the fall (September-November). One characteristic that helped with the identification, other than the time of its bloom, was that they had some persistent leaves, as seen in the second photo, which is common with the Vernal species. What fun!
Wanting to view the Palisades from the opposing cliff, we opted to take the Overlook Trail loop, which arose on the right from the Main Trail, with entry and exit sites only a short distance apart. We took the more distal entry to get impatient me to the Palisades more quickly. The gravel Main Trail continued on, transitioning into the River Trail that heads down slope to the southern bank of the Kentucky River, and reportedly has great views of the Palisades from that vantage point.
The Overlook Trail is bare dirt and easily traversed. The understory is open, allowing for views across the forest floor, which made the large sink holes that we had been seeing more apparent.
The sink holes here are massive, many measuring hundreds of feet across and appearing as gradual depressions on top of the ridge.
The sink holes and some small cave openings are part of the “karst” landscape that also includes sinking streams and springs. They result from the dissolving of the underlying limestone bedrock by streams and ground water. These features are home to many unique animals and plants including the endangered Gray and Indiana Bats.
Arising off the Overlook Trail is the Meditation Trail, which takes the hiker closer to the southern Palisades cliff edge and offers up good views of the Palisades on the northern bank of the Kentucky River. The land on the northern bank is several hundred feet higher than that on the southern bank due to vertical displacement along the Kentucky River Fault.
Placed upon a large exposed rock was a bench that encouraged one to settle in and enjoy the vista, even on this January hike.
The bench provided the good views of the bluffs on the other side of the Kentucky River Gorge that we were hoping for.
In addition to the views, this section of trail also had interesting rock formations, both on the trail and alongside it, and had a little more terrain change over its route.
The Meditation trail then rejoins the Overlook trail which heads to the eastern border of the preserve. At the namesake “overlook” are both a picnic table and bench, offering additional views of the river gorge.
Following recent rains, the muddied Kentucky River can be seen from these vantage points, as captured in the photo below.
From here the trail heads back toward the parking area, winding through an open wood that featured many large trees, especially Chinkapin Oak and Tulip-poplar.
The Overlook Trail is a loop and hooked back up with the Main Trail, and we headed toward the parking lot. Soon we were back near the Hackberry tree, which again was laden with vultures. As before, they were very wary of our presence and took aflight, but not before we got this photo of a Turkey Vulture.
One of the things that stands out in the otherwise drab winter landscape are the mosses; covering logs, soil, and rock. While they at first glance appear to be the same “thing”, closer exam reveals marked structural differences, representing different species that I do not have the skill set or the resources to identify. These photos capture their differences and I will classify them based on resemblances that I see in their forms.
The Pipe Cleaner
Mosses are environmental specialists with different types of mosses growing on the different materials . Those on stone are different than those on bare dirt, decaying wood, or live trees. And vice versa.
In her book on moss ecology, Gathering Moss, a Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, Robin Wall Kimmerer, points out that it can take a century for a moss to get so “naturally” established in these mircoclimates; dependent on specific moisture, mineral, and other nutrient needs. That is why we need to treat them with respect and tread gently. It is a good read.
The photo below shows a moss in the active spore forming reproductive process, which came as a bit of a surprise in the dead of winter. But when you reflect on the process of using spores for reproduction, winter may be the best time. The spores are formed in the sporangiophore shown in the photo. They are held up above the moss itself so wind can catch the small spores and carry them a distance from the parent. Winter might be a good time because winter offers: Wind gusting through the woods, an open understory so that the flight of the spores are not blocked by neighboring ground plants, and a more consistently moist environment than other times of the year, which would be good for spore germination.
Winter is not ideal fern hunting time since many ferns are deciduous and dormant then, but there are just a few species of ferns that are evergreen, so when you find them, identification can be less daunting. At Dupree we saw scattered patches of Christmas Fern as well as this specimen of Leather Wood Fern. The alternate placement of the leaflets along the rachis (stem) and the position of the spores along the margin of the subleaflet on the underside of the leaves are the identifying characteristics.
Another interesting finding that we saw along the way, were the tips of Redcedar branches broken off and on the ground. It was unclear to me what caused that but they were everywhere. Perhaps it was harsh winter winds. In the first photo below you can see the pieces laying amongst some moss and leaves. In the second photo you see a branch segment of a male Redcedar tree. The yellow structures at the tips of the branchlets are the developing male cones for the upcoming season.
And finally, an artsy photo that demonstrates the textures of nature – a couple of acorn caps and at least four species of moss in a 4 inch by 6 inch area.
In summary, a jaunt at Dupree Nature Preserve has a lot to offer, and it is a great winter venue, offering up views of the Kentucky River Palisades. The woods are virtually devoid of invasive plants, allowing for expansive views across the forest floor and better appreciation of the kartz geology. It is reported to have outstanding spring ephemeral wild flowers and the meadow near the parking area should be an excellent pollinator observation site in the heat of the summer.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – 34 miles south of Lexington, KY and about 2 hours from Cincinnati.
Parking – Well maintained gravel loop lot with pull offs.
Facilities – Porto-let in the parking area.
Trail Conditions – Overall condition is good.
Benches – Several noted. Sit down and enjoy the environs.
Picnic Tables – several noted including the one at the Overlook.
Kids – Kids six and over should do well. As noted in the photos, the Meditation and Overlook Trails have dangerous cliffs so caution as needed.
Dogs – Prohibited.
Paired Hiking Trails – We did not do the River and Cliff Trails which are also here. In addition there are 3 other nature preserves (Tom Dorman, Jim Beam, Sally Brown Crutcher) within 12 miles of this preserve