Campbell Lakes Preserve Harrison, Ohio

It was like Christmas for a child. I was filled with anticipation. For five days the weather forecast said that Saturday would be sunny with temps in the mid 50s. It was late January in the Ohio River Valley and the weather was delivered just as promised.

This preserve was new to us. It is part of the outstanding Hamilton County Park System and is described as a rehabilitated sand and gravel quarry. Its primary function is to offer public fishing lakes to the western part of Hamilton County, but what attracted me was its location – nestled in amongst the scenic Miami Whitewater River and some of Greater Cincinnati’s best greenspaces: The Oxbow wetlands, the massive Miami Whitewater Forest, and Shawnee Lookout Park. I was optimistic about the birding opportunities; especially about seeing some migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, and perhaps a Bald Eagle.

The preserve consists of 4 large lakes, ranging from 6 to 20 acres, and 183 acres of surrounding flood plain. The trails are relatively informal mowed paths that circumvent the lakes, with minimal signage. The terrain is flat and the visibility is good.

On this day we had our middle daughter Ellen with us. She has an observant and inquisitive nature and we were on the trail for about 30 yards when she noted numerous trees that were cut off 6 to 12 inches above ground.

My initial assessment was that it was a program to remove the invasive Callery Ornamental Pears. But Ellen’s thoughts were that these were all gnawed off. Closer inspection did indeed show the grooves of teeth on the cutting plane, and over the course of the hike we saw many of these.

This was clearly the work of beavers but we could not locate any beaver lodge, although some parts of the lake shorelines were not easily visualized.

Shortly into the hike we came upon the velvety leaves of Common Mullein; a little worse for wear in the winter, but with a softness that was fascinating. The plant measured approximately 20 inches across.

The leaves in the image below look blurred but in fact are crisp. The blurred appearance is due to the hairs that give the leaves their velvety character.

Common Mullein has several nicknames including velvet leaf, flannel plant, and big taper; but my favorite is “cowboy toilet paper”.

Then nearby we saw a Mullein flower spike from last summer, now a seed head, towering over us. This one was approaching 9 feet in height.

What we were seeing were both forms of this biennial plant: the vegetative rosette form of the first year with the velvety leaves, and the reproductive form of the following year, with the towering flower spikes. In the second year the plant sends up a single stalk that has leaves arising from its lower part, and is topped with an elongated rod of yellow flowers. The first photo below shows the dried out leaf remains on the lower stem of the flower stalk, and the second photo is the seed head.

When we rubbed the seed head it released numerous minuscule seeds that the photographer described as “pepper like”.

The seeds are the coned shaped items in the magnified photo below.

A single plant can produce from 100,000 to 180,000 seeds.

Common Mullein is a non-native and was brought to the States from Eurasia in the 1700s. It had several folk medicinal uses but its most interesting use was to harvest fish in slow moving water. The seeds would be thrown into the water and they would release a toxin that caused the fish to be unable to breath. Then the fish could just be picked up. The seeds are very long lasting and they have been proven to germinate over a 100 years after formation.

Given the preserve’s history of being a quarry, it is not surprising to find Mullein here as it is a pioneering plant on disturbed soil. It is less invasive than many non-natives and is frequently out competed as plant succession occurs.

A couple of other interesting findings along the trail were just the evidence of the circle of life. This small scapula bone (shoulder blade), measuring about 2 inches,was intriguing. A femur bone was seen nearby as well.

I am not a scatologist – a scientist that studies feces – but looking at the contents of stool can tell some stories. Here we have a photo of scat that contains a great number of small bones as well as fish scales, but interestingly, no obvious fur.

One of the surprising things on the hike was coming upon a fairly good size tree that I did not recognize. Interestingly, it had some small residual cone like fruits. I used my “tree key for winter trees” and believe that it is a Black Alder, another native of Europe.

As we went from lake to lake we only saw 2 ducks but they took flight before we could photograph or identify them. Still, the scenery surrounding the lakes was worth the trip.

Frustrated by the lack of wildlife observations I opted to utilize my binoculars when we stood on the Center Lake shore. There I saw a flash of blue atop a metal pipe on the western edge of the lake. It was a large Kingfisher. Unfortunately he was not close enough to get a good photo.

Perhaps my favorite part of the hike was when we headed toward the South Lake. The grassland appeared to host clumping native grasses and the trail offered outstanding vistas to the Sycamore treeline that abutted the distal shore. The sun was at our back which made viewing and photography easier.

Looking across South Lake one could really appreciate the understated beauty of the Sycamores.

Nearing the parking lot on our return from South Lake, we came upon this Northern Mockingbird. It was strolling along a grassed hillside when we witnessed an interesting dance, where it cocked its wings back and strutted high on its legs. The literature labels this a “wing flash display”, where it half or fully opens its wings in jerky movements, showing off the big white patches. It is unclear why it does this although theories include to scare up insects to eat, or perhaps to define its territory.

As mentioned earlier, these lakes were managed and stocked for fishing but that plan changed in 2020 when the nearby scenic Miami Whitewater River flooded and caused some soil washouts, connecting the lakes to the river itself. It also appears that these breaches have led to lower the water levels of the lakes. This ended the stocking of game fish, perhaps because park district did not want these species to migrate to the small river.

Here a washout connects the river and Center Lake.

A different washout disrupted the loop trail that ran between Center Lake and Northeast Lake.

On the map below you can see the two washed out areas marked in yellow. The pink lines are the trails we took, initially out and back around the Northeast Lake to the Center Lake, and then looping around to the South Lake.

In summary, it was outstanding January weather for a Midwest hike. While we did not see the wildlife that we hoped to see, we enjoyed the fresh air and the companionship. My hunting and fishing friends tell me that there are a lot of days like that. We are perplexed by the beaver damage that we saw while seeing no evidence of beaver lodges in the 3 lakes we visited. We will be back, perhaps during the migratory bird season, to see if we have better luck with waterfowl encounters, as this looks like ideal habitat for that. In addition, I will need to return to confirm or refute my identification of the Black Alder tree once it has leafed out. posts are released every Sunday morning and some bonus content is added periodically. Please click on a social media icon above to follow for future posts and to make sure that you catch all our reflections on, and adventures with, the great outdoors.

Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Location – 10431 Campbell Rd, Harrison, Ohio, 22 miles west of Downtown Cincinnati.

Parking – Large well maintained gravel lot.

Facilities – Porto-let in the parking area.

Trail Conditions – Overall condition is good.

Benches – None noted.

Picnic Tables – None noted.

Kids – Kids four and over should do well.

Dogs – Welcomed on a 6 foot leash.

Paired Hiking Trails – None at the preserve but Miami Whitewater Forest and Shawnee Lookout Park are just a short drive away and have excellent wooded trails.



  1. The Mullein flower spike is fascinating, I’ve never seen it before. I wonder if the beaver lodge is on the river?

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