Highland Hills Park Fort Thomas, KY

Nothing brings the reptiles out in a February woodland like a sunny day in the mid 50s. It works for us humans too.

I heard about Highland Hills Park recently when I attended a Greater Cincinnati conference on urban reforestation titled “Taking Root”. One of the speakers reported on the development of the trail system in the park and mentioned that it had art installations along its trails – an easy sell to the photographer. The next day found us on these trails.

Highland Hills is a 77 acre classic suburban park. Along the ridge are two picnic shelters, a disc golf course, sports fields, and a dog park. The trails are in the wooded watershed valleys that separate the park from older suburban streets that are on parallel ridges.

The trailhead is on the crest of a medium aged wooded hillside that was undergoing forest progression with several good size walnuts and, unfortunately, many downed ashes. The structure of this large Hackberry, clearly much older than its peer trees, tells me that in the past it grew in an open field, probably a farm pasture.

Major branches so close to the ground would not be seen in trees that developed in a wood. Competition would have caused a long straight trunk.

We were only on the trail for a short time when the first piece of artwork presented itself.

The great thing about the art is that it was born out of the tragedy of Emerald Ash Borer. Most are carved out of the dead snags of ash trees. While the cardinal is reminiscent of artist Charley Harper’s work, others are just whimsical.

It appears that many of the neighbors embrace the greenspace and have placed seating at the edge of this stream that makes up the eastern boundary, and some have their own trail entries.

We were excited to hear a Pileated Woodpecker call and shorty found it working on a nesting cavity in a large ash snag. Initially our view was obstructed by neighboring trees,

but we were able to get a better view a little further down the trail. Unfortunately we were looking somewhat into the sun then.

The Pileated Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker in the Ohio Valley Region, measuring 15 inches in length.

I like this photo that demonstrates its long pointed beak.

Here it has its head well into the cavity. Notice how it places its long tail feathers against the tree for stability while hammering.

We saw another Pileated on the most northern section of the trail (in green on the earlier map).

Near the Pileated Woodpecker we saw this sculpture, with the parent ash remnant on the floor.

We had our daughter, “Eagle Eye” Ellen, with us on this jaunt and true to form nothing seemed to escape her notice.

Did you see it? The head of a snake sticking out from under a log but amongst the leaf litter. Here’s a telephoto view.

We just respected each other and went about our business.

Soon we crossed the creek and found ourselves on a newer trail that traversed a utility right of way. And then we saw this.

But it was on closer examination that the whimsy hit you.

But he was not alone!

Luckily they clearly came in peace.

The photographer’s favorite was this one, doing a close inspection of a rabbit.

As can be seen in the photos above, effort is being made to rid the trailsides of invasive honeysuckle. This left some exposed rocks and forest floor that lizards were utilizing for sunning themselves on this late winter day. With all the earth tones these can turn into a “seek and find”.

The somewhat open canopy made this stretch of trail prime hunting for hawks, which we saw several of.

The farthest loop of the trail continued to utilize the right of way and hosted the steepest part of the trail, which was a good workout. I’ve been told that the wires of the right of way were removed by Duke Energy two years ago.

As mentioned, this area is a new extension to the trail system but is in good shape and has nice bridges crossing the streams.

As we looped back around we revisited the part of the trail where we saw the lizard previously, and sure enough he was there again. As we patiently watched it, we found out that he had a friend,

or two.

Over the course of the hike we did see several small deer and it seemed that we did not bother them in the least.

This carving was larger, utilized a downed Red Oak that had bridged a stream, and offered more of woodland spirit vibe.

As our hike neared completion we had a couple more mystic encounters. First, a little gnome in his cottage.

And then perhaps the best gnome of the day.

While there was great variation in the colorization of the lizards that we saw on the hike, I believe that they are all Eastern Fence Lizards. The one below is a male, as told by the outstanding blue coloration on his abdomen. The blue will get more prominent as the weather warms.

In addition to the Pileated Woodpecker we saw numerous other bird species on this 2 mile jaunt, including: Eastern Bluebird, Cardinal, Sparrow, and Carolina Wren.

And the last image of the day is of this large Ash, isolated in the parkland. Without leaves it is harder to identify to species but I believe that it is a Green Ash. To this point it has fared Emerald Ash Borer fairly well

As I researched the support of Highland Hills it became apparent that “community park” is the the perfect term to describe what makes this venue function so well. While the city of Fort Thomas plays a major role in financing and organizing the upkeep, engaged citizens, including a large volunteer group of employees from Duke Energy, provide ongoing manpower for repairs and incremental improvements.

In summary, the trails at Highland Hills Park are one of those assets that are invaluable to improving the quality of life in a community, and it showed as the paths were well utilized the day we visited. What is unique here is the creative artwork of woodcarver and chainsaw artist Chris Rust (see link below), and the abundance of wildlife for a relatively small suburban island park, located in one of Cincinnait’s oldest suburbs. As our hike only included the outer perimeter of the trails, we did not photograph all the wood carvings. I have never seen statistics on this, but I am confident saying that the majority of trail time in the United States is spent on these regional venues rather than destination sites like state or national parks. I encourage everyone to develop a list of similar greenspaces in their area, and to utilize them liberally when one needs a dose of nature to address the angst level that life too often has.

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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Location – 85 Mayfield Avenue, Fort Thomas, KY, about 5 miles from downtown Cincinnati.

Parking – Many asphalt spaces.

Facilities – Formal seasonal restrooms and portolets.

Trail Conditions – Bare dirt or embedded gravel in good condition. Many excellent bridges to cross the creeks. Overall rating would be moderate although the closer in trails were generally easy.

Print Map Link – None. Copy and paste the earlier map image above. The numbers on the map represent the art installations, although we did find an additional one midway on the red trail.

Benches – Numerous.

Picnic Tables – In the park area.

Kids – Kids four and over should do well on the closer in trails, but the new trails on the utility right of way are more challenging and I would suggest at least 6 and over for them.

Dogs – Welcomed on a leash.

Paired Hiking Trails – There are additional trails at Tower Park, about 1.7 miles away.






  1. This is excellent! I’m a Fort Thomas native and visit occasionally and would have never known about this trail. Thank you

  2. I grew up in Fort Thomas, never knew this park was there. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • You are welcome. One of our goals with Footpaths is to find greenspace gems and to let people know about them. Please consider reading our post of Lynx Prairie and finding your way there in July or August. Absolutely outstanding.

  3. Wow! I’m there in my head already and will soon put my hiking boots on this trail with my 4-legged kiddo. What an amazing place. Accolades to your photographer for the wonderful photos that capture spot on the beauty of this place and the wildlife that call it home (even the carved ones). Thank you so much for sharing your adventures. I learn something new from each of your hikes.
    Debbie Krohman

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