This was a flashback hike. We were returning to one of the first venues that we had hiked as a family – Boone Cliffs.
The preserve is extraordinary. It was one of the first properties purchased by The Nature Conservancy of Kentucky, whose mission is to protect rare and vulnerable habitats that are at risk of development. The unique features are the Kansan glacial deposits of soft rock that project from the hillsides – the “cliffs” as such, that result in 20 to 40 foot drop offs, and the acres of old growth mesophytic (moist) woodland. The 76 acres of the preserve are home to over 300 plant species and over 90 species of birds have been documented there.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as a young family, we had hiked there numerous times, and now we had the opportunity to revisit it – with our eldest daughter, an educator on Spring Break, who is now well into the third decade of her life. How did that happen?
As we approached the preserve Caroline asked what I hoped to see on our outing. Top on the list were Trillium and Trout Lily, or perhaps some spring ephemeral that we had never seen. And of course owls, because I’m always in search of owls in the leafless wood.
We were still at the van putting on our hiking shoes when we started identifying flowers on the wooded hillside. The most obvious one was the pastel purple Woodland Phlox, that tends to be taller than most of the spring wildflowers.
At the trailhead itself there was a large swathe of Star Chickweed.
On close up they look stately.
We were intrigue by the variation in color of the anthers of this specimen.
Once on the trail the bounty continued. Within 50 feet of the parking lot, two of my goals were reached. There we found numerous White Trout Lily in full bloom, as seen in the title photo and below. I had seen Yellow Trout Lily, including in my own woodland garden, but to my recall never the white species. It is considered “uncommon” in Kentucky.
Generally the Trout Lily flower hangs like a bell and it is hard to appreciate both the flower anatomy and its beauty. But at times, with the right angle, you get a special view.
The Trout Lily is deep rooted and half the stalk is underground. Young, non-flowering plants have a single leaf whereas older, flowering plants have two. They are called Trout Lily because of the resemblance the leaves have to the colorization of a brook trout.
These were not isolated flowers, but rather were members of a platoon of Trout Lily that inhabited the hillside. They reproduce by seed, but also by additional bulbs that arise off the roots, leading to dense colonies. The specimens in the photo below were in the shade of the trunk of a large tree and are somewhat hard to discern, but it gives one the understanding of the density of the population here.
The initial part of the trail arced around a hillside and had a mild yet steady grade upward utilizing switchbacks. As it wound around the sun exposure changed, as did the floral makeup. Flowers that we had been seeing for several weeks became more prominent:
Cutleaf Toothwort – with its marijuana shaped leaves.
Spring Beauty – Like the Trout Lily, it was occurring in fantastic numbers amongst the leaf litter. We saw this throughout the hike.
Purple Cress – like Spring Beauty it has been blooming for weeks. In these photos you can see that this specimen is developing pencil shaped seed pods at the end of the flower stems. This can best be appreciated in the second enlarged photo.
Soon the grade got somewhat steeper and the trail surface was comprised of more gravel and a sandy loam. The gravel and sand were due to the exposed “cliffs” that give the preserve its name, and loomed above us.
It was in this sandy loam that we saw Early Saxifrage. This was a new wildflower to us and my guidebook describes its habitat as “Rock outcrops, usually limestone and occasionally sandstone in moist woods”. An apt description of where we found it.
Amongst its neighbors were our first violets of the season:
Round Leaf Violet – The flowers tend to appear before the leaves fully expand.
Common Blue Violet – the long flower stalk and rounded leaves with fine hairs on their underside are identifying characteristics. The flower color can range from bright purple with a white eye, to white with blue veins.
As we worked our way around the precipice, exposed concretions demonstrated the composition of the cliffs themselves.
Once atop the ridge we took the short Overlook trail diversion to enjoy our earned view of the valley.
The Overlook Trail traversed the narrow spine of the ridge, with steep slopes on both sides.
Still, beautiful wildflowers adorned the edges, like this Bloodroot.
After returning along the Overlook Trail, we entered the Loop Trail which would make up the majority of the hike. It was a winding trail that wove its way through a mature wood, featuring large American Beeches, Sugar Maples, and Tulip-poplars.
Along with Toothwort and Spring Beauty, we now saw Yellow Corydalis. Officially it is not a spring ephemeral since it is an annual and does not arise each season from a tuber, rhizome or root.
While the Dutchman’s Breeches in the valleys were not quite on full displays, those on the ridgetops were picture perfect.
The story was the same for the Sessile Trilliums; those in the valleys were not quite blooming, but the few we saw on the ridges were. In the confusing world of Trillium nomenclature these are sometimes called Toadshade Trilliums as well.
I particularly like this healthy grouping which had many young plants in development. And the parents should be blooming any day now.
Also along the ridge trail were clusters of emerging Fragile Ferns.
It was on the ridge top trail that we saw Small-flowered Buttercup, another new wildflower for Footpaths. Its flower is only about 1/4 inch in size.
Making its spring time debut was Mayapple. While it will not flower for a couple weeks yet; a solitary white flower hidden beneath its umbrella shaped foliage, its tropical form, and occurrence in colonies provide a sense of place to the springtime woodland.
As the loop headed back toward the trailhead we were once again walking along relatively narrow ridges with valleys to both sides.
Just before descending toward the exit we had this view through the trees. The distant ridge with the blue hue is actually in Indiana, with the Ohio River in between us.
The last hundred yards of the trail offered up floral features of its own, including the best Larkspur specimens that we would see on this date,
as well as our first seasonal sighting of Virginia Bluebells, whose emergent blossoms start pink and become blue.
Odds and Ends
We saw some of our first pollinators of the season. What was interesting was watching a species of bee working their way amongst the white blossoms of Spring Beauty and Toothwort that occurred in close proximity. The flowers looked similar and at times the bee would end up on a Spring Beauty, but would leave immediately to find their way to the preferred Toothwort.
We also saw our first butterfly of the season, this Comma, sunning itself on the forest floor.
As we worked our way along the trail we came upon these daffodil clumps atop a ridge. They are not native to the United States and not invasive, so they are not often seen in woodlands.
Caroline remarked that she was taught at an archeology camp for adolescents that random daffodil clumps in the landscape are suggestive of a site of a previous homestead. As we looked around we did not see any evidence of structures, but we did note that the woods immediately south and east of us were much younger and perhaps were reclaimed farm pastures.
While they were not the focus of this hike, we did see some interesting and colorful fungi along our route. The red Elf Cup was a little larger than a quarter, the white Bracket Mushrooms were dinner plate size, and the orange Bell Mushrooms were various coin sizes. Trying to differentiate between the Moss Bell and appropriately named Funeral Bell mushrooms is why I will never forage mushrooms in the wild. Funeral Bells are deadly poisonous and only experts can discern the difference.
The texture of the day belonged to this Waterleaf plant. We were surprised by the hairiness of its newly emerging leaves. It will flower in late May or early June.
Interesting Plant of the Day – Beech Drops. It was found in amongst the mature beeches at the top of the ridge, appearing to be just a wiry skeleton from last years plant. Sarah Grote with Boone County Parks identified it for me. It has a fascinating natural history and is actually parasitic, getting nutrition off the superficial roots of Beech trees. Interestingly, it is not felt to harm the Beech trees and its presence in a forest is felt to reflect a very healthy habitat. It will reappear in late summer and early fall to repeat its reproductive phase. Ignore the Spring Beauties that appear captured at its base.
Lastly, another seek and find. The final stretch of the trail crosses a briskly running small stream. I thought that I saw some slight movement as we approached it and asked the photographer to take some photos, hoping to see a salamander.
Did you see it? Maybe this closeup will help. Note the claws and antennas of a crayfish up under the ledge.
In summary, I met all my goals with the outing with the exception of seeing some owls: We saw Trout Lily, three new wildflowers (White Trout Lily, Early Saxifrage, Small Flowered Buttercup ), and some Trillium. More importantly, I got to do it with two people I love and who share my love of nature, and we were able to reminisce about our previous outings there. But we also got to spend some time in one of Kentucky’s Last Great Places, as deemed by the late author and scientist, Thomas Barnes, and the Kentucky Nature Conservancy (see a link to this outstanding book below). That in itself was a privilege.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Special thanks to Sarah Grote with the Boone County Parks for help with the identification of the Beech Drops and for the access to the preserve.
Access – Boone Cliffs State Nature Preserve is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of each month, but by reservation only. Reservations must be made at least 48 hours in advance and can be made online at the Boone County link below. The restrictions arose following the overuse and ecological vandalism that the preserve experienced during the Covid pandemic and were put in place to allow for the habitat to recover.
Parking – Gated gravel lot for about 6 cars.
Facilities – None
Trail Conditions – generally bare dirt trail with good footing. On the ascent to the rock outcropping the dirt is sandy and a little loose.
Benches –many but some in disrepair.
Picnic Tables – none.
Kids – The grade could be a challenge for kids under 6.
Dogs – Prohibited.
Suggested Paired Hikes – Dinsmore Woods is about a quarter mile down the road on Route 18 and also offers outstanding spring ephemeral flowers.