Fernbank Park is a 63 acre greenspace in western Cincinnati that is jointly managed by Hamilton County Park District and the Cincinnati Park Board. It has 1.2 miles of frontage on the Ohio River and a beautiful and heavily utilized 1.2 mile walking oval that weaves through the well maintained venue. The park was built on the former campus of buildings associated with a first generation Ohio River dam, and the old lockmaster’s home is still there.
At the eastern aspect of this park setting is the trailhead for the 1 mile long Sycamore Trail.
We ventured there on a pleasant March morning after a fellow hiker had reported seeing a Bald Eagle a couple weeks prior.
The Sycamore Trail is a stroll through a flood plane ecosystem.
The characterisitic trees of the Ohio River bank were noted, including Sycamore, Cottonwood, Boxelder, Elm, Silver Maple, Hackberry, Black Locust, and Pin Oak. There was no doubt that we were on a flood plane as high water had recently receded, leaving behind a layer of fertile river silt and the typical river litter of drift wood, Styrofoam, and plastic bottles below the level of the trail.
The trees of the flood plain have developed the ability to withstand these drastic changes in their growing conditions.
The trail itself was dry and in good condition. Fernbank Park is reported to be a good birding location and that proved true for us. Almost immediately upon entering the wood we found ourselves within 25 feet of a Pileated Woodpecker. Unfortunately the sunlight prevented us from getting a good photograph and the subject was not patient enough to allow us to reposition ourselves. If photography is your thing I would recommend starting on the trail leg closest to the train tracks in the morning, and the riverside leg first if it is in the afternoon or evening. Despite the lighting issues we were able to capture these two. (White-breasted Nuthatch, Robin).
There is plenty of opportunity to watch life on the river while at Fernbank. The hum of the diesel engines seem to become the cadence to the walk.
One interesting finding at Fernbank were these concrete structures capped with metal bars and buried into the mud as they got closer to the river.
These are the remnants of a barge repair and maintenance facility that was associated with the dam that was located at this site. Barges could be pulled up on these rails to dry dock them for repairs. The dam, which was termed a “wicket” dam, had been constructed in 1905, and demolished in 1963, after completion of the larger Markland and Medahl dams. Now mature trees have reclaimed the river bank. There are three links at the end of this article that explain how wicket dams functioned, two of which are YouTube videos.
Another surprise was noted in the wetlands at the base of the train track bed that runs along the north border of the park. Here there were many healthy Bald Cypress trees. While Bald Cypress do indeed like river banks and flood plains, they are not native to this part of the Ohio River Valley, and given that they were all about the same age, I suspect that it was a large planting project. The park had lost hundreds of trees during a 1974 tornado and I wonder if this planting was related to that. Their age would appear to be about right.
The exciting thing was these harbingers of the spring to come. Both the Bald Cypresses and the Silver Maples were noted to be actively flowering on our visit.
Plant Taxonomy (how do plants get their scientific names) Talk of the Day – As mentioned earlier Boxelder (Acer negundo) is frequently seen in low lying and moist areas (flood planes for example). The genus name Acer tells us that it is in the maple family, although its compound leaf looks nothing like a maple leaf, which are not compound.
Boxelder – in this image, the leaf is comprised of 5 leaflets. A compound leaf always has more than one leaflet. The image below is a single leaf.
Sugar Maple – each leaf is on its own petiole or stem. This photo has six individual leaves, each with their own petiole (stem).
Plants are classified based on their flower and fruiting structures and when you see the seeds of the Boxelder you will indeed see the similarity to the maples. These seeds have the classic “helicopter” form that we associate with the Sugar, Silver, Red, and Norway Maples. The other characteristic of maples that it shares is the opposite branching of the twigs as noted here.
And if you look closely you will notice a green tinge to the twigs at the top and on the right above, and in the photo below, a classic finding of Boxelder.
Boxelders got their name from their use in industry. Due to the intertwining of their wood fibers, they made for a very fibrous and strong wood which was ideal for crates (boxes) made of wood. That same nature make it a poor quality wood for fine woodwork.
In summary, Sycamore Trail at Fernbank Park is one of those facilities that might be taken for granted given the many options one may have for hiking. In fact, that is what happened here. I actually started writing this article in March of 2022 but then got distracted by the excitement of the spring ephemerals that started flowering shortly after this visit and consumed my time and blog writing. But now, in retrospect, as I revisited the unfinished post, I realized the value of the place, and how it did indeed give us a “quick fix” of nature on a late winter day when the weather invited everyone outdoors. The short visit led to some historical research on wicket dams and the barge repair facility. It seems that footpaths can lead you somewhere on foot, but also on a quest for knowledge and understanding.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – 50 Thornton Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio, just off US 50, about 14 miles from downtown Cincinnati.
Parking – large asphalt lot
Facilities – seasonal indoor restrooms. Portolets in the winter.
Trail Conditions – flat bare dirt and gravel. Overall in good condition. Hiking grade easy.
Benches – Many in the park proper, two on the hiking trail.
Kids – Kids 4 and over should do well here with minimal assistance.
Dogs –Welcomed while on a leash.
Paired Hikes – none