As we pulled into the parking lot we could see the storm clouds just clearing the area. The weather predictions had been quite good – but it was July – which means there are no trustworthy weather predictions. As we headed down the interstate toward Louisville rain danced on the windshield. But as we got to the parking area we could see we had missed the worst of it.
That said, the transient storm had left a damp layer atop the clay based trail. We entered a succession wood which hosted some large antique Osage Orange trees. They arched twenty-five feet above the terrain and told me that this was an old farmstead.
Almost from the start we were perplexed. Just 30 foot from the start of the trail we had a sign that told us to head left to see the waterfall, which did not seem to correspond with the map that we photographed at the trailhead. In fact, there was a gravel vehicle service path, heading straight, that was more inviting but was not displayed on the map.
The trail to the waterfall was challenging. It was largely clay and exposed orange roots of Osage Orange trees. The clay had the slickness that you experience when you add water to the surface of clay in a pottery class.
Overall the grade was quite severe as noted in the photo below. In reality, the tree roots were quite effective “stairs”. I had stopped to put some notes into my phone.
Despite the morning rain, as well as scattered rain over the previous week, the waterfall was dry. In the right weather pattern, this creek valley could be relaxing with the music of falling water.
The valley itself however was outstanding, with some great tree specimens – especially Sycamores and large Walnuts. The setting was peaceful.
This creek joined up with a larger one in a broader valley. We found ourselves on the Creekside Trail, which is part of the Primary Loop, that was going to be the center point of the hike.
The Creekside Trail was a mowed path that paralleled the limestone laden creek.
The valley featured some nice Sycamore specimens. Typical Sycamores have a blotchy gray and white bark but there can be great variation amongst individual specimens. Some in this park, as the tree in the second photo below demonstrated, had a rough peeling bark for a significant part of their trunk. These two trees were about 8 foot apart on the bank of the creek.
Along the Creekside Trail we saw this plant that was recently new to us – seen on each of our last three hikes – Fragrant Sumac. It has a botanical similarity to Poison Ivy and, in fact, has the same genus name – Rhus. It however will not cause a rash.
You can differentiate them by the end leaflet of their compound leaves. On the left, Fragrant Sumac, the end leaflet has no significant petiole (stem), where as on the right, Poison Ivy, you can see the end leaflet has a well defined petiole (stem). Also, frequently Poison Ivy will have a touch of red in the various stems as seen in the photo.
Sometimes along the route the directions were somewhat hard to read.
Soon, to continue the Primary Loop, we ascended a steady grade that worked its way through a Redcedar and Walnut thicket. Here we found this fern, which allowed me to use my new fern field guide, Fern Finder. Working my way through the plant key, looking at the anatomy – blade (leaf) once divided, pinnae (leaflets) separate from each other, stipe (stem below the pinnae) rigid and without scales, pinnae toothed, pinnae are alternate along the rachis (the part of the stem that the pinnae attache to), and fertile fronds (ones with spores as shown in the photo below) are held up above sterile fronds. The process told me that this was Ebony Spleenwort. Called “Ebony” due to the near black coloration of the rachis. Spleenworts is just an old name for a group of ferns whose sori (spore cluster) is shaped like a spleen. The term “wort” is Old English and simply means plant.
The Fern Finder (by Anne and Barbara Hallowell) is outstanding and makes identifying ferns quite easy. They do a great job of explaining the confusing fern terminology. I’m looking forward to using it on the trails that host great varieties of ferns.
As we crested the hill we found this deposit in the middle of the trail.
The biologist in me – in this case, the scatologist – one who studies animal feces – noted that this was largely seeds of a wild Black Cherry tree. But it was unusual that the black cherries would be so low to the ground that a deer could eat them. But within a hundred yards on the same trail we found this – a Black Cherry tree laden with fruit within easy reach of a deer.
Much of the trail atop the ridge wove through a field succession habitat where old farm pasture is being replaced by Redcedars and young hardwoods – typically Black Locust and Walnut.
One plant that was thriving along the trail was Deer-tongue, which resembled a small bamboo in its structure. It actually falls into the grouping of “panic grasses”, which like semi-shaded habitats. The name panic arises from the Latin word panus, which means swollen, referring to the rather large size of the seed compared to other grass plants.
Another interesting grass noted on the trail edge was Bottlebrush Grass. The shape of its seed head gives it its name.
As noted on the map, there are a couple of small ponds that are probably remnants from the cattle farm days. They really were not featured and access was a little challenging as we wove our way through the scrub. In the process we spooked a larger bird, perhaps a Green Heron.
This Southern Painted Turtle however called this pond home and did not alarm.
Arising off the Primary Loop was the Abbott Meadow Loop Trail. While a surprising amount of plant succession was taking place in the “meadow”, there were still pockets of open field, amongst the Redcedar, Black Locust, and Walnut.
And these pockets hosted some nice specimens of mid-summer wildflowers:
Queen Anne’s Lace – of the wild carrot family.
Goldenrod – It was just starting to open. There are about 60 species of Goldenrod in the eastern U.S.
Silver-spotted Skipper – here sunning itself on a Redbud leaf that has been dined on by another species’ larvae.
Meadow Fritillary – my butterfly field guide describes its flight as – “tends to fly low and rapidly in a jerky zigzag”. I’m going to look for that in the field on our next outing.
Bergamot – our native bee balm, and a favorite of pollinators.
Perhaps my favorite butterfly of the day was this one – who I think is new to us. He is a Yehl Skipper Butterfly. It is a member of the Folded-winged Skipper group that hold their fore wings and hind wings at different angles when basking in the sun. If you look closely you can see that in the first photo. I think that the detail of these two images warrant full photographs. The first shows the upper surface of his wings, the second the under surface. The antennae tell you that it is the same guy.
As we were working our way around the meadow we heard this bird call – loud and just a little ahead of us.
Certainly not a birdsong that you could ignore. My Merlin Bird ID app told me that it was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I was excited because last year I had listened to a Nature Guys podcast that was about the Cuckoo. It more or less guided us around the loop, staying just ahead of us and remained in the crowns of the trees – heard but not seen. Eventually we were at the base of a tree that he was in, but the foliage was too thick to see him – and then was saw him head down into the valley. I suspect that seeing a Yellow-billed Cuckoo will become my new overarching pursuit, like Skunk Cabbage was this past winter. The distraction caused us to breeze by both the lookout tower and cemetery that border the trail.
Another plant that we were excited to see was Frostweed. It is also known as White Crownbeard. The identifying feature are the wings that run vertically along its stem. It has the unique characteristic of exuding water from its stem with the first freezing temps of the winter season, which results in interesting ice formations arising from the plant.
This photo of an ice formation arising from Frostweed is from the iNaturalist web page. So it would be something to look for in November in our region.
As we were completing the Meadow Trail we observed the mid-summer productivity of the flora. First were some beautiful, and tasty, Blackberries. We only had one each – leaving them for wildlife.
Along the wood line we saw this heavily fruited native plum.
This Kentucky Coffee Tree was displaying light green seed pods, which will turn a deep brown in the fall. Indeed, the berries can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Unroasted berries however are toxic.
One somewhat uncommon plant that we saw was Ground Pine, which is one of the club mosses. They are non-flowering and reproduce via spores, which will be held up on a “club” like appendage later this summer. It is also called Ground Cedar or Creeping Cedar which I think is more accurate as its tiny leaves look like the scaly leaves of the juniper family, rather than needles like pines.
As we exited the meadow we returned to the Primary Loop Trail. Because of time constraints we opted to take the Connector Trail which passed over a Cedar glade. This allowed us this nice view across the tree filled creek valley. The exposed dirt and rock is characteristic of glades, with their very thin layer of soil which is usually of poor quality. The words barren and glade are often used interchangeably but a glade is a more extreme example – even less soil and more exposed rocks. Glades typically have less plants on them.
I would have loved to have had more time to spend on the glade as they frequently have unique plant communities. The glade had this informative signage.
To the sides of the glade were a cedar thicket that was carpeted in moss.
As we hurried back to the van, we opted to take the Access Trail, as its grade was going to be less demanding than a straight climb out of the valley on the service road. Along the way we paused to study a large Shellbark Hickory. Shellbarks have the largest of the hickory nuts and in some areas are called Kingnut Hickory because of that. The tree was somewhat down the slope from the trail which left the fruit at eye level.
The tree was very healthy and was adjacent to an equally beautiful Kentucky Coffee Tree.
While the bark of the Shellbark is somewhat similar to the Shagbark Hickory, the shagging is less pronounced.
In summary, Morgan Conservation Park is a worthwhile nature lab with several habitats in close proximity and some interesting plants. The initial decent into the valley was challenging given the recent rain. I will return to spend more time in the glade and barren habitats, as well as try to locate the observation tower and Abbott Burial Plot that were noted on the map but missed while in pursuit of the Cuckoo.
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Photo credits to Caroline Burns Grizzle.
Yellow-billed cuckoo recording by Jelmer Poelstra from the Xeno-canto website.
Location – 77 miles from downtown Cincinnati in LaGrange, Kentucky.
Parking – large paved lot.
Trail Conditions – bare dirt through the woodland and mowed grassed path through the meadow. I would recommend leaving the parking lot from its eastern edge, via the Access Trail, which will deliver the hiker to the cedar glade/barren habitat. I would then hike the Primary Trail counterclockwise and take in both the Forest Loop and Hickory Trail which we did not traverse on this visit. I would return to the parking lot via the gravel service road that arises at the western end of the parking lot.
Print Map Link – none. Take a photo of the map at the trailhead.
Facilities – chemical toilet at parking area.
Benches – none noted on the trail..
Picnic Tables – many under the shelters at parking area.
Kids – 6 and over should do well here. The initial hike to the waterfall could be challenging.
Dogs – welcomed on a leash.
Suggested Paired Hikes – None.