The crisp autumn morning lured us out into a wood close to home. We had been to Middle Creek Park this past March to capture some early spring ephemeral wildflowers but planned on hiking different trails this visit. Ellen was a stand in as the photographer had other family obligations.
As we parked the van, yellow Tulip-poplar leaves spun down upon us in the bright sunshine, verifying that this would be our first fall hike of the year in the U.S.
At 230 acres Middle Creek Park is large by suburban standards and offers numerous trails. The adjacent Carmago Hunt Club property to the west, seen on the the map below as green but without trails, was recently acquired by The Boone Conservancy, a local land trust. In partnership with Boone County Parks, the Middle Creek Park trails are being extended onto that property.
On this outing we started on the Blue Trail that entered down into the flood plain of Middle Creek. It is the access route to all the trails as the others arise off it once you cross the creek.
What struck us immediately was how the low lying autumn sun lit up the yellow of the leaves of the Spicebush shrubs and Pawpaw trees in the understory.
The trail wove across the floodplain through deciduous trees that are typical of moist soils: Sycamores, Walnuts, Cottonwoods, and Tulip-poplars.
There were occasional large tree specimens including this multi-trunk Cottonwood.
I’m always fascinated by the ridged bark of mature Cottonwoods. We kept my hand in the photo for size reference.
There was a seasonal added bonus along the trail on this visit – the Boone County Parks staff had added some temporary educational signage that added interest to the walk.
Soon the trail crosses Middle Creek on a substantial bridge, where we were able to get the title photo looking west, and the photo below looking east.
The water level and flow were diminished due to the dry late summer and early fall that the region has experienced.
The Blue Trail, which runs parallel to the creek, at times allows you to look down into the water, although there was no direct access to the bank. From the low bluff we could see many minnows.
We noted on this section of the trail that the leaves of the canopy were quite sparse and that there were substantial leaves on the forest floor. I then had the interesting realization that those species of trees noted earlier (Sycamore, Walnut, Cottonwood, and Tulip-poplar), which inhabit low lying moist areas, all lose their leaves early in the season.
It was also here that we noted the change in the blooming wildflowers since we were last on a Midwestern woodland trail. Gone were the dramatic Ironweed and Yellow Wingstem. In their place were these understated flowers:
Calico Aster – the flowers can range from light purple, as seen here, to white.
White Wood Aster – the yellow to brownish flower heads are typical for this species. Flower petals can vary from 5 to 10 in number.
Snakeroot is named for its corkscrew shaped tap root that makes it hard to completely pull out. It is toxic to cows, and milk from cows that have eaten it can be lethal to humans.
I have been a gardener all my adult life and treated these plants as weeds when they tried to take up presence in our flower beds. Over the last 5 years however I have allowed them to have their place in the quiet corners of the garden. This morning, while working in our yard, I came to appreciate what they add to the fall color palate, as well as offer some nectar to the end of season pollinators. Because they are natives, they thrive with little pampering.
If the Blue Trail has a theme it would have to be “Trophy Trees”. In addition to the earlier Cottonwood, we also saw a couple of massive Sycamores. This one stood at the foot of the bridge that we had crossed earlier.
A little further down the trail we came upon two specimens of multi-trunk sycamores, with each tree having 7 to 8 trunks. It was hard to capture their grandeur due to the spread of their canopy.
And then we found this twin Sycamore perched on the shelf above Middle Creek. Perhaps the largest sycamore that I have ever seen.
It was shortly after this encounter that the hike went from a stroll to a climb. On the earlier map each contour line represents a 10 foot elevation change and you can see that the Blue Trail crosses approximately 20 of them over a short distance, a climb of over 200 feet.
Once atop the hill we headed onto the Green Trail which ran northwest along a ridge top. It appeared that the wood had lost a lot of mature ash due to ash borer and there was more sun reaching the forest floor.
An ecologically interesting finding was this vernal pool. It is a large depression in the ground, easily 30 feet across and with a depth of 2 feet or so. It does not hold water this time of year, but during the wet seasons of late winter and spring it would. Woodland amphibians and insects can then use this pool as a nursery for reproduction without predation from fish. Tree frogs, toads, and salamanders would all utilize this type of seasonal wetland.
This ridge trail also afforded us some views to the north where we could see the hills of southern Indiana near Rising Sun. This view would be more unobstructed in the winter months.
The Green Trail descended down to the Red Trail, which is actually an old, well-worn farm lane, lined by Osage Orange trees. As I have commented before, Osage Orange trees are a good marker for the location of a former homestead.
We turned left on the Red Trail till it met up with the Purple Trail which we followed for a short distance till we crossed the same bridge over the creek and headed back to the parking area.
Odds and Ends:
Previously we mentioned the temporary signage that was placed along the path. We particularly liked this one because fungi fascinate us and they are so easily overlooked.
So of course we were on the look out for mushrooms and saw a couple.
This one stumped us until we got home and could look at it with digital magnification. While on the hike we thought that it was a flower off the small plant – but noted that none of the other like seedlings were flowering. If you look closely you can see the thread thin stalk that holds the minute cap several inches above the ground. The cap was about an eighth of an inch in size.
It is always interesting to witness the resilience of nature. Not only has this American Elm had to fend off Dutch Elm Disease that is now endemic to our region, it also had to battle the erosive forces of this stream when it swells with storm runoff.
Moss in these wetter environments softens the textures. Interestingly this moss was growing on the east side of this tree. If you remember your survival training it is usually most prominent on north facing surfaces.
And lastly a Woolly Worm. In some regions it is also called a Woolly Bear or Fuzzy Bear. Its sighting was timely as the photographer was just telling me about an article she had read that suggested that the size and spacing of the black segments are predictive of the winter weather in the region. A lot of black near the head means a severe early winter and more orange means a less severe winter. Some correlate the colorization more specifically, that the thirteen segments of the Wooly Worm correspond with the 13 weeks of winter.
The National Weather Service says “bunk” (see the link below). They attribute color variation to three things: Age of the worm, as younger worms will have more black. Quality of the nutrition of the summer feeding will result in a larger worm with more red. And species. The Woolly Worm is the larval stage for one of the 260 species of Tiger Moths that occur in the U.S. and each species has its own coloration pattern. When we see them crawling across the ground, as this specimen was, they have left their feeding plant and are looking for a place to hibernate for the winter under some bark, a rock, or fallen log. They make a biologic antifreeze that prevents full freezing of their cells which allows them to survive over the winter. It awakens in the spring, begins to feed, pupates, and 2 weeks later emerges as a Tiger Moth. It then mates and carries on the life cycle by laying eggs that will hatch, feed, grow, and become the next fall’s Woolly Worms that we all love.
In summary, Middle Creek Park, and the Blue Trail in particular, has a lot to offer. It has outstanding tree specimens that would be beautiful any time of the year. The creek valley also has outstanding wildflowers in the spring, especially Blue-eyed Mary’s. The flat part of the trail is ideal for someone who can not climb slopes but still enjoys nature study. The ridge section of the Green Trail has the vernal pool and outstanding winter views. The temporary fall themed educational signage reaffirms that the Boone County park staff is very much engaged with this gem of a preserve and wants their patrons to experience nature at its fullest.
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Photo credits to Ellen Burns.
Location – 5655 Burlington Pike, Burlington, KY, about 23 miles from downtown Cincinnati.
Parking – Excellent large gravel lot.
Facilities – Portolet at parking lot.
Trail Conditions – the trail was generally wide. The park has excellent new signage that clearly marks the many trails. The surface is bare dirt and I suspect that the slopes could be a challenge in wet weather. Parts of the trail are a shared bridal path. The Boone County website mentions that there is hunting on adjacent property so in hunting season wear bright clothes.
Benches – one noted along the creek.
Picnic Tables – several near the parking area.
Kids – The grade could be a challenge for kids under 7 but kids down to 4 should do well on the flat part of the Blue Trail.
Dogs – Welcomed on a leash.
Suggested Paired Hikes – While there are over 8 miles of trails within Middle Creek Park, Dinsmore Woods Nature Preserve utilizes the same parking lot and the trailhead is just across KY 18. It has an outstanding historic cemetery.