Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An End of Winter Hike Through Clear Creek

The other day I decided to spend one of the first warm, Spring-like days on a romp through one of my favorite nature preserves in this area of the state.  Clear Creek Metro Park is huge at over 5,000 acres in size and protects one of the most unique valleys in Ohio.  Sandstone gorges, scenic vista views, rare flora, excellent birding opportunities and a clear, cold stream full of trout are among the biggest attractions to the park.    Honestly, I almost prefer this place to the popular Hocking Hills areas because on most days you have the entire place essentially to yourself.  No crowds or parking lots, Clear Creek offers nearly 20 miles of hiking trails ranging from deep Hemlock/Beech valleys to high Oak/Hickory ridge tops several hundred feet above the valley floor.  While it may not have the exact same "oh's" and "ah's" of nearby Ash Cave or Cedar Falls it still certainly deserves your time and attention.

Eastern Hemlock
Ancient Red Oak and E. Hemlock

I began my hike walking through a narrow valley that instantly made me feel like I was somewhere much farther to the north than Hocking and Fairfield counties in southerneastern Ohio.  I was surrounded by thick, towering cinnamon brown trunks of Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) and the ghostly grey and smooth barked American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees that rose precipitously skyward.  Enormous Red Oaks (Quercus rubra), such as the one pictured above on the right, added to the excitement that such a place still exists in today's world of chainsaws and dollar signs.  Looking up through the layered canopies of the Hemlocks took me back to my time spent in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest.  There I gazed up into the branches of our eastern Tsuga's kin; Western Hemlock (T. heterophylla) and Mountain Hemlock (T. mertensiana).  Anyone who has spent any time out in those phenomenal gardens of Eden are sure to understand my reminiscence at the picture above right.

Rhododendron maximum
Rhododendron maximum

Meandering my way through the moist and darkened forest I was quick to notice large shrubs full of evergreen and leathery leaves catching the streaming sunlight through the thick needled marquee of Hemlocks.  Great Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) can be seen in home landscaping quite often in southeastern Ohio but Clear Creek offers one of the few indigenous and naturally occurring populations of this threatened species left in Ohio.  The pictures above capture the mood of the opposite ends of the blooming schedule.  In mid June the buds will open and reveal gorgeous white flowers that really set this plant apart.  The resulting capsules will persist through the winter creating a still rather aesthetic touch of scenery.

Lycopodium lucidulum
Lycopodium digitatum

Mixed in amongst the Christmas Ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) and Hayscented Ferns (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) on the moist forest floor were two members of the Lycopodiaceae family.  On the left is Shining clubmoss (Lycopodium lucidulum) which bears its sporangium (where the reproducing spores are held)  in its leaf axils.  Those are the little yellow dots seen running along the stem.  While in the same family, Fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum) differs in its growth habit and sporangium location.  The branches grow in a spread-out fashion and have a strobilus.  the strobilus is a club-like spike that rises up from the vegetative mat of branches and is where this species sporangium are found.  I found some Rattlesnake Plaintain (Goodyera pubescens) with its distinct evergreen leaves and fruit capsule growing in a sea of the Fan clubmoss and thought it made for a fun photograph.

Epigaea repens
Epigaea repens

Making my way deeper into the narrowing valley I found myself coming across many rock faces and boulders strewn across the forest that had fallen from the gorge walls.  Taking a closer look at their moss and lichen covered  surfaces proved to be a good idea.  Delicately calling these seemingly barren growing conditions home was one of my absolute favorite little woody gems in Ohio; Trailing Arbutus (Egigaea repens).  On the plants I found their tiny little flower buds were just starting to mature and should reveal their inner beauty in the next couple weeks.  An event I am very excited to see and capture with the camera lens!

Aralia spinosa
Black Rat Snake

Shortly after making the acquaintance of the Trailing Arbutus plants on the rocks the trail took to higher ground and I quickly found myself climbing up and out of the valley onto the lower slopes of the adjoining hillsides.  I stopped to take notice at one of the more intriguing plants to be found locally in Clear Creek.  Reaching it's northern limits in southern Ohio is the spiny and intimidating Devil's Walkingstick (Aralia spinosa).  I can picture the first person describing this to science taking one look at the spine covered stems and branches of this shrub/small tree and immediately conceding it as a malevolent and cruel invention of Lucifer, thus the common name.  I don't think its intentions can be related to the dark lord of the underworld though.  What animal would ever want to even think about making that a snack?  While that question was being pondered in my head a rustle in the leaves a few yards up slope caught my attention.  Upon closer inspection I discovered a large Black Rat Snake warming himself in the sun.  He was kind enough to keep a good pose for a photograph and seemed just too happy about the years first warm day to pay much worry my direction.

Rock Polypody Fern
Rock Polypody Fern

Noticing the sun was starting to wane in the sky I decided to turn back and make my way back down into the valley and back to the car for the lovely drive back to the apartment.  A large patch of vibrant green on a rock caught my last glance and I decided to make a quick and short detour to investigate.  Growing profusely on the large boulder was the fern Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum).  If that name sounds familiar it's probably because I briefly mentioned in my earlier post on some over-wintering greenery.  It's just too attractive and photogenic a fern to just ignore it and not get at least a couple photographs.  Making my way back I noticed some fresh rosettes of green starting to work their way out of the ground as well as the swelling buds of the Red and Silver Maples.  Even the Red and American Elm buds were showing strong signs of Spring's arrival.  As I'm writing this many of the first species of plants are starting to flower and I look forward to bringing them to you as soon as possible!  I'll leave you with a photograph of two sister Hemlocks that really show the final product of time and opportunity for this species.  Hope you enjoyed the post and look forward to more Natural Treasures of Ohio.

Ancient twin Hemlocks


  1. Gorgeous photography! The walk must have lovely! I see two things that look similar to what in Virginia we call Lady Slippers (your header photo) and Running Cedar (on your walk). Enjoyed your post!

  2. Thank you! Yes, my header photo is one of the Cypripediums or the Lady's slippers. This is C. reginae which can be found in your home state of Virginia as well but it's very rare and only in a few spots. It's more common up in the northern Great Lake states. It's one of my favorite wildflowers in Ohio so I figured I'd make it my background picture :)