A Satisfying Hike in Clear Creek Metro Park

In the height of morel season, my visits with Wiggs were energetic, even frenetic: Each day we would go on at least one walk in a different park to inspect the bases of elms and poplars and comb the woods for mushrooms. It seems to me that since then, and since finding our first morels, we’ve calmed down a bit. Maybe it’s the warmer weather, or the gleam of quarantine rubbing off, or my sadness that I’m not in Europe right now, exploring Ireland and hiking the Camino with my mom like I was supposed to. Or maybe in the wake of the George Floyd protests and the wave of increased worldwide awareness of the insidiousness of white supremacy, I feel a sense of overwhelmed urgency, a worrying that at any given time I’m not doing enough.

Whatever the case, I didn’t spend as much time in the woods in late May and early June as I did in April, and I was missing it. So on my most recent visit to Columbus, Wiggs and I decided it was time to get back on the trail. He had visited Clear Creek Metro Park with his family a couple of months before, and he thought I would enjoy a long day hike there. So we got up early, packed a lunch, and headed south.

Trail map of Clear Creek Metro Park, Ohio

The Park

Clear Creek is located about 40 minutes southeast of Columbus, just off OH-33 near the town of Rockbridge. It is located on the stolen ancestral lands of the Shawnee, Osage, Hopewell, and Adena people.

The drive to Clear Creek is very pleasant. The roadwork and hubbub of the metro area fades and gently rolls into green hills that from a distance bear a striking resemblance to the landscape in Virginia along the Appalachian Trail. This is the part of Ohio where the glaciers didn’t flatten the land; the unglaciated Appalachian plateau where hills still abound and cornfields give way to forest. Driving there felt like breathing again. Ohio isn’t all corn and fields and Confederate flag-painted barns and threatening “hell is real” billboards after all. This landscape exists too, and it is a blessing to be a visitor here.

Clear Creek Metro Park features over 5,300 acres of woodland interspersed with blackhand sandstone cliffs, ravines and creeks and is home to more than 2,200 species of plants and animals. Forested areas range from Canadian hemlocks and ferns, to oak and hickory, to Ohio’s last remaining colonies of rhododendron. Home to Ohio’s largest state nature preserve.

-Clear Creek Metro Park Website

All in all, there are about 12 miles of trails in the park, though many of them loop and reconnect in various ways, and it would be easier to make a longer or shorter day depending on your preference. On this particular day, we selected a combination of trails that enabled us to hike about 8 miles overall, each one of which was verdant, quiet, and precisely what we needed.

Wiggs walking on the Cemetery Ridge Trail

The Hike

We began our hike at the Creekside Meadows picnic area. True to the name, the trail first meanders into a meadow, with the creek on one side and tall grasses full of buzzing insects on the other. After rounding a curve the Creekside Meadows trail turns into the Cemetery Ridge Trail, which crosses the road and heads sharply uphill.

Though this first hill caught me off guard, the trail was very well maintained and I never felt like the grade was unbearable. A few pitstops for breath-catching and water-drinking and we were at the top of the ridge, which the trail followed for most of the rest of the day.

One of the first landmarks we arrived at was an old barn dating back to the 1800s. It is open for exploration, though we didn’t find much inside besides some fallen boards, an adorable toad, and an owl that took off as soon as we approached. As it was sprinkling a bit by this point, we decided to stop here for lunch, which we enjoyed while listening to the light patter of rain on the old roof.

The old barn on the Cemetery Ridge Trail where we had lunch, scared an owl, and saw a very cute toad

We continued on the Cemetery Ridge Trail until it met an open meadow dotted here and there with daisies. We continued straight onto the Chestnut Trail, which was a bit hillier and dipped into valleys, crossed small creeks, and came back up onto the ridge several times. It was on this section of the trail that we saw the most people, including a hiker with a full, large backpacking pack. Wiggs asked him if there was camping around here and he said no, he was training for the Colorado Trail. We were both instantly jealous, smiling wide and imagining all the mountains. We wished him luck and he kept on hiking the other way.

We took a break for water and snacks, then turned back the way we came and headed once more for the Cemetery Ridge Trail, noticing as we walked back the other way that there were Monotropa uniflora, Indian pipe plants, everywhere on the forest floor. These parasitic, mycoheterotrophic plants take in nutrients from mycorrhizal fungus and grow only in the perfect conditions. They were all over the Appalachian Trail, and though they are a bit creepy, it was nice to see them again, like someone you recognize from a different time.

Monotropa uniflora, the mycoheterotroph “Indian pipe” plant

Meeting back up with the junction, we turned right, continuing the loop, and hiked back down to the road and the meadows by the creek. It was late afternoon by now, and we had made good time, so we found a bench by the wide, peacefully flowing creek and sat down. I enjoyed the way my limbs felt tired and worked, though this distance was nothing compared to an average day on the AT. In a weird way I love the pulsing in my heels, the tightness in my calves, the slight shortness of breath that tells me I walked here. I sat eating sriracha peas, enjoying the creek, enjoying being with my partner, kind and adventurous and full of life, whom I met by chance because we both walked really far in the same direction in the same year. How lucky. How right.

We completed the flat mile and a half along a combination of the road and a dirt path right next to the creek, eventually ending up at the back of the parking lot where we had started. I stretched, took a last sip of water, and got in the car.

Love to Ohio

Without Wiggs, I never would have given central Ohio much thought, much less given thought to the idea of moving there. I think there’s an Ohio-shaped space in the brain of every American, and that space is full of boring rows of corn and small towns on the edge of a flat plateau surrounded by Amish farms. I should have known there was more; after all, I was raised in Kentucky, and what’s the stereotypical Kentucky-shaped space in the mind? Hillbillies and soda? Horses and coal? When there’s a whole nuanced world of beauty here: Sandstone so beautiful you can’t help but breathe it in, and fields of flowers by wide wandering creeks, and towns with heart, and waterfalls and caves tumbling into forever. No place is ever fully what it seems.

There were interesting rock formations along the road to the park and along the Cemetery Ridge Trail, including this pocketed standstone intermingling with tree roots.

I’d like to go back to Clear Creek and do a longer day hike. There is no camping there, but if you get an early start you might be able to walk every trail and feel satisfyingly tired by dinner time. There are several picnic areas and parking lots with well-maintained privies, in addition to areas where you can fish in the creek. There are flat trails to walk in the valley if long hilly rambles aren’t your thing, and there are wide possibilities for big days if you don’t do small hikes. The day we went it was pleasantly quiet and uncrowded; it was also a weekday, however, so this may not be the case all the time.

After the hike, we left the rolling hills and slowly meandered back through the highways and buildings and intersections, back to Wiggs’s house and showers and beer. It’s nice to know that there’s a place nearby that feels like the AT, where there are conifers and plants I know and quiet woods.

Daisies in the field at the junction of the Cemetery Ridge and Chestnut trails

Exploring at Home

For someone who likes distance, this year has been hard. At first I was going to Scotland; that was obviously cancelled a while ago. Then I thought about hiking the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota. That no longer seems feasible or responsible, as much of the state is still shut down, and a three-plus week thru hike would render it difficult to get supplies without potentially exposing small towns to the virus.

So I’ve made the decision to do neither of these things, and instead stay closer to home. Now sections of the Sheltowee Trace or the Buckeye Trail are on the table as summer plans. At first I resisted something so close, but the more I learned about the trails, the more I opened up. Why is it that I resist an experience just because it is close to home? How did I not know how beautiful a semi-local trail could be? Why is something only sexy when it is foreign or exotic or new?

There are amazing things everywhere, including Ohio and Kentucky. Over the past few months I’ve begun to scratch the surface of places nearby I’d never been to before. Here are a few of them.

Middle Creek Park, Burlington, KY

My mom and I stumbled upon Middle Creek by accident. We were trying to go to Boone Cliffs Nature Preserve one evening for a walk in place other than our familiar haunts in Villa Hills and Fort Mitchell. But when we got to Boone Cliffs, we discovered that it was closed, the parking lot gated shut. Noticing a sign back on KY-18 for Middle Creek Park, we followed the arrow to the left, past Dinsmore Homestead, and discovered a massive parking lot at the Middle Creek Park trailhead.

Intrigued, we parked and began walking, descending a steep hill to follow the creek. What struck me first was two things: the omnipresent fungi on logs and beneath trees, and the fields of Blue-Eyed Mary everywhere beneath the shagbark hickory, honey locust, elm, and sycamore trees dotting the low-lying plain by the creek. Morel country, my brain whispered to me. I found Flammulina velipites, the edible enokitake mushroom; Cerioporus squamosus, pheasant back, and a variety of other mushrooms. I was elated.

The park contains over five miles of trail, including a large loop that crosses the creek on a bridge and winds its way over flat forest floor and up and over hills on the southeast side of the park. Numerous smaller trails connect to them main loop, providing for an easy way to cut the large 3-mile route shorter, if you so wish.

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The trails at Middle Creek park

That first night, my mom and I made it over the Trail 1 bridge and a bit past it, before we realized that it was late and we ought to be heading home. A week later, I took Wiggs back to Middle Creek and we completed the whole loop. It gets more difficult after the bridge, becoming a more classically hilly Kentucky hike, but there are fewer visitors farther east and south in the park, providing for a quiet, relaxing walk in the trees.

Middle Creek Park is located on KY-18 past Burlington and across the street from Dinsmore Homestead and Dinsmore Woods.

Wolsing Woods Trails, Independence, KY

In our manic quest to find morels, Wiggs and I searched several parks in Ohio and Kentucky in March and April. Though we didn’t find any mushrooms at all at Wolsing, this small park between housing developments was a pleasant surprise on a warm, sunny afternoon.

It’s a bit odd getting to Wolsing Woods. Approaching the park, the road takes a large dip and across a crowded railroad track. I almost got backed into by a large flatbed truck. I crossed the tracks quickly and, recovering, parked in the small lot at the edge of the trail.

These trails aren’t exactly quiet or wild; you can see the houses through the young woods at the tops of nearby hills, and a train line runs right past it. Nevertheless, there are some cool features. Many of the trees are labeled, so that walkers can learn how to identify honey locust, white ash, sycamore, maple, and American elms. The trail follows Bancklick Creek, a large tributary of the Licking River. When we were there, the whole area was covered in blooming Virginia Bluebells.

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Fields of Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebell, at Wolsing Woods

At one end of the trail, we followed the path all the way down to the water. It was here that Wiggs spotted a tiny baby snapping turtle, smaller than the palm of his hand! We held and observed the reptile for a while, admiring the prehistoric look of him and his wet shell glinting in the sunlight, before continuing on.

The Wolsing Trails are completely flat, and would make a nice easy stroll if you’re looking for a mild afternoon walk in the area. This park can be reached from Turkeyfoot road or KY-536. For more information, visit the Wolsing Trails website.

Three Creeks Metro Park, Columbus, OH

This park isn’t exactly local if you live in Northern Kentucky or Cincinnati, I realize. But Columbus has become a bit of an adopted home for me, as that’s where Wiggs lives at the moment. We haven’t done as much exploring here as we have done in Kentucky, but this was one of the parks that we have recently visited, and I found it to be impressive for a city park.

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Map of trails and amenities at Three Creeks Metro Park, Columbus

Though Three Creeks is more of a bike-friendly park than a hiker haven, it is impressively large and beautiful for being right in the Columbus metro area. We started our walk at a parking lot near a pond where many people were fishing. We connected to the Alum Creek Greenway Trail, a paved bike path, and crossed Big Walnut Creek on a footbridge, following the path past numerous ponds, marshes, and even a large grove of pine trees. Along the way we happened to run into Wiggs’s friend Steve, whom we chatted with for a bit before continuing on the trail towards Heron Pond, another massive pond around which numerous fishers were gathered.

We followed a trail around this pond, returning to the main trail, and headed back towards the car. On the way we found a trail that leaves the bike path and enters the woods along Alum Creek to the Confluence, where Alum, Big Walnut, and Blackclick creeks meet. This path was quieter, softer, and flanked by massive sycamore and elm trees. Had it been earlier in the season, this may have been a nice morel hunting spot.

All in all, it was a pleasant day for a flat four-mile walk. I was envious of the bikers; I sold my bike a couple of years ago when I was leaving Flagstaff, and the prospect of such lovely paths made me miss it.

Middle Creek Park can be reached from numerous locations in southeast Columbus. For more information, visit the Columbus Metro Parks website.

Local Park Appreciation

Sometimes, as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail, I would find myself developing a large ego about the fact that I had been on the AT for so long, forgetting that the vast majority of trail users are day hikers and section hikers, not thru-hikers. After a thru-hike, a hike that lasts less than several days can feel too short, or not good enough.

But I don’t think this mentality is healthy. Being able to go on a thru-hike is an enormous privilege, and most people do not have the time or resources required to do it. But the outdoors is a critical part of life. Becoming more aware of local parks and green spaces has made me understand this even more. We need trees and creeks and paths like we need food. Until this is all over, and even after that, we need to appreciate the nature that is close by.