It is a beautiful time of year to get out and explore the trails at Clear Creek Metro Park. The park offers many hiking opportunities. As there are a number of interconnecting trails, it is a good idea to grab a park map before you start your hike. They are available at the bulletin boards in the parking lots. Hiking up and down the hills can make you thirsty even on a cool day, so bring water along too.
My favorite trails are the Hemlock and Fern trails. You can access them from the Fern Parking Lot. Head east on the Creekside Meadows Trail. This trail goes along the creek and the road and provides some nice views of the creek. The trail will go off to the left and cross the road to the Hemlock trailhead.
The lower part of the Hemlock Trail follows a narrow stream. There are some really nice sandstone formations along this portion. Once the trail starts to climb up the hill you will notice more and more fall color. The trail provides colorful maples, hickories, sassafras and sourwood.
You will notice that there are still a lot of green trees along the trail. Some of these are evergreen but many are oaks. They are usually the last to show their fall color. There are plenty of acorns here at Clear Creek this fall. If you find some on the ground that are already sprouting they will be a species of white oak. Red oak acorns won’t sprout until spring. This is why they make good stored food for birds and mammals.
The Hemlock Trail can be challenging but, as you hike along, don’t forget to take some time to notice all the colors around you. As you start up the last climb on the trail you may notice a lot of dime-sized holes in the ground. Each of these holes is where one of many 17-year cicadas emerged this June. Eventually the holes will fill back in with soil.
When you come to the end of the Hemlock Trail the Fern Trail will be in front of you. If you turn left you will head through a lovely hemlock grove on your way back down to the Fern Parking Lot. If you have the energy, I recommend turning right and heading to the top of the trail. Go left at the junction with the Cemetery Ridge Trail so that you stay on the Fern Trail. The meadows at the top of the trail give you an opportunity to see the purplish color of the dogwood trees and the bright red of the winged-sumac. You may even spot an American holly with bright red berries on it. If you are really lucky you may see a buck moth before you head back into the woods. Buck moths are beautiful members of the giant silkworm family. The best time to see them is on sunny October afternoons.
This trail will take you back into the forest, follow the ridge for a short way, then head downhill. Take a right at the end of the loop and head back to the parking lot. Toward the bottom you may notice a shrub with greenish flowers on it. This is witch hazel. It is generally our latest blooming native plant and a sign that winter is on the way. It is blooming a bit early this year.
This hike will be two to three miles depending on which portion of the Fern Trail you choose. If you want to hike a shorter distance you can see many of the same features on the Lake Trail, accessed from the Barnebey-Hambleton area. You can access the Tulip Tree and Prairie Warbler trails here too, which are a little less rugged. But no matter which trail you choose, Clear Creek is the place to experience autumn.
If you are looking for a challenge, join us at 9:00 am on Saturday, November 5th for All Trails in a Day and hike 14 miles on every trail in the park! Light refreshments will be served at the shelter after the hike.
(By Marcey Shafer, Naturalist at Clear Creek Metro Park)