WEST UNION, Ohio – The Edge of Appalachia Preserve may be Ohio’s greatest natural treasure.
The 16,000-acre private preserve in southern Ohio is known for its beauty, its wildness and its biodiversity.
The preserve stretches 12 miles north from the Ohio River through Adams County on the east bank of Ohio Brush Creek and up to six miles east-to-west. It is home to the most rare and endangered plants in the state.
It gets surprisingly few visitors.
The preserve, known simply as The Edge, features woodlands, prairie openings, rocky outcroppings, giant promontories, clear streams, mountain coves, rocky hollows, cedar glades and waterfalls.
Its official name is the Richard and Lucile Durrell Edge of Appalachia Preserve. It lies 80 miles east of Cincinnati and 120 miles south of Columbus.
The Durrells, both professors at the University of Cincinnati, led the push to protect the botanical mixing zone that created the area’s incredible biodiversity. It is home to more than 1,200 plant species and is known for its stands of oaks, tulips, American beeches, yellow buckeyes and sugar maples.
It is one of the largest protected landscapes in Ohio, a partnership between the Nature Conservancy and the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.
The Edge is not a park. Three trails and a small educational center are open to the public, but that’s all. There is a still-developing picnic area with displays off Wagoner Riffle Road.
The Edge features 30 ecological communities, eight of which are considered rare, and more than 135 rare plants and animals. The rarest plant in the preserve may be Canby’s mountain lover or cliff green, a plant found in only one other Ohio location. The northern white cedar is also rare. Its unusual animals include the green salamander and the Allegheny woodrat, the rarest Ohio mammal.
Four of the 11 main tracts are listed as National Natural Landmarks: The Wilderness, Lynx Prairie, Buzzardroost Rock and Red Rock.
The name The Edge comes from the preserve being at the western end of the Appalachian plateau. My most recent visit was a chance to again hike the Wilderness Trail, one of the best day hikes in Ohio.
It is a 2.5-mile loop through the deep woods. The trail goes through cedar glades, along gray limestone cliffs and into prairie openings.
It got its name in 1961 when Dr. Edward Thomas of the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society participated in a hike. He later described it in his column in the Columbus Dispatch as a wild hike through “a howling wilderness.” The name stuck.
The yellow-blazed trail opened to the public in 2000. It winds through the 1,200 acres of the Charles A. Eulett Wilderness Preserve. Eulett was a popular Adams County teacher who brought classes to the area and worked with local landowners to protect it.
The mostly woodland trail is lightly traveled; I ran into just two other hikers. It is not always easy to follow. You take an old logging road from the early 1900s into the woods.
The south-facing forest is chestnut oak, black gum and tulip trees. The moist north-facing forest is beech, sugar maple and tulip trees.
The trail leaves Saw Mill Branch and rises above Cliff Run. It is a 60-foot drop to the stream flowing through a deep, shaded gorge. You will see 500-year-old white cedars along the cliffs. Boulders have fallen from the cliffs and are strewn in the bowl-shaped valley.
The trail moves onto what was once an old wagon road in the early 1900s. The forest is dominated by two shrubs: spicebush and paw paws. It then runs northeast along the base of the dolomite cliffs, where springs emerge. It is a prime wildflower spot in the spring.
You cross a small footbridge and enter a white oak forest. Follow the trail downhill to Bread Pan Run for views of Ohio Brush Creek in the distance. Bread Pan Run features several pretty waterfalls.
The trail leaves the run and ascends into a young scrubby forest of eastern red cedar, Virginia pine and tulip tree.
Then you enter an impressive forest of sugar maples and Chinquapin oak growing around fallen boulders from the cliffs above. Ferns and wildflowers abound.
The trail ends at what was once farmer Floyd Shivener’s cornfield, now a restored prairie.
To date, 172 species of birds have been found in The Wilderness. That includes 107 breeding species plus 11 species of high concern.
To get to The Wilderness, head east from West Union on state Route 125 for 7.2 miles. Turn left on Lynx Road in the hamlet of Lynx. Turn left on gravel Shivener Road and head north 0.7 miles. The road ends at the trailhead.
You can find the trail in a fence opening about 20 paces from the parking lot. Head back up the entrance road and look to your right. You will be hiking the trail clockwise. Visitors are asked to stay on trails to avoid damaging rare plants.
You can also visit the two other spots at The Edge that are open to the public: Lynx Prairie and Buzzardroost Rock.
The 500-acre prairie is known for its cedar glades or eastern alkaline barrens with its thin, rocky soils. There are dolomite and shale outcroppings. Three short loop trails lead through Lynx Prairie, the first tract in The Edge to be acquired in 1959.
There are 10 small short-grass prairies surrounded by forests of Virginia pines and red cedar. They are mostly flat, narrow and wet. Each is filled with different plant species.
Lynx Prairie is a tribute to Dr. E. Lucy Braun (1889-1971), a University of Cincinnati botany professor who studied plants in the area and led the push to preserve what became The Edge. Braun had studied Adams County for its rare plants in the 1920s. The Durrells were Braun’s proteges and fought the fight.
Today, 115 prairie patches survive at The Edge. Studies show that the prairies have shrunk by two-thirds since 1938.
The trail into Lynx Prairie begins at the rear of a cemetery behind the East Liberty Community Church. Look in the cemetery’s southeast corner for a fence opening. It is at its colorful best from late July through September.
To get to Lynx Prairie, take state Route 125 east from West Union. In the hamlet of Lynx, turn right and head south on Tulip Road. After 0.3 miles, turn left on Prairie Road into the church parking lot.
Buzzardroost Rock, a one-time Indian lookout, is 75 feet high, topped with a wood-and-steel observation deck.
It rises 500 feet above Ohio Brush Creek and offers some of the best up-high views in Ohio. You can see five miles north and south along the creek.
It is a three-mile round-trip hike from the trailhead off Weaver Road off state Route 125 to Buzzardroost Rock.
The trail is unmarked but easy to follow. You cross Easter Run, a small stream. It gets steeper as you climb higher on the 465-acre tract between West Union and Lynx.
The hike will take you through the woods and past shale barrens and giant boulders that have fallen from the cliffs above. There is a 50-foot-deep cleft atop the rock on the ridgetop, where vultures once nested.
The Cincinnati museum built the education facility. It is west of Lynx Prairie on a bluff overlooking Ohio Brush Creek.
For more information, contact the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, (513) 287-7041, www.cincymuseum.org.
You can contact the Ohio chapter of the Nature Conservancy (614) 717-2770, www.nature.org. You can reach the preserve at (937) 544-2880 or (937) 544-2188.
The state of Ohio has eight state nature preserves in Adams County: Chaparral Prairie, Johnson Ridge, Shoemaker, Whipple, Davis Memorial, Strait Creek Prairie Bluffs (part of The Edge), Adams Lake Prairie and Kamama Prairie. For information, call (614) 265-6561 or visit www.ohiodnr.gov/dnap.