September 15, 2010

Highlands Nature Sanctuary: Barrett's Rim

Barrett's Rim Trailhead

The Highlands Nature Sanctuary is the flagship preserve for the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System. The sanctuary is a patchwork of smaller preserves in and around the Rocky Fork Gorge between Rocky Fork Lake and Paint Creek Lake in eastern Highland County. Though some areas of the sanctuary are closed to the public due to the delicate nature and incredible biodiversity of the Rocky Fork region, many are open to the public and can be accessed via the sanctuary's public trail system.

The Barrett's Rim trail is a 2-mile loop which can be accessed from the Taloden Pond trailhead on Cave Road. The trail begins with a journey through a grand expanse of tall-grass prairie dominated by Big Bluestem and Canada Goldenrod. I observed specimens of Purple Coneflower, Ironweed, and White Snakeroot, as well as numerous butterflies and dragonflies.

Tall-Grass Prairie

Big Bluestem

Peck's Skipper

The trail then enters the forest and descends into the Rocky Fork Gorge. Though the decline is moderate, the trail is narrow and runs along the cliff face of the gorge during the descent. The Highlands Nature Sanctuary is cliff country, and extreme caution should be exercised on many of the trails.

In the Rocky Fork Gorge, the trail follows the base of the towering cliffs of the eastern gorge wall, and the geology of the area becomes readily apparent. The cliffs are pockmarked with small caves and riddled with vertical joint fractures. As the erosion of these fractures progresses over time, huge blocks of dolomite will break free and tumble into the gorge. Evidence of this process abounds in the sanctuary. Many of the trails are littered with monolithic slump rocks, creating a natural rock garden reminiscent of a time long gone. Indeed, much of the sanctuary has a land before time ambiance.

Joint Fracture and Small Cave

Eastern Gorge Wall

Cliff-side Caves

Dolomite Slump Block

Joint Fracture and Small Cave

Dolomite Slump Block Maze

Joint Fracture

The Silurian Period dolomite bedrock of the sanctuary also provides habitat for a dazzling array of plant life, including rare and threatened species. The White Cedar trees which cling to the cliffs of the gorge are evidence of this. These trees are some of the oldest in Ohio, though they appear as young and insignificant to the untrained observer due to their small size. White Cedar grows at an incredibly slow rate. Trees which are hundreds of years old resemble second-growth Red Cedars. Though White Cedar trees are difficult to find in Ohio, they can also be observed at Davis Memorial in Adams County.

White Cedar Tree

A day pass to explore the Highlands Nature Sanctuary can be obtained from the Appalachian Forest Museum on Cave Road. Several of the trailheads are near the museum and there is a large parking lot which can accommodate visitors. To reach the sanctuary, take US 50 east from Hillsboro. Just before the Highland/Ross county line, cross the bridge over Rocky Fork Creek and take an immediate right onto Cave Road. The Appalachian Forest Museum is located on the right side of the road.

 Rocky Fork Gorge