Five nearby nature preserves to enjoy fall hiking weather off the beaten path
Hoover Meadows, above, and Gahanna Woods State Nature Preserve below
PHOTOS BY JODI MILLER
Central Ohio has plenty of places to zip, climb, dive, dash, ride and slide. But some sunny days of autumn are supposed to be lazy, too. Don’t forget to schedule a few empty afternoons to admire Ohio’s striking natural beauty. You won’t need to go far, and you won’t need many supplies, save for a map and a good pair of shoes. Here are five quiet natural spaces that you probably never knew were there.
Hoover Nature Preserve
3715 Sunbury Rd., Galena
Reason to go: Great grasslands
The area around Hoover Reservoir offers a wealth of outdoor amenities, including the recreation hotspot near the dam. If you’re looking for more secluded and intriguing territory, head to the Hoover Nature Preserve on the water’s northeastern coast.
A gorgeous portion of this twisting green space is Hoover Meadows. Wide, grassy paths encircle ponds, prairies, marshes and forest. Columbus Audubon has recorded around 188 bird types at the preserve, and its shallow waters are a perfect place to see and hear frogs in season.
If you have some extra time, drive to the 1,500-foot boardwalk at the preserve’s northern tip, near Front and West streets in Galena.
Big Darby Headwaters
County Road 152, Zane
Reason to go: Ecological education
The 560-square-mile Darby Watershed is one of the Midwest’s most biologically diverse aquatic ecosystems. Thousands canoe down Big Darby Creek, but few grasp the area’s larger significance. Do so at The Nature Conservancy’s 800-acre Big Darby Headwaters Nature Preserve, which is tucked like an aquatic splinter alongside State Route 33 in a tiny hamlet called Zane.
You’ll encounter streamside forests, recovering prairies and the start of something great. Coldwater springs and small streams that emerge within the preserve are a major part of the Darby’s permanent flow. Colorful trailside bulletins explain the waterway’s importance and the project that restored about a mile of the stream.
Gahanna Woods State Nature Preserve
1501 Taylor Station Rd., Gahanna
Reason to go: Super-cool swamps
Interesting ecosystems don’t always survive around urban settings, but Gahanna Woods State Nature Preserve has thrived on the outskirts of the growing eastern suburb. Hikers will find buttonbush marshes and dense forests—ecosystems that are equally interesting to scientists and casual hikers.
When you pull into the parking lot, you’ll find a trailhead for a city park and one for the adjacent state nature preserve, where you should spend most of your time. The preserve’s Woodlands Pond and Beechwood trails both are excellent. Though paths are often muddy, they trek into mysterious swamps and lovely wooded highlands, true Ohio treats.
Wahkeena Nature Preserve
2200 Pump Station Rd., Sugar Grove
Reason to go: Great nature center
Most Columbus hikers speed right past Wahkeena en route to Hocking Hills State Park. Yet this flyover territory lives up to its name, an American Indian word that means “most beautiful.” The Casa Burro and Shelter trails are short but savory. Tackle them together to see rock outcroppings, bushy ferns, beautiful rhododendrons and remnants of an old homestead. Other paths lead to Lake Odonata and a beaver pond.
After hiking, head to the top-quality nature center for wildlife displays, friendly staff and comprehensive guides to local flora and fauna. Preserve hours run 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through Nov. 4. The preserve is closed on holidays.
Hogback Ridge Preserve
2656 Hogback Rd., Sunbury
Reason to go: Picturesque ravine
Though less well known than the Columbus Metro Parks, the Preservation Parks of Delaware County protect places like Hogback Ridge Preserve. The enclave in the shadow of Alum Creek State Park offers two half-mile loops connected by staircases that bring hikers into and out of a lovely stream-cut ravine.
From the parking lot, take the Woodland Ridge Trail counterclockwise and cross the connector to the Pinegrove Trail. Walk this loop, see what’s floating on the pond behind the wildlife blind and return via the connector to finish the final section of the Woodland Ridge. Even novice hikers can complete the entire trail system in a couple of hours. It’s a great entry into the county’s parks.