Key At-A-Glance Information
Length: 2 miles
Scenery: Classified forest and springs
Trail Surface: Mowed path
Hiking Time: 2 hours
Driving Distance: 1.5 hours west of Cincinnati
Maps: USGS Volga
Wheelchair Accessible: No
For More Information: The Nature Conservancy, (317) 951-8818 or www.nature.org/indiana
Special Comments: Pennywort Cliffs Nature Preserve is a wonderful place ot enjoy the tranquility of nature; just be sure to bring along the insect repellent and a GPS unit or compass.
If you are looking for a hike that isn’t the least bit urbanized (except for occasional airplane noise), this is the hike for you. Pennywort Cliffs Nature Preserve is 216 acres of woodland forest with three springs and a waterfall. This hike doesn’t include the waterfall because you must go off trail to reach it, which creates a host of problems (including damaging a fragile habitat and you potentially getting lost).
Finding the trailhead is an adventure in itself. It is easy to miss—repeatedly. The entrances to Pennywort are simple cut-ins through the standard overgrowth of edge species such as multiflora rose and poison ivy. This alone probably discourages less-adventurous hikers who would turn around and head for a trail system in a more civilized setting.
Pennywort Cliffs has no amenities. The trails are remnants of an old road system being commandeered by the surrounding woods and are laced with fine threads of silk from orb-weaving spiders.
Serene Pennywort Cliffs doesn’t see a lot of hikers. At times the trails verge on woods and wander; that’s why it’s important to bring along a compass or GPS unit.
Yellow signs mark the nature preserve boundary, and, unless it has fallen, one is located near the south entrance. Park your vehicle off the edge of the road across from the barn. Since this is a farming community, park as far off the road as possible to allow wide equipment to pass, but not too far or you’ll need a tow.
Enter the preserve by way of the old road into the forest of American beech, dogwoods, pawpaw, and spicebush. The overgrown trail is passable. Watch for poison ivy along the edge of the trail as well as on the trail itself. And be relentless in checking for ticks. Unless the area has been recently mowed, plan on walking through tall grasses and stepping over fallen tree limbs along the trail.
The forest of mature red oak, beech, and shagbark hickory trees stretches 60 to 80 feet high. Typically, you would expect a woods with a dense, high canopy to be cool during the heat of summer, but the trees block most of the air movement, making for humid and sticky summer hikes.
The forest slowly transitions to one dominated by beech and tulip trees just 350 feet into the hike. The forest structure is an extraordinary textbook example of what a forest should look like. Visit during spring to see wildflowers such as Virginia bells, trillium, and Jack-in-the pulpit in full bloom.
Near 650 feet, the trail passes through an area with ferns on both sides. At 0.14 miles when the trail splits, take the trail to the right labeled SW. Immediately, you’ll pass through another large area of ferns near several enormous American beech trees.
The trail is bordered with aromatic spicebush. Spicebush berries were used by pioneers as a substitute for allspice. When the leaves are crushed they smell like lemon-scented furniture polish. In fact, you can steep the twigs in hot water to make a tea. If you decide to try wild edibles, make sure you consult at least two good identification books and two good wild edible cookbooks.
In the wet depressions along the trail, look for animal tracks. White-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, and wild turkeys are common occupants of this protected forest. At the trail junction at 0.22 miles, the trees are labeled S and F. Follow the trail labeled S to the right.
At the next trail junction at 0.28 miles, follow the trail labeled SW to the right. This trail passes through a wonderful beech-maple forest and ends at the enormous fallen beech tree at 0.36 miles. This is a great opportunity to investigate the root structure of this giant tree. The ground that the beech tree once shaded is now open to full sunlight, and several small sweetgum trees are growing in this new opening.
Retrace your steps to the previous intersection with the tree labeled SW and turn right. Follow this trail down to the open area with white oak trees. This is an enjoyable spot to pish for birds. Retrace your steps to the intersection and turn right.
Follow the trail to the intersection with the trees labeled S and F at 0.65 miles into the hike. Turn right onto the overgrown F trail and be careful to not get into the stinging nettles.
Continue on this trail until you reach the open area underneath a very large sugar maple tree. This is a nice place to sit, relax, and do absolutely nothing— which is harder to do than you’d think.
Retrace your steps back to the intersection of the S and F trails and turn right onto the SW trail, which isn’t well marked but should look familiar since you’re retracing your earlier steps. At 0.92 miles pass the trail that brought you in from the road. Continue quietly on the trail downhill. You may surprise a white-tailed deer or at the very least see a variety of neotropical migrants. Use the pssh sound to attract songbirds.
As you continue down the hillside, you enter a breathtaking cathedral of enormous sugar maple and tulip trees in this low-lying area. At 1.1 miles, cross a wet area with some exposed stones. This is a good spot to look for black-and-yellow millipedes.
Continue on the trail to the picnic bench in the open area surrounded by very large sassafras trees. Continue uphill and follow the trail to the left through the forest of dogwood, beech, sugar maple, tulip, and black cherry trees. Parts of this heavily rutted trail have standing water, and the route passes through what appears to be a wet woods.
When you reach the country road, turn around and retrace your steps to the intersection with the sign for SW—this was the first trail intersection you encountered on this hike. Turn right and retrace your steps to the trailhead and your vehicle.
GPS Trailhead Coordinates
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UTM Zone (WGS84) 16S
Latitude: N 38 degrees 48' 53.08"
Longitude: W 85 degrees 32' 13.64"
Muscatatuck Park, Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, Hardy Lake State Recreation Area, Selmier State Forest, Clifty Falls State Park, and Clifty Canyon Nature Preserve are also great places to hike and are included in this book. If you’re looking for a bite to eat, Madison, Indiana, has plenty of hometown restaurants.