October 21, 2014

Autumn in the Hocking Hills

Often I encounter people who are surprised by the photos that I post in this blog, because images of flat corn and soybean fields come to mind when they think about Ohio. Plenty of such farm fields are found in the state, of course. Much of that flat, fertile agricultural land is the result of vast glaciers which covered much of Ohio up to about 10,000 years ago. The southeastern third of the state, however, shown in dark green on the map below, was never glaciated. As a result, this region features rushing streams, high hills and deep valleys. Erosion-resistant sandstone has weathered to produce amazing cliffs, waterfalls, and other natural features. A great place to explore this diversity is the Hocking Hills, indicated by the green arrow below. Home of Hocking Hills State Park, Clear Creek Metro Park, and a variety of nature preserves, it is well worth a visit in any season but especially in autumn.

So this fall we have made a point to visit the hills whenever we have had a chance. The fall colors have been beautiful; the striking colors are partly related to the dry and sunny weather during September and into October, which allowed the red foliage colors to develop fully. Colorful leaves are not all that the region has to offer, though. 

Exceptional hiking trails, 

dramatic rock formations,

and lots of interesting plants and critters draw us back often to the area.

This is a moth caterpillar called Hitched Arches.

One of the best and most popular trails in the county is the 2-mile Rim Trail at Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve. Several flights of stairs have been constructed to safely allow visitors to climb up to the top of the cliffs. The trek is well worthwhile, resulting in fantastic views of the valley below and the sandstone cliffs that line the hollow:

The trail passes right along the edge of the cliff

and gives views deep into the rocky recesses of this hollow which is graced by hemlock trees both large and small:

We usually think of sugar maples as the source of most fall color, and indeed they add brilliant yellows and oranges to the autumn landscape. But there are others equally worthy of attention, and the sourwood is one of my favorites. They require acid soil (which is why the one in my yard is only about a foot tall after about 5 years), so in the acidic soils of the Hocking Hills their size and red fall color can be magnificent:

This member of the heath family has lovely sprays of creamy white flowers in early summer, and the sprays persist into fall and even winter, bearing seeds for the next generation of sourwoods:

Yesterday we hiked the Hemlock Trail in Clear Creek Metro Park, and even though their colors were fading the small sourwoods added a lot of beauty to the path.

I love the way the leaves of beech trees turn earthy colors of brown and yellow in the fall:

The sassafras trees have been magnificent this year, thanks to the pigment anthocyanin which take lots of sunshine to develop:

Red maples were gorgeous this year too:

The tall trees in the background above are tuliptrees; they lose their leaves early but their magnificent height makes up for the lack of fall color!

Of course I can't resist a sugar maple picture; here one is taking over an old log cabin:

Trees aren't the only sources of fall color, of course. Until this year I never realized how beautiful a common plant with the rather lowly name of dogbane can be in the fall:

And one of the brightest shrubs in the fall landscape is winged sumac, photographed at Clear Creek Metro Park:

And here is the lovely fall color of the maple-leafed viburnum:

Spicebush brightens the understory with its yellow leaves and scarlet berries:

We often think of fall as a season of dwindling life as winter approaches. But there are significant exceptions to this impression! In fall, the puttyroot orchid sends up its accordion-like leaf to take advantage of the increased sunlight available to it when the leaves are off the trees. 

At first the leaf is vertical, allowing tree leaves to fall without covering it. Later, it is nearly horizontal, all the better to capture the winter rays of the sun. In early summer the leaf will wither as the blooms emerge.

Harbingers of next year's blooms are already apparent in the flower buds of the rhododendron:

Witch hazel, a small tree or shrub, is actually in flower right now:

And one of the coolest things about fall is the appearance of the buck moth. The only time the adult flies is October and into November, withstanding frosts and even early snows. We have seen many in the Hocking Hills in the past week, particularly along ridge tops with lots of oaks which are the caterpillar food plants. The males use their feathery antennae to detect female pheromones in order to find a mate and start the next generation. Our picture doesn't show much of the brilliant orange color on this critter's legs and abdomen, but trust me--it is amazing. 

Some of the best fall scenes in the hills can be found along the hiking trails, but driving the roads is great as well. We had never driven the Thompson Ridge Road before this year, and we are glad we did:

We hardly knew which side of the road to look at!

Although I'm not thrilled at the prospect of winter approaching, I've loved being out and seeing the natural world prepare for the coming season, particularly in the Hocking Hills!

1 comment:

  1. This has been an amazing season in Wisconsin, too, though we haven't had the chance to do much hiking. Even driving down our street every day, however, has left me ooh-ing and aah-ing at the gorgeous colors. I loved the Hitched Arches caterpillar and the description of the puttyroot orchid was so interesting. Thanks as always!