By Rod King
Editor’s Note: Rod King is the author of a monthly column “Great Escapes” that will take readers to various locations throughout the country.
Fern Cliff Nature Preserve is for the birds!
Also, butterflies, wild flowers, ferns, mosses, liverworts, bryophites, flies, ants, mosquitoes, spiders and, of course, trees. In other words, it’s perfect for nature lovers!
The 157-acre preserve, located in Putnam County southwest of Greencastle, is one of Indiana’s best-kept natural sites. That’s probably because there’s no big sign, no arrows and no flashing lights to let one know to slow down for the entrance. It’s basically a narrow break in the trees and underbrush with a short gravel drive.
In addition, there’s no spacious visitor’s center staffed by knowledgeable state naturalists with hands-on displays, photos and maps. There are no restrooms and the tiny grass and gravel parking area off County Road 375 South is easy to miss.
There is, however, a sign at the trailhead that welcomes visitors and clearly states that the preserve is open from dawn to dusk every day and that no bikes and motorized vehicles are allowed. Neither is rock climbing or rappelling. It’s primarily for hiking, bird watching and photography.
Quiet descends in just a few steps, the sun is pretty much blocked out, civilization seems miles away and the only sounds are those of calling birds and buzzing insects. A reasonably wide 1 1/2-mile-long in-and-out trail steadily rises to about 190 feet of elevation before angling down toward the cliffs.
The preserve is bordered by Snake Creek, which feeds into Big Walnut Creek. It was designated a State Nature Preserve in 1988 and is a registered National Natural Landmark. It’s unique because of its steep sandstone cliffs and its lush fern-filled ravines, hence the name Fern Cliff. In addition, the preserve contains a mesic upland hardwood forest full of huge oak, beech, ash, hickory, sugar maple, wild cherry and tulip trees that provide a thick overhead canopy. Mesic refers to a type of habitat with a moderate to well-balanced supply of moisture. It’s a term used to describe the amount of water in a habitat.
The understory of the forest contains dogwood, hydrangea, paw paw and green brier, along with a large array of herbaceous plants and a profusion of ferns and bryophytes, which are the little flowerless mosses and liverworts that cover the ground. The place is truly a botanist’s floral paradise.
Early in the 20th century a commercial mining company extracted sandstone from the cliffs, crushed it onsite and delivered it to a bottle manufacturing plant in Terra Haute. The material from this quarry was the source for the first greenish glass that made the Coca Cola bottles so recognizable. What’s left of the abandoned crushing mill still remains in the sandstone canyon.
Getting there is convoluted to say the least. The journey begins at the courthouse square in downtown Greencastle. Head south on Jackson Street for a block and then turn west (right) onto Walnut Street. In four miles, cross over Big Walnut Creek and then turn south at the first road after the bridge. At the next three intersections bear to the left and immediately after crossing Snake Creek turn right. The entrance to the preserve is a mile ahead on the right. Don’t rely on GPS because service is unreliable.