The trails that originate near the picnic shelter on the west side of the park provide easy access to some very different plant communities. If you head toward the river you will walk through flood plain forest. The vegetation here must be able to survive wet roots for weeks or months at a time, as well as soil disturbance and the deposition of sand and silt during spring floods. The large trees are primarily Silver Maple and Black Willow. Many native shrubs, herbs, and vines provide support for the valley’s abundant wildlife, including Raspberries, River Grapes, Virginia Creeper, and wild Clematis. In spring, the bright yellow of Marsh Marigolds will catch your eye at the bottom of the limestone cliffs and along the muddy edges of the walking path. If you head toward the bluff instead of the river, you can follow a nature trail that runs along the warm, south-facing slope of the valley (trail guide here, but the trail is temporarily closed due to tornado damage from Sept. 2018). Its orientation to the sun warms it early, and the spring wildflowers have a chance to put on a spectacular show before the trees above them leaf out and darken the forest floor. Spring wildflowers along this trail include Bloodroot, Hepatica, Spring Beauty, White Trout Lily, Dutchman’s Breeches, and many others. There is even a tiny prairie on a rocky outcropping overlooking the river where you may be lucky enough to see an early Pasque Flower in bloom’ The trees overhead include Sugar Maple, Hackberry, Red Oak, Basswood, Bitternut Hickory, Black Walnut, and others.
From the east side entrance of the park, visitors first descend a primitive stairway to the valley floor and make their way over a boardwalk and small bridge to the start of the narrow trail through the upland forest. The path parallels an eroding ravine and eventually leads along a small creek that flows into the Cannon River. After crossing this small creek at its mouth, visitors can follow a primitive path through lowland forest to where it connects to the older, southern stretch of the trail. After the Fiske Creek bridge, the trail leads to the oak savannah and prairie. Many of the shrubs and wildflowers found on the west side of the park also flourish here. At the edge of the prairie, there is a good view of the basically inaccessible calcareous fen. Here tussocks dominated by sedges and shrubs rise out of this unusual wetland type, characterized by a substrate saturated to the surface, often in the form of shallow pools of water. The variety of plant communities, land forms, and birds accessible along this system of more primitive trails truly validate the name, “wilderness park.”
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