The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

April 11, 2010

Greet spring with a nature hike


FOUNTAIN, Ind. — Every year, hundreds — maybe thousands — of people drive a few miles north of Covington to visit the beautiful and unique “North Trail” at the Portland Arch Nature Preserve.

Like generations of Indians, nature lovers and curiosity seekers before them, they come to meander through Bear Creek Canyon, look up at the craggy sandstone walls, wade in the water and pass through the natural arch created by erosion and the unimaginable passage of time. Experts say that the stone was deposited in layers, roughly 230 million years ago.

But there is more to Portland Arch than that. If you drive past the parking lot for the “North Trail” — the one with the arch — then pass the pioneer cemetery on your right, then proceed down the gravel road for another quarter-mile, you’ll find a parking area for the “South Trail.”

The South Trail is ignored by most visitors, but it is worth experiencing, too. After all, it’s also part of a nature preserve that is considered one of the finest in Indiana. The National Park Service named Portland Arch a National Natural Landmark in 1973. The former Boy Scout camp has been a protected state nature preserve since 1975.

The South Trail has trees and rock formations much like those of Turkey Run State Park, but it is essentially “unimproved.” It provides relatively easy, 9/10ths of a mile loop that takes you through some lovely woods, along Bear Creek, up a hill, then down, then up, then back again.

It certainly is not as spectacular as the North Trail. There is no natural bridge or high canyon walls. Still, it’s a good place to go, especially if you appreciate a little solitude.

I stopped by last week. It was a beautiful morning, bright and sunny, with a clear blue sky. The road from my house went from two lanes to one lane, to none, as I finally turned into the empty parking lot. I was the first person to sign the register book that day, and I had the trail to myself.

Much of it could be hiked by anybody, but other parts involve some brisk climbing. The walkway takes you through the leafless woods and past an old building foundation made of large sandstone blocks. Surely, some pioneer family lived there, 150 years ago. A patch of daffodils is all that remains of Mother’s garden.

At the bottom of the hill is Bear Creek, a clear little stream that eventually winds its way over to Portland Arch, then on to the Wabash River. The South Trail has no 90-foot bluffs like its more famous sister, but the sandstone outcroppings remind you that this is a place that Mother Nature spent millions of years creating. They must laugh at the seasons, and at such temporary things as trees, houses and people.

The trail winds on, skirts a tributary stream, then brings a climb that quickly puts you on a plateau about 50 feet above the quiet forest floor.

After another 300 feet or so, it drops back down, then climbs again.

It’s not a strenuous march, but by the time I was back up on high ground, surrounded by big spruces and white pines, I was breathing a little faster. I kicked a tree trunk to knock the mud off my hiking boots.

Ten minutes after that, I was back at the parking lot.

The South Trail offers nothing stupendous, really. But it’s worth the drive if you just want to clear your head, hear birds sing, see the greening of the forest and listen to the gurgle of a little stream.

What a nice way to say “hello” to spring!

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at