Trek Back in Time at Rocky Hollow Nature Preserve

From 100 Miles from Home


We live in the country, surrounded by woods and meadows, and we tend to assume that “official” natural areas are simply bigger and better versions of our own backyard—taller trees, a wider variety of wildflowers, less familiar birds and animals. But there are places nearby that are so different as to seem downright strange.

Rocky Hollow is one of these places. Tucked into Turkey Run State Park, Rocky Hollow is a remnant of a world that no longer exists.

To get there, you must cross the suspension bridge that straddles Sugar Creek. The bridge is symbolic: It connects the present to its 300-million-year-old past. Head north up the eastern side of Trail Three and you’ll trek along the bones of the canyon. It’s made of Mansfield Sandstone, coarse-grained sand compacted into solid rock. Mansfield Sandstone is hard, and when glacial melt water carrying boulders and rocks rushed over it during the Pleistocene epoch (what we call the “Ice Age”), it resisted erosion. The result is a series of deep, narrow canyons called “hollows.”

On the way to Rocky Hollow you’ll pass Wedge Rock: Once part of the ledge at the top of the canyon, it was chiseled free by water that settled in the cracks, froze and expanded, toppling the massive stone to the canyon floor. The Punch Bowl is another example of geological forces at work: This immense “pothole” was formed when a glacial erratic (i.e., a boulder from Canada) got spun around by turbulent floodwaters and drilled a hole in the canyon floor.

But it’s the hollow itself that will take your breath away.

Rocky Hollow is a refugium, a sort of “safe space” that protects plants that otherwise would have been extirpated as temperatures rose. Along the edges of the cool canyons, however, hemlocks still grow. Most rock surfaces are covered with mosses and liverworts, ancient plants called “bryophytes” that have no stems, leaves or roots. Seeping water washes mineral deposits out of the earth, painting the cliff sides amber,  ochre and amethyst. Small seams of coal still are visible too, a reminder that the preserve was a swamp many millions of years ago, home to giant horsetails resembling pine trees, their long stems sporting whorls of branches with needle-like leaves.  Only one member of this plant family still exists today, and you can find it in Rocky Hollow too. It’s called equisetum, though you may know it as  scouring rush.

After you’ve spent an hour getting to know Rocky Hollow- stepping carefully on its slippery spine, resting against its cool, rock flanks- the woods beyond will seem particularly bright and clear, and the upland beeches will draw your eyes up to the sky.

But that’s another trail, another story.

beech-upland-rocky-hollow

Beech woods upland from Rocky Hollow


In 1974, Rocky Hollow-Falls Canyon Nature Preserve was designated a National Natural Landmark for its “forested areas of virgin beech-maple stands, steep sandstone gorges that harbor virgin boreal relict populations of eastern hemlock and Canada yew, and some of the largest black walnut in the Midwest.”

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2 thoughts on “Trek Back in Time at Rocky Hollow Nature Preserve

  1. Wonderful narrative that provokes great imagery. Thank you for the posting – and including the geology aspect 😉

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