Natural History of
The Highlands Nature Sanctuary on the
 Rocky Fork Gorge

Where it all began . . .

And this, our life,
exempt from public haunt,
finds tongues in trees,
books in the running brooks,
sermons in stones,
and good in everything.



History. The Highlands Nature Sanctuary, now the headquarters for the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System,  was initially founded in 1995 with the purchase of its first 47 acre property. Centered around the vertical-walled dolomite canyon known as the Rocky Fork Gorge, the Highlands Nature Sanctuary is the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System's  largest preserve at 2100 acres. Much of the Arc's land acquisition efforts have focused in this region, with the Arc purchasing and re-uniting 55 separate tracts to make the nearly contiguous greater preserve region we know today.  The Highlands serves as the Arc's headquarters, offering The Appalachian Forest Museum, with interpretive educational displays and fourteen miles of trails.

Cave Country. The Rocky Fork Creek is one of the Eastern Forest's geologic treasures. Abrupt canyon walls rise up on either side of the creek up to 100 vertical feet, forming a narrow canyon composed of Silurian-aged dolomite. Over the millennia, huge blocks of stone have cleaved away from the canyon wall, creating a labyrinth of rock-scapes. The water sings as it passes through the narrow canyon and slides in and out of the shadows of towering  hemlocks.  The region abounds in seeps, springs, sinkholes, and true caves  — twenty-three caves in all — making up the second densest concentration of caves in all of Ohio. Protecting this beauty by preserving the natural fauna of the cave country is one of the missions of The Arc of Appalachia Preserve System. Since the summer of 2005, the caves are being actively restored by taking out the tourist lights, removing sidewalks, and minimizing visitor impact. Most of the caves are now closed to public exploration, and they are now home to a growing population of four species of bats: Northern Long-Eared, Little Brown, Big Brown, and the Eastern Pipistrelle. Rare isopods have been also found in the caves and are actively being protected.

Botanical Hotspot. There is no place in the world like the Rocky Fork Gorge in the spring. Not only do flowers grow in  abundance in the loamy neutral soils of the canyon floor, but even the vertical stone walls and fallen boulders are covered with a living blanket of flowers: including snow, sessile and grandiflorum trilliums, bishop’s-cap, stonecrop, shooting stars, wild ginger, celandine wood poppy, rue anemone, and columbine. Only limestone-based rocks fed with generous rainfall can produce such profusion — giving the mythical appearance of rocks dissolving into flowers — which, in  terms if science, is quite true. Hikers walking in the gorge the third week of April find themselves in a landscape lush with a high diversity of flowers (see our annual Wildflower Pilgrimage Weekend and plant lists for our various preserves). On the rock walls just above the river, cold spring water emerges to create vertical hanging fens, supporting such northern fen species as Zigadanthus or  Wand Lily, and Grass of Parnassus. On the high rim of the canyon other limestone-loving plant species abound, including the rare ferns Smooth Purple Cliffbrake and Wall Rue; the boreal White Cedar, and the tiniest violet in the Appalachian Forest, Viola walteri.   Polished boulders and slump blocks the size of small houses supporting relicts of native prairie species such as Echinacea, big bluestem, and nodding wild onion. A prairie influence is also noticeable in the dry forests bordering the bluffs, evidenced by smooth woodland phlox, bastard toadflax, and Seneca Snakeroot. Click here for a list of state-listed botanical species in the Rocky Fork Gorge.

Bird Life on the Rocky Fork. With 2000 acres of most woodland, broken by old grasslands, Highlands Nature Sanctuary is rich in bird life. Wood ducks scream in unison as they rise from the waters, great blue herons are commonly sighted along the creek, and black vultures circle overhead, their flight intersected occasionally by a hunting osprey or bald eagle. Breeding woodland warblers include the notable cerulean warbler, as well as the hooded warbler, ovenbird, worm-eating warbler, and Kentucky warbler. Along the creek Louisiana water thrush, parula warblers and yellow-throated warblers are common, as are Baltimore orioles, kingfishers and rough winged swallows. In the dense woodlands and woodland edges dense numbers of scarlet tanagers, summer tanagers, vireos, wood thrush, and rose-breasted grosbeak breed, along with permanent residents such as chickadees, Carolina wrens, cardinals, titmice, and blue jays. The Sanctuary's open fields support surprisingly dense populations of the rare Henslow sparrow, along with chats, blue-winged warblers, yellowthroats, tree swallows and orchard orioles. Barn owls have been documented as nesting on the Sanctuary, and there are likely several breeding pairs in the immediate region. Click here for  complete list of bird species.

Mussels  and Aquatic Life on the Rocky Fork. The lower Rocky Fork is one of Ohio’s top 4% of clean streams, with 63 fish species listed, an excellent number for the size of the watershed. Of all the wildlife found in the Highlands, none is more significant than the freshwater mussels that live their extended lives on the creek’s bottom. Seventeen freshwater mussels still call the Rocky Fork home. Of special interest is the state-threatened Wavy-rayed Pocketbook, Lampsilis fasciola, the Kidneyshell, P. fasciolaris.  The diminishment of the Eastern Forest's approximately 350 original mussel species has been a poignant and sobering event in the continuing story of the Sanctuary. At this time, one third of the Eastern mussels are either extinct or are expected to become so. We remember the pioneer stories of how early settlers used to “walk on the back” of large numbers of mussel shells to cross the rivers, bestowing such colorful names as White Heel Splitter and Fat Pocketbook. We recall the archeological finds of great mounds of mussel shells, which the native Americans used for food and sacred adornment. Fortunately, the lower Rocky Fork still has what was likely its original diversity. With the preservation efforts of the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System, we hope to keep it that way. Click here for a complete list of mussel species.

You are invited to visit the Highlands Nature Sanctuary and The Appalachian Forest Museum--the scenic visitor gateway to the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System. We offer excellent lodging facilities and hiking trails.

For the story behind the inception of the Highlands Nature Sanctuary,
click here.


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