A Walk in the Winter Woods

February 25, 2015  |  Permalink

In summer, our deciduous forests are lush and green. They cool us with their shade and hide much of the landscape from our view. Some call the summer forest a wall of green. In fall, the leaves thrill us with spectacular color and the fallen ones decorate the ground but hide roots and holes in the trail. When the leaves are all down and winter has begun, details of the hidden land emerge into view. Through the forest you can see rocks, ravines and slopes that you would not have seen through the wall of green. On a trail that runs along a hillside or along a bluff line the view becomes continuous. At the Savage Gulf State Natural Area there are several trails that follow the rim of a gulf. All along the way the views are multiplied as you look through the trees. When a good open overlook is reached I like to sit and survey the mountainside. The terrain is revealed and I think about how it would be to sit in the rock shelters, on top of giant boulders, or be beside the tumbling small streams that today I can see.

On a recent trip to Big Ridge State Park, I walked the portion of the Lake Trail from near the campground out to the Loyston Overlook. I could tell that in the summer the view would be limited. But in February the view was great. I could see the mouth of Dark Hollow and the water of Norris Lake below, including the wide part of the lake known as the Loyston Sea. I wished I had the daylight to walk over to Big Ridge. I could see from the overlook the western end of the state park portion of the ridge. I wonder if the walk on the ridge top trail would have a continuous view of the lake.

The leaves on the ground and the open light through the trees do have a down side. The sunlight dries the leaf litter and the danger of forest fires is elevated. One thing I would not want to see is a ground fire burning thru the forest. The lack of shade may be a blessing in February but when the spring warm up begins and the trees have not yet put on the new leaves it can be a problem. You could get overheated and if you did not wear your hat you could get sunburned. This is a surprise problem for hikers in March or early April.

A walk in the winter woods is an expansive experience. The views are longer and wider but the time to see it is getting short. By the first of April the trees will start growing the beautiful wall of green. Buckeye trees are the first to leaf out, sometimes starting the last part of March. I have already seen my first wildflower of the spring. Just before the big ice storm and freeze I saw an Early Saxifrage at Jackson Falls on the Natchez Trace Parkway. It is only a month before the Spring Ephemerals fill the forest with color. This is a rush of plants to bloom before the trees leaf out and is one of the prettiest times to be in the woods. I think the last month of the leafless season is the most interesting and you can be assured I’ll be out there as much as I can. I hope you can join me.

About the author

Randy Hedgepath

Tennessee State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath is a native of west Tennessee, where his family’s farm was just 15 miles from the Tennessee River. After graduating from UT Martin and working seasonally for several years for the National Park Service and Tennessee State Parks, he has spent the last 33 years with state parks. Randy worked as a ranger/naturalist at South Cumberland State Park on the Cumberland Plateau and at Radnor Lake Natural Area in Nashville until 2007 when he was given the opportunity to be the statewide naturalist for the state park system.