June 21, 2008

New Trail Offers Wilderness Close to Home


GERMANTOWN METROPARK -- Miami Valley backpackers have long been resigned to driving -- or flying -- hours to get out on the trail.

Not anymore.

The new Twin Valley Trail, to open Saturday, June 21, offers a pleasant backpacking experience for those itching to get out but unwilling or unable to drive hundreds of miles to do so.

I walked about half the trail this week in two half-days with Tom Helbig, special events coordinator for Five Rivers MetroParks, and Greg Helmers, a Germantown resident who has been hiking the Twin Creek Valley for three decades.

We had nothing short of a great time. The weather was perfect, the wildflowers were in bloom, the wildlife was plentiful and the trail offered some scenic, surprisingly secluded hiking.

The TVT doesn't offer a true wilderness experience because you're never more than two miles -- and often only a few hundred yards -- from a road. (Two stretches of the trail currently involve short road hikes.) But if you weren't looking at the map, you'd often be hard pressed to guess you were that close to civilization. We started Tuesday afternoon at the Boomershine Road overnight parking lot on the north end of Germantown MetroPark and walked about six miles south along Twin Creek Valley, making frequent stops for conversation and a visit to the Nature Center.

About 10 minutes into our walk, we spotted a big barred owl swooping silently through the forest canopy high above.

Park Naturalist Doug Horvath said the valley is a diverse biological area with "very mature forests" and has been designated an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. The well-developed forest canopies, he said, draw many bird species rarely seen in the area.

The park's variety of habitats -- prairies, old growth forests, streams, ponds -- is home to deer, raccoons, a couple of coyote family units and at least one bobcat, said Todd Catchpole, another park naturalist. In addition, Twin Creek itself is the most biodiverse stream in Ohio and second in water quality, Catchpole said. As a result, that clean water supports some very nice bass, according to Helbig, a passionate fly fisherman as well as backpacker. On a preview hike last month, the 34-year-old West Milton resident caught and released several bass, including a 5- pound smallmouth.

He made me promise not to reveal where the big guy lives.

The trail offers a seven-mile loop in Germantown MetroPark, a seven-mile connector that runs southeast through Germantown and an eight-mile loop in the Twin Creek MetroPark. So if you start at one end, hike both loops and return to your car (hiking the connector twice) you can get a 29-mile trip with three different back country camp areas to choose from.

And while you're not in the middle of the Sierra Nevada or the Appalachian Mountains, it's a great place to take a shakedown hike before going to those places. It's also a perfect spot for beginners to try out their equipment and hone their back country skills (which can be learned in MetroParks classes).

We stayed at the Cedar Ridge campsite on a gorgeous wooded hillside location about a quarter mile above the creek. Although you could hear some road traffic, our group had a truly enjoyable back country camping experience.

Hiking north the next morning, Helbig, an amateur lepidopterist, pointed out a half dozen colorful butterfly species. And although the blackberries weren't quite ripe, we stopped several times to eat fat mulberries that were dripping from the trees.

Backpacking, Helbig noted as we neared the end of our walk, is an outdoor sport that uniquely simplifies life. Everything you do is related to your basic needs: water, food, shelter, warmth, sleep. It takes you away from complex 21st century electronic life and forces you to connect with nature.

And now we can do it in our back yard.

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