Ohio's Olsen Preserve showcases cliffs, wildflowers along Vermilion River

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WAKEMAN, Ohio -- The late Gussie Olsen would be proud.

Her 83-acre gift to the state of Ohio has grown into a 132-acre state nature preserve that features multi-hued bluffs along the picturesque Vermilion River in north-central Ohio.

Welcome to the Augusta-Anne Olsen State Nature Preserve, one of the best wildflower spots in northern Ohio.

The preserve north of Wakeman in northeastern Huron County features three miles of trails and almost a mile of the Vermilion River, which makes a great bend to the northwest on the preserve.

The riffle-and-pool Vermilion River is only about 35 miles in length and empties into Lake Erie. It drops about 500 feet in that distance and cuts through the Berea Escarpment. It is a pretty stream with bluffs of sandstone and shale that reach 100 to 200 feet in height.

The lower two-thirds of its cliffs are made up of thin layers of dark, crumbly Cleveland shale. There is also a layer of fine sandstone. The upper third is a soft, grayish-red Bedford shale that gave the river its name: After heavy rain, the hue would wash out and stain the cliffs reddish-orange, vermilion in French.

At river level, you can find the soft, bluish Chagrin shale that is 360 million years old, the oldest exposed rock in Northeast Ohio.

In the winter, water seeping from the cliffs creates giant ice displays, especially in shady spots.

Paddlers enjoy the Vermilion in the spring and after heavy rains. It passes small farms and second-growth woodlots.

The section north of Wakeman may be the prettiest and most rugged section along the Vermilion, with a wider floodplain. That's where you will find the Olsen preserve, off West River Road in Wakeman Township.

In the early 1970s, William and Augusta-Anne Olsen purchased a 140-acre farm north of Wakeman on the west bank of the Vermilion River.

Augusta-Anne Olsen had grown up in Maryland and her old family farm had been lost to a naval installation. She was especially drawn to the site by the dense patches of club moss or crowsfoot that reminded her of her childhood.

In 1985, she donated 83 acres to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to become the Vermilion River Preserve. In 1997, the state purchased an additional 47 acres of the farm. In 2000, it became the Augusta-Anne Olsen State Nature Preserve.

It features ridge tops with oaks and maples that rise above a mixed floodplain forest along the river. It offers views high above the river on a ridge of serviceberry and witch hazel.

Because of the bend in the river, the preserve is home to different plant communities due to the varying exposures. It offers a great deal of biodiversity in a small area.

It is also known for excellent birding, especially in the spring. Pileated woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers and wood warblers may be spotted. Bald eagles are often sighted along the river.

The trails have practical names -- River Trail, Sassafras Trail, Old Field Trail, Spring Trail -- and are short. The River Loop Trail is 1.5 miles, the Sassafras Trail a half-mile.

You can access the preserve via the Old Field Trail. It skirts a small pond and then cuts through an old farm field where plant succession is taking place. A few bird boxes have been installed in the rolling field.

To the left are deep woods of beech and mixed hardwoods that gently slope to the Vermilion River. That's where you will find the Spring Trail. It connects to the River Trail, which connects to the Sassafras Trail.

The Spring Trail makes a big loop through the maples and oaks that grow in the floodplain.

The damp woods are at their colorful best for wildflowers in April and May. Wildflowers include twinleaf, bluebells, sessile trillium, large-flowered trillium, drooping trillium, ginger, bloodroot, marsh marigold, hepatica, wild hyacinth, golden saxifrage, dwarf ginseng and showy orchis.

The woods are also home to vernal pools that house numerous amphibians. There are no rare plants or animals found in the preserve, Ohio Department of Natural Resources says.

The Sassafras Trail features one of the largest sassafras trees in the state of Ohio, 4 feet in diameter. Sassafras is a member of the laurel family and was once used as the flavoring in root beer.

The preserve has few amenities, no restrooms or picnic areas. There is an information kiosk near the parking lot, and small bridges and wooden boardwalks in swampy areas.

For more information, contact the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 1-614-265-6561, www.ohiodnr.com.

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