With over 800 acres of rugged trails and serene beauty, Turkey Run Park has been developing a cult following since opening in 2015. It contains the most expansive trail system of all The Parklands, including the mountain biking complex with a trail designed by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA). While all of the other parks within the system encourage people to just pull over, park, and jump right onto almost any trail with ease, Turkey Run forces you to experience its beauty by delving deep beyond any paved surface. It makes you work for it.
I have admittedly been a little late to the party, but ever since discovering the Wild Hyacinth Trail, I have become a devout follower, visiting The Parklands weekly if not daily. During the most remote stretches of that trail there have been times when I could make out fading voices and catch a glimpse of shadows dart by momentarily on a ridge just above me. Searching through a map of the park it became clear that those voices were coming from people hiking the Paw Paw Trail.
Paw Paw Fruit (Source: Wikipedia)
Paw paw, the fruit so nice they named it twice! If you’re not from Kentucky then you’re probably wondering, “What the heck is a paw paw?”. I had the same thought wandering through the local farmers market in Louisville soon after moving here from Chicago. Eyeing the large kidney shaped fruit with its blueish-green skin, I mistook it for some unknown variety of mango. It looked like some exotic fruit you might find hacking your way through a South American jungle. The paw paw tree, belonging to a family of tropical plants, produce the largest edible fruit native to North America.
Every spring, paw paws bloom with the most interesting maroon colored flowers highlighted by yellow tipped stamens. The flowers are hard to notice as they grow facing straight down. Before realizing what they were, I always assumed they were some sort of dried moth pod. They have strict pollination requirements which usually leaves most trees without the ability to bear fruit.
If you’re lucky enough to come across some ripening fruit, you’ll be in for a treat. A recent “Serious Eats” article named paw paw, "Americas Best Secret Fruit". As far as flavor profile, its often described to be a blend of banana, vanilla, and mango. Its texture is also peculiar as it resembles semi frozen custard. Farmers markets around town sell the stuff in every form imaginable: bread, pie, jam, and in some places craft beer.
Now that you know more information about paw paws than you could ever use, let me tell you where you can find some. The Paw Paw Trailhead is located just off the Sky Meadows parking area, just past Boulder Pond. This 2.3 mile mixed hiking/biking trail meanders deep into Turkey Run Forest. The first quarter mile has you cutting through a dense stand of juniper trees that block out the sun even on the sunniest of days. There are a lot of deep divots in the trail here that can sometimes stay muddy, requiring hikers to jump over. Staying on the lookout for bikers can be tricky as the sudden bends and turns hide their approach, until you find yourself face to face with one of them.
Upon exiting the juniper grove the forest opens up to a tall canopy of oak, maple, and beech trees. With the filtered light making it hard for understory shrubs to take hold, the forest floor has a seamless carpet of spring blooming wildflowers stretching out as far as the eye can see. Colonies of may apples grow in large mass under towering beech trees. Wild hyacinths bloom in pastel shades of blue, alongside smaller crimson colored toad shade trilliums.
Somehow, meadow wildflowers such as yellow asters have managed to make a home in areas where the light shines brightest. Aside from the woodland trails of Cherokee Park, this is the only other place I’ve spotted zebra swallowtail butterflies, which should come as no surprise since their host plant is the paw paw. Their black and white stripes, highlighted by the red dot on their bum, are unmistakeable.
The trail follows the contours of Turkey Run Creek, weaving around the many hillsides and small ravines working their way towards the creek below. Although I know the creek is down there, it manages to stay out of sight below the rolling landscape. A mile into the trail, you’ll reach a fork in the road leading to the Chinkapin Trail. That trail leads deeper into the backwoods of Turkey Run Forest, adding another 2.2 mile loop to this hike. As its entry points are only several hundred yards apart, that would turn this into a 5 mile hike and unless you parked a second car at the Silo Center, that means you’ll be walking back to Sky Meadows for a total trip somewhere near 10 miles long. If you’re feeling froggy, I suggest everyone to give it a go.
Near the exit to the Chinquapin Trail is also the trailhead for the Hickory Trail. This 1.45 mile one way trail was designed by the International Mountain Biking Association. It curves up a wooded ridge with scenic views of the woods below, before beginning its endless decent towards the outer of edge Turkey Run Park, just below the Silo Center. Many hikers will alternate between entering Paw Paw and exiting through Hickory, for a change of scenery.
Continuing along the paw paw trail, you’ll finally head down, zigzagging your way towards Turkey Run Creek, after crossing a few smaller branches first. Each of these creeks carve their way through the landscape, eroding the soil to reveal the layers of limestone below, creating small waterfalls all along their route. In several areas, the banks of Turkey Run Creek are lined with moss covered, 100 year old stone walls, waist high and in various states of ruin. The Seaton Valley has a history of European settlement dating as far back as the Revolutionary War. Parcels of it have been farmed, trapped, and protected by the decedents of those families for almost 240 years.
Climbing your way out of the ravine, up the steep slope, is the most challenging section of the trail. It turns out that this is the portion that runs parallel to the Wild Hyacinth Trail and you’ll occasionally hear people talking nearby, without being able to pin point where the voices are coming from.
Once you’re back on the ridge overlooking the valley below, the forest will slowly envelope itself around you as junipers begin to crowd out the sunlight once more. The final creek crossing is covered by a simple wooden bridge. Fellow hikers leave painted rocks from the #502rocks and #kentuckystrong movement on the railings, for others to find and post online, akin to a year round easter egg hunt for adults.
The last third of a mile has you feeling like you’re riding a wave, having to climb up and over camel humps. When you can spot the grey capped, bright yellow silo in the distance, that means you’re basically done.
The trail ends in front of the mountain biking complex just a short distance from the Silo Center. If you need to stop in the restroom or refill your water bottle, do so here. Chances are you’ll be hiking another few miles back to your car in Sky Meadows and the trip is mostly uphill. Don’t fret, your body will be thanking you in the morning!