Almost 40 years ago, I visited Tom and Jane Dustin’s rustic home on a bluff above Cedar Creek in northern Allen County.
I asked them about their – ultimately successful – efforts to have the lower stretch of Cedar Creek named as Indiana’s first natural, scenic, and recreational river.
While I was there, I became fascinated by the view. I had no idea such landscapes existed in northeast Indiana.
How could I have known? The area known as Cedar Canyons was inaccessible to anyone except private owners of its shores.
When the Dustin died, they left their property to ACRES Land Trust, which now uses their home as their headquarters and their land as a nature reserve.
Founded in 1960 by 12 environmentalists, including the Dustin, ACRES now has 52 reserves in the tri-state region. Most are open to the public, free of charge, every day from dawn to dusk.
Twelve reserves in Allen County top the list, with eight in Steuben County, six in Noble, four in LaGrange County, two in DeKalb and one in Whitley.
I’ve always wanted to return to the Dustin property, and I finally made it last week. Enjoying two perfect fall afternoons – cool, sunny, and splashed with fall color – I also visited three other ACRES nature reserves a short drive from my home.
The Tom and Jane Dustin, Robert C. and Rosella C. Johnson and Whitehurst Nature Preserve Trail begins at a stone parking lot off Chapman Road, approximately six miles south of Garrett.
You can follow either of the two trails, but take the right one that heads west. It travels half a mile through the prairies, leading to dense woods, until it comes to towering viewpoints 80 feet above the creek. Flowing around a 90-degree bend with trees on all sides, the creek must look like what Miami natives saw it over two centuries ago.
About a mile to the southeast, ACRES’s Vandolah Nature Reserve offers another view of the creek that was not accessible until the site was acquired in 1989. It sits discreetly off Vandolah Road, just east of its I-69 underpass.
When setting out on the trail, a visitor may wonder why this is a nature hike. The path emerges from the trees and moves a few yards from the buzzing semi-trailers traveling on the interstate highway.
If you’ve crossed the bridge over Cedar Creek on I-69, you might have wondered what’s out there, way below the causeway. The Vandolah trail will show you that.
Back in the forest, the path leads to a cliff even higher than those of the Dustin reserve, with the stream flowing slowly below. Continuing on, the trail goes up a steep incline that made me think I was climbing Colorado. If you are not ready to do so, you can go back to where you came from. The steepest part of the trail winds around a deep ravine that looks like something in the Appalachians, then offers another view of the creek.
To descend to creek level, you can visit the James P. Covell Nature Reserve just south of Auburn, acquired by ACRES in 2014. Its trail runs for half a mile along the West Rim or down Cedar Creek. , where it’s hard to remember a bustling city and one of the busiest railroads in the Midwest are a short distance away.
Cedar Creek runs through the center of my hometown of Auburn, where it can be best enjoyed at Eckhart Park and the new Greenhurst Commons, but they can’t match the solitude or unspoiled views of the ACRES reserves.
With my fascination with the stream satisfied, I set out for two more ACRES reserves that I was planning to visit. Deterling Nature Reserve on the northeast side of Kendallville is a short walk from my late mother’s house, but I’ve never taken the time to hike it until now. When I learned on the ACRES website that it would close to visitors on December 31st for upgrades, I felt a sense of urgency.
The Deterling Trail begins a short walk from US 6, but soon leaves the busy highway behind. A wide path through the woods leads to the reward I was expecting – a serene view of Round Lake with a bench where you can stop for contemplation.
I personally considered that my grandfather owned prime land on the opposite bank just before I was born, but I sold it because my grandmother didn’t want to leave town. If only she had learned to drive.
Before heading back to Deterling parking lot, I tried a side trail that heads west. There is no water on this route, but it is a pleasant walk on a narrower, more typical trail over gentle hills.
A short drive to the northeast makes it easy to visit the reserve known as Lonidaw on Allen Chapel Road, named after the wife of Chief Potowatomi Simon Pokagon. Her name translates to “Spirit Queen of the Woods”.
Lonidaw’s Path winds through towering trees to a stream that flows into Round Lake, which is visible in the distance, although the reserve does not reach the shore. The source of the creek is Little Whitford, a five-acre kettle lake that borders the reserve. I grew up just a few miles away and never knew it was there.
Sometimes in Lonidaw you might wonder if you’re still on the trail, but sharp saw cuts through fallen trees give clues that ACRES is showing you the way.
When I got home, I did another thing that I had been meaning to do for a long time: I went online and became a member of ACRES. The modest annual donation was a small price to pay for two afternoons enjoying nature in Northeast Indiana. And I still have 47 cans to discover.