CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — It is one of the very best vistas in Ohio.
And very few people know about it.
Buzzards Roost Nature Preserve overlooks Paint Creek, just west of Chillicothe in Ross County. It's a pretty, forested gorge that is up to 600 feet deep where the Allegheny Plateau meets the glacial plains of central Ohio.
I learned about the little-known preserve from a new book by Jim McCormac and Gary Meszaros, "Wild Ohio: The Best of Our Natural Heritage" (Kent State University Press, $49.95).
The gorge features steep walls of crumbly black shale and Berea sandstone that rise above Paint Creek, one of the prettiest and wildest streams in Ohio.
It is equal to any up-high vistas that I have found in Hocking, Adams, Washington, Columbiana or Scioto counties, with sandstone shelves that jut out over the steep-walled valley.
A few locals have dubbed the Paint Creek Valley the "Yocatangee Gorge," an Indian term for beautiful place.
The ridge tops are forested in second-growth black and rock chestnut oaks and Virginia pine. The soils become moister and richer as you descend toward the creek and its floodplains. Trees found there include tulip trees, red oak and American beech, cottonwood willows, Ohio buckeyes, dogwoods, pawpaws, hornbeams, redbuds and hop-hornbeams.
Buzzards Roost is also home to an array of woodland birds, and 45 species of fish, including several pollution-sensitive species, are found in Paint Creek. In all, 19 species of at-risk fish have been confirmed in the stream. It is rich in freshwater mussels, too.
Biologists in 2004 conducted a one-day survey of the preserve and found 350 plant species. Since then, another 250 have been documented.
It is a great park for wildflowers, where northern and southern species grow together on the rims and in the valleys. In the spring, you can find wild geraniums, mayapples, buttercups, golden ragworts, starry chickweeds, large flowered trilliums, sessile trilliums, Virginia bluebells, trout lilies, spring beauties, jack in the pulpits and toothworts.
Some rare and threatened flower species are also found at Buzzards Roost, which got its name from the turkey vultures that can be seen roosting along the gorge.
You are also apt to find waterfalls in the spring, when the side streams are flowing high toward Paint Creek.
The preserve began about 10 years ago, when Jean Barnhart donated a 383-acre tract to Ross County in memory of her late husband, Earl H. Barnhart. Since then, the preserve has grown to 1,332 acres, although facilities are limited, said park spokesman Gary Merkamp.
"It's like a wilderness down in there," he said of the gorge. "What we've got is a gem. ... It just needs a little polishing."
There are two short trails: the 0.56-mile Hoggard Trail and the 0.42-mile South Point Lookout Trail.
The white-blazed Hoggard Trail runs along a small stream, through a Depression-era pine plantation, past an old pioneer cemetery and vernal pools.
The blue-blazed South Point Lookout Trail takes visitors to Paint Creek Gorge, which was carved by glacial meltwater.
More trails and facilities are planned, Merkamp said.
Visitors are asked to stay on the marked trails and not descend the cliffs to Paint Creek because of fragile species growing on the steep slopes.
Getting safely up and down the slopes is not always easy, especially when the rocks are wet, Merkamp said. No climbing is permitted on the cliffs.
Ross County recently got a $15,380 Ohio NatureWorks grant to develop a facility for environmental and science education at the Buzzards Roost preserve, Merkamp said. That facility probably will open in 2011.
Ross County, you might be surprised to know, has more miles of rivers, streams and creeks than any of Ohio's other 87 counties.
The Southern Ohio Floaters Association runs float trips on Paint Creek, with boaters camping on islands in the stream.
To get to the Buzzards Roost Nature Preserve, take U.S. 50 west from Chillicothe. Turn left (south) on Polk Hollow Road. Proceed about 1.8 miles to the top of a steep hill. Make a sharp right turn onto Red Bird Lane. The road dead-ends into the preserve.
There are three small parking lots, several old farms and small cabins that have been abandoned on the property.
For information, contact the Ross County Park District at 15 N. Paint St., Suite 301, Chillicothe, OH 45601, 740-773-8794, http://www.rosscountyparkdistrict.com.
There are other historical and outdoorsy attractions in Chillicothe, 45 miles south of Columbus.
The biggest attraction is known as Mound City. Its earthworks are part of the National Park Service's 1,245-acre Hopewell Culture National Historical Park that encompasses Mound City and four other Ohio sites.
Mound City looks like a grassy park or a golf course, but it's really an ancient cemetery.
The 13-acre site off state Route 104 three miles north of Chillicothe is an archaeologically important site because it contains 23 re-created Indian mounds memorializing the dead that date back at least 1,500 years.
The site was probably used by the ancient Hopewell Indians for ceremonies, including human cremation and other community rituals. Some of the mounds may be tied to astronomy with alignments linking the Earth, sun, moon and stars.
Mound City can be thoroughly visited in 90 minutes to two hours. It includes a small visitor center with a 17-minute video presentation and exhibits of artifacts from the site, including pottery, copper items and animal-shaped effigy pipes.
A 1.5-mile trail circles Mound City, with audio stations and a self-guiding brochure, but visitors generally are drawn straight into the mound complex, which is surrounded by a low embankment of dirt.
Mound City is where the Hopewell Indians brought their high-ranking dead for partial cremation. The ashes, along with material objects, were placed atop a clay platform, buried and covered by a small mound.
There is also evidence of wood ceremonial buildings at Mound City.
The mounds vary in the number of burials, the layers of coverings and the kinds of artifacts they contain.
The Central Mound is the largest, perhaps 30 feet high. Thirteen cremated human burials were accompanied by copper falcon effigies. Fragments of the human skulls had been cut and drilled, perhaps to create a ceremonial death mask.
The Mound of Pipes included more than 200 carved stone pipes in the shape of birds, animals and reptiles. Replicas are on display in the visitor center.
The Mica Grave Mound contained evidence of a wood building with a pit lined with mica. Inside were cremated human remains, along with obsidian (volcanic glass), tools, toad and raven effigy pipes, and a human-shaped copper headdress.
Nearby were elk and bear teeth, large obsidian points, 5,000 shell beads and two copper headpieces, one with antlers and the other perhaps in the form of a bear.
The Hopewell Indians thrived for 700 years, from 200 B.C. to 500 A.D., in southern Ohio. They farmed, hunted, fished and gathered food.
For information, contact Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, 16062 State Route 104, Chillicothe OH 45601, 740-774-1126, http://www.nps.gov/hocu.
Other Chillicothe attractions include the Great Seal State Park, with 20 miles of trails, off Rocky Road just northeast of Chillicothe; and Adena Mansion and Gardens, a state memorial that was the home of Thomas Worthington, who helped Ohio gain statehood. For information about the state park, call 740-773-2726 or check http://www.ohiodnr.com. For Adena, call 740-772-1500 or check out http://www.ohiohistory.org.
For tourist information, contact the Ross-Chillicothe Convention & Visitors Bureau at 45 E. Main St., Chillicothe, OH 45601, 740-702-7677 or 800-413-4118, http://www.visitchillicotheohio.com.