TRAIL NOTES: The Origins and Design of the Valley of the Giants Trail
The first time I experienced the area of Beckley Creek Park that became the Valley of the Giants Trail was several years ago, and I was with our naturalist Michael Gaige, as we attempted to mountain bike the routes that would one day become the Louisville Loop (click here to watch a video of this ride). While the Loop ended up further to the west, we were immediately struck by the features that give the trail its name: the magnificent, giant sycamores that line Floyds Fork in this area. While they are the most dramatic, we also saw some of the largest walnuts and box elder trees that we had seen anywhere in the park.
One of our goals from the beginning in the design of the project was to find what Michael and I called the “special places” of the Fork: those spots that resonated in some way, either through the drama of an ancient tree, the stories in the geology, the beauty of a quiet spot in the woods, or a place where history was hidden, but could be revealed through remaining traces, clues in a landscape mystery.
The original “special places inventory” was mostly done prior to the design of the park, and we were able to carefully lay out the entire circulation plan—whether it was hiking trails or the park drive—with an eye to either bringing park users to a place, or keeping it trail free and thus more quiet and secluded. This place, with its giant trees, its wonderful views into Floyds Fork on one side and its glimpses of an agricultural field on the other, we knew to be a spot that we had to bring people to experience.
As the trail plan took shape, we built a hierarchy of routes—from paved, easily accessible routes to more difficult natural trails—that would bring folks to the special experiences we discovered, within a time frame that matched their busy lives. Some trails, particularly further south in Turkey Run Park, will be much longer and require a greater commitment of fitness, time and energy. This trail was seen as one that would allow many park users, not just the super fit or the experienced hiker, to access a unique streamside woodland area with a minimum of difficulty.
In its first year of operation, it saw a lot of use, from hikers to bikers to trail runners, so it is serving its designed purpose. Hopefully, it will be a gateway to entice hikers who enjoy The Parklands’ experience to seek out other trails that require more time. Since it opened, I have hiked it in every season, and its moods, like the park around it, change with the annual cycle. In August, it is a slice of cool air, in the heat of Louisville’s summer. In the fall, the ground is filled with the seed bounty of the trees above: squirrel-chewed nuts from the walnut trees and samaras (“helicopters”) from the box elders. In the winter the views open onto the creek, and another great experience of The Parklands is revealed: the cut banks and point bars of Floyds Fork, shining with fossils and mussel shells. The fruit clusters of the sycamore hang like ornaments on the trees to be scattered on the early spring winds. Sometime in April or May the trees will leaf out and the trail will spring to life, as the ancient giants, and each of us, add another year to our lives.
About the Author
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Dan holds degrees from Yale University (B.A., M.F.) and Indiana University, Bloomington (Ph.D.). He has spent much of his working life in the fields of education and business management. In addition to founding and managing his own business, he taught World History and the History of the American West at the University of Louisville, and most recently, an Honors Seminar entitled “Reading the Natural Landscape.” In 2004, he founded 21st Century Parks, Inc. a nonprofit corporation created to bring fresh vision to the development and preservation of new public parklands. Their current project, The Parklands of Floyds Fork, is one of the largest new metropolitan parks projects in the country: almost 4000 acres of new, donor-supported public park system in the last major undeveloped section of Metro Louisville. Dan is the founder of 21st Century Parks/The Parklands and currently serves as the Board Chair, where he oversees fundraising, planning, design, construction, and operations of the new parks. He is married, with four children, and enjoys hiking, camping and fishing with his family, skiing, running, and reading.