By: Kristen Morrow, JCC Naturalist
Address: 5656 145th St NE Lisbon, IA 52253
Size: 80 acres; includes a 1-mile trail loop
What to expect: This small 80-acre wildlife preserve is a biological gem that is well worth a visit! Though there is only a 1-mile primitive hiking loop, additional explorations of the fen, wetlands, and prairie can occupy a visitor for longer. The most stand-out feature of this property (aside from its namesake fen) is the abundance of majestic mature White Oaks. Most of the hiking loop is over a mowed trail, but a short section (less than 50 ft) follows an animal trail across short grass prairie.
Note: A visit to Ciha Fen can be paired with exploration of the nearby Cedar River Crossing for more hours of hiking and exploration.
How to prepare: Spring is a higher tick season, so pants and closed-toe shoes are recommended, as is a post-hike tick check. Mid-March to mid-April is also prescribed burn season. By late spring and early summer, the prairie will have grown to knee-high or taller, and poison ivy is very thick here. We’d recommend primarily visiting between October and May, or coming dressed for poison ivy protection. Hunting is not permitted here, so the preserve can offer safe nature exploration during hunting season.
Dogs: Allowed, but must be kept on-leash, and all pet waste must be bagged and removed.
Annotated Trail Map and Scavenger Hunt:
A Naturalist-led Hike into Ciha Fen Preserve
Without a doubt, Ciha Fen Preserve is my favorite natural nook anywhere in the county. It’s pretty any day of the year, but visit on a clear day, and the combination of majestic oaks standing out against a bright blue sky will leave you mesmerized. I routinely find myself unable to stop taking pictures of the oaks, no matter how many times I visit.
The oaks aren’t the only amazing life forms here. For a small 80-acre preserve, life abounds. To date, 225 native plants have been recorded here, including many plants that are considered of special concern, including Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, Cleft Phlox, and Lance-leaved Violet. Animals with the unfortunate label as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” also call this preserve home, like the Blanding’s Turtle, Six-lined Race Runner, Bull Snake, Sweetflag Spreadwing, and Sedge Sprite. The combination of upland prairie and oak savanna, a string of wetlands, and a unique fen (there are only two fens like this in the state), create an oasis of biodiversity, hidden in plain sight.
Ciha Fen is tucked away in the far northeast corner of the county. Even the drive to visit is pleasant and relaxing, leading you past rolling farmland, across the Cedar River, and through the little hamlet of Sutliff. As you near the entrance to the preserve along the last mile of gravel road, the oaks stand out like a beacon on the hilltop.
There is a little parking area set aside, which can fit about three cars. When I visited on 3/21/20, I was surprised to see four other vehicles, some parked along the edge of the gravel road. Usually, I have this place all to myself, but I was happy to share. One silver lining to the present moment is seeing the uptick of people enjoying the natural world, a trend I’ve noticed across many of JCC’s parks and preserves, as well as my own neighborhood (there are children living in my neighborhood?? Who knew!? I had never seen them out and about before!). Despite more visitors than I was used to, I still found plenty of solitude once my hike began.
At the parking area, look up! A Baltimore Oriole nest dangles from the tips of a large Hackberry. Once you learn to see these nests, you notice them all over the place, especially near water. Keep on the lookout as you hike through the preserve, there are a few more scattered here, and on the drive between Ciha Fen, Sutliff, and Sutliff Road, I noticed several more. These nests are always remarkable to me. The female builds them at the tips of a tree’s farthest-reaching twigs, likely to protect from predators, who are too heavy to climb out that far. It blows me away to imagine the female weaving this basket (with just her beak!), a feat that is impressive in any location, but even wilder to imagine constructing such a home in the breezy locales of a tree’s canopy. The more experience I have as a naturalist, the more frequently I find myself utterly amazed, in sheer awe of the natural phenomena around me. The world becomes a more curious, astounding, and precious place when we practice feeling this awe and wonder.
Right away, you’ll be greeted by exuberant oaks, stretching and waving their limbs in all directions. An oak to your left (as you hike into the preserve) is particularly inviting, as the Mother of All Climbing Trees (if you’re into that, this oak is a delightful climb — climb at your own risk!).
At the top of the hill, the fen awaits. Check out the interpretive panel here, which dives into the geology that makes this fen unique.
From the interpretive panel, I typically go right (north), starting out my hike under a tunnel of oaks. From here, you can see the striking silhouette of a dead oak, my favorite tree to photograph.
A nuthatch bounced around from limb to limb on this oak when I last visited, and in the oak-filled hillside to the east, several bluebirds darted into the trees at my passing. The reemergence of the bluebirds is always such a happy event for me.
To the west of the dead oak, frogs sang from the wetland. The chorus frogs blanketed the airwaves, with their song like finger running across a fine-toothed comb. Spring peepers joined the fray with their smile-inducing high pitched “peep!” I really could sit and listen to them for hours.
(Unsure about your frog song ID? Check out this resource!)
This spot, in the valley by the wetland, just west of the dead oak, is my favorite spot in the preserve. Every time I visit, I walk down into this valley. From this low point, I can only see the surrounding oak savanna rising in low hills around me. With my view cut off from the farmland beyond, I can time-travel. I take myself back 200 years, and imagine what it would be like if this landscape stretched on for hundreds of miles – nothing but a wildflower carpet under open park-like oaks. It’s a neat, albeit bittersweet, perspective.
If you visit this valley in the summer, you’ll find another sweet delight – wild strawberries! They are so thick that their aroma hangs off the air on a hot June day, making the whole world smell of baked strawberry cobbler. A few years ago, I visited with a bucket in hand, expecting to take a couple pints home to cook with. After a couple hours of hot arduous work, my bucket had a layer of strawberries barely a centimeter thick, most mushy and lacking their plump perfection of a berry just picked. It was a lesson that these berries are a gift from the earth, meant to be enjoyed in the moment, and not hoarded in greed.
Note: JCC requires a special permit to collect berries at Ciha Fen, a regulation meant to protect the fragile plant communities of this ecosystem.
Back on the trail, keep heading north past the dead oak, under a utility line (I usually pretend it isn’t there), and down a hill. The grass trail cuts sharply west, heading into the interior of the preserve. It looks like another trail keeps going along the fence-line, up another hill, however, this trail ends at the top.
This stretch of prairie looks unremarkable in the ‘off-season’, but it is jam-packed with common milkweed, and if you walk it in June and July, butterflies of all kinds are sure to burst up from the plants as you approach. If you look around, you might see some evidence of their now-brittle seed pods strewn across the ground.
Once you reach the woodland edge, you’ll find a wall of River Birch, the other dominate tree at Ciha aside from oaks.
More wetlands stretch north along this valley. You can follow an animal path towards them for more frog songs, and probably for a glimpse of some ducks.
Along the hill that climbs from here, the prairie is filled with Prairie Sage, and if you visit in the summer, the hillside turns silvery-blue from this plant (not to mention, it smells great!).
Pocket Gophers have left behind mounds, revealing another cool geological trait of the preserve, the soil here is very sandy! This sand has blown in over thousands of years from the nearby Cedar River floodplain. The sand formed dunes, and eventually, plant communities established onto them. The highly diverse prairie ecosystems that thrive atop sandy soils like this are rare within the state, another reason that this preserve is such a gem.
Large patches of Horsemint are found at the top of this hill. The seedhead looks like a stacked version of it’s close relative, Bee Balm, but when in bloom, they look very different from each other. As with Bee Balm, you can take a seed head and rub it between your fingers, releasing a pleasant oregano-like odor. You can also explore for any seeds still in the tubes that make up the seedhead. Before altering the shape of the seedhead, tip it over into your palm. Tiny seeds the size of ground pepper might pour out into your hand (if they haven’t already been tossed out on a windy day).
With kids, I take advantage of any seeds (milkweed, bee balm, white wild indigo, acorns, etc) for a fun planting activity: simply press a seed into their hand, and give them the instructions to make a small hole with their pointer finger (obviously larger for a nut). They can drop the seed in and cover it up. I always ask how it felt to plant a seed, and without fail, the kids feel hopeful, happy, satisfied, optimistic, and helpful afterward. I once asked a third grade boy at the end of a field trip what the best part of his day was. “Planting the seed! I can’t wait to go tell my mom!” These planting activities are a staple of any hike I lead with kids, and I’d encourage you to make the activity a mainstay too! Whether or not the seeds grow isn’t really the point.
Other plants that are easy to spot this time of year are Round-headed Bush Clover and Horse Nettle. The latter looks like Ground Cherries, and they are relatives in the Nightshade family, but the two shouldn’t be confused. Ground Cherries are edible; Horse Nettles are not, and contain a toxic compound that can make you sick.
Goldenrod Galls are also easy to find in the spring prairie. They are formed in response to the Goldenrod Gall Fly. In short, the larva of this fly develops in this protected bulb, before emerging as an adult in the spring. The whole life cycle is fascinating and curiosity for it can be indulged in greater depth here.
When the trail reaches the preserve boundary, you’ll turn south and follow the fence line for a while. Near the southern boundary and the gravel road, you’ll cut across a short stretch of the short prairie grasses, following an animal trail (lots to choose from!).
Back on a wide grass path, you’ll pass by a large burned out Black Oak. This tree had already sustained heavy damage from a carpenter ant infestation when JCC first bought the property. The tree later endured fire damage in a prescribed burn and again in a separate “wildfire” in 2018. The wildfire was 17 acres – the largest in JCC’s history. It was caused by escaped burn barrel trash blown in from outside of the property.
The final stretch of the hike passes through an oak woodland. The understory is thick with non-native black raspberry canes. In contrast to the strawberries, these can fill a bucket pretty quick! The Natural Resource team is actually working to thin these invasive plants and reestablish a native plant community in their place.
Throughout this section, you might notice large bare patches on the trunks of the oak trees. I always describe it looking like a big ol’ bear went up to the trunk and rubbed up against it, scratching her back so hard the bark stripped away. In actuality, these patches have Smooth Patch Disease, the work of Aleurodiscus oakesii, a saprophytic fungus that consumes the dead cells of the outer bark. Close inspection may reveal the white caps that are the fruiting bodies of the fungus. As the scientific name suggests, this fungus is most commonly found on oaks, especially White Oaks.
Finally, the loop finishes back at the interpretive panel.
As spring keeps marching in, this property gets only more alluring for a visit. By mid-April, spring ephemerals like Cleft Phlox and violet will be in abundance, and the calls of the frogs will strengthen into a more diverse chorus. Remember to head out with blue skies above, and you won’t be disappointed.
A little more about Ciha Fen…
This preserve was purchased by Johnson County Conservation (JCC) in 2011, using funds from the Conservation Bond, a voter-backed initiative passed in 2008, which set aside $20 million in bond money to be spent over 20 years for conservation purchases and projects. I’m thankful to live in a community that values conservation, and that amazing ecosystems like this were set aside for posterity.
I would be remiss to write an article about Ciha Fen Preserve without mentioning Aaron Basten. Aaron, a retired engineer and current JCC Volunteer, played a big role in the preservation of Ciha Fen. He was amid the first advocates for the site, helping to bring the it to the attention of JCC. For the past five years, he has spent countless hours (many days each week of the year for five years) hiking the site. He has shared his botany expertise to help ID and catalog the abundance of rare plants, insects, fungi, and more, here and at other JCC properties. He also has taken thousands of photos, giving JCC permission to use each of them for our marketing purposes.
Below is a small collection of his wonderful shots:
Keep a look out for a public program featuring Aaron’s photography and the moments he’s captured through his hours on this landscape. The content should be engaging for anyone interested in the in-depth ecological moments he’s witnessed, as well as for anyone interested in nature photography. Originally scheduled for early April 2020, this program has been postponed until further notice.