29 Sep 2022 Seasons of love at Bluffton Preserve
Story and photos
by Linda Henderson
By now it should not be a surprise that I love fall. Come the middle of August, I am ready to decorate my house with pumpkins and mums. When September’s calendar is about to be turned to October, I long for cooler weather, golden leaves, flannel shirts and my favorite pair of boots. And by the time November comes, I am beside myself if hot temperatures have refused to give way to the chilly autumn temperatures.
Fall with its cooler weather is the perfect time to get out and explore. When we need a place to explore close to home, we head north to The Nature Conservancy Bluffton Preserve.
The Preserve is at the end of a very accessible hilly gravel road only a few miles from Clinton. The Preserve is 989 acres of forested land, fields of natural grass, high overlooks, towering cliffs, and a rope swings over the Archey Fork of The Little Red River.
We have spent time at the Preserve during all four seasons. Each season is beautiful there. In the winter, the high bluff can be covered in snow and makes you feel like you are sheltered in the bottom of a mini grand canyon. The spring has dogwoods along the river and shade-loving wildflowers. If you hike in the spring, you might come upon a wet weather waterfall. In the summertime, the Preserve provides a dip in the water for a welcomed respite from the summer heat. But the Preserve puts on the best show in November. The trees turn brilliant hues of red, yellow and orange. The high bluffs are tinted with rich warm shades and a crisp wind blows through the hollow.
The Preserve is perfect for hiking, fishing, swimming, picnicking and primitive camping. Camping spots are along the river and near the swimming hole. Spots are limited and available on first-come service. Wildlife viewing is abundant in the area. During the wintertime, we have seen bald eagles flying high above the cliffs. Ospreys are known to nest close by and fish in the river.
Bluffton Preserve trail system can be used for hiking and biking. The trail system was recently completed, and all six hikes are less than a mile and a half. The Nature Conservancy has installed signage, and hikes are easy to moderate difficulty.
If you canoe or have a kayak, you might want to investigate Archey Fork as a possible “putting in” site. It is 10 miles from the Preserve to Clinton and takes about four hours. The watershed is not as well-known as the Buffalo, but during the spring it can be a good float. For more information on floating the Little Red River, check out clintonark.com/float-vbc.
According to some of the nearby residents of the area, in the mid 1800s Bluffton was a thriving community with a post office, a hotel and a general store. It was on the stagecoach road that ran between Clinton and Harrison. Little remains from this time in the area except for the old cemetery that is next to the Preserve. Gravestones bear witness to the pioneers who settled Van Buren County.
So make your way to the Preserve for a day trip. To get there, head north to Clinton on Highway 65. About 6.5 miles north of Clinton, turn left off of 65 onto Watergate Road/County Road 79. Drive west on Watergate Road for approximately four miles. At the fork, keep right. At the end of the road, you will enter the Preserve. The Preserve is located directly across from the Bluffton Cemetery. Parts of the trail system can be accessed directly off Watergate Road. Small parking lots are on the left side of the road. Watergate is a gravel road and is well-maintained and easily accessible.