Through the crunchy leaves and newly emerging ferns, the speckled yellow head and shell of a Eastern box turtle poked out.
The rare reptile shuffled through the forest underbrush. Finding a spot of sun shining through the canopy, it stopped to soak in the warmth.
The Eastern box turtle is considered a troubled species in Indiana, with populations on the decline.
But the animals have found a safe haven in a slice of southern Johnson County, the Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow.
The preserve is one of the hidden places in the county where nature lovers can flock. Despite development and sprawl of modern life, Johnson County still has pockets of wilderness to explore.
Select natural areas provide a range of activities, from kayaking to hiking to nature-watching. At Southwestway Park, located near the White River just north of the Center Grove area, people can follow unpaved trails through prairie land, over streams and through wetland areas.
At the other end of the county, Sugar Creek and the Big Blue River merge to form the Driftwood River. Public access points, one of which is off Hospital Road in Johnson County, are ideal starting points for canoe and kayak trips.
Johnson County boasts a robust system of parks, trailways and other natural areas. Walkers and joggers can cross through marshes, along creeks and through wooded areas on Franklin’s Greenway Trail.
Greenwood’s trail system links the spacious fields of Craig Park, Woodman Park and Summerfield Park with local neighborhoods.
But in most cases, busy roadways, new developments and the bustle of modern life encroach.
Juxtapose that with the isolation of Atterbury Fish and Wildlife Area. More than 5,000 acres of marsh, running creeks and game habitats have been set aside in the southern part of Johnson County.
It’s easy to stand on the side of one of the gravel roads passing through the area and hear nothing but birds, insects and the wind through the trees.
“Its size is unique — to have that large of a tract is rare,” said Cary Schuyler, property manager at Atterbury Fish and Wildlife Area. “Things are pretty chopped up in most cases, so to have one that’s dedicated to those opportunities.”
Deer, rabbits, squirrels and grouse are common throughout the area.
Ducks, geese and hundreds of species of songbirds and migrating birds are drawn to the shallow ponds and grasslands.
Anglers can find channel catfish, bluegill, redear and largemouth bass in the small lakes dotting the property.
“Our primary mission is the hunting and fishing and shooting sports. The other things are secondary,” Schuyler said. “But the birdwatching and hiking, those benefit through our other efforts.”
Atterbury has been drawing outdoorsy types to Johnson County since it opened in 1969. But pockets of wilderness also have been established more recently.
The Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow is the newest addition to the protected wilderness in Johnson County.
The 109-acre parcel of land is nestled into the hollows south of Trafalgar. It is part of a larger hardwood forest that stretches through the southern part of the county, as well as Bartholomew, Brown and Morgan counties.
Important for migratory birds and forest nesting birds, the property also is a haven for less-common species such as the worm-eating warbler, hooded warbler and red-shouldered hawks.
“Blossom Hollow is part of a very large, unbroken hardwood forest block. What that means is you have species who can flourish there who can’t nest in other areas,” said Rachel Eble, development director of the Central Indiana Land Trust. “For forest-interior nesting birds, it’s incredibly important.”
The land trust, a nonprofit environmental group focused on protecting Indiana’s natural places, owns the preserve.
Purchased for $500,000 in 2012, it has since been designated as an official Indiana nature preserve by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“We’re really focused on protecting the last remaining slice of natural Indiana that exists,” Elbe said. “We work hard to identify the natural areas that are left and protect them.”
Since the preserve opened in 2013, people have come to walk past small ponds filled with darting fish and frogs.
A looping trail goes past massive white and red oaks, ferns and wildflowers. Going over and through ridges and valleys, it eventually takes people past a waterfall and creek.
“It has some really beautiful ridges and slopes, with all kinds of wildflowers and ferns that cling to the slopes,” Eble said. “Then, when you get into the hollow part, the whole preserve opens up with a lovely, clear-running stream.”