I've participated in a number of off-trail hikes at Shale Hollow Preserve, but had only walked the newly completed trail once.

I've participated in a number of off-trail hikes at Shale Hollow Preserve, but had only walked the newly completed trail once.

So five days before the park's grand opening today, Dec. 8, I walked the trail again to really get a sense of what park visitors would see. What I saw was a park that is full of great features -- and a ton of potential.

So let's begin. Because the park -- located on Artesian Run just west of U.S. Route 23 near Hyatts Road -- adjoins a subdivision, the houses that look down on the park from the cliff top can't be miss- ed.

But I turned to face the trail and entered a different world -- one characterized by 350-million-year-old shale and an old-growth forest.

I started my walk in one of my favorite parts of the park: a short, steep climb along the edge of a cliff.

The trail is plenty wide and the hill on the right slopes gently, so the trail does not feel particularly precarious. The cliff side to the left affords a beautiful view of Big Run, the creek that runs through the park and on to the Olentangy River.

I looked up at the large white and red oak trees hugging the cliff edge end extending through this part of the woods.

It's nice to see such big trees; so many of the woodlands in Delaware County are filled with small trees that are just now filling in old crop fields. These big old oaks at Shale Hollow are home to squirrel and bird nests that I could easily see during my December walk.

Staff members say great horned owls nest here; we're hosting a program Jan. 13, and I hope I catch sight of this beautiful night flyer then.

Leaving the cliff side and crossing the bridge over Big Run, I set out on the loop trail that traverses the east side of the park.

Here again, I walked beneath large trees as the trail climbed away from the flood plain around the creek and crossed a couple of its small feeder streams.

Along the trail, I counted dozens of deer tracks and was rewarded in a moment or two with the sight of a half-dozen white-tailed deer. They stopped to look at the intruder (me) before bounding away through the woods.

I also saw a lot of coyote scat, especially when I left the woods and entered the prairie areas. Coyote scat, by the way, is pretty easy to identify: It's one-half to one inch in diameter, rope-like, and tapering at the end. The scat I saw was full of hair, which makes sense, because mammals -- rabbits, mice, voles and shrews -- are coyotes' favorite food.

So, about the prairie/ meadow areas: They don't look like much now, but Preservation Parks staff members have been hard at work reforesting most of the meadows in Shale Hollow. Thousands of tiny seedlings are hidden among the tall prairie grasses and meadow plants. In time, the forested areas of the park will extend almost to Route 23, which is the eastern boundary of the park.

This section of the trail brought me close to the highway and reminded me that, in Delaware County, development and nature live side by side.

I'm glad the park district was able to acquire these 188 acres; with ongoing development all around, it feels like we did it just in time.

The trail re-entered the woods (more deer), led me downhill to the bridge where I began my walk, and opened up into my other favorite part of the park. Here, visitors can go off-trail to get a close look at the 30-foot shale cliffs and to explore the creek -- even walking in it if they like.

I didn't do that, but I did pick up one of the many pieces of shale that have eroded out of the cliffs and are gradually being washed into the Olentangy River.

When it comes right down to it, the shale is what I love most about this park. At more than 350 million years old, it reminds me that our time in this beautiful natural area is not even a blink of the eye. That little piece of shale makes me doubly glad this land is protected for the future.

Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.