At only 17 acres, Geist Park to the north of Geist Reservoir is one of the smaller spaces run by Hamilton County Parks and Recreation. But it’s a perfect little escape if you need a short stroll through nature to clear your mind after a long day.
The park, which opened in 2000, was quiet at midday on a recent warm, sunny Monday. A mother watched her son playing on the recently upgraded equipment in the nature-themed playground before they took a stroll to look at the creek. Two young women walked their friendly dogs along the trail, and a family tried their luck fishing.
Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Bruce Oldham said the park’s history is interesting. It started with a land swap and partnership with developer Patrick Verble. The park is dedicated in honor of his father, Carl E. Verble of Fortville.
The park is getting ready for some new features, with the development of the Geist Greenway Trail through Fishers Parks, and installation of the historic Bell Ford Bridge, a covered bridge that dates to 1868. The bridge had spanned the East Fork of the White River in Jackson County but collapsed in 2006. As much of the original bridge as possible was salvaged from the river, and it has been in storage ever since.
The 325-foot bridge is a unique combination of wood and wrought iron, Oldham said, and when it’s installed, it will have clear siding “so people can actually see the structure of it.”
The bridge, like the park’s trail, will be ADA-compliant, so people who use wheelchairs can experience it as well.
“Every project that we look at, we look at under a lot of different lenses, and ADA is one,” he said. “The county as a whole went through a complete ADA audit several years ago. So, we have a bible of information on what needs corrected and what we’ve done right, and how to do those things.”
A contractor for that project hasn’t yet been selected, so a time frame for completion is yet to be determined. But the 5-mile Geist Greenway Trail is under development now. Oldham said the project required some trees to be removed from the park, and the county parks department worked with the contractor to minimize how many trees had to be cut. And, he said, they always replace them. He pointed out a section of the park with little flags, showing where volunteers had come in and planted new trees.
“Anytime a project like this comes in, and we lose something, our bare minimum replacement is 3-to-1,” he said. “But oftentimes, we go well above and beyond that.”
Volunteers also planted native grasses in a prairie section of the park, and Oldham said they also help with invasive plant removal, litter cleanup and other maintenance.
“We take volunteers as individuals, large groups, commercial groups,” he said. “We had 251 Fishers High School students out last week at four different properties, planting trees, removing invasive species, mulching flowerbeds — all sorts of different activities. Just community engagement, really.”
The park is open 24 hours a day, and there are no admission fees. Although there are cameras to monitor the parking lot and playground, it’s not staffed and people can come and go as they choose.
“Our mission is to be a large passive-recreation department,” Oldham said. “So, we don’t necessarily get into all the baseball fields and basketball courts and those types of things. We specialize in larger open-space, passive-recreation trail systems, nature education, those types of things.”
To that end, the park offers a concrete launch area for kayaks and canoes — although people do have to haul the watercraft from the parking lot to the launch. There also are stops along the trail that make great fishing spots. Oldham pointed out one that included large flat-top rocks perfect for sitting and dropping a line. He said the rocks serve a dual purpose: A place to sit and stabilizing the creek bank from erosion.
“Our staff did this erosion control themselves and bringing in the boulders. Number 1, it’s a good place, you know, some flat top rocks and stuff, to be able to fish off of, but it holds the erosion back,” he said. “We’ve got a staff that’s does absolutely amazing work with not only invasive species control, but erosion control, and how we use native plants in order to help with that.”
Keeping the park as natural as possible is a goal. Oldham said that when they can, they leave trees that have partially or fully collapsed, because those create habitat for different species. The department also provides habitat, as well, such as special nesting boxes for owls and a wood duck nesting platform in the middle of the bog area.
Birdsong was present all along the trail, and at the end, where the trees opened up to a clear view of the creek, a family of ducks, complete with three ducklings, was busy paddling and feeding along the grassy edge. A heron scouted for fish on the opposite bank, and a pileated woodpecker flew past.
Oldham said the park also is a great place to watch turtles basking in the sun. Or just sit on a rock, listen to the creek and let the stress of the day melt away.
Volunteering with Hamilton County Parks and Recreation
Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Bruce Oldham said the department has many opportunities for volunteers, including numerous Eagle Scout projects throughout the year.
Although the department focuses on passive recreation, it does offer some events that use volunteer help to succeed. They include the Cool Creek Concert Series, Migration Celebration, Maple Madness, Pioneer Fall Festival, Potters Bridge Fall Festival and Little Haunt on the Prairie, according to the department’s website.
Volunteers also can help at the Cool Creek Nature Center, caring for wildlife, tending native plants in the greenhouse, cleaning, and educating others; and with general maintenance including removal of invasive species.
For more on how to volunteer, go to hamiltoncounty.in.gov/446/Volunteer-Opportunities.