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Big Bone Lick State Park Discovery Trail

By John L. Carman, John L. Carman and Associates

Published in memory of Jane Delker, ASLA (Big Bone Lick Project Manager) who tragically passed away in February of 2004.





View of Diorama showing all bog visitors in a re-creation of a prehistoric scene. The bog was artificially created with a water diversion structure, pond lining and eathern dam that was concealed with native plant materials.


History is brought to life at the Big Bone Lick State Park Discovery Trail in Union, Kentucky. With the creation of an interpretive walking trail through three historically significant ecological zones to a diorama located in a boggy marsh at its culmination, this project serves as an interpretation of the culturally significant evolution of the geographic area of the park.

This archeological site has its origins during the Pleistocene epoch Ice Age when prehistoric mammals were drawn to the area for its salt and minerals found in the swampy areas. The mammals tracking through water-laden, clay deposits created an unstable mire that trapped the mammals and preserved the fossils for historical and modern-day discovery. The Discovery Trail brings this historic environment to life and tells a story that would otherwise be untold.






Big Bone Lick features a three dimensional scene (diorama), shown in the Master Plan. The landscape architectural firm, John L. Carman and Associates of Lexington, Kentucky, led the team, developing the hematic approach and discovery concept for the diorama. The firm was responsible for the design of the entire discovery trail, which includes a botanical/ecological plant demonstration area, interpretive trailhead, visitor parking areas, accessible trails, boardwalks and observation decks.

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The collaboration of Landscape Architects, diorama designers, a structural engineer, a botanical naturalist and park personnel working with the owner, Kentucky Department of Parks, provided the State Park system with a most unique and engaging example of bringing art, history and the natural environment together.

The landscape architectural firm, John L. Carman and Associates of Lexington, Kentucky, led the team, developing the thematic approach and discovery concept for the diorama. The firm was responsible for the design of the entire discovery trail, which includes a botanical/ecological plant demonstration area, interpretive trailhead, visitor parking areas, accessible trails, boardwalks and observation decks. Chase Studios, the diorama consultant/designers, fabricated and installed the outdoor diorama depicting a prehistoric marsh setting including replicas of a mastodon, a giant sloth, and four vultures.






View of diorama and plant materials. During this project, small prehistoric remains were found and preserved by archeologists from the University of Kentucky who were present to record and preserve any relics or fossils uncovered during excavation of boardwalk foundations. The name Big Bone Lick reflects the numerous and exceedingly large bones found within this area.


Existing wooly mammoth and bison replicas that had been previously vandalized were repaired, enhanced and also included in the diorama. The exhibit designers also assisted in the development of the interpretative signage used throughout the trail and around the diorama.

Due to continual unstable soil conditions and occasional flooding at the diorama exhibit area and sulfur springs, Poage Engineers and Associates, a structural engineering firm, worked with the team to ensure stability and sustainability of the deck structural design. Structural steel posts with wooden beams and decking members supply a secure platform for the above ground bog diorama providing visitors with views into the exhibit.






View from diorama observation deck towards the outdoor classroom area. The deck is constructed of steel and concrete foundations and substructure to sustain large volume of visitors. The decking is pressure treated wood. The new Discovery Trail designed by John L. Carman and Associates provides fully accessible year-round investigation and discovery of the history and environmental attributes of the area while the newly constructed deck at the diorama ensures the stability and sustainability necessary to accommodate the large volume of visitors, including busloads of school children on field trips.


Early in the 18th century, European explorers discovered numerous animal bones buried deep in the previously water laden soils, which had been preserved in the salt marshes. These bones were not from the type of animals readily found in the area or even on this continent. Eventually, through scientific examination and discovery, the bones were understood to be from extinct species of wooly mammoth, mastodon and the giant sloth. Bones of caribou, elk, horse, buffalo and deer were found closer to the surface. Various governments and kings sent expeditions to retrieve bones from the site and these relics are currently housed in museums and collections all over the world including Great Britain, Philadelphia, New York, Nebraska and even at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's homestead, in Virginia. During this project, small prehistoric remains were found and preserved by archeologists from the University of Kentucky who were present to record and preserve any relics or fossils uncovered during excavation of boardwalk foundations. The name Big Bone Lick reflects the numerous and exceedingly large bones found within this area.

Dr. Julian Campbell, a botanical consultant with the Nature Conservancy, advised the team of the botanical and ecological zones found within the park that were historically significant and/or presently evident within the confines of the park. A variety of these native plant materials were used to establish the demonstration planting areas.






View of an observation deck surrounded by sulphur springs that has been a source for pre-historic animal remains and current wildlife use. Deck construction is similar to the diorama observation deck, supported by rock bearing drilled concrete caissons. Water naturally flowing down the slope feeds the marshy bog through a diffusion outlet, maintaining the existing environment. During dry periods, moisture is supplemented by a public water supply diverted into the diorama.


Big Bone Lick State Park provides picnicking and camping facilities in various areas of the park, but its walking trail to Big Bone Creek from the trailhead and diorama was inaccessible to the physically challenged due to the steep gradient. In addition, seasonal flooding of the creek closed portions of the trail and continually damaged an existing deck at the sulfur springs as well as the boardwalk through the marshy areas.

The new Discovery Trail designed by John L. Carman and Associates provides fully accessible year-round investigation and discovery of the history and environmental attributes of the area while the newly constructed deck at the diorama ensures the stability and sustainability necessary to accommodate the large volume of visitors, including busloads of school children on field trips. The Discovery Trail begins at the existing trailhead by the museum providing full access to the diorama by means of paved paths and elevated boardwalks.






View of the diorama from inside. Some of the native shrubs and grasses used were Buttonbush, Mapleleaf and Arrowwood Viburnums, Staghorn Sumac and numerous wildflowers. Water is released on the down hill side to allow natural systems to remain in place within the drainage swale.


These paths meander through three re-created ecological zones, while providing views of the diorama and the park beyond.

These vegetative zones provide the opportunity for all to experience the varied ecological environments so important to the historical events of the park and the Outer Bluegrass Physiographic Region of northern Kentucky. The area is characterized as a rolling plateau that is rugged at the edges along the Ohio River. Big Bone Lick State Park reflects this character with its expansive rolling meadows and steep forested slopes.

The ecological zones ranging from densely wooded moist environments along the creek corridor to open meadows with native grasses to dry forested steep slopes are found throughout the park. Plant materials of these zones are incorporated into the walking trail for viewing and discovery by all visitors. The three zones are labeled Lowland Meadow, Savanna Woodlands and Shady Upland Forest.

The Lowland Meadow, typically having moist and fertile soils and naturally occurring in the area surrounding Big Bone Lick Creek, contain Jerusalem Artichoke, New England aster, Purple Top and Bears Foot. The Savanna Woodlands which were kept open by the browsing, stomping and licking of large ungulates, are represented by Shumard Oaks, Shellbark Hickory, Red Mulberry, Kentucky Coffee Trees, Paw Paw shrubs, wild oat grass and running buffalo clover, an endangered species. The Shady Upland Forest area, representative of the higher elevations of the park, includes Sugar Maples, White Ash, Shingle Oak and Mayapples. The asphalt trail leading down slope from the museum through the ecological demonstration area to the observation deck surrounding the diorama was designed to be universally accessible while winding its way down the steep slope. Handrails along its ramps provide vertical definition to the demonstration planting areas and the rear of a grassy hillside amphitheatre.






View of asphalt accessible trail to the diorama. The Discovery Trail begins at the existing trailhead by the museum providing full access to the diorama by means of paved paths and elevated boardwalks. These paths meander through three re-created ecological zones, while providing views of the diorama and the park beyond.


This amphitheatre was created between the trail and diorama deck to provide an outdoor classroom and an expanded view of the park beyond. The boardwalk and observation deck are freestanding but are positioned to be connected to a future museum facility and trail system. Interpretive signage panels attached to the surrounding steel guardrail of the observation deck give insight to the history and elements of the park. These panels were manufactured of a thermally fused composite resin with subsurface graphic images. The practically indestructible panels provide exceptional color, definition and clarity while exhibiting ultimate sustainability. The location of the diorama was sited along a natural drainage swale with existing large native trees and native plant material such as Red Mulberry, Slippery Elm and Hackberries that offered the opportunity for establishing a marsh environment adding to the historical significance of the diorama. Water naturally flowing down the slope feeds the marshy bog through a diffusion outlet, maintaining the existing environment. A new observation deck and interpretive panels were also provided at the natural sulfur springs located in close proximity to the creek. Structural steel columns embedded some 30 feet into bedrock and surrounded by concrete caissons provide a firm foundation for this deck.

The existing deck, which had completely enclosed the springs, was reconstructed and cantilevered on central supports around only half of the area to allow white-tailed deer and other wildlife to once again use the springs, as is evidenced by tracks left on the surrounding soil surface. The steel guardrail and interpretive signage design used at the diorama were repeated at the sulphur springs. The Discovery Trail project provides an important connection between people, flora, fauna and environment.

History is what we make of it and at Big Bone Lick State Park, it is everything. This project received an Honor Award in 2000 from the Kentucky Chapter of ASLA.



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December 14, 2019, 8:19 am PDT

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