Friday, April 26 2024 9:50

A Walk Through the Preserves

Written by John Holback, Willistown Conservation Trust
Photos by Jennifer Mathes, courtesy of Willistown Conservation Trust

Visit the open spaces of Willistown

Rushton Conservation Center

For nature lovers, Willistown Township is about as picturesque a place as you could ask for in Chester County — easily rivaling the famous Wyeth scenes of the Brandywine Valley in Chadds Ford.

A visitor to Willistown will enjoy views of rolling fields dotted with magnificent sycamore trees, stone barns right out of the 18th century, and pockets of diverse native ecosystems. In the heart of Willistown Township is Willistown Conservation Trust, where I work as a land manager. The Trust, as it’s known locally, protects about 7,000 acres of private and publicly accessible land and maintains three preserves that are open year-round to anyone seeking an outdoors experience.

Each preserve is unique and changes dramatically from season to season, offering guests a different experience with each visit. So, visit often and especially in spring!

Ashbridge Preserve

Ridley Creek flowing through Ashbridge Preserve

The smallest preserve at 55 acres, Ashbridge Preserve is located at 1619 East Strasburg Road. It features about two miles of trails around the confluence of Shugart Run and Ridley Creek. It’s open to pedestrians and equestrians alike.

An underground pipeline cuts through the preserve and is topped with a native wildflower-heavy grassland where, in the early fall, visitors can see one of Pennsylvania’s largest native flowers, the swamp rose-mallow, a type of hibiscus.

Trails at Ashbridge meander through wetland ecosystems on a series of bog bridges and cross the creek twice on concrete stepping stones. The wetland ecosystems offer great views of spring ephemeral plants, like skunk cabbage, mayapples and ferns.

A visitor to the preserve should find their way down to the Ridley Creek Loop to see the largescale riparian planting site featuring hundreds of native trees and shrubs planted to protect the waters and banks of Ridley Creek. From the planting site, a trail leads towards Towne Drive, where it passes from the wetlands into a beech, oak and hickory woodland, offering a stark but enjoyable change of scenery, before looping back towards the parking lot. Dogs are permitted at Ashbridge but on leash only.

Rushton Woods Preserve

Rushton Farm

Not far down the road from Ashbridge is Rushton Woods Preserve. The preserve parking lot is located at 911 Delchester Road, adjacent to Rushton Farm and the Rushton Conservation Center.

From the parking lot, trails run through an upland forest of beech, oak and tulip trees down to the wetlands along Okahocking Run. Continuing through the wetlands, along the gravel ADA trail, a visitor will soon find themselves at a trail junction leading to the bird banding station, where the bird team bands over 1,500 birds annually. Those interested in watching the banding can sign up on the website.

Ruston Farm greenhouse

From the banding station, the trails wrap around a wildflower meadow back to Rushton Farm, where visitors can meet with farm staff to learn about the farm’s community supported agriculture (CSA) program and many fun and rewarding volunteer opportunities.

Rushton Woods Preserve is the perfect spot to bring your family and friends for a summer picnic, but leave your dog at home, as dogs disturb nesting and wintering birds at this particularly sensitive location.

A special feature of Rushton Woods is the short trail loop located directly adjacent to the parking lot and designed to safely guide visitors with limited sight on a walk through the woods. A hand rope guides users along the trail where interpretive signs in braille highlight the unique texture of tree bark in different species and explain some of the common sounds one encounters in the woods.

Kirkwood Preserve

Visitors at Kirkwood Preserve

Take a short drive down Goshen Road to Grubbs Mill Road to find Kirkwood Preserve, the largest preserve at just over 100 acres. There are several trails that lead from the parking lot in loops through the warm-season grassland down to Crum Creek, where new stepping stones provide access to a recently acquired parcel of land.

Standing atop a small hill across from the parking lot, visitors are able to admire views of the entire preserve. Kirkwood is the perfect spot for bird watching, a leisurely walk or even family photos.

Giant sycamores, majestic white oaks and a copse of eastern hemlocks inhabit the property, offering diverse ecological benefits to the many birds that use Kirkwood as a wintering grounds and summer breeding habitat. Birds species seen during migration include bobolink, eastern meadowlark, Wilson’s snipe, short-eared owl and field sparrow.

Goldenrod at Kirkwood Preserve

Dogs are permitted at this preserve August through April (outside bird breeding season) and only on leash to prevent disturbing sensitive ground nesting bird habitat.


While we’re lucky to live in an area with access to everything large towns and cities have to offer — good food, nightlife, shopping — I think we’re luckier still to have quick, easy and free access to some amazing outdoor spaces.

The preserves at Willistown offer that access and provide a quiet respite from the busyness of suburban and urban life while also serving as critical ecological resources that not only protect our drinking water but provide habitat to the region’s diverse plant and animal communities.

Willistown Conservation Trust focuses on 28,000 acres within the watersheds of Ridley, Crum and Darby Creeks. Since 1996, the Trust has permanently conserved over 7,500 acres, including three nature preserves open to the public: Ashbridge, Kirkwood and Rushton Woods Preserves, the latter home to Rushton Conservation Center and Rushton Farm. Learn more at and by following @WCTrust.