Eastern North America's temperate forest stretches from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, around the Great Lakes and through the Midwest - a giant, checkered swath that houses numerous thriving habitats for innumerable living things.

Eastern North America's temperate forest stretches from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, around the Great Lakes and through the Midwest - a giant, checkered swath that houses numerous thriving habitats for innumerable living things.

Like most biomes in this crazy world of ours, it's in peril.

Nearly 15 years ago, the need to trumpet these resources from a global perspective inspired Nancy Stranahan and Larry Henry to create the Highlands Nature Sanctuary, a small preserve 25 miles west of Chillicothe.

"What was missing was someone speaking for the entire temperate forest biome from Maine to Florida," Stranahan said. "This was an enduring mission that we were willing to sacrifice for."

Eventually they sold Benevolence Cafe, which they had owned for years in Columbus, and dedicated themselves full-time to preserving a legacy of trees and cultivating in visitors a love of the American wilderness. What began as a single enclave has blossomed into the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System, a network of 12 unique sanctuaries and 3,000 protected acres in southern Ohio.

An ideal time to view this leafy haven comes April 16-19, during the Southern Ohio Wildflower Pilgrimage, a weekend retreat showcasing the state's spring bloomers.

"It's great all year round, but this is like the fireworks," said Mandy Rose Henderson, a Victorian Village resident who spends several weekends a year volunteering at Highlands. "It's a really good time. The feeling of being there - everyone is so excited, everyone is so happy."

During the annual event, naturalists lead a series of small-group field trips to hot spots in and around the Arc's preservation reach: Shawnee State Park, Cave Canyon, Ohio River Bluffs Preserve, Rocky Fork Gorge and others. All-day excursions will be held Friday and Saturday, with half-day tours on Sunday.

Trips are offered in search of different flowers and for hikers of various skill levels. Throughout the weekend, the Highlands sanctuary, which remains headquarters of the Arc system, will host meals and evening presentations for those returning after a day in the field.

"Some people come for one day, but others get really intimate and stay the whole weekend," Stranahan said. "You can't depend on summer rain or fall color, but doggone it, you can usually depend on those spring trillium."

Numerous species of trillium should be in abundance. So should Dutchman's breeches, spring beauty and Solomon's plume. These and more explode from mid-April to mid-May - peak wildflower season in much of Ohio - because soil is warm and sunlight shines to the forest floor unfettered by tree cover.

"The whole eastern deciduous forest biome is rich in wildflowers, and Ohio compares well with other states in eastern North America," said Rick Gardner, a botanist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Gardner will lead two trips, including a very rugged excursion Saturday at Rock Run Nature Preserve in search of the elusive red trillium. Other trips will welcome even the most novice hiker.

"It's definitely time for people to know about us," Stranahan said. "It's given people a lot of hope. They really do feel a part of it once they come down."

Trip Tips

The Southern Ohio Wildflower Pilgrimage includes a series of field trips in and around the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System. Trips cost $20 and $35. Lodging can be found at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary and in cabins and hotels nearby. Meals will be served at Highlands and start at $7. Here are some trips not to miss.

9:30 a.m. April 17

Chalet Nivale Preserve, Adams County

Rare ferns and tons of flowers along Scioto Brush Creek

10:30 a.m. April 18

Shawnee State Park, Portsmouth

Hit numerous botanical hot spots during a tour of the Little Smokies of Ohio

10:15 a.m. April 19

Ohio River Bluffs, Manchester

A small preserve known for an impressive density of flowers

What: Southern Ohio Wildflower Pilgrimage

When: Thursday-Sunday, April 16-19

Where: Highlands Nature Sanctuary, Bainbridge

Web: highlandssanctuary.org

For more outdoor adventures, click to the Riot Act blog at ColumbusAlive.com