The older I get and the further I go the smaller the world seems to become. I spend so much time dreaming of and writing about the new and exciting places that I forget to share the ones I have always known and loved. Nestled amid the forests and hills of southeastern Ohio, centered between Lancaster, Chillicothe and Athens, lies a hidden gem of prehistoric wonder – Hocking Hills State Park.
This is where I fell in love with nature. I grew up in the exact opposite part of the state, the flat cornfield horizons of northwestern Ohio where (I believe) the Midwest truly begins. Just a three and a half hour car ride south could get us to vastly different terrain, the foothills of the Appalachia, warm summer light dancing along the earth through the branches of fluttering hemlock, sandstone cliffs, caves and waterfalls. I spent a week each summer tent camping there for as long as I can remember. My parents first discovered the park in the 80’s not long after being wed. Its beauty kept calling them back and just after I was born in the 90’s they introduced it to me as well. Before I could talk, walk or use the bathroom on my own, I was traversing the Hocking Region, and to this day (nearly twenty-three years later) I am still in love.
As a kid, there was plenty to do. This place was(is) an imaginative child’s wonderland, unplugged and wild. In Rock House and Old Man’s Cave I would pretend that my family had left me behind to survive on my own running barefoot and free through the woods. The rocks that had fallen to the bottom of Ash Cave were a make shift ice cream stand and I would serve up sandy cones to passersby. Most summers we stayed at the state park campground (which I highly recommend). There we had a favorite campsite with three trees on the corner of the lot (very specific I know). “Trees of three leave, them be” we would say. I spent hours under their shade on a blanket reading books and playing Barbies.
They had a Junior Naturalist program, and every year as a child I would sign up and complete it. There were different organized activities and you had to complete a certain number of them to receive a badge. I have a lot of wonderful memories doing this; we hunted for salamanders, went creeking, collected leaves and learned to identify trees, touched animal pelts, saw birds of prey and went on night hikes. This was always my favorite classroom, the great outdoors, and since then I have found every excuse to spend as much time in it as I can.
As I got older we began exploring other areas of the park outside of the crowd favorites: Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls, Ash Cave. Rock House and Conkle’s Hollow (make sure to hike the bottom as well as the rim) are incredible as well. I am convinced that my hiking boots have carried me over nearly every mile of trail in the park throughout the years, my favorite hike being the lesser traveled path that connects Old Man’s Cave to Cedar Falls. We tried other things as well: a waterfall hunt, night hikes (accompanied by a forest ranger), canoeing and antiquing. Our favorite thing on any vacation is to spend one day in town at junk shops and old rundown cemeteries. At least once during each stay we would stop by Grandma Faye’s, a convenience store and souvenir shop filled more with nostalgia than anything else. There I’d get a stick of rock candy and my mother would buy five dollars worth of lottery tickets.
At one point mom said, “We always come here in the summer, why not winter, spring and fall?” Of the three off seasons, I like winter best. All of the waterfalls are frozen over and ice spears hang precariously off of the cliff side. It is magical and defiantly worth seeing. Winter visitors can stay comfortably in one of the regions many cabins, most of which have outdoor hot tubs perfect for exceptionally chilly nights after long days of hiking.
When I moved to Columbus for college, one of the things I was most excited about was to be closer to Ohio’s hidden gem. Instead of three hours, I only had to drive one to get to the trails. I happily took advantage of this the past five years, spending many weekends down there de-stressing in the woods. This childhood place moved seamlessly into my adult life and instead of visiting with my parents (although I still often do) I was taking my new friends to experience its beauty. Always I will love getting to see the look of awe on someones face as they walk into Ash Cave for the first time, each one has uttered the words, “I cannot believe this is in Ohio”. And truly, neither can I.
- Old Man’s Cave / Ash Cave / Cedar Falls – all are reasonably easy hikes on their own (Ash Cave is even wheelchair accessible) and defiantly the parks most visited. You can drive your car to each or (and I highly recommend this) you can hike a loop trail that connects all three together and spend more time in the woods. The connecting trail is a little more challenging but definitely not treacherous.
- Conkle’s Hollow – the rim trail offers the most scenic view in the park by far, but don’t overlook the equally beautiful lower trail. I would not recommend the rim trail for small children as it has 200 foot drop offs and narrow paths in sections.
- Rock House – an incredibly impressive naturally formed house made of rocks (enough said).
Pro tip: if you are planning to stay at the state park campground book at least three months in advance as spots fill up quickly. Another great option is the KOA. KOA’s are always clean, have a pool, a play ground, bathrooms, showers and a friendly staff. They are a great place to stay if you have never been to an area before and are unsure of what other accommodations will be like, plus, if you become a KOA member you get 10% off of all your stays among other perks.
Update: since beginning this post a little under a month ago, a new trail has been opened in the park. Dedicated on May 8th, 2017, Whispering Cave is the first trail system opened at Hocking Hills State Park in the last 50 years. This trail leads to the second largest cave in Ohio and promises access to more of the waterfalls, caverns, sandstone cliffs and hemlock trees that the region is known for. I am planning a weekend camping trip there Memorial Day and I will be sure to test out this new trail and report back to all of you.