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Take to the Hills

The dramatic scenery and inviting solitude of Ohio’s Hocking Hills region offer respite from the whir of city life just a short drive from Columbus.

By Rich Warren

Although I’m now a confirmed urban dweller, I grew up in one of Ohio’s most rural counties with a vast forest just steps from my back door where I spent countless childhood days frolicking with my dog. Nowadays, whenever I grow weary of the Columbus traffic and of the bustle at nearby Ohio State University, and whenever I long to listen to birds singing in the trees or the reverie-inducing symphony of summertime cicadas, I always “head for the Hills”—the Hocking Hills, that is.

Ohioans use the term Hocking Hills to refer to a sparsely populated and heavily forested region in the southeastern portion of the state centered in Hocking County but also spilling over into adjacent counties. Several state parks—Burr Oak, Lake Logan, Lake Hope, Tar Hollow and Hocking Hills State Park—as well as Wayne National Forest offer testament to the region’s pristine beauty. And although much of southern Ohio is quite hilly, what sets the Hocking Hills apart are dramatic rock formations, deep gorges and towering cliffs—not to mention waterfalls and wildflowers. Out-of-staters who think of Ohio as flat farmland would be astonished to find topography like this unfold just about a one-hour drive from the state’s capital.

For me, those gorges and rock formations have a magnetic pull. The big daddy of them all—and, by far, the most visited—is Old Man’s Cave, a half-mile-long and 150-foot-deep gorge with both Upper and Lower waterfalls and a recess cave where, legend has it, the Old Man, a hermit named Richard Rowe, resided in the early 1800s. Close by are both the much-photographed Cedar Falls, especially impressive after a big rainfall, and Ash Cave, a horseshoe-shaped recess cave 700 feet in length with a much smaller waterfall that forms a towering stalagmite of ice in the winter.

Ohio’s Hocking Hills
The Upper Falls on the Old Man’s Cave hiking trail
Photo courtesy of Explore Hocking Hills

The Hills Are Alive
On those occasions when I want true solitude, I prefer attractions farther afield in places such as Rock House, a cave with a tunnel-like corridor and high ceiling, or Cantwell Cliffs, with scenery rivaling Old Man’s Cave but without the throngs of visitors. Best of all is the remote Conkles Hollow, delivering unparalleled views from the rim trail atop its 200-foot-high cliffs.

Ohio’s Hocking Hills Rock House
Rock House cave
Photo courtesy of Explore Hocking Hills

Many local companies and guides can help you find the best natural experiences Hocking Hills has to offer. I’ve heard enthusiastic state park naturalist Pat Quackenbush calling for owls—and even better, I’ve heard them reply. I’ve been assisted by the ever-patient Mimi Morrison of Touch the Earth Adventures in my first inept attempts at kayaking on Lake Logan. I’ve foraged—and eaten—woodland flora with Hocking Hills Adventure Treks, and on my excursion with High Rock Adventures, I saw folks with more bravery than I could muster rappel down sheer rock faces and squeeze through tight spaces on their tummies.

I’ve also fed hummingbirds by hand at a program offered at Lake Hope State Park. I’ve canoed the Hocking River by moonlight. I’ve heard world-class performances in the intimate Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, host to such national acts as Los Lobos and Mavis Staples. I’ve gone zip lining at Hocking Hills Canopy Tours. I’ve tuckered myself out hiking on a portion of the rugged Grandma Gatewood Trail, named for the Ohio native who was the first woman to hike the complete Appalachian Trail. Most recently, I’ve seen the jagged edges of craters on the moon through a telescope at John Glenn Astronomy Park, opened in 2018.

Ohio’s Hocking Hills hummingbird feeder
hummingbirds by hand in Hocking Hills.
Photo courtesy of Explore Hocking Hills

But one of my favorite things to do in the area is to just point my car down one of the winding back roads and see where I end up. Around every bend, there’s a potential for superb vistas. I’ve seen raccoons, herds of deer, bluebirds, turtles and even a fox, although I thankfully haven’t yet spotted the reclusive black bears said to be settling in the most remote areas. Just by happenstance, I’ve come upon little treasures such as the Wind Chime Shop and Jack Pine Studios, where the artist creates his signature glass pumpkins. I know to carry a good map on these off-the-beaten-path excursions since cell phones and even a GPS frequently fail to operate in the more isolated areas.

When I decide to overnight in the region, there are dozens of options, including camping sites and hundreds of cabins, ranging from small one-room structures nestled among the trees to rambling log homes with lofts and up to eight bedrooms. I’ve stayed in the Scottish-themed cottages at Glenlaurel Inn and at Ravenwood Castle, complete with crenellated parapets. My favorite, however, is the popular Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, where log cabins and secluded cottages are scattered throughout 75 acres of wooded land. The owners have most recently added luxury yurts to their mix, and there’s a fine dining restaurant on-site.

Ohio’s Hocking Hills Treehouse at Night
Treehouses and tipis (below) are among the lodging options in the area.
Photo courtesy of Explore Hocking Hills

Treehouses are now available for rental at Among the Trees Lodging. Maybe I’ll add staying there to my Hocking Hills Bucket List, which also includes attending the Washboard Music Festival in Logan. The annual festival features 75 musical acts over three days in June. All incorporate a washboard into their numbers as a salute to the Columbus Washboard Company in town, the country’s last manufacturer of the vintage appliances. I also have a hankering come Halloween time to make it to Midnight at Moonville, an annual event that explores the eerie happenings inside an abandoned railroad tunnel.

Even though I may no longer have a forest virtually in my backyard, there’s a magnificent one within easy reach whenever I need balm for my soul.


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of AAA World.

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