The giant hemlocks diffused the soft Sunday morning sun as we descended the trail toward Cedar Falls.
The hush of the forest was disturbed only by our footfalls and those of a few other hikers. Even my daughter, a toddler riding in a pack on my back, quieted on the trek, lulled by the rhythm of the trail and the new, peaceful surroundings.
In just a half-mile, the Cedar Falls trail, part of the Hocking Hills State Park system in southeastern Ohio, gives hikers a taste of all the region has to offer — old-growth forest, overhanging sandstone cliffs, large rock formations, a steep-walled gorge and a waterfall that drops 50 feet into a shallow pool.
The six Hocking Hills parks each feature some or all of these attractions, along their 25 miles of hiking trails. Ohio’s state trail system, the blue-blazed Buckeye Trail, also cuts through the area, linking three of the parks, Cedar Falls, Old Man’s Cave and Ash Cave.
The region is rich in Native American history and is a geological wonderland. Once flooded after the retreat of the glaciers, which stopped in northern Hocking County, the land was carved as water forced its way through cracks in the hard top layers of rock and scooped out the softer middle layers. The result: gorges, recessed caves, waterfalls and slump rocks (the fallen top layer).
With large tracts of state and national forests, Hocking Hills provides a fall color extravaganza, making autumn the busiest season of the year. Cabin rental companies, state park campgrounds and bed and breakfasts do a brisk business as the hills fill with urbanites from Columbus and Cleveland, Lexington and Charleston, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, who stream into Hocking County to enjoy the colorful foliage, outdoor pursuits and romantic getaways.
A highlight of the season is Grandma Gatewood’s Fall Colors Hike, set this year on Oct. 14. Hikers, accompanied by a naturalist, will follow the Buckeye Trail from Old Man’s Cave to Cedar Falls and back, a strenuous six-mile circuit that starts at 1 p.m. and takes three to four hours. The hike is named for Gatewood, a Buckeye Trail Association founder who hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail three times.
Photo Provided - The author and her daughter hike through a rock passage at Cedar Falls State Park, part of the Hocking Hills State Park system in southeastern Ohio.
At Old Man’s Cave, the area’s most popular destination, visitors are treated to distinct formations along the hike, such as The Sphinx and the Devil’s Bathtub.
The area was named after a Civil War-era hermit, Richard Rowe, who eked out a living in the recesses of the gorge. He is said to have died from an accidental blast of his own shotgun and was buried in the gorge by his Native American neighbors.
In January, another group hike attracts hardy individuals. Winter Hike participants trek six miles from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave. Ash Cave is the largest recess cave in the park system and features a 90-foot waterfall, often frozen in January.
Those who choose to visit Ash Cave by car rather than on foot will find the short path from the parking lot to the cave flat and paved, making it accessible to wheelchairs and strollers.
In addition to Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls and Ash Cave, the Hocking Hills State Park system includes Conkle’s Hollow, Cantwell Cliffs and Rock House.
Conkle’s Hollow’s rim trail beckons the more experienced hiker, offering a spectacular view — particularly in fall — of the deep gorge, 200-foot blackhand sandstone cliffs and the surrounding hills.
Cantwell Cliffs’ one-mile trek features narrow, winding rock passages and a steep, rocky trail through this remote overhanging, horseshoe-shaped cliff area. It and Rock House are the more far-flung park destinations, making it less likely you will pass other hikers.
Rock House features the park’s only true cave, which is found halfway up a 150-foot cliff. It was used for shelter by Native Americans and white setters, even boasting natural recesses that were heated and used as ovens. Robbers, bootleggers and other criminals found the place a handy hideout, which earned it the nickname of Robbers’ Roost.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find many other attractions in the Hocking Hills region besides hiking. One of the state’s two public rappelling and rock climbing areas, part of the Ohio Division of Natural Resources’ Hocking State Forest, is located near Conkle’s Hollow along Big Pine Road. The mile-long cliff ranges up to 100 feet in height, and provides numerous overhangs and other technically difficult features.
The Hocking Hills Canoe Livery in Logan is a family-friendly attraction offering group and individual canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals, as well as miniature golf and go-karts. For a romantic twist, canoe down the Hocking River by moonlight.
Visitors who are interested in learning more about photographing the unique aspects of the Hocking Hills can venture out into the hills with Eric Hoffman, owner of Old Bear’s Den Photography. He is offering a fall colors field workshop on Saturday, Oct. 20.
Horseback riding on the region’s plentiful bridle trails provides a different perspective. On our summer weekend visit, our daughter became enthralled with horses after donning a helmet and taking a short, hand-led jaunt on a brown quarterhorse named Storm at Happy Trails Stables.
Additional outdoor activities include birding, golfing, hunting, fishing and cycling. More information on all these, plus shopping, antiquing, dining, lodging and cultural attractions, can be found at www. 1800Hocking.com, the Web site of the Hocking Hills Tourism Association. Sign up for a free 2007 Visitors’ Guide while on the site, or call (800) HOCKING (462-5464).
As we discovered, a weekend is much too short to visit this vast, historically and naturally rich region. And summertime in the hills has its downfalls: On the hot summer day we hiked to Cedar Falls, the falls weren’t even a trickle — the rainy seasons of fall or spring make for a better waterfall. And yet we weren’t disappointed.
We know we’ll be back.
Fact Box- A highlight of the fall season is Grandma Gatewood’s Fall Colors Hike, set this year on Oct. 14.