LOGAN: There is one state park every Ohioan should visit.
That’s Hocking Hills, with its out-of-Ohio vibe that is very appealing. It is Ohio’s best park for natural wonders and its most scenic state park.
The picturesque 2,348-acre park in southeastern Hocking County includes Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave, Cedar Falls, Rock House and Cantwell Cliffs. There are caves, cliffs, waterfalls, gorges, rocks, giant trees, first-rate hiking trails and wild country in the Hocking Hills. It is easily accessible via U.S. 33 about 60 minutes southeast of Columbus, three hours and 185 miles from Akron.
The state park is surrounded by nearly 10,000 acres of Hocking State Forest. Nearby is Conkle’s Hollow, arguably Ohio’s most scenic natural area and preserve.
Also nearby is one of Ohio’s best-kept secrets: Rockbridge State Nature Preserve off U.S. 33, with a rock arch that is 100 feet long, up to 20 feet wide, about 5 feet thick and standing 50 feet above a rocky gorge. It is the largest stone arch in Ohio.
Hocking Hills is one of Ohio’s most popular state parks, attracting more than 2.9 million visitors a year. The area has become a tourist mecca with canoe and all-terrain-vehicle rentals, zip lines, tree climbing, rock climbing, paddling trips and airplane tours.
There are hundreds of overnight cabins with hot tubs and fireplaces, kitchens and cable television. You can also find accommodations in inns, lodges, campgrounds, teepees, chalets, castles, motels and bed and breakfasts.
It’s a very civilized area, if that’s what you want. You can hire a personal chef who will come to where you are staying to prepare your meal. Personal photographers and massage therapists are also available. Or it can be rustic, if that’s your desire.
A favorite place to stay is the Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls. It uses log cabins that date to the 1840s. There is also a spa cabin. But to really see the park, you have to get out of the car and do a little hiking. Not much. But a little.
Don’t miss these
What are the key attractions in Hocking Hills State Park? Here are five:
1. Old Man’s Cave, off state Route 664 about 11 miles south of U.S. 33, is the park’s most-visited site. It is an easy hike of 10 minutes from the first-rate visitor center in the heart of the park. There are seven trails in the area. Some include tunnels and stairways through the rock.
The cave itself is 200 feet long with the look and feel of a rocky amphitheater. It is 50 feet high and the overhang is 75 feet deep. It is made of Blackhand sandstone that is 250 million years old. However, the area was badly damaged in 1998 floods.
The cave gets its name from hermit Richard Rowe, who lived in it in the late 1860s with two dogs. It sits in a half-mile-long hemlock-lined gorge with three waterfalls up to 40 feet tall and picturesque pools. It is a very cool place to explore on a hot summer afternoon. Attractions include Devil’s Bathtub, Eagle Rock, Whale in the Wall and the Sphinx Head.
2. Ash Cave off state Route 56 at the southern end of the park is Ohio’s largest recessed cave.
Erosion to the 700-foot horseshoe-shaped rock face has created a 100-foot-deep recess and, when conditions are right, a slender 90-foot-high waterfall. It is, I’m convinced, the most impressive natural feature you will find in Ohio.
It was formed when the softer middle stone eroded away, leaving harder and more-resistant layers above and below. Ash piles discovered in the cave indicate that Indians used the site.
The area is handicapped-accessible via a paved trail. It is a short, easy walk.
3. Cedar Falls off state Route 374 is halfway between Old Man’s Cave and Ash Cave.
It is generally acknowledged as one of the prettiest and most-photographed waterfalls in Ohio. The water tumbles 50 feet down a sandstone wall on Queer Creek into a pool. In winter, Cedar Falls turns into a giant icicle. In summer, the flow may be a trickle.
It seems bigger in person than in photographs.
The early settlers thought the hemlocks around the falls were cedars. A grist mill once stood atop the falls.
4. Rock House is at the north end of the park off state Route 374.
An easy 10-minute walk leads to a rocky room that is 200 feet long, 25 feet high and up to 30 feet deep inside a brightly colored cliff. There are 120 steps along the quarter-mile hike.
Rock House includes seven windowlike openings with a Gothic feel. The openings in the rock are halfway up the face of the 150-foot-tall cliff.
The house is big enough to have once held 100,000 cubic feet of rock. It was formed by the widening of a vertical crack that separated a large block of sandstone from the main cliff above a small tributary of Laurel Run.
The enlargement of secondary joints crossing the main one led to the formation of the tunnel’s distinctive windows.
Indians once lived in Rock House. A 16-room resort hotel was built near the Rock House in 1835. You will see graffiti from the 19th century on some rocks.
5. Cantwell Cliffs is arguably the most isolated section of Hocking Hills State Park. It is off state Route 374 and 17 miles from Old Man’s Cave.
It features 150-foot-high cliffs, massive rock outcroppings, large recess caves, deep woods and narrow passages between downed boulders and the cliff along its trails. The Fat Woman’s Squeeze is one such passage.
It is the most rugged section of Hocking Hills and its trails are the steepest. It gets the fewest visitors. It was largely carved by Buck Run.
More to see and do
Hocking Hills State Park includes a 17-acre lake for fishing and boating and, in season, a dining lodge and a swimming pool. There are 172 campsites and 40 cabins. For reservations, call 740-385-6165 or 800-AT-A-PARK.
Hocking Hills was a picnic and resort area after the Civil War. Ohio bought its first land for the state park at Old Man’s Cave in 1924.
One of the best ways to see the park is to hike the six-mile trail that extends from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave via Cedar Falls. That’s the one-way distance.
The trail honors Emma ‘‘Grandma’’ Gatewood, an Ohio hiking legend who died in 1973 at the age of 86. She was the first woman to continuously hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone in one season — she did it in 1955 at the age of 68 in tennis shoes — and the third woman to hike the entire trail. She hiked the trail two more times.
The trail is part of the cross-Ohio Buckeye Trail and is a federally designated recreational trail. It is also part of the federal North Country Trail. In all, the state park features 24 miles of hiking trails. Most are short.
Conkle’s Hollow is not officially a state park, but it should be. The 87-acre preserve off Big Pine Road off state Route 374 is my favorite wild spot in Ohio. It is a stunning sandstone gorge with sheer cliffs that rise 200 feet. It is as narrow as 70 feet in places and is reportedly the deepest canyon in Ohio.
Depending on the season, you can see waterfalls tumbling off the cliffs, spectacular spring wildflowers, icicles and long-distance vistas across southeastern Ohio.
Conkle’s Hollow gets about 200,000 visitors a year. It is 12 miles south of Logan off Big Pine Road at state Route 374, about three miles from Old Man’s Cave.
It was purchased by the state in 1925 and dedicated as a nature preserve in 1977. It was once part of the state park.
There are two trails: a 2.5-mile trail that circles the gorge on top of the cliffs and a tamer one-mile trail on the canyon floor.
The upper Rim Trail is not without risks. It begins with a steep climb and ends with a downhill hike, but it is generally flat. There are no guardrails so it’s not a place for small children or anyone uncomfortable about high places.
The best views are from the east side of the Rim Trail. There is an imposing 96-foot-high waterfall at the northern end on the canyon that is only visible from the Rim Trail.
The trail on the west side is farther away from the main canyon but offers views into side canyons. It is cooler, wetter and more shaded.
The lower Gorge Trail is a half-mile to a dead end with two waterfalls, sheer cliffs and dramatic overhangs. Then you backtrack out of the canyon to the trailhead. There are no connecting trails.
Not far from Conkle’s Hollow, you will find a rock climbing and rappelling area in Hocking State Forest. The 99-acre tract — one of two state-owned climbing areas in Ohio — is one mile east of Conkle’s Hollow off Big Pine Road.
It features about one mile of sandstone cliffs up to 120 feet tall along with fallen house-size boulders, cracks, chimneys and overhangs.
You can get state park information at 740-385-6841 (park office). You can contact the Hocking State Forest at 877-247-8733. The website for state park, state forest and state nature preserve information is www.ohiodnr.com.
For tourist information, check with the Hocking Hills Tourism Association, 740-385-9706 or 800-HOCKING. The website is www.1800hocking.com.
Hocking Hills Canopy Tours offers a zip line from April through November outside Rockbridge. For information, call 740-385-9477 or visit www.hockinghillscanopytours.com.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or email@example.com.