A fan's guide to Ohio's Hocking Hills State Park
The 87-acre Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve featuress 200-foot sandstone cliffs and some up-high vistas of southeast Ohio. It is located near Hocking Hills State Park. (Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal, MCT / August 13, 2009)
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.
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.
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.