I’ve been hearing about, and seeing gorgeous pictures from Hocking Hills, Ohio on Facebook and Instagram for the last few years, and over this year’s spring break, finally got to see what all the fuss was about. I talked my husband into a hiking vacation, and reserved an Airbnb in Athens, Ohio for a few days. After a seven-hour drive, we had three full days of exploring.
Day one, which was Easter Sunday, we opted to explore the Zaleski State Forest, hoping that Hocking Hills would be less crowded on Monday. I had heard of backpacking excursions to the Zaleski Hills before, and was curious to see what it was like. Online maps showed that there were a variety of trails and several backcountry campgrounds.
We parked at the New Hope Furnace, a historic site that is one of the few remnants of the iron mining industry that once flourished in the area, which is now New Hope State Park. I had to laugh at the blown-out blue jeans thrown over the door of one of the privies–a reminder that hiking in jeans can go badly, I guess. After spending a little time wandering around, trying to make my printed map and my Gaia map match up, we took off on what we believed would be a seven or eight mile loop.
The trail was hilly, which was no surprise, given the location’s name, and there were rock outcroppings and small streams that caught our interest. It was a warm, sunny day, and after being starved of sun during the winter, it felt glorious. We encountered the historic settlement’s cemetery, and marveled at the hardiness of the people that chose to live here, on these steep hillsides. The trees had not yet budded out, so we could see far into the landscape. Wildflowers were rare enough to be a treat, and we encountered few other hikers.
After a couple hours of hiking, and consulting my printed map and my Gaia map, I noticed a discrepancy in the mileage. While my phone said that we had hiked about four miles, the printed map indicated that we had only completed a third of the loop. We had a conversation about our medium-sized loop becoming quite a bit bigger that we had originally anticipated, and my husband voted to continue on the loop. (I wanted to be sure this was a fun hike, not a forced march, so I offered turning around as an option often.)
When we arrived at the first backpackers’ campground, there were a few tents and hammocks up. We refilled our water bottles at the spigot, and continued on. The campground was nothing out of the ordinary–a view of the hills, a water source, and a privy. After another hour, we stopped for lunch, sitting on a log, looking over a small gorge, and examined both maps again. After convincing my husband that I would in no way be disappointed if we didn’t complete the loop, we decided to head back. He opined that the hike back would probably take even longer, and I explained that I almost always found the opposite to be true: on out and back hikes, the way back always seems to go much faster. He perked up at this news.
On our return hike, we did find an alternative route for the last mile or so, which followed above a flooded area. A snapping turtle the size of a turkey platter sunned itself on a log, and spring peepers announced their presence. Upon returning to the car, we drove a short distance to the settlement’s school house, which has been restored and is used as a community event center, and read more about the area’s history from the display there.
We stopped for dinner at Jackie O’s pub in Athens on our way back to our Airbnb, and as we ate, the type two fun began to kick in, as I showed Geoff our mileage, steps, and flights of stairs climbed, according to my Fitbit. He was quite proud of our accomplishment. (I think this was the furthest he’s hiked with me.) After dinner, cocktails on the deck of our rental and watching the sunset made for a good wind down.
Monday morning, we got an early start to Hocking Hills, about a 30-minute drive from our Airbnb rental in Athens (The Water’s Edge, hosted by Deni, if you’re interested.)
Our first few steps into the park took us into Old Man’s Cave, accessed through stairs and a tunnel carved into the rock by workers in the Works Progress Administration of FDR’s New Deal, back in the 1930’s. The early morning light was magical, and the trickling water and birdsong were the only sounds. I saw a North Country Trail blue blaze, and we began to follow them along the Grandma Gatewood/Buckeye Trail section of the NCT, as it followed the river down the gorge.
This hike was nothing short of sublime. The overhanging cliffs, lush moss, gnarled tree roots and aqua green-blue of the river took my breath away again and again.
Occasionally we encountered other hikers, but due to our early start, we enjoyed the various sites alone, until reaching the end of the loop, at Cedar Falls, which has a close by parking lot.
Our hike back to the trail head went much more quickly, as we followed the rim of the gorge. There were fewer majestic views, but the path was wide enough that we could walk side by side and discuss all that we had seen. We began to encounter throngs of people as we got closer to Old Man’s Cave, and the parking lot that had been empty when we arrived was now overflowing. I felt like we couldn’t have planned this day better if we had tried!
On our last full day of vacation, I was torn–drive back to Hocking Hills and do it all again, or go exploring somewhere else? We decided that Monday had been just perfect, and that to try to recreate it would be a mistake, so I did a little research about local trails, and we ended up at Strouds Run state park, which had a loop trail around Dow’s Lake, a local swimming hole. Since it was just starting to get up in the 70’s during the day, we figured it would be pretty quiet. Dow’s Lake was surrounded by forested hills, and the trail meandered along the lake’s many fingers. While there were a few fishermen and kayakers, it was mostly quiet. The Lakeview trail was a little bit of a challenge in some areas because of mud, particularly the stretches that were also open to horses. It was that slick, slippery clay mud, and I was happy to get through the muddy patches that seemed to crop up every fifty feet or so without ending up on my butt.
The trail became much easier after crossing the dam that marks the eastern end of the lake. We completed the loop on the Hickory trail, which is also open to mountain bikes. While we only saw a few mountain bikers, the trail design of switchbacks and a wide path made for easy hiking, although the mud was ever-present. However, the lake views from all sides reminded me a lot of a trip to the Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan’s upper peninsula–big pines, loons, and reflections of a beautiful sky–the mud was a small price to pay. My husband commented many times on how much more enjoyable he found this day’s hike than our first day at Zaleski Hills–I guess as Michiganders, we have a thing for water views.
If I had this trip to do over, I would probably skip the Zaleski Hills (While it was pretty, it was a lot like hiking the Manistee River Trail, but without the river views!), and perhaps do more exploring in the Wayne National Forest or other local state park trails. I would also be happy to hike around the lake at Strouds Run SP again. Staying at the Airbnb in Athens was great. It’s a charming, small college town with lots of good restaurants, and is close to the freeway. I had considered renting someplace closer to Hocking Hills, but price had driven me a little further away, and that turned out to be a good thing. While I would definitely love to go back to Hocking Hills, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, so getting to a restaurant or grocery store from one of its nearby cabins would have been a bit of a hassle.
And lastly, this trip made me appreciate what a good guy my husband is. Hiking is not his hobby, it’s mine, yet he is always a good sport about it, whether it’s being cool about me heading out to places unknown with my hiking buddies, or coming along on day hikes with me. We have established a balance: He doesn’t sleep out in the woods, and I don’t try to talk him into it. Enjoying the day hikes together is our happy medium.