LAKE HOPE, Ohio – I’ve kayaked countless times since my first whitewater paddling with the Penn State Outing Club in college. But it was never magical until I penetrated 120 acre Lake Hope in the Zaleski State Forest.
It was getting dark and the only sounds that broke the silence were our paddles dipping into the water and a chorus of crickets. As my husband and I followed our guide through a sea of water lilies in search of beavers, the sun gradually disappeared behind the wooded hills, leaving only the silhouettes of trees against the star-studded sky. The only light came from a moonlight and the glow of the red safety light on the bow.
It was kind of scary, but also exciting.
“It’s a different kind of sensory experience at night,” said our pilot Mimi Morrison of Touch the Earth Adventures as we set off. Damn it if she wasn’t right. We were less than 200 miles from home but felt like we were in a different world.
We had come to southeast Ohio to see one of the state’s most scenic and popular tourist attractions, Hocking Hills State Park, a 2,000 acre wonderland of extraordinary rock formations carved into the Black Hand sandstone by glaciers millions of years ago to pull the plug. It didn’t take long to see why it attracts 4 million visitors a year.
Since I’d only been in the northern part of the state, I’d always thought Ohio was one of the flattest places on earth. It turns out that the Appalachian hill country, which separates its farmland from the oldest mountain range in the United States, is actually full of towering cliffs, waterfalls, and hemlock-filled canyons. It also has its share of caves.
One of the most famous, the Rock House, stretches 60 meters in either direction with a 25 meter high ceiling and seven arched “windows” separated by massive columns of solid stone. For thousands of years it was home to Native Americans who cooked in small ovens carved into the rock walls. Robbers, bandits and murderers are said to have hid there in the 19th century and earned it the nickname “Robber’s Quarter”.
It’s an exciting place to get back to nature, especially in autumn when the forest air is fresh and the leaves turn bright reds and yellows. (The tip color is expected in mid-to-late October.) It’s also tiring when you’re rushing from location to location over a weekend like us. If possible, treat yourself to a few more days. The Hocking Hills region has more than 10,000 hectares of uninterrupted forest with miles of hiking trails, which thanks to its diverse vegetation make it a blessing not only for hikers and walkers, but also for bird watchers and plant lovers.
Hocking Hills State Park alone has seven great walking areas with color-coded one-way streets leading to key locations in the park, and after driving there for nearly four hours from Pittsburgh, you’ll want to get to them all. Cyclists will also find more than 80 miles of mountain bike trails ranging in difficulty from easy to “sacred!” All of which are open year-round, from dusk to dawn.
We only had 36 hours to explore on foot, bike, and kayak after checking into our rustic cabin in the woods, so we just scratched the surface.
Our adventure started with an easy half a mile hike to one of the most popular parks, Old Man’s Cave. The visitor center ran out of maps so we just followed a crowd into the woods. Since it was Saturday the Grandma Gatewood Trail was clogged at the head end, thinning by the time we reached the first set of stairs and then a short but memorable ledge with no handrail.
The trail goes 1½ miles back to the visitor center, past waterfalls, a deep, bowl-shaped creek bed known at the Devil’s Bathtub, and an A-frame bridge over the gorge. Old Man’s Cave is named after a hermit who is believed to have lived (and died) in its alcoves in the early 19th century. Eager to explore, I followed a teen’s lead and crawled into the hollowed-out opening to look for bones.
With sufficiently warmed legs, we continued on the Hemlock Bridge Trail to Whispering Cave. One of the park’s newer sites (opened in 2017) and the region’s second largest cave, it spans nearly 100 feet with a seasonal 105-foot waterfall pouring from its top. Steep wooden stairs lead you into the alcoves, and the path allows for a close look at the honeycomb weathering of the sandstone.
Had we gone the other way, we would have ended up at Cedar Falls, the largest waterfall in the park. We decided to see it the next day via a short walk from a parking lot. We also drove to the Rock House and then hiked a mile from the shelter to its dramatic opening. The way down was easy, but not up again, as the massive, tunnel-like corridor is halfway up a 50-foot cliff.
We stumbled upon the John Glenn Astronomy Park by chance. Aside from an interactive sundial, there isn’t much to see in daylight. But at night it would be a great place to look at the stars through a huge 28-inch telescope in the Roll-Top Observatory. (Free guided stargazing on weekends was suspended during the pandemic.)
We missed Cantwell Cliffs to the north of the park and Ash Cave, the park’s marquee attraction, because we were running out of both time and energy. The next time we promised it, when we refueled with pints of stellar IPA in the brewery 33’s outdoor beer garden. The gourmet pepperoni cake ordered from Pizza Crossing in Logan was just the thing.
The next morning we did a 15 mile bike ride along the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway on the old Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad Bed in Nelsonville. The first few miles are nothing special but once you pass Hocking College and step into the woods it’s great. The 21-mile trail is named after the area’s earliest residents, the Shawnee tribe members who named the Hocking River. They actually called it “squatting” which means bottleneck and refers to the twisted shape of the river.
Of particular interest is Robbins Crossing, a fully restored village with a living history from the 1850s on the edge of campus. There are blacksmithing and basket weaving classes and other events throughout the year, and students often show off border toys, games, and handicrafts from the Appalachians.
In Nelsonville, take a ride on the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway, which has three open-air passenger cars converted from old freight cars. Fall foliage trips take place Thursday through Sunday in October.
The day also included a short drive around Logan Lake, which offers boating, swimming, and fishing in season, and year-round hiking.
A friend recommended the short drive to Laurelville to visit the Jack Pines Studio, known for its hand-blown pumpkins, ornaments and vases. But when we spotted Jimbo’s Burgers in South Bloomington, a late lunch seemed like a better option. The $ 7 Hoagies didn’t disappoint.
After a short rest in our cabin in the woods, we headed south for our evening paddling to Lake Hope in neighboring Vinton County.
We had planned to arrive early. Taking a shortcut on a country road not only got us hopelessly lost, it also got us almost half an hour late without our being able to apologize over the cellular service. Our late arrival didn’t seem to impress Morrison, who has spent her life hiking in these woods and paddling on their lakes and rivers. The guide for Touch the Earth Adventures greeted us with a slight smile and immediately strengthened our spirits with their obvious passion for water.
“You will experience something,” she enthused as we buckled on our life jackets and carried the kayaks down the concrete slide.
As we paddled up the lake and paddled among tons of water lilies, Morrison told his story as she pointed out the sights – an osprey perched on a tree hook, a beaver hut made of mud and sticks, an unusual tree on the slopes. Just before the light faded, she took us near the coast and offered us bug spray and cups of chamomile tea from a thermos. It was very New Age, but surprisingly relaxing after a day of traveling.
The man-made lake covers the former mining village of Hope, which disappeared in the 1930s when Big Sandy Creek was dammed. Morrison began leading trips almost 20 years ago to encourage people, especially women, to build deeper relationships with our common planet.
“When it gets dark over the calm lake, my senses awaken,” she says of the evening excursions on the lake.
It also offers educational kayak tours for bird watchers and star gazers, and visitors can take full moon and sunrise trips with the same goal of reconnecting with Mother Nature.
When we left town the next morning, we felt the benefits of our meditative experience with forest and water. We both felt refreshed and recharged despite a few sore muscles. As Morrison wrote in an email when we got home:
“When I hear the deep sigh of someone who sees the stars fall from the sky … I know my mission has been accomplished.”
Hocking Hills State Park
Get there: Hocking Hills State Park is about 3½ hours from Pittsburgh, mostly on the freeway.
Eat, drink and be happy: Hocking Hills isn’t exactly a culinary destination, but there is fine dining at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls and excellent coffee, breakfast, and lunch at the Hocking Hills Coffee Emporium. We also drank wine to live music at Hocking Hills Winery, tried local beers at Brewery33, ate excellent pizza from Pizza Crossing, and nibbled on authentic tacos at Maya Burrito in Logan.
Take off: What is your style The region has everything from country inns, tiny houses, yurts, and geodomes to rustic / glamorous huts in the woods (some with hot tubs) that sleep from a handful to a crowd. There are also some cheap hotels and motels in Logan. If you prefer it rough, the state has a campground near Old Man’s Cave with cabins and campsites.
Activities: Have you had enough of hiking? Other outdoor activities include horse riding, golfing, abseiling, kayaking, cycling and, in season, zip line tours. For kids, the region offers the world’s largest family rope course, stargazing at John Glenn Astronomy Park, paintball fields, a petting zoo, and the quirky Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum with a collection of 3,400 sharpeners in the Hocking Hills Regional Visitors Center. There are also a handful of gift and antique shops in the area, including the famous Jack Pine Glass Studio in Laurelville.
Always with Tranquillity: Most of the attractions are not within walking distance and the winding country roads require slow speeds. They are also extremely dark at night. So it will take longer than you think to get to almost anywhere.
Visitor information: Discover HockingHills.com or 1-800-462-5464.
Upper Falls in Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio
Rock House, a unique cave, is located in the Hocking Hills of Ohio.
A magical mix of rock, water and forest – especially in autumn