Hiking Hocking Hills and Camping Hullabaloo
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What do you usually think of when you think about traveling through Ohio? If you’re anything like me, you would probably think of flat, farmland, and boring landscape. I typically think of Ohio as one of those fly-over states that Jason Aldean sings about, only in my case it’s one of those drive-through states, as I prefer driving over flying. Ohio is not usually the home of destination locations. This is the kind of thinking most people, I’m sure, have about Ohio. As a matter of fact, when my workmates asked me where we were headed camping and I responded with Ohio, they kind of scrunched up their noses and had a confused, disgusted look on their faces as they reciprocated with a disappointed sounding “Ohio?”
I know how it sounds. However, my answer is yes. I plan on camping and taking a short vacation with my wife in Ohio. Although, have you ever heard of Hocking Hills, Ohio? I came across this place while searching for gorgeous vacation spots not too far from our home in metro Detroit, Michigan since I was only planning a long weekend with my wife and myself to enjoy. The best part about this was that my sister-in-law lives just about an hour and a half west of Hocking Hills, and she was kind enough to meet us just outside of Columbus to pick up and take our girls for the weekend so we could enjoy some alone time, and didn’t have to drive out of our way. It was a perfect plan.
So, with a plan in mind, I booked our campsite well in advance at the Hocking Hills Family Primitive Hike-In Camp. This would be the perfect opportunity to enjoy some quiet time, away from the jam-packed, full hook-up campsites that would be full of RVs, trailers, pop-up campers, loads of kids and dogs. After reading the reviews online about the hike-in camp, it seemed that it would be much less crowded, offer more space to spread out, more trees and privacy, and wouldn’t feel like we were camping right on top of the neighboring campers. So, I booked the site a few months in advance and began researching the Hocking Hills area to be someone prepared for what was in store for us. I started putting together a folder that I could keep our printed reservation, trail maps, ideas for dinner in the local town of Logan, our permits to visit Boch Hollow State Nature Preserve to see the hidden and little-known Corkscrew Falls, and other printed material we would need for the trip.
As it got closer to our time, within the week of, I anxiously kept a close eye on the weather for the area and began to get a bit wary and nervous as the weather was calling for thunderstorms almost the entire weekend. Our reservations were for arriving Friday afternoon and leaving Sunday. The storms were set to begin Wednesday and not let up to the sun until Monday after we were to be back home. This caused for some extra clothing and camping supplies, but I was determined to make the best of what we had.
Here it was; it was Friday morning; early. The truck was almost fully packed. The majority of our meals were prepped and in the cooler. I wanted to leave by 7:00 am, to beat the majority of the Friday morning rush hour in the Detroit area. My wife and daughters were amazing getting the final things we needed together and into the truck, and we actually got on the road about 7:15, which surprised me, as when I usually give a time to leave by, we usually don’t end up hitting the road until at least an hour or more after. I was shocked this time and knew that this was a good sign for what was in store.
The drive down to Columbus was as enjoyable as a typical drive through ol’ Ohio. We hit a few patches of storms on our way, but it didn’t deter us. The kids behaved well, and we ended up meeting my sister-in-law at a Frisch’s Big Boy in Groveport, just south-east of Columbus, where we could enjoy lunch and transfer half of the truck bed full of gear for the kids to her car. Then, we gave kisses and hugs to our girls and drove away excitedly waving goodbye with enormous smiles from ear to ear on our relieved mugs, knowing that we had the next few days to be kid free.
As we got close to the town of Logan, another storm rolled through, worrying us as we were hoping to set up camp in somewhat dry conditions. We also noticed the lay of the land change completely at this point. Still in Ohio, but it didn’t look like it. We were on the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains. We made it from Logan to the main building to check in for our reservations, and we could see the rain begin to let up and the dark clouds begin to break. The radar showed that we were going to have about a 2-hour break before the next storm would roll in, so we had to really get moving and get set up within that time frame.
The parking lot for our campground was a good 0.6 miles from our reserved site, lucky number 13. Good thing that I already had our backpacking packs already loaded with the gear we needed to bring to the site. So we loaded up the remainder of our gear into the wagon, hoisted our packs on our backs, strapped in, and hiked into the site to begin setting up our home for the next couple of nights.
This is where the real fun began. When we were setting up the site, I had two 100-foot rolls of paracord to hold up our giant tarps. Since I didn’t have anything the right weight and size to tie the end of one rope to in order to throw over a high limb, I decided to use the other roll of paracord. This wasn’t the best idea, as the roll got stuck in the limb I was trying to throw it over, about sixteen feet up in the air. It was so muggy and warm in the time between the storms that I was sweating profusely, struggling to get the thing we needed to keep our entire camp dry out of a tree. It had to have taken close to a half hour of throwing downed limbs at the stuck bunch of paracord to come loose. After I got past this faux pas, I needed to sit down, have a beer, then breeze through the remaining of setting up camp, after watching my wife sit, laugh, and take video of my struggling butt from her comfy camp chair, beer in hand.
By the time we finished, the next storm came through immediately, yet we were able to stay dry and laugh at the adventure we had just experienced. It was dinner time, so we agreed to drive back toward town and enjoy some brews at the Br3w3ry Hocking Hills with some local live acoustic guitar music. Yes, the name of the brewery is spelled correctly. After some tasting sessions of their flights, we took a short drive around the corner to have dinner at Millstone Southern Smoked BBQ to enjoy their fall-off-the-bone ribs with a house salad, BBQ baked beans and deep fried pickles with a few more brews. I would definitely recommend this place when you are in the area.
When we arrived back at camp after dinner, the rain was really coming down, but we remained dry, were able to put together a small campfire, but we were exhausted and decided to hit the hay early. I had made the decision to bring my 2-person backpacking tent, which my father had just given me, instead of our usual 6-person, much heavier and bulkier tent. My idea was to try it out on our short, 2-night trip to see if my wife was going to be able to handle it if I could ever talk her into doing a longer backpacking trip in the future. I have to say that I don’t really see us doing any long backpacking trips at our ages now, or with how claustrophobic she was. I say this as I laugh to myself with a smile on my face, just thinking about how cute she was when complaining about this. That’s okay with me, as we just need to focus now on saving up for a pop-up camper or travel trailer.
Now don’t get me wrong; we have been tent camping for as long as I can remember, but we are getting older. Our muscles and bones don’t feel like they used to. It would be a lot easier on our bodies to not have to worry about the stresses of setting up a full tarp and tent camp than a trailer camp.
In the morning, we slept in a little longer than I usually would have liked, but we were enjoying our vacation. I got up, took a quick hike to the truck to grab breakfast from the cooler, and started a fire as soon as I got back to cook breakfast and percolate the coffee. After some scrumptious Toad In the Hole, we packed our daypack and drove to the main campground to use the shower house facilities and wait out the just-before-noon small storm. The storm lasted no more than ten minutes, and the rain decided to stay away for the remainder of the weekend.
Our first stop to enjoying Hocking Hills State Park was Rock House. This was a short hiking trail, about ½ mile long. By the time you got through the woods, walking down the decline, you arrive at the base of the Rock House. Steps carved into the rock bring you up, overlooking the tree-filled valley 150 feet below. It almost appears like you are in a South American jungle during the summer. The steps also take you up to the entrance to the Rock House, the only true cave in the park. The photos do not do it justice than to physically come upon, and actually step foot inside of this remarkable natural phenomenon. The ceiling of the cave is 25 feet high with the main corridor at 200 feet long and about 30-40 feet wide. There are other window-like openings throughout, other than the main entrance opening, making it appear to be a house-like structure naturally made entirely of Blackhand sandstone, hence the name, Rock House. I remember telling my wife, “Honey, this is the kitchen; this is the family room; the tv can go right here; and here’s where the bed will be.” Hey. We could live just like The Flintstones.
Our next stop was the Cantwell Cliffs trail. It took a little bit of convincing for my wife to agree to it, as she was hesitant at the word “cliffs.” You see, my wife tends to try and stay away from heights whenever she can. After my incessant pleading and of course my beautiful batting eyes and pouty-faced frown, she gave in and agreed. Yet 17 miles from Old Man’s Cave, the Cantwell area is known to be one of the most picturesque locations within Hocking County. Discover and explore steep sandstone cliffs, a deep valley, a rock shelter below the cliffs, and narrow passageways; the narrowest passage being sarcastically named Fat Woman’s Squeeze. The area has 2 main trail loops, one that goes along the valley floor and another that takes you up and around the rim.
We chose to explore the rim trail based on the suggestion from another couple that we met on the trail, also from metro Detroit. They said that it was their first time to Hocking Hills as well, and a young girl, who had apparently been there many times and had experience with both, told them that they should do the rim trail. So, on we went, with the recommendation of an expert. It was a little over one mile long and thronged with magnificent views. Since we went right after a good amount of rain for the past few days, there were many areas where the rain was draining down over the edges of the cliffs, creating wondrous waterfalls both alluring for the eye and tranquil for the ear. I am proud with Jackie for how well she handled the height and making it down the steps through Fat Woman’s Squeeze. She is so amazing.
The areas we visited were breathtaking and other-worldly. Both my wife and I were hooked and couldn’t wait to see more of what the area had to offer. Knowing that the next area on our driving path heading back toward the campsite was going to be a much longer and tougher hike than the first two, at around two and a half miles long, we still had plenty of energy to conquer it. Conkle’s Hollow is a rocky, rugged gorge, considered one of the deepest in the state, but absolutely beautiful from any viewpoint. The trail begins with a big wooden staircase, continuing with a steep uphill dirt, rock, and tree root climb to get all the way up to the rim. Once you are out of the woods from there, it leaves you standing on a giant rock on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the enormous gorge below, leaving you with a heavenly view of nothing but nature. No lie; it completely took my breath away.
The 2 1/2 mile rim trail is one that I would consider difficult, as there is a sheer cliff on one side of the trail almost the entire trek, sometimes as high as 200 feet. The ground is very uneven with numerous rocks, tree roots, and broken tree stumps still jutting out of the ground, and the trail can get very muddy and slick right after a rain. However, the views it provides are incredible and well worth the difficulty. This was the longest trail of all the well-known trails in the park and by far the most difficult. Great caution should be exercised on this trail as it can be extremely dangerous in all seasons.
After that adventure, we needed a break and some dinner, so we decided to head back to the town of Logan for some pizza at Pizza Crossing. Our plan from here was to do one more short hike then head back to camp. According to the trail maps, Ash Cave was decently close to our campsite and was only a ½ mile loop. It was certainly perfect for an evening jaunt without it getting too dark to venture through.
The trail was easy and terrifically relaxing as it meandered through a narrow gorge, alongside a winsome stream; through massive beech trees, hemlocks, and various other hardwood trees. The valley floor was covered in wildflowers of multiple types with towering rock walls on either side. As you reach the ¼ mile mark into the gorge, the back wall opens up to the largest, most resplendent recessed cave in the state. It felt as though it got larger and larger the closer you got to it. Not until you are standing inside of it do you truly realize the absolute enormity of it. You can see in the photo how tiny my wife looks inside the recess of the cave. And from above, a ravishing waterfall showers down to a small pool in the center of it all. The photos do not do it justice at all. You definitely need to experience this for yourself to truly feel the magnificence of this cave. I won’t forget the feeling that was coursing through my soul.
That night, back at camp, we started a much bigger and better campfire than the prior night, roasted marshmallows, heated up my famous spicy chicken and cheese dip, played Yahtzee and Skip-Bo, and laughed and talked about our future over sharing many beers, many laughs, and a few tears.
The next morning, I had breakfast planned again over the campfire with coffee. We took our sweet little time packing up camp, as the plan was to enjoy the day in the park, then drive to my wife’s sister’s house to pick up the kids and head home that night. We still had plenty of time during the day to enjoy more adventuring with each other.
The first hike on the agenda for the day was Cedar Falls. Immediately stepping foot onto the trail at the trailhead, a giant staircase with sidewalls made of rocks leads you down into the gorge. Awaiting your arrival on the valley floor is a very shallow river that snakes through the length of the gorge with beautiful bridges in different areas. One trail leads you onto the blue-blazed Buckeye Trail to Ash Cave, on a 2.3-mile hike, also known as the Grandma Gatewood Trail. The other takes you on the ½ mile trail to Cedar Falls. The falls itself boasts the greatest volume of water flow in the Hocking region. Cedar Falls was misnamed by early white settlers who mistook the stately Hemlocks for Cedar trees. Whoops. From the falls, there is another part of the Buckeye Trail that leads on a 3-mile hike to Old Man’s Cave. We decided not to complete this as we still had one more spot to check out after, before going to pick up the kids, and it would take the majority of the day to hike to Old Man’s Cave, spend time in that area, then hike back the 3 miles to get back to our truck. This will need to wait for our next visit, as I hear this part of the trail is spectacular.
The falls themselves are breathtaking with the sheer volume of water it presents. We had the chance to hang out here and get our feet wet, splash in the pool, and jump from rock to rock, making us feel like kids again. We were also able to turn a corner and catch another hidden fall with a small cove I decided to explore. My mind wandered for a bit, and it felt like I was one of the Lost Boys exploring Neverland.
We then headed over to Old Man’s Cave from there. As we pulled into the parking lot, we could tell that this was the most popular of all the locations in the Hocking Hills region. The parking lot was full of vehicles. The weather was gorgeous with the sun beating down on a mid-80s day. There were multiple different trail routes available to take here so we just kind of winged it. First, we headed toward Old Man’s Cave itself, named after the hermit Richard Rowe who lived in the large recessed cave in the gorge beginning in 1796 and lived out the remainder of his life. He was buried beneath the ledge of the main recess cave. I could definitely see myself setting up and living here.
We continued south on the trail to the Lower Falls and the southern end of the gorge, looping back around to head north toward the A-frame bridge over the gorge and continuing even further north to see The Devil’s Bathtub and the Upper Falls at the northern-most part of the gorge.
You can see why this is the most popular area, as it was filled with so many picturesque locations. However, we wanted to get through this as quickly as possible to try and get away from the large crowds of people, even though it was absolutely stunning. We ended up getting lured in to stop at an ice cream truck parked at the entrance to indulge in a tasty cold treat, in hopes of cooling us down and beating the heat.
The last stop on our agenda was to check out Corkscrew Falls in the Boch Hollow Nature Preserve. This was a location outside of the Hocking Hills area, in the northern part of Logan. It was about a 30-minute drive from the main campground, but it was our final destination before leaving this beautiful area. It was a bit out of our way, but well worth the stop. We parked along 664 and crossed the road. We had to search for a very small sign showing the very narrow trail into the woods to get to the Corkscrew Falls overlook. There are other ways to get into the gorge, but that would take us further into the preserve, and a much longer hike than the 5 minutes it took to get to the overlook. I wished I had a better camera than just my phone for this, but seeing it in person was astounding. Definitely worth the out-of-the-way drive.
Our trip was coming to an end, and we were missing our two little ones at this point. I really enjoyed driving the backcountry roads here, so we decided to take 180 all the way to Chillicothe before hopping back onto the state highways to get to Jen’s house, where the girls had been staying while we enjoyed our little time away. We laughed and talked about the possibility of one day moving away from the city and enjoying our retired lives somewhere much more remote and beautiful than where we live now. One day it’ll happen for us. Until then, we will continue to travel and vacation to many beautiful areas our country has to offer.
I can say that I definitely want to return to Hocking Hills with the kids once Allie gets older. I’m glad that we didn’t bring the girls this time around, as we would not have been able to do and see all the things we did with a one and half-year-old. We also wouldn’t have been able to see as much as we did having the kids with us. Now we know what it all entails and how we can plan more time in the future to allow the kids to truly enjoy all that Hocking Hills has to offer. I never thought I would say this, but a future trip to Ohio is at the top of my list.