Three Days in Ohio's Hocking Hills
If you've travelled anywhere in Ohio you've likely noticed its expansive flat land and occasional rolling hills. While this holds true for much of the state, its southeastern reaches are quite different. This area, often referred to as Ohio's Hill Country, is part of one of the world's oldest mountain ranges, the Appalachians. And, within Ohio's Hill Country you'll find the Hocking Hills Region, the state's crown jewel. Here, dense hemlock forests, large rock formations, towering cliffs, massive recessed caves, and beautiful waterfalls dot the landscape providing an outdoor playground like nowhere else in the state. Several miles of the blue blazed Buckeye Trail, the longest circular trail in the nation at more than 1,400 miles long, wind through the region's hills, hollows, and gorges. The most beautiful of all of those miles can be found in Hocking Hills State Park where the trail cuts through the heart of the park, rising and falling throughout its Blackhand sandstone gorge, passing beside picturesque waterfalls and fascinating geologic features. On this adventure you'll explore several of the region's most beautiful hiking trails, rock climb sandstone cliffs, relax while viewing the night sky in its near pristine state, and more. The best time of year to experience the area is early summer and early to mid-October, and if possible during the week.
Upper & Lower Falls, Devil's Bathtub, Old Man's Cave & Broken Rock Falls (1.6 miles/200')
Ash Cave to Ash Cave Fire Tower (2.8 miles/300')
John Glenn Astronomy Park
Start things off with what nearly all consider the most beautiful hike in the Hocking Hills Region and certainly within Hocking Hills State Park. Pick up the Buckeye Trail at the far left corner of the Old Man's Cave parking area where after a brief walk you'll reach a stone footbridge and the trail's first waterfall, Upper Falls. Surrounded by sandstone cliffs, Upper Falls plunges 20' along Old Man's Creek and provides excellent photo opportunities from above and below.
Stay on the Buckeye Trail at the Gorge Overlook Trail junction and cross another stone footbridge at Devil's Bathtub, a bowl-shaped basin forming a whirlpool along a unique stretch of streambed. Although rumored to reach the depths of hell, it's actually only a few feet deep.
Continue to follow the blue blazes roughly a half mile more, crossing five more bridges before reaching the signed stairs to Old Man's Cave. Ascend the stairs to reach the 250' wide by 50' high cave that comes with some pretty interesting history.
Its name comes from the hermit who once inhabited the gorge's large recessed cave. Legend has it that Richard Rowe, a Tennessee Cumberland Mountains native, moved to the area around 1796 to establish a trading post. He made frequent trips to the gorge and often lived in the cave during the trapping season. It's said that one day, while stopping at a stream for water, he used the butt of his rifle to break the ice. The rifle fired, hitting him under the chin and killing him. His body was found by trappers days later and given a burial somewhere near the cave although the exact location has never been determined. Today, it's one of the most popular features of Hocking Hills State Park. After exploring head down the stairs you came up and resume your hike on the Buckeye Trail.
Hike another tenth of a mile or so before reaching yet another stone footbridge and the incredibly scenic Lower Falls. Here, the 25' fall pours over a sandstone cliff into an emerald plunge pool surrounded by a sandy shore. The immediate area is the park's finest in our opinion.
The stone staircase to the left of the falls leads to the Broken Rock Falls Trail junction where you'll hang a left and follow it roughly a tenth of a mile to reach Broken Rock Falls, one of the more unique waterfalls in the state. It gets its name because it appears to cut right through the sandstone cliff from which it cascades from. It also receives far fewer visitors than most other falls in the area so you'll likely have it to yourself even if for only a short while.
When you're done exploring Broken Rock Falls head back to the trail junction and up the stone staircase in front of you. You'll soon ascend a dark man-made tunnel that leads to an area above Old Man's Cave and eventually back to the parking area.
Next, drive ten minutes to the park's southern boundary and the trailhead for Ash Cave. The beautifully manicured trail leads to a stunning 85' waterfall pouring over the top of the cave from a Queer Creek tributary. When the cave was discovered by European settlers large piles of ash were found inside the cave, one being three feet deep, one hundred feet long and thirty feet wide. Archaeological evidence suggests that the piles of ash were from campfires left by Native Americans, especially the Shawnee. European settlers later used the cave as a church until an actual building could be constructed to house the congregation.
Later in the evening, after the sun has said its goodnight, head over to the John Glenn Astronomy Park where on a clear night you'd be hard pressed to find a darker sky in Ohio for stargazing. The park offers guided stargazing programs on Friday and Saturday nights from March through November, and requires a reservation to attend. You definitely want to check this out if a meteor shower is in the forecast.
High Rocks Adventures & Hocking Hills Canopy Tours
Robinson Falls Boch Hollow (0.5 miles/100')
Rock House (1.1 miles/200')
Conkle's Hollow Gorge & Rim (3.8 miles/500')
Kick off today with a guided rock climbing tour with High Rocks Adventures, located twenty minutes north of Hocking Hills State park, adjacent to Clear Creek Metro Park. Here, you'll climb sandstone cliffs ranging from around 30' to as high as 90' while being led by one of their experienced climbing guides. It's a really great experience and highly recommended. All skill levels are welcome and climbing gear is supplied. If climbing isn't in your wheelhouse they also offer rappelling sessions which are also a ton of fun.
Twenty minutes north of Hocking Hills State Park is Boch Hollow State Nature Preserve, a far less visited park with one of the state's best hidden gems, Robinson Falls. Entering the preserve requires a free permit that can be applied for on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website. To reach the trailhead to the falls drive to the corner of Zwickle Rd and Rt-664 where you'll find a small parking area on the west side of Rt-664. The unsigned trailhead to Robinson Falls is on the opposite side of the road from the parking area. After a short descent to the streambed follow the creek upstream until reaching the falls less than a quarter mile later. The waterfall is small in size compared to those from yesterday, but it's absolutely gorgeous. There's a deep plunge pool near the falls, but the preserve, much like the falls in Hocking Hills State Park, prohibits swimming. Water shoes can be helpful in the spring and after heavy rains.
Make your way back south to explore one of the area's most famed geologic features, Rock House. Technically, the only official cave by definition in the park, Rock House is a 200' long tunnel-like passageway with seven natural windows facing south. According to local legend, the cave was used as a hideout by robbers, murderers, and bootleggers in the nineteenth century, earning it the nickname "Robber's Roost". Archaeological evidence suggests that the cave was once inhabited by Native Americans, likely Shawnee, who used the cave's small wall recesses as baking ovens.
Toward the end of your day make your way to neighboring Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve where you'll find two gorgeous hiking trails. The Gorge Trail, a well manicured, mostly paved trail winds through the heart of the gorge before reaching a beautiful 20' waterfall at the end. The entire walk to the falls is drop-dead gorgeous and locals often mention it as their favorite hike in the area. Waking through the gorge you're surrounded with masses of ferns, hemlock, and birch. Vegetation is so thick in places that sunlight struggles to reach the valley floor. Towering overhead are the gorge's 200' high vertical cliffs, gradually narrowing the deeper into the gorge you go. The second and longer Rim Trail follows the cliffs' edge for 2.5 miles circling the gorge in its entirety. Much of the trail is through thick hemlock forest with an occasional cliff top view on the east rim. Sunsets from the east rim are some of the best in the area and highly recommended.
Cedar Falls & Whispering Cave (2.5 miles/150')
Cantwell Cliffs (1 mile/250')
Saltpetre Cave Nature Preserve
Begin your last day with a hike to picturesque Cedar Falls, the largest waterfall by volume and most consistent in the Hocking Hills Region. The 50' falls slides down a large chunk of sandstone, splits in the middle then meets back up before plunging its final ten feet into the emerald pool below. This is an incredibly popular spot so getting an early jump today is important if you want to avoid the hoards. Reaching the falls is easy. From the Cedar Falls parking area, descend the Cedar Falls Trail until reaching the Buckeye Trail where you'll hang a right. In a short quarter mile you'll arrive at the falls. Early settlers mistook the surrounding hemlock trees for cedars, so the name given to the falls is a bit off.
To reach Whispering Cave, one of the lesser visited but equally impressive recessed caves in the area, head back the way you came, staying right at the Cedar Falls Trail junction. Just over a half mile from Cedar Falls you'll encounter Whispering Falls, a far less impressive falls to the right of the trail. Continue on the blue blazed Buckeye Trail for roughly seven tenths of a mile before a split in the trail. This junction unsigned the last time we hiked it, but it's noticeable. Hanging a left here will lead you to a small bridge known as the Hemlock Suspension Bridge which you'll cross and ascend a fairly steep stretch of the trail that dead ends into cliffs. Make a left at the cliffs and in less than a quarter mile you'll reach Whispering Cave. Explore the massive cave and surrounding area, and then return the way you arrived.
A hidden gem and far less frequented spot in the area is Saltpetre Cave State Nature Preserve, located just ten minutes north of Hocking Hills State Park near Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve. The tiny 14 acre preserve features large recessed sandstone caves, one up to 148' deep with 8' ceilings and 125' opening. Another includes a natural arch with an opening of more than 100'. In all, there are four caves and can be reached by an established trail. The area is also home to the largest population of hemlocks anywhere in the state. A free permit is required to park and enter the preserve, and applying for one can be found on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website. Once your permit is approved, directions, preserve rules, and a map will be emailed to you. We asked if we could share the area map we received and the ODNR asked that we not since permits are required. There's a high likelihood that you'll have the place to yourself like we did. Bring a headlamp or flashlight no matter what time you make the trek.
Part of the charm of the region is its overnight stay options. From rustic A-frame cabins to luxurious resorts, the Hocking Hills Region is loaded with knock your socks off lodging accommodations. From experience, we can recommend the Somewhere To Be Treehouse Cabin, Hemlock Treehouse with Hocking Hills Treehouse Cabins, and the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls geodomes. All three are incredibly beautiful, but like most lodging options in the area you'll need to book well in advance and not be shy with your pocketbook. It's not uncommon for these to be booked a year in advance. Other notable stays include Canopy Ridge Cabins, Getaway Cabins, Idyll Reserve, At Boulders Edge Cabin & Tipi Retreat, and Hocking Hills State Park Lodge. An interesting stay can be found in the Hocking Hills Caboose, an authentic, fully retrofitted 1950s caboose. There are plenty of camping options as well, including the Hocking Hills State Park Campground, Logan/Hocking Hills KOA, and Riverside Campground..
While there's no shortage of places to stay in the area, dining options are surprisingly scarce. Capt Ron's Pirate Pizza is a solid option and conveniently located just north of Hocking Hills State Park. Kindred Spirits at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls is open to the public and another great option. Urban Grill is twenty minutes north of Hocking Hills State Park and has a solid burger and more. Grandma Fayes Grocery & Deli, located a mile from Hocking Hills State Park Campground, has deli meats, snacks, drinks and not so good pizza by call in order. Or, you could bring meals to cook in your fancy-schmancy cabin.
Wherever you decide to stay, cabin, caboose or campground, you're all but guaranteed to have a memorable time in Ohio's Hill Country. Have a blast and make memories!