Getaway: Unplug in Hocking Hills
The water-carved landscape of Ohio’s Appalachian hill country offers opportunities to enjoy the serenity of nature as well as outdoor thrills.
Ash Cave is the star attraction of Hocking Hills State Park
Courtesy of Explore Hocking Hills
It had been a hot day when a group of kayakers paddled gently at dusk on a lake in southern Ohio, surrounded by thick forest. As they dipped their hands into the softness of the water, they heard what they could not see: a pack of coyotes calling to each other as they passed along the shore. “It’s a very distinct sound,” says local guide Mimi Morrison of Touch the Earth Adventures. “It’s a wild feeling to hear it.”
Folks come to Hocking Hills—the Appalachian hill country that separates Ohio farmland from some of the world’s oldest mountains—to “enjoy the stillness of everything,” says Morrison. But the unique landscape is equally attuned to thrill-seekers. Since it is located just a little over an hour’s drive southeast of Columbus, you can be shimmying down a sandstone rock face or flying atop the forest canopy within four hours of wheels-up in Orlando. For many first-time visitors, Hocking Hills is Ohio’s biggest surprise.
Maple View Treehouse from Among the Trees Lodging is perched in a grove of sugar maples (COURTESY OF EXPLORE HOCKING HILLS)
Millions of years ago, two tectonic plates buckled and thrust skyward. “When those mountains lifted out of the ocean,” explains naturalist Pat Quackenbush of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, “the water and all of the material within it had to drain somewhere. We are at the very edge of that runoff, where the soft layers of sediment have been carved away by water, rounding out the edges, creating caves and pools and stone formations.”
The hot, humid hilltops are wrapped in a typical eastern hardwood forest and deep, cool gorges that contain Ice Age remnants of Canadian tree species. In fall, they come together in a spectacular show of color; it’s definitely worth splurging on an excursion with Hocking Hills Scenic Air Tours’ pilot Harry Sowers in his Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
When visiting, make the Hocking Hills Regional Welcome Center your first stop. With limited cell phone service in the park, you’ll need to know what to do and how to get there. Ask the experienced volunteers anything—they have plenty of insightful suggestions to enhance your visit. Other reasons to stop: restrooms, wifi and the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum.
The allure for most visitors is hiking, with 41 miles of groomed trails within Hocking Hills State Park and an additional 40 miles in the surrounding Hocking State Forest. Indeed, even short hikes are packed with so much picturesque punch that you hardly have to work for the payoff.
For instance, anyone can visit the park’s star attraction, Ash Cave. By day, the 700-foot wide recessed cave with a waterfall cascading off its canopy is reachable by a paved, wheelchair-accessible trail. The only way to see it at after dark, though, is with a park naturalist on a scheduled historic lantern tour (adults only) that is equal parts night hike, history lesson and ghostly tales. If you see a lady in white, pay attention. She’ll likely disappear into the woods.
It’s easy to hike on your own. A color-coded trail system lets you mix and match sections to fit your ability and aspirations. But if you prefer to explore with a local, Mimi Morrison is your go-to. She’s been guiding visitors by foot and kayak since 1994, but her attachment to the area goes much further back. “I feel like my DNA is in these hills,” she says, speaking of her family, who came to the area as Irish railroad builders.
Another resident with deep roots in these Appalachian hills is Brian Sinclair. Rather than moonlit paddles on the lake, he is selling moonshine—grain alcohol, in which the key ingredient is water from the limestone-rich soil and natural springs on his family’s farm. What makes his Hocking Hills Moonshine stand out? “Low heat, small batches in a pot still, made by real hillbillies,” he says. Stop by for a tour and tasting at his shop in Logan (one of only two significant towns in the area; the other is Nelsonville, hometown of actress Sarah Jessica Parker).
Whether you’ve passed the day taking in the fern-covered forest floor and downed logs shingled with lichens, or seen the forest only as a blur while ziplining with Hocking Hills Canopy Tours, there’s no better place to relax than at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, where a cozy private cottage is worth the trip alone.
Peel off your hiking boots, soak in the jet-tub, then chill on your private porch swing with a glass of wine, your best friend and maybe even your pooch (the Inn allows pets in some of their guest rooms, yurts, cottages, cabins and large lodges). Once you’ve settled in to these comfy and peaceful digs, you might ditch the next day’s adventure to recharge right where you are.
Night paddling with Touch the Earth Adventures is a powerful sensory experience (COURTESY OF TOUCH THE EARTH ADVENTURES)
Plan Your Trip
There are 500-plus unique lodgings in the area, including a treehouse that can be reached by crossing a swinging bridge. Find yours at explorehockinghills.com
No special skills are required for a rappelling tour at High Rock Adventures. You’ll graduate from a 35-foot descent to the 100-foot finale, Pride Rock. Keep your adrenaline buzz with an extreme zipline adventure at Hocking Hills Canopy Tours (both businesses will set you up for a full day of fun).
Columbus Washboard Co.
Yes, washboards are still a thing—they clean clothes and are used as musical instruments. Top bluegrass musicians converge in Logan each June for the Washboard Music Festival. Come see how they’re made in the Logan factory, established in 1895, by a team of skilled craftswomen. columbuswashboard.com
Ride the rails aboard a vintage train with Hocking Valley Scenic Railway. Fall itineraries through woodlands and company mining towns make the most of the region’s fall peepers and run Thursdays-Sundays in October. Or, time your trip for the first weekend of November to ride a 1920 coal-fired steam locomotive. hvsry.org
See the planets, stars and more at the new John Glenn Astronomy Park, built in Hocking Hills to take advantage of the rural location (no light pollution). It is always open and free to visit, but you must register in advance. Experience the night sky through the park’s large telescope, and with your own eyes. jgap.org