Today we are making our escape; we are trading in stop lights, strip malls and traffic for the peace and tranquility of nature, our destination, Hocking Hills. Located about an hour southeast of Columbus Ohio, we are taking the most direct route, there will be plenty of scenic roads to travel once we reach Hocking County. Just outside of Columbus we grab a quick lunch, we head south on 33, at the town of Rockbridge we make our right onto SR374, now the fun begins! Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Hocking Hills includes 9000 acres of State Forest land. We will spend the next several hours on roads that twist and turn, rise and fall, we’ll view sandstone cliffs, hiking trails, recess caves, deep gorges and waterfalls, yes, this is Ohio.
Our first stop is Cantwell Cliffs, this gigantic horseshoe cliff features a 150 ft sheer drop to the valley floor, centuries of erosion have created deep valley’s, steep cliffs and an incredible rock shelter. Here the sandstone varies in color from a pale terracotta to a dark reddish-brown, there are patches of turquoise and white. We hike the trail that leads us into the shelter itself, surfaces are damp and slippery. A system of pathways has been created throughout the area, steps are carved into the rock itself, at times man has had to intervene with concrete or wood. It is Friday, so there are few visitors, we have the area to ourselves, we relish the tranquility. We look around in awe, a photo cannot do justice to all that we see, but Kris will do his best to capture the beauty. We are back on SR374, the road snakes through picturesque countryside, we follow the signs to Rock House. Each feature includes its own parking lot, signs make it easy to travel from one destination to the next.
Situated midway up a 150 ft cliff of blackhand sandstone Rock House is the only true cave in the park. We begin our trek by descending a long rock stairway, the surrounding area lush and jungly, we encounter other hikers, this is a popular site. We watch the others and follow their lead to the entrance of the cave; hollowed out by water, the main corridor is 200 ft long, some points are 20 to 30 ft wide. It is a difficult contrast at first, going from bright sunshine to near darkness, I hear a bat fly overhead, doves are roosting nearby. As our eyes adjust we are able to explore the area freely, it is amazing! The floor is worn smooth, probably from centuries of human feet crossing the surface, walls are multi-hued and rough with cubby hole like spaces. I turn my back against the wall and look out what resembles a Gothic arched window, there are actually 7 of them separated by great sandstone columns. Kris follows the length of the corridor to a rock that juts out from the cave, he stands near the edge taking in the view; the ground below is dense with trees and vegetation, the sky a perfect powder blue.
We zig and zag on SR374 until we reach Conkle’s Hollow, we follow the trail through this rugged rocky gorge said to be one of the deepest in Ohio. Everything here is so green! The valley floor is rich with Hemlock and Birch, ferns are prolific, I almost feel as if I have stumbled into some prehistoric land. The ravine is a half mile long, vertical cliffs rise skyward, it is tranquil and peaceful. There is a true sense of wilderness throughout the Hocking Hills area, we meander the roads rarely seeing another car, stop signs are few and far between. We arrive at Old Man’s Cave, probably the most popular attraction, a number of cars fill the parking lot. We amble along the trail, rocks play host to patches of moss in a variety of shades, tree roots hug layers of blackhand sandstone. Water cascades gently over worn stone to a swirling pool below, small concrete platforms look as if they are floating and act as steps to a bridge. We follow trails and overpasses straddling the creek, bridges span three levels of falls. Areas of rock appear as if they have been submerged for centuries, holes are worn through; formations remind me of underwater castles. We ascend the stairway to the cave itself, a wall made of individual rocks hugs the right side of the stairs; the site is popular for picture-taking. The trail leads us up, down and all around, when we come to the end we decide to find a place to have dinner.
Here and there we have passed old-fashioned general stores, camp grounds and tiny villages. We are driving in the direction of the next attraction when we see a quaint little store, folks linger on the front porch drinking cold bottles of water, our thirst beckons us to stop. I wait in the car as Kris runs in for water, we are parked facing what appears to be a tiny log cabin, to the left of the screen door a sign simply reads “restaurant”. Kris returns with 2 bottles of ice-cold water and asks if I’m hungry, a question that rarely needs to be asked; the cashier recommended he check out the adjacent restaurant, so he does. When he returns to the car he says “we’re eating here”, so I grab my purse and follow him inside. This is the restaurant at the Inn at Cedar Falls, housed in two log cabins built in the 1840’s words like quaint, charming and rustic come to mind, I mean, the place is fantastic! In a million years I never would have expected to find such a place out in the middle of nowhere. We arrive at the perfect time, there is a table available out on the patio, luck is definitely on our side. We have a seat under a large green umbrella, gardens behind us, the cabin to the front, whimsical planters are made from repurposed antiques. Mind you it is a hot June day, we left Detroit this morning and have been roaming through the wilds for the last several hours, we have to be quite a sight! Surrounding patrons are well dressed, their hair is combed, I am doubtful their shoes are caked with mud as ours are, still we greeted warmly by our waitress, nobody seems to mind that we are disheveled. We order quickly, we are famished.
As we wait for our dinner we take a look inside the restaurant; the walls are the original log and concrete; knotty pine ceilings, hardwood floors make the tiny spaces cozy. Plaid upholstery covers dining room chairs, photos of Hocking Hills in all four seasons adorn the walls, the food smells delicious. We are sharing the house salad of the day and the smoked mozzarella, red pepper ravioli, both are absolutely wonderful. We finish our meal in record time, though we would love to linger, we have more to see before it gets dark.
Our next stop is Cedar Falls, this is the greatest volume waterfall in Hocking Hills and is reached by traversing 100 steps to the bottom of the gorge. We reach the bottom, delighting in the sheer rush of water as Queer Creek gushes over the blackhand sandstone, Hemlocks are plentiful. Visitors wade through the shallow water to a sandbar, getting a closer look at the falls. Ash Cave awaits us, up the stairs we go……
I read that Ash Cave is the largest recess cave in the state of Ohio, measuring 700 ft end to end and 100 ft deep from the rear cave wall to the front edge, that’s pretty impressive. We ramble along the paved path (worth noting, the path to Ash Cave is wheelchair accessible), narrow, steep gorge walls on each side of us. We follow along, rounding a bend the space opens up, a tributary of Queer Creek spills over the rim of the cave to a pool below, the sound soft and soothing. Hemlock and Beech trees are rampant, they are tall and spindly. The cave is horseshoe-shaped, allowing tourists to duck behind the waterfall, there is no shortage of photo ops here. Dusk begins to fall just as we finish exploring, we are exhausted!
We take the quickest route to Columbus, we are staying at the Short North Bed and Breakfast. When we arrive we are greeted by Trelene, she shows us to our room and asks us what time we’d like breakfast. After we are situated we head back downstairs for a nice glass of wine to unwind from our active day. Time to get some sleep, we have a lot to do tomorrow!