4 Seasons 4 Reasons
Hocking Hills State Park
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
It’s a wonder that Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio has not yet become a national park. It is arguably one of the top-3 attractions in the state, just behind Cedar Point and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it has much more to offer travelers than Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Cleveland, which is Ohio’s only national park and one of only a few in the eastern United States.
According to the National Park Service, Cuyahoga Valley receives about 2.2 million visitors each year, “making it one of the most- visited national parks in the United States.”
According to the most recent numbers from Hocking Hills, about two million people visit the state park each year. This makes it more popular by volume than Mount Rushmore (1.9 million visitors), Arches National Park (1.6 million visitors) and the Pearl Harbor National Memorial (1.7 million visitors), among other well-known national parks.
Many of these visitors come in the fall to see the world-class foliage (rangers tell stories of seeing license plates from all 50 states in October), to hike through the unique geological features that the park is known for and to stay at one of the countless cabins in the area, many that are located in the secluded wooded hills that mark the region, or next to small ponds and streams. Most cabins come equipped with hot tubs, fire pits and private hiking trails, not to mention unique designs. This includes tree house cottages, tiny houses, A-frame houses, at least one train caboose, among many other creative options.
Campgrounds in the area, including at the state park, offer their own special amenities and twists, such as swimming pools, miniature cabins, a designated star-gazing area, campsite delivery of pizza, fudge and snacks, outdoor movie theaters, guided hikes, family programs, and much more.
Old Man’s Cave Campground and the Logan/ Hocking Hills KOA are probably the best choices for tent and RV camping. However, primitive camping options in the area, without any amenities, are considered among the best in the state and should be considered as an option for backpackers.
With an influx of tourists, there are also a number of new attractions in the region, including day spas, ziplines, canoe liveries, go-karts, rock climbing, one of the largest rope courses in the world, laser tag, paintball courses, ATV adventures, wineries and more, plus new restaurants and ice cream shops. The area is fast becoming a place where families, couples and solo travelers can find top-notch recreation, adventure and relaxation.
While fall is the most popular time to visit Hocking Hills, it is a place that should be experienced each season of the year. And, since it’s located close by (an easy two hour drive from most of the Miami Valley), it is possible to do this with a series of day trips in the winter, spring, summer and fall. Each season leaves its own special mark on the landscape at Hocking Hills, making it seem like a different place each time. Plus, there are so many places to explore that it takes about four trips just to see it all.
And, as you’ll see, there are better times of the year to visit certain attractions.
Here are the four seasons—and many reasons—to visit Hocking Hills.
There are several good reasons to visit Hocking Hills in the spring, starting with the spring foliage that appears in late April and in May.
Often overlooked or overshadowed by the fall foliage in the region, spring foliage at Hocking Hills is equally as vibrant and mesmerizing. Instead of the orange, red and purple of fall, the trees of spring blossom with pink, white and lime green flowers and buds. The wildflower displays throughout the park aren’t bad either.
At places like Conkle’s Hollow Nature Preserve, which is separate from Hocking Hills State Park but equally popular, hikers taking the two-and-a-half-mile Rim Trail will find themselves surrounded by brilliant spring colors. A series of rocky overlooks along the trail provide panoramic views of the colorful hills and attract photographers, painters and nature lovers throughout the year.
Conkle’s Hollow, which consists of the Rim Trail as well as a shorter, flatter trail on the floor of the gorge, is considered one of the best hiking trails in Ohio.
If possible, it is one of the places in the Hocking Hills region that should be seen each season of the year, just to see how dramatically the landscape changes.
However, Conkle’s Hollow is a fairly intimidating hike any time of year. There are many times when there’s not much between you and a long drop to the ground below. In the winter, the wetness of the trail and rocks turn into ice, making this situation even more dangerous. However, it is possible to climb to the first cliff without confronting any dangerous spots and then heading back down after seeing the view. Also, the first view is actually one of the best any- way.
Another reason to visit in the spring is because it is safer and less crowded than any other time of year.
While it is probably not a good idea to visit the Rock House cave or Cantwell Cliffs in the winter, simply because it would be too slippery and dangerous to get around, these places are mostly safe to visit in the spring. And, even better, without the heavy green foliage of summer and fall, the views of the deep gorges at these locations are vast and wide. Plus, this is the time when wildlife is getting back to work and when there’s not a lot of tourists.
Late spring through early fall is the recreational peak at Hocking Hills. This is when the Hocking River is filled with canoeists and tubers, when the ziplines are most popular, and when camping, rock climbing, hiking and sightseeing are in full swing.
At R Adventure Park, a family owned business located near the state park, guests can zipline, maneuver through the “World’s Largest Family Rope Course,” brave the “Hocking Hills Slingshot Experience” and a 20-foot vertigo tunnel, play paintball on three different courses and rent ATVs and ride on local trails.
For a more relaxing experience, the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls (pictured below left in a provided image) is a favorite spot. Located in an 1840s log cabin in a woodland setting (very close to Cedar Falls), guests can enjoy a full range of massage and spa treatments, plus special weekend getaway packages for couples and friends. This includes the popular Slumber Party Spa Getaway.
Along with a bed and breakfast and spa, the inn also has cabins available to rent.
Although open year-round the John Glenn Astronomy Park (pictured bottom left in provided image) at Hocking Hills State Park is most popular in the summer. The park is not an official “dark sky” zone, but it’s about as good as you can get in Ohio. It is located near the Old Man’s Cave Campground, which itself features a large swimming pool, an amphitheater where movies and special programs are offered, trail access to the entire park, a great camp store and much more.
Beginner, novice and experienced rock climbers flock to the Hocking Climbing and Rappelling Area to scale the cliffs. Climbers can also enjoy guided tours on private land through Hocking Hills Ecotours High Rock Adventure (pictured below right in a provided image). Or, without gear, the hiking trails and rock formations at Cantwell Cliffs offer a fairly challenging hike, not to mention amazing scenery. This park is located furthest away from other attractions and is often overlooked by visitors.
However, it is actually one of the most impressive geological features in the region. The hiking trails here lead through giant rock outcroppings, beneath a massive ancient waterfall that once roared, but now only trickles, and through a dense forest. Compared to some of the other hiking trails in the park, this area is more rugged, yet more rewarding to trek.
Another off-the-beaten-path attraction at the state park is Rock House, a cave that is best visited in the summer and fall when the conditions are dry. The cave has multiple entrances and “windows” that overlook a deep gorge. Hiking trails lead from a parking lot at the top of the gorge to the Rock House and then down in the gorge below before climbing back up. A flashlight is very handy when exploring the cave.
The most popular trail in the park is probably the Grandma Gatewood Trail, which connects Old Man’s Cave to Cedar Falls. It’s mostly made up of a section of the Buckeye Trail. The half-way point of this 2-mile, one-way trek is Rose Lake, which is especially beautiful in the summer and fall and is popular for fishing.
While the trails and attractions have to be shared with more people, summer truly is a fun time to be in Hocking Hills.
If possible, the weekdays are the best time to visit Hocking Hills in the fall. On the weekends, car and foot traffic increases dramatically, and it’s sometimes hard to find a parking spot, or, for that matter, a place to view nature in solitude. Tuesdays are often the best day to visit. Start early and it’s even better. In fact, start with a morning hike at Conkle’s Hollow, where the sun will rise over a sea of orange, yellow and dark green treetops and where a series of rock ledges allow hikers to sit and watch this display unfold in the light. The same effect can be seen when hiking at dusk.
Possibly the second-most dramatic scenery in the fall at Hocking Hills is Ash Cave. The contrast between the brown, moss-covered rocks located behind the waterfall and the bright orange colors that surround it is striking. Although there are many new places to eat in the Hocking Hills area, no stop at the state park is complete without a visit to Grandma Faye’s Grocery Store.
Located between Old Man’s Cave and Conkle’s Hollow, this old-fashioned, family owned store combines groceries and supplies with souvenirs and a kitchen that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus ice cream and other snacks. Outdoor seating allows hikers and sightseers to grab a hot, affordable meal and sit back in the fresh country air before continuing the day’s adventure.
While fall in Hocking Hills is something everyone should see, there really is no bad time to visit. It’s just a beautiful and fun place to be with so much to see and do.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Hocking Hills hasn’t become a national park.
Although it’s certainly more popular than ever, it belongs to Ohio. It’s something we can be proud to call our own. It’s also an amazing place that is close enough to visit as often as you like.
Although not the most popular time to visit, winter is probably one of the best times to experience the wonders of the Hocking Hills region. This is because the same geological features that attract hikers in the summer and fall, such as waterfalls, caves, sandstone gorges and natural bridges, transform into frozen palaces of ice and snow in the winter, creating some of the most unusual and spectacular displays.
For instance, a winter hike through Old Man’s Cave— arguably the park’s most popular attraction—will pass giant piles of ice (see below) that collect on the ground when water melts and then falls from the cliffs above and freezes on the ground below. Some of the masses seem as large as elephants. The one at Ash Cave is even bigger, sometimes growing to the size of a small two-story house.
Look up at these same spots and there is often an equally giant icicle or frozen waterfall that has melted and frozen in place above the pile, slowly dripping and feeding the mass below.
At other locations along the Old Man’s Cave trail system, this same process creates long rows of frozen waterfalls. Hikers inside of the gorge can pass directly next to these stunning formations.
Of course, with water and ice, hiking this already slippery trail system in the winter can be dangerous. A good pair of hiking shoes and a walking stick is highly recommended. Knee pads probably aren’t a bad idea either. Or, as a safer alternative, there is a trail located above the gorge near the visitor’s center at Old Man’s Cave. It is kept clear of ice and snow and allows visitors to look down on the same formations that hikers pass through below. This includes a safe view of the Upper Falls at Old Man’s Cave, which is a must-see in the winter.
A safer, shorter hike in the winter, but with equally beautiful views, is at nearby Cedar Falls, which is one of many attractions in the area that are separated by short drives but that are all part of the state park, with a few exceptions.
Along with a cascading waterfall that freezes over in the winter, there are several interesting features at Cedar Falls that are worth seeing. The first is the turquoise waters that become so prevalent in the winter at this location, especially in the area near the waterfall. The second are the cliffs at Cedar Falls.
After ice, snow and thawing, some of these giant cliffs appear as if massive white candles had burned and melted down the sides from above. The area, filled with pine trees, is especially beautiful after a fresh snow. Another reason to visit and stay in Hocking Hills in the winter is because the price of the cabins goes down. It is possible to find a decent two bedroom cabin with a hot tub and beautiful views for about $100-$125 per night in the winter. The same cabin will go for $200-$225 in the peak of summer and fall. Options and prices run the gamut.
There are also some good sledding hills in the area. A day of sledding and hiking in the snow can be topped off with a dip in the hot tub and a relaxing fire at the cabin, followed by stargazing in the quiet, clear night.
While there may not be as many recreational opportunities to enjoy, a weekend getaway or day trip to Hocking Hills in the winter may turn out to be one of the most memorable visits you’ll ever have.