A Mysterious, Fun and Beautiful Spring Day Trip to Fort Hill Earthworks & Nature Preserve
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
When visiting Fort Hill Earthworks & Nature Preserve in Hillsboro in the spring, you have to wonder if the Native Americans who built this massive structure 2,000 years ago did so in part because of the brilliant wildflowers that carpet the sides of the hill in April and May.
Almost certainly not a fort, Fort Hill is a walled enclosure made of soil and stone (6 to 10 feet high) that sits on the top of a flat summit about 500 feet above Brush Creek in Highland County. It is over one-and-a-half miles in circumference and encloses more than 35 acres. It is completely open to the public and free to visit.
Unlike other hills around it, Fort Hill is isolated. Even though it was not a fort, it would have made an excellent one. Not only are the sides of the hill steep and hard to climb, but someone standing on the top can see in all directions.
Fort Hill was built by a highly advanced Native American population that we call the Hopewell. Archaeologists believe the enclosed area was used as a religious site or astronomical observatory (or a combination of both). It is similar to, but much smaller than another famous Hopewell enclosure called Fort Ancient in nearby Warren County.
The Hopewell are known for building massive earthworks in the Ohio Valley that track the movements of the sun, moon and stars. Therefore, it is very interesting to climb to the top of Fort Hill (considered one of the best hikes in Ohio, as well as a challenging one) and to discover that there are 33 “gateways” notched in the walled enclosure. Nobody knows for sure what the gateways were used for. Some say wooden towers once stood on top of them. Others say they were used to drain water from the top of the hill. A reflecting pond most likely created by the Hopewell and used in religious ceremonies is still found on top of the hill, pictured at right. Still others believe they point to celestial objects in the sky, such as stars, constellations, or places where the sun or moon sets or moves through the horizon around the hill.
Although there are trees surrounding and covering Fort Hill today, during Hopewell times, the entire summit would have been clear. Nobody lived on top of the hill, but a village in the valley below has been dated to Hopewell times.
On clear days, it is possible to see Serpent Mound in the distance, which may or may not have existed during Hopewell times. If it did, some archaeologists note that the outline of Fort Hill resembles a turtle, which would make it somewhat of an effigy mound, like Serpent Mound, which is shaped like a snake. This comparison, as well as whether or not there are any astronomical alignments at Fort Hill, is still up for debate.
All of these mysteries, along with the amazing and rare wildflower displays and hiking trails at Fort Hill, make the nature preserve an excellent place to visit in the spring. Although not as well-known as other earthworks in Ohio, Fort Hill is considered the best-preserved example of an ancient hilltop enclosure. Being allowed to walk around the perimeter of this amazing earthwork, often in the peaceful silence of nature, is a rare treat.
When visiting Fort Hill, another hiking trail (lesser-known to the public) leads to a Hopewell circular earthwork. It is located in a field on the south side of the park. A mowed trail accessible from the Buckeye Trail leads to the circle.
Along with visiting Fort Hill, which is located about 85 miles from most of the Miami Valley, the following day trip visits some lesser-known parts of Ohio. It also passes some very interesting attractions. This includes the World’s Largest Horseshoe Crab in Hillsboro (featured in a Twilight movie), six covered bridges in two counties (and one that connects two counties), several state parks, an Amish community and a number of small towns with interesting features such as wall murals, historic courthouses, and picturesque main streets lined with Victorian-era homes. The last town visited on the trip is Yellow Springs, which has more things to see and do than can be listed here.
One of the final stops can be ice cream at Young’s Jersey Dairy on U.S. 68. All-in-all, this is an inexpensive, yet adventurous way to spend a spring day, or two, in Ohio.
The World’s Largest Horseshoe Crab
Start your trip by driving I-75 south to U.S. 35 east. In Xenia, relax onto U.S. 68 south toward Wilmington. Just before reaching Wilmington, take OH-73 south to Hillsboro and enjoy the peaceful countryside. Also, pass through the quaint village of New Vienna. In Hillsboro, head east on OH-124. On the outskirts of town is the World’s Largest Horseshoe Crab.
Rocky Fork State Park & Fort Hill Earthworks & Nature Preserve
Continue east on OH-124 with a possible stop at Rocky Fork State Park. A 2,080-acre lake is the focal point the park. Hiking trails lead to a scenic gorge, dolomite caves and natural wetlands.
Back on OH-124, in the tiny village of Marshall (breakfast is available at the adorable Barnyard Café), continue east on OH-506. When you reach an even tinier village, Carmel, turn right (south) on OH-753. When this road dead-ends into OH-41, turn right (south) and then take the first right into Fort Hill Earthworks & Nature Preserve.
Amish Country, Paint Creek State Park & the Lynchburg Covered Bridge
From Fort Hill, return to OH-41 and head north toward U.S. 50. This part of OH-41 is surrounded by Amish farms and beautiful scenery.
Next, head west on U.S. 50 and pass by Paint Creek State Park, which has 12 miles of mountain biking trails, plus more than 3 miles of hiking trails, and then continue through Hillsboro.
When you reach the small village of Allensburg, head north of OH-135 until you reach Lynchburg. The Lynchburg Covered Bridge is located on Memory Lake at the Ruth Cramton Memorial Park. This is the only covered bridge in Ohio that connects two counties, which are Highland and Clinton.
ABOUT FORT HILL
Take the 2.2 mile Fort Trail (see trail map HERE) and climb to the top of this ancient Native American earthwork.
Fort Hill was built about 2,000 years ago by the Hopewell Indians. It is a walled enclosure made of soil and is more than 1 ½ miles in circumference. It encloses more than 35 acres of the summit.
Interestingly, there are 33 notches or gateways in the wall. Nobody knows what purpose they served.
Contrary to its name, the earthwork was not a fort, but a place of ceremony. When you're there, imagine that the entire top of the hill would have been barren of trees. A reflecting pond on top of the hill (part of which is still there) would have reflected the stars above during these ceremonies. Also, note how perfectly quiet it is on top of the hill.
Fort Hill may point to nearby Serpent Mound. If you know what you're looking at, it is possible to see the two Hopewell sites from the other. Before you go, read up on this historic site HERE.
Amish Country, Paint Creek State Park & the Lynchburg Covered Bridge
From Fort Hill, return to OH-41 and turn left (north) toward U.S. 50.
This part of OH-41 is surrounded by Amish farms and beautiful scenery.
Next, turn left (west) on U.S. 50 and pass by Paint Creek State Park, which has 12 miles of mountain biking trails, plus more than 3 miles of hiking trails, and then continue on U.S. 50 through Hillsboro.
When you reach the small village of Allensburg, turn right (north) of OH-135 to reach Lynchburg. The road will dead-end into High Street. Turn left and the Lynchburg Covered Bridge is right around the corner.
This is the only covered bridge in Ohio that connects two counties, which are Highland and Clinton.
Martinsville & Engle Mill Road Covered Bridges & A Beautiful Mural
From the Lynchburg Covered Bridge, return back the way you came and turn left (north) on OH-134 toward Martinsville.
From OH-134, turn left (west) on OH-28/Main Street and then right (north) on OH-104/Gibson Road. The Martinsville Covered Bridge is located just outside of town on Gibson Road.
After viewing the bridge, continue north on Gibson Road until it dead-ends into OH-350. Turn right (east) on OH-350 and then take the first left (north) OH-134, which will take you to U.S. 68 in Wilmington. Watch for barn quilts and paintings.
Turn right (north) on U.S. 68 and look for the huge mural painting in downtown Wilmington. The downtown offers many other attractions as well, including shopping and dining.
Continue north on U.S. 68 for about 9 miles, then turn left (east) on Spring Valley Paintersville Road. After about 3 miles, turn left (south) on Engle Mill Road. The Engle Mill Road Covered Bridge, built in 1877 is just around the curve. This is one of two covered bridges featured on this trip that was built by a company from Tippecanoe City, later named to Tipp City. Signage at both bridges provides detailed information about the structures and their link to Tipp City.
3 More Covered Bridges, Yellow Springs & Ice Cream
After visiting the bridge, return back to Spring Valley Paintersville Road and turn left (west). In less than 2 miles, turn right (north) on OH-380 to the center of downtown Xenia.
In downtown Xenia, take a right (east) on Main Street. In four blocks, turn left on OH-42. In less than 2 miles, turn left (north) on Stevenson Road. The road will lead directly to Stevenson Road Covered Bridge.
From the bridge, head southeast on Jones Road until it dead-ends into Wilberforce-Clifton Road. Turn left (north) and then immediately turn right on Charleton Mill Road. The Charleton Mill Covered Bridge is located shortly after.
From here, return to Wilberforce-Clifton Road and turn right (north). In 2 miles, turn left (north) on Grinnell Road. Just before reaching the Glen Helen Covered Bridge, look for the Grinnell Mill Bed & Breakfast, located next to the Little Miami River.
Finally, continue north on Grinnell Road until it dead-ends into Cory St. in downtown Yellow Springs. On your way out of town, stop for ice cream at Young’s Jersey Dairy.