Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
The sun is rising over U.S. Route 35 as my son, James, and I drive toward Tar Hollow State Forest in southern Ohio—home to the Logan Backpack Trail.
It’s 7:15 in the morning on Nov. 8, but it’s going to be 66 degrees and sunny during the day, and for whatever reason, the fall color is just now at peak. It seems perfect.
Over the next two days, we will hike the 22-mile trail through Tar Hollow State Forest and Tar Hollow State Park, often beneath a massive canopy of glowing orange and yellow trees. At night, we’ll camp next to an old fire tower in the middle of the eerily quiet forest (the third largest in Ohio), with only the stars and Moon to light the expansive darkness, or possibly a small campfire. There will be no other campers in the forest, nor any other people for miles in any direction.
As we get closer to the ranger station at Tar Hollow State Park, where hikers register to backcountry camp, my thoughts begin to wander from how great the weather and fall color is to the fact that, although I’ve dreamt about it for many years, and spent plenty of time planning for this trip, I’ve never actually hiked through a remote wilderness area. Any time I have backcountry camped, it has been next to a well-marked trail in a national or state park, where help is really never that far away.
The Logan Backpack Trail, on the other hand, passes through Tar Hollow State Forest, which consists of 16,446 acres of wilderness in three different counties. Part of it is used for Ohio’s logging industry and, in the past, was used to produce pine tar (hence, its name). From what I read, it is possible to get lost on the trail. This could happen because there are logging roads that intersect the trail, while sometimes the road is the trail. Other times, downed trees and active logging projects divert the course, yet the red paint (blazes) on the trees that mark the path doesn’t get updated. This means a couple of wrong moves can be dangerous, especially when everything in the forest begins to look the same.
Being responsible for my son, I also worry about his safety on the trail. What if one of us gets hurt? How will we get help? Did we bring enough water? How about the right supplies? Will we have enough daylight? It’s hunting season, how cautious should we be? And, maybe most all, am I up for 22 miles of rugged hiking that includes transversing 3,200 feet of elevation over six steep climbs?
The bottom line is, while my family and I want to do more of it, right now, we’re simply novice backpackers. We have a lot to learn.
This is why the Logan Backpack Trail and Tar Hollow State Forest is an ideal place to test the waters of the backcountry experience. And, as we’ll see, fall is probably the most ideal time to make the trek.
"Luxury" Backcountry Camping
Ohio is home to many long-distance backpacking trails. Including the most famous one—the Buckeye Trail, which is 1,444 miles long—some of the more notable trails include the 20-mile-long Zaleski State Forest Backpack Trail (now known as the Selinde Roosenburg Memorial Trail), the Lake Vesuvius Trail (18 miles long), and the Shawnee Backpacking Trail, which combines two trails to offer more than 40 miles of very rugged hiking and camping. Closer to home is the Twin Creek Backpack Trail in Germantown. At nearly 27 miles long, it is one of the top-rated backpacking trails in Ohio and considered somewhat difficult.
Each of these trails requires backpackers to carry everything they need for long distances (including tents, bedding, food and water), sometimes for one or two nights and two or three days at a time, and all while navigating overgrown trails and using very primitive campgrounds.
On the contrary, the Logan Backpack Trail is laid out in a figure-8 shape that consists of a north and south loop. In the middle of these two nearly equally distanced trails is the Fire Tower Backcountry Campground and trailhead parking lot.
While it does not have running water or flush toilets, the campground does have maintained latrines and a handful of designated campsites that contain picnic tables and fire rings. The campsites are located about 700 feet from the trailhead parking lot in a small clearing on a ridge in the woods. The sky is visible from each campsite.
All of this means that hikers can leave their heavy equipment in the car, or at the campsite, then hike one of the loop trails during the day and return to the campsite (and car) at night. The next day, the second loop can be hiked, followed by another night at the campsite, or heading on home. If worse comes to worse, the fire tower is only a short drive from the state park campground, where modern bathrooms, showers, electricity and other amenities await.
All of these extra perks is why the Logan Backpack Trail is known as a “civilized” or “luxurious” backcountry camping experience. You still get the long-distance hiking in the remote backcountry, and you get to primitive camp deep inside of a state forest with no one around, but you have access to your stuff, and you don’t have to carry as much on the trail! All you need is snacks, water, a map and a few other necessities. This makes the hiking, especially the uphill climbs, much more tolerable, especially for beginners like myself. It also allows you to enjoy the amazing scenery that unfolds around nearly every corner of the trail.
On with the Hike
It only takes us two hours to drive from Tipp City to the ranger station. After paying the backcountry camping fee ($4 for adults and $1 for children) and picking up a copy of the trail map, we drive through the state park and then up a winding road through the forest to the trailhead where there are five non-reserveable campsites to choose from. Today, we are the only ones here.
Although we have the option to set up our campsite now, we decide to leave it in the car and get right down to the hiking. We’ll set up camp at the end of the day.
At the ranger station we are told to be aware of hunters in the area, so I put on a bright orange shirt to hike in and we get started.
We choose to hike the south loop first. It is considered the easier of the two trails and includes an additional few miles by including the Dulen Loop. This loop, which is located four miles from the trailhead parking lot, has its own primitive campground. It is free to use and offers beginner backpackers a step-up (or down) from the fire tower experience we chose.
In total, with the Dulen Loop included, today’s hike will cover 11 miles. I have no idea how long it will take, but I do know that the days are getting shorter, so time is of the essence.
As we take our first steps, I note the time at 9:25 in the morning. I also notice that I still have a cell phone signal. I didn’t expect to use my phone for anything other than a camera, but it feels good knowing that, if something happens, it works.
(Note: It doesn’t work on the entire trail, but if you’re on the top of a hill, you’ll most likely have reception from nearby Chillicothe).
The ABCs of the Trail
As stated, the Logan Backpack Trail is marked by circular and sometimes rectangular red blazes that have been painted on the sides of trees and stumps along the path. Additionally, the trail is subdivided into one- and sometimes nearly two-mile-long segments, with each segment marked with a small sign and a designated letter of the alphabet marked “A” through “Z” (however, the letter “P” is missing). These little signs contain a map of the entire trail, show where you are at the moment, and the location of other connecting trails in the area, including the nearby and sometimes adjoining Buckeye Trail. The signs are very helpful! We choose to hike counterclockwise from the fire tower, so our first segment will be from M to N.
At 10:04 in the morning, we’re already one mile into the trail, and there have been no problems. In fact, “M to N” is pretty much a straight downhill trek, with the only concern being moving too fast down the very steep grade. The blazes are well-marked.
At 10:50 in the morning, we reach “O” and are about 2 ½ miles into the trail. This means we are covering one mile about every half-hour or so. Besides some areas where logging has taken place and a few power lines in the way, the scenery is stunning.
“O” ends at the Clark Hollow Road. We sit in the middle of the gravel road and eat a big snack, never seeing another human being in sight.
It is while hiking from “O to Q” that we experience the first of six major climbs on the trail system. In this case, we climb over 400 feet from the creek near the road, all the way to the top of the nearest set of hills. It is a tough, almost straight-uphill climb, but the views from the top are worth it.
After a water break, we continue on and begin to notice several peculiar things about the Logan Backpack Trail. For starters, although the forest is renowned for its whitetail deer and wild turkey hunting, there are hardly any animals in sight, just a few chipmunks and squirrels, and very few birds. Also, there are no rocks or rock outcrops anywhere. It’s just trees and dirt. I am not complaining because the foliage is beautiful and the stillness and silence of the forest is refreshing.
We are grateful to be taking this hike during the late fall. Much of the underbrush of the forest is gone and the ground is covered with a thick blanket of fresh fallen leaves. The crunching sound beneath our feet becomes hypnotic at times.
A lack of underbrush makes it easier to see through the forest and to move through overgrown parts of the trail, or around fallen trees (something you encounter quite often). There are also very few insects to worry about, let alone heat or humidity. It has not rained much, so the trail is solid. This all makes for a pretty pleasant hiking experience. I can imagine that the heat, insects and overgrowth in the summer, or the wetness of spring, could make the trail less enjoyable or even intolerable, and that, right now, we are here at what is likely the perfect time.
(Note: I read that some of the best morel mushroom hunting in Ohio is inside of the state forest in April and May.)
We reach “Q” and the Dulen Loop extension just before noon. We’re still making excellent time. We’re both hungry, but we’ll wait to eat when we reach Camp Dulen (pictured below), which is one mile away. I think the main reason I want to hike the extension is to see what the backcountry campground looks like, in case we decide to use it in the future.
We reach the campground and are surprised to find that it has a working water spout and a covered latrine. It’s located in a large grassy area with several picnic tables and fire rings, but no one is around. It’s surrounded by colorful rolling hills and looks like a great place to camp. It certainly makes a relaxing place to stop and rest while hiking the south loop.
We finish our lunch and begin hiking from “S to R” (and back toward the Logan Backpack Trail) when we realize we’re lost. The segment is only one-mile long, but the course is not well-marked. At a creek, where some large trees had fallen across the trail, we must have gone the wrong way or got turned around. We backtrack and, working together, climb nearly straight uphill to get back to the Logan Backpack Trail. It is 1:10 in the afternoon.
We are rewarded for our steep climb when “R to T” turns out to follow the tops of some very colorful hills, mostly on flat terrain—a welcome sight. The trail here is a mix of gravel roads crossed by a couple of logging roads. It’s still so quiet and still very beautiful.
We arrive at “T” at 1:46 in the afternoon. I’m surprised to see that, in the deeper parts of the forest, it’s already getting dark! No worries, though. We only have three segments left—or about 4 ½ miles to go.
My enthusiasm crumbles as I realize we’re lost again, this time because an equestrian trail marked with red/pink blazes (for some terrible reason) has confused us. We have gone more than a half-mile off the Logan Backpack Trail and have to backtrack using a section of the Buckeye Trail. At one point, we’re not even on trails anymore. Luckily, James, who’s getting good at following the blazes and recognizing landmarks in the woods, gets us back on course. I’m grateful to have him here.
By the time we reach “U” and begin our hike to “V,” it is 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
With the daylight fading fast, we pick up our pace and climb out of the forest, finally reaching “K” and then, just a short hike up a large hill, we arrive back at our car and the campsite. It’s 4:09 in the afternoon and we have to move fast to set up our campsite, start a fire and eat dinner by the light of day. Maybe we should have set up our tent before we left this morning!
According to my phone, we hiked 12.3 miles today.
We cook and eat a hot meal while watching the orange glow of the sunset fade around us. Afterwards, we take our shoes off, stretch out, and watch the glowing orange coals in the fire slowly fade to black. Exhausted, a few hours later we head inside the tent for what will be one of the quietest nights in my life. Not a sound is heard! Even better, the temperature doesn’t really drop much. It’s going to be a good night’s sleep.
The North Loop and Lessons Learned
We wake up to the sun rising on the other side of our tent and the start of another unusually warm, blue sky day. I am not as sore as I thought I might be, but I’m feeling it.
We cook and eat a hot breakfast, pack our backpacks for the hike, and take our camping gear back to the car. At 8:20 in the morning, we’re hiking from “M to A” on the north loop, which is considered the more difficult loop, largely due to the challenging terrain and hefty climbs. Today’s trek will cover less than 10 miles, unless we get lost again. But I don’t think we will.
We learned a lot yesterday. We learned to follow blazes correctly and to work as a team to maneuver through challenging parts of the trail. We learned that it is more difficult to hike downhill than it is to go up, and to keep a steady pace. We learned to be mindful of the time and to leave room for error. Most of all, we learned that backcountry hiking is very fun and challenging and something we definitely want to do more of.
Even though the north loop is considered more difficult, the experience of the first day has somehow made today easier and even more enjoyable. As we walk through the morning dew and sunlight, things are no longer mysterious. They’re even starting to become familiar. Our minds know to look for and follow the red blazes, almost instinctively now. Our feet know how to stay above obstacles, especially roots. It’s all becoming second nature.
“M to A” turns out to be one of our favorite sections of the trail (it’s also part of the Buckeye Trail), and we finally see at least one small boulder on the ground. Before hiking a very rugged (and what many people consider the most beautiful) section of the state forest, the north loop passes directly through the state park and its campground. This is one of my favorite parts of the trail.
In the summer, the campground is packed with families enjoying campfires, cookouts, fishing and swimming. Today, though, it’s like a ghost town. This makes it kind of eerie as we pass Pine Lake, where the colorful trees reflect in the still water, but the swimming beach is completely empty. At 8:53 in the morning, we reach the park’s dam and spillway, a popular fishing spot that, likewise, is empty this morning. We finally see a few campers in the furthest corner of the campground, just before we head back into the forest and away from civilization. One of them waves to us as we unknowingly begin climbing one of several brutal hills on today’s hike.
The north loop is certainly more challenging, but it’s also more picturesque. We pass through lush ravines, cross long hilltops and climb others. We briefly go off course several times, but working as a team manage to reach “J” and the final segment of our trip at 12:25 in the afternoon.
After lunch, it is during this last 2 miles of the trip that we finally pass two other hikers, which were the only other hikers we saw the entire time. We speak with them briefly and then carry on, excited to make it back to the finish line.
We reach our car at around 3 in the afternoon, ending what we both agree has been one of the best experiences of our lives. The scenery was beautiful, the adventure and challenges were real and the company was great. In short, it lived up to all expectations, and the “luxuries” were appreciated.
Thanks to the Logan Backpack Trail, James and I are a little wiser and more confident about backcountry camping and ready to move on to bigger, more-involved hiking trips. However, I know that, whatever adventures lie ahead, our experience on the Logan Backpack Trail will probably always remain closest to my heart.
Click HERE for the official map to the trail.