I may not like to camp and believe me, that trend is never going to start. However, I sure do like “experiencing nature” as an activity. As I’ve mentioned in the past, more and more of my travels (both domestically and internationally) have included more nature/outdoor themed pursuits, and less city/museum ones (I still love both areas equally). So even though the purpose of my visit to southeastern Ohio last month was to stay at the charming and unique Glenlaurel Inn (for my complete write up, click here), it was also to visit Hocking Hills State Park, the most famous and one of the largest found in the Buckeye state.
What makes Hocking Hills State Park so spectacular is undoubtedly its offerings as it’s home to everything from rich bio-diversity, cliffs, waterfalls, and deep gorges. Honestly, to me these are not features I would necessarily equate with a midwestern state (I would think more Pacific Northwest). And yet, sometimes your incorrect assumptions when proven wrong tend to reward you with the best surprises. And that’s exactly how I’d describe Hocking Hills.
I won’t give you too much of a geological history of the park, but basically more than 300 million years ago (can you fathom that? I can’t even imagine what life was like 300 years ago), the area was level ground and covered by ocean, as in the Atlantic Ocean. If you know your geography (I sure hope you do), you’ll know that Ohio isn’t really anywhere near the Atlantic. Over millions of years in time the ocean waters slowly receded. The geological formations now present at the park are the result of a melting glacier which created all those rivers, gorges, caves, and waterfalls. How cool is that?
Hocking Hills State Park has five separate sections but if your time is limited or you’re like me and are anxious to return to your pretty amazing accommodations, then I’d recommend sticking with two. Trust me when I say you won’t be disappointed.
Old Man’s Cave
The original man cave, literally. Back in the 1800s a presumably cantankerous old man (I’m going to assume he was if he abandoned normal life to go live alone in a cave and essentially become a hermit), took up residence in a large recess cave in southern Ohio. Today we know this as Old Man’s Cave which is the most popular and well known of Hocking Hills State Park’s five sections. It’s said that he and a brother are buried either in the cave or near it (he was killed by an accidental blast from his own gun). I can only wonder what the gentleman thinks about his once secluded and private cave being explored by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The Old Man’s Cave is divided into five principal sections-Upper Falls, Upper Gorge, Middle Falls, Lower Falls, and Lower Gorge (pretty easy to remember, no?). If you decide to walk the full distance of the gorge it’s only 1/2 mile long. However, to get down into said gorge, there are steps (there are four different sets of stairs that lead to the gorge), so keep this in mind if you have strollers or are traveling with anyone with mobility issues. Once down in the gorge, it’s relatively flat and easy going although you’ll still want to watch your footing.
Two things came to mind as we traversed the gorge. First, the topography made me think of the film Last of the Mohicans. I could definitely imagine the characters Hawkeye, Cora, and Chingachgook traversing its meandering paths. I could also see how decades ago, the gorge would have served as the perfect hideout, whether from society as in the case of the Old Man or back when Native Americans inhabited the area and wanted to protect themselves against the newly arrived white settlers. The other was that the plethora of waterfalls really brought back wonderful memories of Costa Rica for me. Especially since at the most famous one I visited there (La Catarata in the village of La Fortuna) you also reached by going down steps.
Things to know about visiting Old Man’s Cave-
The earlier you arrive the better in terms of crowds. However, even if you arrive in the late morning/early afternoon hours, there’s still ample paved parking.
On-site there’s a visitor’s center, restrooms (not the luxurious variety but still better than the pit kind), and a snack bar.
Dogs are allowed provided they’re on a leash
There are ample picnic tables so make a special and memorable meal there!
As mentioned above, there are a ton of waterfalls at Hocking Hills State Park. However, it’s Cedar Falls which is the victor in terms of waterfall volume. Queer Creek (a name from another time, obviously) gushes over the face of the Blackhand sandstone and you’re visually reminded of the sheer power of water. In fact, in the mid 1800s, a grist mill was built above the falls to make use of the water power for grinding grain.
If you’re a lover of cedar trees, alas, you won’t find them here. Settlers who first came to the area mistook the HEMLOCK trees for cedars and the name stuck. Still, the hemlock trees are equally gorgeous. There’s not much hiking opportunity right at Cedar Falls, however; it’s about a 2.2 mile hike to Old Man Cave and a 2.3 mile hike to Ash Cave, one of the other five sections in the park.
It’s a nice area to just sit and relax or frolic in the water as a ton of people were doing.
Things to know about visiting Cedar Falls
There are three parking areas for Cedar Falls. If you’re coming from Old Man’s Cave and traveling on State Route 374 you’ll probably come across one of the smaller ones. Don’t worry if it’s all filled up, keep driving and you’ll see signage for the other ones.
As with Old Man’s Cave, getting to the falls is not stroller or wheel-chair friendly so plan accordingly in your group.
About a 10 minute drive from the falls is a collection of three locally owned stores-a Christmas shop, a wind chimes shop (yes, a shop of wind chimes!), and a ridiculously awesome-smelling candle shop. Make plans to go in all three and if you buy a candle, it will be the hardest selection process ever since there are so many types.
Hocking Hills State Park is undoubtedly one of the prettiest areas you’ll ever visit and the fact that it’s free, well, that makes visiting all the sweeter and richer.