“Southeast Ohio is the most geologically and biologically rich corner of the state,” says Paul Knoop.
For 35 years, Knoop worked in Dayton for the National Audubon Society. But his fondness for the topography and biological diversity of Southeast Ohio caused him to relocate to Hocking County upon retirement. One of his favorite pastimes is hiking the scenic trails that wind through the various parks, preserves and forests.
One of the most visually compelling geological features in Southeast Ohio, notes Knoop, is the blackhand sandstone, a substance found nowhere else in the state. A vestige from the days when the area was covered by an inland sea, this rock forms the basis of soaring cliffs, recessed valleys, and slender tunnels. Studded with rusting iron oxide, the sandstone twinkles with beautiful colors.
For lovers of flora and fauna, there are few better places to hike than Southeast Ohio. Hocking County itself is roughly 80-percent forested, and more than 7,000 individual species of plant and animal have been identified, adds Knoop.
“It’s just a darn peaceful, wonderful place to visit,” he says.
Hocking Hills State Park is a collection of five distinct areas: Old Man’s Cave, Cantwell Cliffs, Rock House, Cedar Falls, and Ash Cave. These parks are not physically connected to one another.
Ash Cave, says Knoop, is one of the most accessible trails for beginners. In fact, the entire trail is handicapped accessible. But don’t let the ease of entry prevent you from visiting as the park is as scenic as they come.
In addition to the cave itself, which is the largest of its kind in Ohio, the area features a towering waterfall, steep sandstone cliffs, and ancient trees. The level hike takes visitors a third of a mile in and back, with the entire walk taking less than an hour.
Old Man’s Cave, notes, Knoop, is easily the most heavily trafficked of the Hocking Hills parks. That may be because the site boasts some of the finest rock formations and cliffs in the region. The trail begins at the upper falls, with hikers following a stream down to the lower falls. The path takes them over bridges, through carved-stone tunnels, and through dense forest. The return trail, cautions Knoop, consists of a pretty severe climb up wooden and rock stairs.
Knoop’s personal favorite spot for hiking with a view is Conkle’s Hollow, a state nature preserve. Hikers can opt to take the scenic gorge trail or the towering rim trail, which takes trekkers along the ridge of the state’s highest vertical sandstone cliff — 210 feet above the valley floor.
Best for Flora and Fauna
Clear Creek Metro Park contains over 5,000 acres of forests, valleys and open fields, making it home to countless plant and animal species. In addition to the towering hardwoods, the park is alive with wildflowers, ferns and the state wildflower white trillium. Keen observers can spot salamanders, beavers, warblers, wild turkeys and the pileated woodpecker, the largest of the genus. Whether or not one spots a striking barred owl, they will likely hear it. Listen for the characteristic eight-hoot call day or night, says Knoop.
Because of its size — a patchwork of plots that covers over a quarter million acres — Wayne takes a good bit of preparation and familiarity to master, says Knoop. He strongly recommends that hikers stop first at the park’s main office (13700 US 33, Nelsonville) to pick up a hiking map.
What to Wear, What to Bring
“Good footwear is essential,” says Knoop. Many of the trails are damp even on dry days. So wear shoes that are waterproof and comfortable.
Many of the deep gorges are often damp, shady and cool despite temperatures elsewhere. Dress accordingly.
Birders, of course, should bring a pair of binoculars. But Knoop also carries with him a magnifying lens for a close-up inspection of mosses, lichens and small flowers. “You see a completely different world.”
Likewise, a camera is essential for recording memories and capturing wildlife.
A walking stick is good idea for older hikers, Knoop suggests. They act like a third leg, aiding stability, footing and balance.
What Not to Do
- Do not carve or write on rocks or any other natural features. The practice is illegal and carries with it severe penalties.
- Do not pick, pull or break off anything that is living. That includes wildflowers.
- Do not wander off marked trails, which results in trampled vegetation and creates erosion.
- Do not climb rocks, trees, or cliffs.
For more info, visit the Southeast Region of Ohio.