Crisp Air and Crimson Leaves: A Journey Through Hocking Hills
In my recent travels to the scenic southeastern corner of Ohio, I was spellbound by the vibrant tapestry of autumn hues. Despite a summer and early fall largely devoid of rain, the landscape was awash with mesmerizing colors.
Golden yellows adorned the black walnuts, while sycamores burst forth in fiery oranges and yellows. Hickories donned shades of golden brown, and sweetgums showcased a symphony of purples and radiant reds. The red maples, touched by a chilly breeze, seemed to turn a brilliant shade of red almost overnight.
Departing early from our cozy campsite at Lake Alma State Park, we aimed to get a jumpstart on the crowds converging upon Hocking Hills to the north. Even from this charming state park near Wellston, the vibrant hues along Little Raccoon Creek were a sight to behold. From a bird’s-eye view, one can discern the faint remnants of the former Wellston & Jackson Belt Railway/Hocking Valley Railway alignment.
Journeying north, the drive was nothing short of picturesque. Ohio Route 93 unfurls a tapestry of family farms and intimate woodlands, including the nostalgic sight of the Teeters family farm in Vinton County. Though the farmhouse might have seen its last days as a residence, the pastoral charm endures. I spotted a farmer shepherding his cattle across the green fields.
I then came to the Hocking Hills—a region of unmatched natural beauty. Central to this area is the renowned Hocking Hills State Park, complemented by myriad nature preserves and the expansive Hocking State Forest. The landscapes of Hocking Hills whisper tales from over 350 years past, recalling an era when Ohio rested beneath a shallow sea. Modern-day explorers can marvel at the remnants of this ancient epoch, manifested in the awe-inspiring topography sculpted from Blackhand sandstone and shale. Over eons, nature’s hand has crafted this land into a masterpiece of caves, towering cliffs, protective rock formations, and elegant waterfalls—though this year, the cascades are but a whisper due to the lack of rain.
Following a night of consistent rainfall, I eagerly anticipated the gentle flow of Hocking Hill’s waterfalls. Though the area had endured a prolonged dry spell in recent months, I ventured to Ash Cave, home to the stunning 100-foot waterfall that cascades from the East Fork of Queer Creek. To my surprise, the creek lay parched. Yet, the blend of autumnal hues and ethereal fog, set against a backdrop of majestic hemlocks and robust hardwoods, painted a picture of tranquil beauty within the cavernous embrace of Ash Cave.
Nestled close to Ash Cave stands the historic Ash Cave Fire Tower. Erected in 1934 within the Hocking State Forest, this 80-foot monument boasts a 7×7-foot metal cab from the Aermotor Company.
The genesis of Ohio’s commitment to forestry can be traced back to 1885 when the Ohio General Assembly established the State Forestry Bureau. With an allocation of $10,000, two lush forested areas in the state’s southern region were procured: Waterloo State Forest in Athens County and Dean State Forest in Lawrence County.
The hills near Portsmouth bear a history of logging follies and subsequent fires. In response to this devastation, 1922 saw the inception of Shawnee State Forest, and by 1924, its first fire tower proudly stood on Copperhead Hill. In a parallel effort, the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station began its mission in Hocking County in 1924, aiming to underscore the essence of forestry. However, the lands they encountered were marred by extensive logging, leaving behind weakened forest remnants.
Ohio saw a total of 39 fire towers rise. To enhance fire detection, the Division of Forestry collaborated with Civil Air Patrol aircraft. By 1969, the state marked the construction of its final fire tower and celebrated the completion of three fire stations. Yet, with evolving land practices and technological leaps in aerial fire detection, the era of fire towers waned, culminating with the Green Ridge Tower in Pike State Forest being the last to host a watchman.
Hovering my drone above the trees to capture the essence of the tower amidst the kaleidoscope of foliage, it struck me: the tower, once a sentinel above the trees, was now nearly eclipsed by the thriving forest around it.
Later, I ventured to Cantwell Cliffs, a hidden gem within Hocking Hills State Park and arguably its most underrated locale. Here, adventurers are greeted by expansive rock shelters, majestic cliffs, and a tranquil valley waiting to be discovered. For those yearning for sweeping vistas, the Rim Trail promises unparalleled panoramas. Alternatively, the Valley Trail offers enchanting views, looking up towards the towering cliff faces and along the serene creek valley.
My journey led me to Rock House, a photographic first for me and a unique landmark in Hocking Hills State Park. Remarkably, it’s the park’s only true cave, sculpted over countless millennia as water tirelessly wore away at the Black Hand Sandstone.
The cave is a marvel of nature, stretching up to 25 feet high, extending 200 feet in length, and varying in width from 20 to 30 feet. Its beauty is further accentuated by seven window-like apertures that let in dappled sunlight, while sturdy sandstone pillars stand sentinel, supporting the roof overhead.
During my exploration, my aim was to showcase this geological masterpiece juxtaposed against the backdrop of autumn’s vibrant palette visible through the cave’s windows. Armed with Godox panel lights, adjustable to specific hues, and anchored by a sturdy tripod, I traversed the lengths and breadths of Rock House. Hours melted away as I meticulously set up lighting and captured a myriad of shots, which I later blended to create composite images.
Whispering Cave was the next destination on my journey, a magnificent alcove etched into a cliff of Blackhand sandstone, located in the vicinity of the newly constructed lodge at Hocking Hills State Park. This splendid cave is characterized by its striking seasonal waterfall, which gracefully plunges down from a height of 105 feet.
On the outskirts of the Hocking Hills region, between Logan and Rockbridge, is Rockbridge Natural Bridge. This hidden treasure boasts Ohio’s grandest natural arch, an impressive formation stretching over 100 feet and varying in width between 10 to 20 feet, gracefully arching 50 feet above a scenic ravine.
Among Ohio’s vast landscapes, only twelve natural bridges can be found, with most peppered amid the prominent sandstone formations of its south-central and eastern terrains.
The origins of the Rockbridge Natural Bridge are steeped in ancient history, tracing back to an era when much of Ohio lay beneath a tepid inland sea. As rivers wound their way into this vast water body, they deposited sands that, over millennia, compacted and transformed into the Black Hand sandstone. The emergence of the Appalachian Mountains caused the sea to recede, exposing this hardy rock to nature’s whims. Elements like wind, rain, and groundwater, over eons, meticulously carved out a hollow in the softer part of the Mississippian Black Hand sandstone. Parallelly, erosion carved its path along a joint plane behind the cliff, expanding the crevice over time, ultimately sculpting the delicate rock arch we marvel at today. The Rockbridge Natural Bridge remains a tribute to time and weather.
Capping off a memorable journey through the Hocking Hills region, a sight along Ohio Route 93 caught my attention—an Ohio Bicentennial Barn, a storied emblem of the state’s agricultural heritage.
In anticipation of Ohio’s 2003 bicentennial, the state embarked on a novel initiative—the Ohio Bicentennial Barn Project—commencing in 1997. The ambitious goal: to emblazon one historic barn in each of the state’s 88 counties with the Ohio Bicentennial logo.
Scott Hagan, a talented artist hailing from Belmont County, was chosen for this grand task. Over half a decade, he journeyed through Ohio’s picturesque landscapes, meticulously hand-painting barns with the emblematic logo and the dates “1803-2003”, capturing two centuries of the state’s legacy.
Selected for their age and architectural resonance, these barns epitomize Ohio’s agricultural prowess. Beyond mere commemoration, the project underscored the state’s commitment to honoring its agrarian history and the pivotal role of conserving vintage structures.
Quickly gaining iconic status, these painted barns became more than symbols of a bicentennial celebration. They are timeless reminders of Ohio’s undying bond with agriculture. Today, as travelers meander through Ohio’s byways, many of these barns stand proud, their vibrant logos paying homage to centuries of farming tradition.
Beyond the borders of Ohio, this distinctive initiative offers a blueprint for other states, showcasing how unique, handcrafted projects can become significant tourist attractions and cultural landmarks.
While Hocking Hills often steals the spotlight as Ohio’s premier scenic escape, the Buckeye State has a treasure trove of other destinations where travelers can find tranquility away from the bustling crowds. Beyond the renowned regions within Hocking Hills State Park, the state boasts a myriad of nature preserves, the expansive Hocking State Forest, and the neighboring Wayne National Forest. Each offers its own unique charm, awaiting those eager to delve deeper into Ohio’s natural wonders.