My deepest apologies to the great state of Ohio. Surely, I have underestimated you.
Ohio has typically been a “drive-through” country on our road trips from Minnesota to the East or Southern coasts, but I stand corrected. This is not a drive-through country; it beckons you to come, see, stay, and enjoy.
Last October, my husband Dean and I spent four days filling up on the abundant wonders of southeastern Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park and the surrounding area. We didn’t run out of things to do or see. Here are some of the hidden gems that we enjoyed.
1. Be Awestruck At The Rock House
The Rock House is the only true cave in the park and is aptly named. Carved by water and time, it’s a magnificent sandstone cavern some 20-30 feet wide, 200 feet long, and with a 25-foot-high ceiling. It has several entry points, and “windows” to the outside.
Looking Out A Rock House “Window”
A place like this can’t exist without a story. When Native Americans lived there, they fashioned “hominy holes” (small insets in the back wall) for baking ovens and built a fire to heat the rock and prepare their food. Chiseled holes in the floor of the cave served as holding tanks for rainwater. Later, rumor has it that the cavern was inhabited by robbers, horse thieves, bootleggers, and other unsavory characters that earned the Rock House a new nickname: Robbers’ Roost.
We went early and practically had the place to ourselves. It is fascinating and beautiful. I could have sat there and watched the sun move through the cavern and appreciated the nuances of color and shape all around. I could have watched tourists flow in and out of it and listened to the doves cooing and flapping around on the far end of the cave. It’s a marvel.
Pro Tip: The Rock House is located midway up a 150-foot sandstone cliff. This is a rugged hike with uneven footing and steep inclines and declines. The hike out was just as spectacular and challenging as the way in.
2. Enjoy The Lush Conkle’s Hollow
This was my favorite hike. Conkle’s Hollow is right out of a movie set. It’s a rugged, rocky gorge, perhaps one of the deepest in Ohio. Good news, this one is ADA accessible for a good part of it, so it can be enjoyed by everybody.
From the parking lot, we had an easy walk on the paved half-mile Gorge Trail, and soon, we were immersed in a lush setting of ferns, hemlock, birch, and shadows of vertical cliffs rising some 200 feet. The ADA trail ended at boulders that you walk underneath, and the path changed to a more traditional hiking trail. The trail here was more rugged and ended at a (tiny-at-this-time-of-year) waterfall. Still beautiful, though!
For the more adventurous hiker, follow the sign for the Rim Trail and take the more than 150 stairs up to the top of the cliffs to circle the gorge. This two-and-a-half-mile hike boasts the highest cliffs and most outstanding scenery in the area.
3. See Mirrored Reflections At Rose Lake
Rose Lake Reflections, Hocking Hills State Park
Rose Lake is also called Fisherman’s Lake, but formally, it’s the Hocking Hills Reservoir. You can get there by driving through the campground, parking in a central lot, and walking down an incline or you can hike in on the Old Man’s Cave hiking trail (watch for signs) on the Upper Gorge Trail. The day we went was still and clouds were beautifully reflected on the lake.
Pro Tip: If you’re camping, you have easy access to the lake with your permit. We were not camping, so I asked at the visitor center, and for two dollars, the park ranger wrote us a pass that we could use to get to the lake.
4. Take Photos At The A-Frame Bridge
The A-Frame Bridge, Hocking Hills State Park
A striking feature of this area is this “A-frame” bridge which spans the gorge near Old Man’s Cave. The footbridge underneath the bridge is also noteworthy because it features staggered, flat, rock “steps” that take you over Old Man’s Creek. Great place to take photos!
5. Relax At The Journey Ridge Cabins In Laurelville
About 20 minutes from the Hocking Hills State Park visitor center, a Journey Ridge cabin is a beautiful place to rest your head after a long day of exploring. These peaceful cabins sit on three to five acres surrounded by Hocking Hills Forest. Our one-bedroom cabin was comfortably furnished with a full kitchen, gas log fireplace, outdoor fire pit, and private, covered deck with a hot tub and gas grill.
I cannot say enough good things about the cabin owner, who took extra measures to make our stay warm and inviting. They followed up with great service even after the trip.
When I say these cabins are a hidden gem, I mean it. GPS has a hard time here because of the typography, so we were using hard-copy directions. Turn here, go a certain number of miles. Watch for this landmark or road, turn there. Its appeal as a remote woodland cabin also makes it somewhat challenging to find. We stopped twice to ask for directions. But it was worth it. We stopped at a larger town on the way to the cabin and stocked up on snacks, beverages, and food for the time we spent there. The cabin has a full kitchen, so we were happy to make meals and enjoy the privacy and beauty of our wooded surroundings.
6. Watch Glass Artists At The Jack Pine Studio
Spend some time at the amazing Jack Pine Glass Blowing Studio in Laurelville and browse the showroom containing delicate glass birds, colorful landscapes, and vases of all shapes and sizes. In an adjacent room, we watched a glass artist fashion an exquisite glass pumpkin. He began with a white glass base and carefully applied various layers of enamel color, then finished with more rich chips of glass, firing and shaping along the way. I was fascinated with the way he pulled the hot glass up and curled the stem of the pumpkin down.
As soon as he finished one pumpkin, he started another, explaining that he makes 50-60 pumpkins like this every day! It’s important to note that we were there in October. No wonder he moved so confidently between the many steps it took to create each unique masterpiece.
7. Hike To Cedar Falls
This hike may not be hidden but it’s certainly not as popular as Old Man’s Cave and Ash Cave. Cedar Falls is said to be the waterfall with the biggest volume of water in the Hocking Hills region. Ironically, Cedar Falls should be called Hemlock Falls; early settlers didn’t correctly identify the trees!
Here, I loved the artistic way water flowed from the top and spread to the full width of the rock basin, and then condensed as a narrow stream to empty into a pool.
Pro Tip: You can hike or drive to this attraction. View the falls from overlooks or hike down into the bottom of the gorge and back out — again, a rugged, incline/decline hike to get up close and personal.
Bonus: Not Hidden, But Must-Do Hikes
Old Man’s Cave, Hocking Hills State Park
These aren’t hidden gems, but they deserve a mention. Old Man’s Cave hike is a popular, one-way, one-mile loop hike inside a 150-foot sandstone gorge that includes bridges over Old Man’s Creek, small waterfalls, a short dark rock tunnel, and a water and rock feature called the “Devil’s Bathtub” that swirls and gurgles. It has a moderate to steep incline, uneven steps, cliff edges, and in parts, a rugged path. This was the busiest hike we did.
Like our beloved Conkle’s Hollow, Ash Cave has an ADA-accessible, paved trail. The sunlight was streaming into the cave and we saw the faintest trickle of a waterfall, suspended over the rocks and tumbling down near the center of the cave to form a small pool. It was dreamlike! I’m sure at other times of the year, that waterfall is more than a trickle.
Pro Tip: Parking at these main attractions is what you’d expect: congested and limited (even if it’s large, it seems it’s never enough). Avoid weekends, if you can, and go early. The parking at Ash Cave is particularly challenging.
Hiking In Hocking Hills State Park
Southeastern Ohio was a great surprise to us. All this beauty, hidden in this state? Who knew? We never considered it a “stop and stare” state, but it is worthy of stopping and staring! I’m reminded again that this is the good life. Traveling with Dean, laughing, and seeing new sights.
I get so much joy from the beauty of nature, from a simple sandwich in the car to a reflective lake. We enjoyed hiking and exploring all the wonders and hidden gems of Hocking Hills State Park and the surrounding area. When you go, I hope you do, too.
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