Places I Want To Be: Hocking Hills

Trail at Ash Cave

Trail at Ash Cave

Ohio is either known for Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Dayton, for WKRP in Cincinnati, or vast sections of flat farmland.  But its also home to the Appalachian Foothills in the state’s southeast corner.  About an hour outside of Columbus lies Hocking Hills, a large swath of forested wilderness that, while not quite mountainous, gives you the impression you are, in fact, in the mountains.  No surprise there.  The Appalachians of West Virginia rise only a a hundred miles east of here and, beyond them, the Great Smokies to the south and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia further east.  Hocking Hills is where it all begins.

Now, if you need to have subways, bars open late, and the roar of a city, I suggest New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.  If you want to forget about the modern world for a weekend or even a whole week, I suggest Hocking Hills if you’re on a budget.

The highlight of Hocking Hills are the caves – or in most cases, the remnants of caves.  Among them, Old Man’s Cave is probably the most famous.  A ravine formed by the collapse of a large cave, Old Man’s Cave stretches for about two miles toward a reservoir and drops you fifty to a hundred feet below the rim.  Old Man’s Cave is linked by a 6 mile hiking loop to Ash Cave to the south.  Ash Cave remains a cave, but is this otherworldly place gouged out of the side of a former mountain that has eroded away over time.  Ash is linked to still another eroded cave at Cantwell Cliffs, a rocky, steep crack in the earth overgrown with lush forest.  In all, you can conceivably hike ten miles from the vistor center to Old Man’s Cave down to Cantwell Cliffs and back up through Ash Cave.  I’ve done the Ash-Old Man’s loop, about six miles.  So what’s harder?  Climbing the dam to the reservoir above Old Man’s Cave ravine or walking the cave floor?  I’ll get back to you.  I will say this.  In the state’s earliest days of white settlement, the trail at the floor of Old Man’s/Ash Caves was the main highway into the Ohio Country.

I will never complain again about the condition of I-75.

But if hiking’s not your thing, there are plenty of cabins and lodges to stay at, most of them without Internet and nearly all of them cell phone inaccessible.  If you truly want to get away from it all, may I suggest Ravenwood Castle?  Built about 10 miles south of the state park, Ravenwood, a castle built atop a wooded hill, sits on several acres of isolated forest just north of McArthur, Ohio.  Accomodations range from roughing it in one of the camper-sized wagons to primitive comfort in the fairy tale cottages – former campground huts in a small meadow below the castle to the Celtic village, where you can stay in fully equipped and furnished cottages ranging from a small loft to a house big enough for you and ten of your closest friends.  Or you can opt for the luxury of a room in the castle.  I’ve stayed in the meadow, the cottages, and the castle, and the difference depends only on your mood.  Breakfast, part of your nightly rate, is a fantastic buffet of just about anything you’d want, including home-made granola and pancakes made from scratch.  For an extra fee, the castle also serves dinner nightly (reservations required).  Even if you’re not a guest of Ravenwood, you can still make a dinner reservation.

Hocking Hills is not where you go for the history of the Rock Hall or the Liberty Bell, the bustle of Times Square, or the tourist traps of Fisherman’s Warf.  You turn off your cell phone, forget there’s an Internet, and tune out the rest of the world.  You’re never so glad the modern world can’t intrude.

And never better prepared to face it than when you get back.