Walking down gravel steps on a hemlock-lined trail into the gorge at Hocking Hills State Park, I felt a bit like Alice entering Wonderland, leaving the familiar world at the top for the shadowed magnificence at the base of the gorge where vibrant green ferns and rocky sandstone walls encased the most beautiful part of Ohio that I have ever seen. Hiking at Hocking Hills last August was one of the highlights of my summer, and as summer approaches again, I keep thinking about how beautiful this park was. Though popular with locals, I had never heard of Hocking Hills until recently, despite the fact that it’s only a few hours from where I live. This is such an incredible place to visit and works as an amazing day trip (or weekend trip) from southern West Virginia – or just about anywhere in Ohio.
Before I continue, I’ll drop a couple of links. First, because of its popularity, Hocking Hills has a detailed website to help visitors plan a trip. And second, I went hiking here with my aunts and had an amazing time; though I’ll talk about it a but here, you can also check out my aunt Kristi’s video from our day here!
History of Hocking Hills
Hocking Hills State Park takes its name from the Hockhocking River (now just the Hocking River), which in the Delaware languages refers to the bottleneck formed by the river before it reaches a waterfall. Prior to European settlement in the 1800s, the area was first inhabited by the Adena culture. In more recent history, the Delaware, Shawnee, and Wyandot lived in or at least traveled through this region.
Hocking County, Ohio was established in 1818, and though some people settled there around this time, it was a difficult place to reach. The completion of the Hocking Canal allowed for wider settlement of the area, which eventually threatened the natural landscape that was popular with hikers. The State Forest Law of 1915 allowed the state government to purchase and preserve the land around Old Man’s Cave, which was eventually expanded to include the park you can visit today.
In walking through the gorge, it’s impossible to miss the recess caves and sediment layering on the rocks, many of which have a fairly smooth surface. The majority of the rock at Hocking Hills is Black Hand Sandstone. Sandstone, as the name suggests, comes from sand, and this sandstone in particular was built from the sandy floor of the ocean that covered Ohio during the late Cambrian period and throughout the Ordovician period. (One of my super random pandemic hobbies has been binging PBS Eons on YouTube and learning a lot about Earth’s history. If you’re not familiar with words like Cambrian and Ordovician, the main takeaway here is that Ohio used to be underwater.)
Over time, the sand bed would have been pressed into the Earth’s crust where it was compressed and heated. This, combined with mineral-rich water flowing through the sand, resulted in a crystallization process that turned sand into stone. However, sandstone remains porous, and liquid can flow through it – something you can see in the honeycomb weathering of some rocks at Hocking Hills.
The main gorge, of course, was caused by the flow of water wearing down layers of rock to hollow out this space that you can now walk through. In looking at the cliff walls, you’ll be able to identify the colorful lines of different sedimentary deposits that were all pressed into the rock. The recess caves hollowed into the sandstone (which is 150 feet thick in most places) were also caused by water that froze, thawed, and moved throughout the gorge.
The most stately and recognizable of the Hocking Hills plant life is the American Hemlock, though there are also poplar, beech, and oak trees. Because of the cooler temperatures in the gorge, one sign at Cedar Falls notes that some ice age species are able to thrive here, including yellow and black birch, Canada yew bush, and eastern hemlock. Though not a particularly exciting or rare plant, I loved that, in places, the ground was covered with leafy ferns. The moss on the trees and rocks was also fantastic in my opinion, and I loved spotting mushrooms on the trees!
As far as animals go, red backed salamanders thrive in the gorge, but I really loved spotting butterflies – though I couldn’t get a good picture of one. There are, of course, a lot of birds flying around and nesting in the trees, and you will undoubtedly hear or spot a few. In particular, the nature signs at Cedar Falls suggest keeping an eye out for the golden-crowned kinglet. And, if you go swimming, you may want to keep an eye out for the common snapping turtle who loves the water in Hocking Hills.
Hiking at Hocking Hills
For my trip to Hocking Hills, we arrived at around 10:30 in the morning, and though there were some crowds at the more popular spots, we had most of the trail to ourselves. To really avoid the crowds, it’s best to get here as early as possible, and this is something I would plan for on a return trip. (I’m hoping to go again in the fall and winter as well as sometime in spring or summer when there’s been more rain – can you tell that I loved it here?) Total, we were here for about four hours, and I enjoyed that entire time!
Though there are various trails in the park, and though the main attractions like Cedar Falls and Old Man’s Cave are located less than a mile from parking lots, I really enjoyed the loop we did which took us through the gorge and above it and let us see basically all the park’s natural attractions. Personally, I found the hiking maps at Hocking Hills to be somewhat confusing, but the trail was easy to stay on once we were on it. Also, due to COVID-19 and social distancing concerns in 2020, the trail was modified slightly while we were there, but we ultimately still saw everything we wanted to.
In essence, we did the 5.2 mile Gorge Overlook Loop via the Buckeye Trail on AllTrails. We parked at Cedar Falls and hiked through the gorge to the Old Man’s Cave and the main visitor center. After a bathroom break here, we returned to Cedar Falls on the Gorge Overlook Trail, which is almost entirely flat, unlike the Buckeye Trail which had some more ups and downs. This is actually a really easy, doable trail that showcases a lot of the different beautiful spots at the park.
My favorite part by far was walking through the gorge and seeing the towering rock walls around us. Because of the canopy formed by the trees, the magnificent formations in the gorge are hidden from above. Walking down the steps takes you into a whole different world! From the vibrant green ferns lining the trail to the mushrooms growing on the trees, and the root systems that trailed over rocks, the gorge is an absolutely incredible place to explore! Though it was hard to take pictures of them, we also saw several butterflies along the trail, and frogs are common at other times during the year.
Hocking Hills State Park was absolutely beautiful, and I loved being here. I am definitely planning to return, and I cannot recommend a trip enough. Walking through the cool gorge with hemlocks towering overhead was magnificent, especially further out on the trail, away from the main points of Cedar Falls and Old Man’s Cave where there were fewer people. Hiking through the park was amazing and being able to slow down and look at all the details that made this place so beautiful – the sedimentary strata on the rocks, the fungi growing on the trees, and the butterflies flitting between flowers – is really what made the trip and this trail in particular so great for me. This is by far the most beautiful place I’ve been to in Ohio, and a day spent here is well worth the trip!