Emerge from your winter cave, then go explore a new one—plus leafy glades and a college town—on a rejuvenating trip to Ohio’s Hocking Hills.
By Amy Lynch
February 18, 2021
I’m halfway through the blind curve when I see them. Two deer, frozen in the middle of State-664 a few miles outside Logan, Ohio. I slam on my brakes, fortunately with enough room to spare. The does stare straight at me before they amble, unhurried, across the road and bound up an embankment, their cottony white tails disappearing into the trees.ADVERTISING
It’s not the only time I’ll catch my breath— or the last deer I’ll see—in the Hocking Hills region, a densely wooded pocket not quite an hour southeast of Columbus. “Hills” is something of a misnomer; this geologically diverse 10,000-acre swath of land includes not just rolling terrain, but also caves, waterfalls and Black Hand sandstone cliffs honeycombed by water, weather and time. Not surprisingly, the great outdoors is the region’s biggest attraction. Nearly 5 million people visit the Hocking Hills each year to forest bathe in the natural beauty, relishing a sense of peace that’s palpable and healing.
Pick a trail, any trail, and just start walking. At Hocking Hills State Park, a half dozen or so routes accommodate hikers of all skill levels.
A short, easy path leads to Ash Cave, a stunning 700-foot horseshoe-shape recess where Native American tribes once gathered for shelter and ceremonies. At Old Man’s Cave, another enormous shelf-like overhang, you’ll find Devil’s Bathtub, Sphinx Head and other quirky landmarks. A bridge over Upper Falls offers views over Old Man’s Creek, named for a hermit who in nearby Old Man’s Cave in the late 1700s. The more demanding Conkles Hollow trail, at a state-run nature preserve of the same name, delivers panoramic rim views of a wildflower-strewn gorge below.
When you’re ready to rest those aching leg muscles—and trust me, they will be—a hot bath likely awaits. The Hocking Hills is cabin central, and many rentals include jetted tubs for a soothing soak. Or better yet, sign up for a restorative slow flow yoga class at Bodhi Tree, a wellness studio outside Athens. (Most Hocking Hills visitors skip this town, home to Ohio University, but if you don’t mind a drive, it’s a fun dose of college-town vibrancy.) Bodhi Tree’s owners, Liz and Russell Chamberlain, found their way here via OU and liked it so much, they never left. They established a large vegetable garden with chickens and beehives, and for a spell, they sold at the Athens Farmers Market and hosted an Airbnb too. It all has the feel of a mini Shangri-la.
“When I moved to Athens, I immediately fell in love with the easy access to trails, the lush environment, the robust local food system and all the people here who find a way to live the life they love,” Liz says. “Many people work hard to cultivate these aspects of the community, and that was, and still is, inspiring to me.”
That magnetism that held the Chamberlains? I feel it. I visited the Hocking Hills in 2017, returned in 2020, and I’m already plotting my next trip. No doubt, you will too.
Nearly 60 miles of trails squiggle across the region, some in popular HOCKING HILLS STATE PARK, others in smaller nature preserves, and still more in rugged HOCKING HILLS STATE FOREST. Pop in to the HOCKING HILLS VISITOR CENTER in Logan for help making sense of it all. (Logan is also the nearest commercial hub for gas or groceries.) About 30 miles down US-33 in Athens, OHIO UNIVERSITY’S redbrick campus was chartered in 1787. Dubbed Harvard on the Hocking, it’s another nice spot to stroll.
To learn about the area’s flora, fauna and Indigenous history, check out the state park’s ranger offerings, or sign up for a HIGH ROCK ADVENTURES ecotour hike (with optional rappelling). At HOCKING HILLS CANOPY TOURS, brave souls fly down the SuperZip—thus named because you’ll be lying flat and approaching 50 mph.
Capitalizing on the Hocking Hills’ unpolluted skies, the JOHN GLENN ASTRONOMY PARK honors one of Ohio’s favorite sons with a 540-square-foot observatory with retractable roof for stargazing. It’s open to the public 24/7 and offers astronomy programming.
Down the road at BODHI TREE in Athens, get a Thai massage or practice your tree pose in the yoga studio (or on the deck, overlooking a misty, verdant valley).
In Logan, dig in to ribs and bacon-wrapped burnt ends at MILLSTONE BBQ or filet tips at HUNGRY BUFFALO. In a historic log cabin, cozy KINDRED SPIRITS at the Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls is the area’s best bet for fine dining. For a souvenir you can sip straight from the Mason jar, head to the HOCKING HILLS MOONSHINE distillery, where the 120-proof Buckeye Lightning (and lower-octane Granny Apple, Blackberry and Peach Tea) are made from closely guarded recipes.
Athens offers more diverse flavors. Try LITTLE FISH BREWING COMPANY, Middle Eastern RESTAURANT SALAAM, CASA NUEVA for Mexican, or O’BETTY’S RED HOT for creative hot dogs— plus a year-round Saturday morning farmers market.
Whatever your definition of “roughing it,” the Hocking Hills has a rental (or campsite) to match. Scattered all around the region, CABINS BY THE CAVES sport fully furnished kitchens, satellite TV and stone fireplaces. If you’re OK sleeping with the ceiling pretty close to your nose, new HOCKING HILLS TINY HOUSES have an adorably mod vibe. For a posher stay, book a room, cottage or glamping yurt at the INN AND SPA AT CEDAR FALLS.