By Mike Ryan, OCJ field reporter
When asked to list some of America’s most impressive natural wonders and wilderness parks, most folks might point to the sweeping landscapes of the West — Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, or the Grand Canyon. While visits to the scenic vistas of the American West are awe-inspiring journeys, there are many jewels to be found right in Ohioans’ own backyards.
Although Ohio is largely comprised of a combination of farm and cityscapes, the state also possesses some striking public lands that contain prime forests and natural recreation areas to explore. The winter is a great time to visit these parks when the crowds are sparse, the leaves have fallen, and outdoor winter activities abound.
Hocking Hills State Park
Hocking Hills State Park, outside of Logan, was recently voted to have the No. 1 campground in the nation. Easily accessible and just 20 minutes off of Interstate 33 in Logan sits Hocking Hills State Park. The Hocking Hills attract millions of visitors a year. They come to view the waterfalls and caves at Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave, Cedar Falls, and other popular scenic sites in the region. In the spring, summer, and fall, the locale is jam-packed with hikers, campers, and vacationers. During peak times, the place is so crowded that it can detract from the natural majesty of this Appalachian region.
A wintertime visit to this region still allows for some welcome peace and quiet. The recreational opportunities are as plentiful as any other season, as well. After the foliage is down and the 100-foot-tall cliff faces and rock ledges are exposed, a winter hike through the gorges of the area can prove rewarding. One of the most impressive hikes is the six-mile loop trail that takes hikers from Old Man’s Cave to Cedar Falls and back. Or, for those who want to see all of the most impressive natural features without taking a lengthy hike, individuals can motor to all of the major sites and take small walks from the parking lots to view the waterfalls and rock cliffs, many of which freeze into amazing ice formations in the cold winter months.
The award-winning campground allows limited camping throughout the winter. There is an annual guided winter hike and festivities that take place every January. This year, on March 9 and 10, 2013, from 12 to 4 p.m., the park will put on a Maple Sugaring in the Hills event, complete with pancake breakfast, demonstrations, and sampling. And for those not desiring to rough it, but interested in spending a romantic weekend in one of Ohio’s most spectacular of locales, cottages and bed and breakfasts dot the hillsides of the region. More information on the Hocking Hills region can be found at www.hockinghills.com or by calling the park office at (740) 385-6842.
Wayne National Forest
The state’s sole national forest, the Wayne, spreads across hundreds of thousands of acres in the southern portion of Ohio. There are 833,990 acres within the park boundaries. The national forest consists of a checkerboard of public and private landholdings that are spread across three management blocks — the Athens, Marietta, and Ironton districts.
Sportsmen in the Buckeye state may well benefit from a winter visit to Wayne National Forest. Featured in “Field and Stream” magazine as one of the nation’s top public land deer hunting destinations, the Wayne draws deer hunters from across the state and nation. Deer populations in the second growth oak-hickory forest average 21 deer per square mile. Additionally, for upland hunters, there are still some ruffed grouse populations scattered through the national forest, as well as rabbits, squirrel, and turkey that call these woods their home.
Beyond the hunting opportunities, Wayne National Forest’s other major offering is its extensive hiking and backpacking prospects. Long day hikes and multi-day winter backpacking options abound. Winter is the most enjoyable time to hike deep into the Wayne. Compared to the summer when the foliage is dense and the atmosphere can be humid and oppressive, in the winter, one can see the rolling hillsides and can wander about without the summer temperatures.
One of the most popular activities in the Wayne is off highway vehicle (OHV) riding. There are over 300 miles of OHV trails in the forest. However, the trails are closed to ATV use from December 15-April 15 each year. Hikers taking advantage of the numerous hiking and backpacking trails within the forest boundaries can further enjoy the OHV trails during the winter without their solitude being invaded by an ATV ripping around through the woods, as the OHV trails are open to hikers and backpackers all year.
Located in the Athens district, Wildcat Hollow is one of the most popular trails, with a 15-mile loop trail for backpackers and a five-mile loop for day hikers. In the Marietta unit, car travelers can enjoy the Covered Bridge Scenic Byway by driving up Ohio State Route 26 from Marietta. Several campgrounds and hiking trails spread out along the byway, and day hikers can enjoy the five-mile Covered Bridge Trail.
Park Headquarters and Visitor Center, located on Interstate 33 between Nelsonville and Athens, is open Monday-Friday from 8 to 4:30. Here, topographic maps for hiking and hunting are sold, and various brochures and information are made available to those interested in exploring the Wayne. For further information, call (740) 753-0101 or visit the website www.waynenationalforest.com.
Northward, in Ohio’s snow belt, the Cuyahoga Valley may be just the spot for a quick winter holiday. A short, brisk hike of a half-mile leads to the scenic Bridal Veil Falls. Another popular waterfall, Brandy Wine Falls, can be seen after a jaunt of only 1.5 miles. And Blue Hen Falls is just an easy hike away, as well. The historic Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail follows the former route of the Ohio-Erie Canal, and users of this flat pathway can still see remnants of the old canal system as they travel. In the winter, the towpath is even groomed for cross country skiing.
Areas of the park are managed for cross country skiing, and snowshoes and cross country skis can be rented in the park at the Winter Sports Center at Kendall Lake, a historical edifice constructed with native chestnut trees and sandstone by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. For winter sports enthusiasts desiring a more fast-paced outdoor activity, there are two ski hills within the park’s boundaries: Brandywine Ski Resort and Boston Mills Ski Resort.
For those wishing to experience the wintry national park from a warmer, more sedentary vantage point, there is a scenic railway that takes travelers for a three hour round trip tour of the park in vintage railcars. From November through May, the railway is open on weekends only and costs $17 for adults, $12 for children.
The Visitor’s Center at Cuyahoga Falls is open daily in the winter from 10am-4pm; maps, brochures, park programs and other visitor information can be found here. For further information, contact the park at (330) 657-2752 or visit their official website at www.nps.gov/cuva.
Take advantage of Ohio’s public lands this winter and experience some of the natural beauty the state has to offer.