Discover adventures in exotic caves, churning waterfalls, and rolling hills — without ever leaving the Midwest.
When you think of wooded forests, sandstone rocks, cascading waterfalls, and ominous caves, the state of Ohio probably doesn’t come to the forefront of your mind. But venture just an hour south of Columbus, 3½ hours south of Cleveland, or 2½ hours north of Cincinnati to discover the area known as Hocking Hills.
Situated in Hocking County, Hocking Hills is renowned for its erosion-resistant Blackhand Sandstone and unique geographical features including gorges and cliffs. Scientists believe a combination of ocean deposits and an ancient glacier carved the valleys and cliffs, leaving behind an area unlike anything else in the Midwest. Legend has it that early settlers in Muskingum County discovered an ancient black human handprint on a sandstone cliff, thus the name Blackhand Sandstone, seen in six different areas of the park.
But whether its history, unique nature, or outdoor recreation that brings you to Hocking Hills, you’ll find a wealth of activities to keep you busy all vacation long.
Head in the Clouds
Our first stop in Hocking Hills was the eagerly anticipated Canopy Tours (740/385-ZIPS) zip line. The only tour of its kind in the Midwest, the operation had only been up and running for barely two months when we arrived and features four adventure rope bridges and 10 different zip lines. It’s no secret I have a healthy fear of heights and was moderately terrified at the thought of careening 80 feet above the trees for three hours. I spent the entire week prior nervously telling my editor, staff, husband, and anyone else who would listen about my case of nerves. But the friendly staff at the Canopy Tours took time to get the group accustomed to the equipment and safety precautions before we all got to experience our first practice zip, barely a few feet off the ground.
Next, the group rode out to a rope bridge, leading us to right onto the first platform anchored around a tree high in the air. I felt surprisingly calm, but kept my focus on looking out instead of down. Our guides Mark and Sarah were meticulous with safety and I soon felt completely comfortable zipping from tree to tree. By the end of the tour, I was leaning over the wooden zip line platform (securely anchored to the tree in my harness) to look down at fresh deer tracks along the banks of the Hocking River. The hardest part of the tour was remembering to take the time to enjoy the scenery and stay in the moment while zipping, instead of watching for Mark to help bring us in on the opposite platform.
Canopy Tours currently run $75 per person, however, children 10-15 can fly free per paying adult on Tuesdays and Thursdays, except for holidays. Group rates can also be arranged, and local Hocking residents receive $10 off with valid ID. Keep in mind that children must be at least 10-years-old and 70 pounds or more to fly. Parents must accompany kids ages 10-15 and no one over 250 pounds can fly due to safety reasons.
The Great Outdoors
If you’re looking for a family activity closer to the ground, try canoeing, rafting, or kayaking with Hocking Valley Canoe Livery (800/686-0386; 31251 Chieftain Dr, Logan, OH 43138). The Hocking River doesn’t have any real rapids, making for perfect conditions for beginners or families with small children. Open from April 1st to November 1st, tours range from two hours to two days and start at around $10 per person on up, $5 for additional person, and children 10 and under free. Printable coupons are also available online for families on a budget. The Canoe Livery also runs a Family Fun Center with miniature golf; go-kart rides, driving range, and picnic center. Cabin rentals and combination fun center and river trip packages are also available.
Although there’s no fixed age limit for kids to canoe, raft, and kayak, call in advance to inquire about young children. If the water is high after heavy rains, the staff may suggest leaving little ones at home or ask about their skill and comfort level on the water. For evening entertainment, try a seasonal Torchlight or Moonlight Tour for a trip down the river complete with Tiki torches along the banks and ending with live music, marshmallow roast, treats, and complimentary glass of wine for the adults. We opted for a daytime three-hour guided tour with Lew Barbini, which actually took under two with high waters keeping us moving right along. We were fortunate enough to stop and see the Rockbridge Formation, a cave and waterfall with surrounding sandstone formations.
Hocking Hills State Park is part of the Wayne National Forest with four nature preserves and nine state parks. It’s home to over 9,000 acres of state forest land and is one of the largest metro parks in the state of Ohio. Hiking, fishing, bird watching, camping, canoeing, horseback riding, and rappelling are available throughout the park. Also, while some areas are heavily wooded and not necessarily kid-friendly, plenty of areas have well worn trails and sightseeing opportunities for the whole family.
We started our day exploring Old Man’s Cave, one of the more popular spots in the park. It had recently rained and the muddy conditions made it more difficult to maneuver, but the collection of caves, rock formations, and waterfalls made the trip more than worthwhile. Next, we drove the four miles over to Ash Cave for a leisurely stroll through the gorge lined with beech trees and wildflowers. The heart of the horseshoe-shaped cave measures 700 feet from end to end and 100 feet deep. But the crowning glory is a waterfall from Queer Creek cascading over a 90-foot natural rim into a pool below. We saw tourists as young as toddlers and as old as 80-years maneuvering the trails with relative ease, marking it an accessible attraction for all ages.
Lodging & Relaxation
After a day of exploring Hocking Hills, we made our way to our accommodations at The Lodge, with Deer Mountain Retreat (740/415-8722). Nestled on 60 acres, the cabin sleeps 20 with absolute ease with a combination of private bedrooms and rooms with multiple beds. Other cabins sleep as little as two, giving an array of options for group travel or a romantic getaway. The Lodge and surrounding cabins are also ideal for family reunions, corporate retreats, weddings, and togethering vacations. Some cabins are also pet friendly, and even horse-friendly with pens and stables. Private hunting on the cabin grounds can also be arranged with advance notice and an additional fee.
Our master suite housed a large Jacuzzi tub that I needed a step stool to climb into and a spiral staircase that lead to a private loft with plasma TV. Ideal for parents — shut the loft door for privacy or keep it open to monitor kids in the three upstairs bedrooms. Basement bedrooms also proved spacious, with private rooms and also multiple beds for kids eager to have their own private sleepover with siblings and relatives.
Kids looking for their own space will flock to the large rec room just off the kitchen with plasma TV, stereo, darts, pool table, chess, DVD’s and board games while adults relax in the nearby living room with leather couches, wood burning fireplace, and windows with wooded views. Moms might want to note that there’s no laundry available in the cabin, but linens and towels are supplied.
For outdoor dining and entertaining, a back deck comes complete with patio dining furniture and a grill, outdoor hot tub, tire swing, and bonfire pit for family gatherings. Although the lawn was large enough for playtime and the woods adventurous enough for hikers and explorers, there is no fence and the property rests near the gravel road leading up to the next cabin, so keep toddlers close by.
Families needing added convenience can contact GroceryGo4.com (614/332-6083) to have kitchens fully stocked with favorite foods and kid favorites before ever checking into their cabin. There’s also a Dollar General and an adjacent Save A Lot grocery (740/380-3494; 35107 Hocking Dr, Logan, OH 43138) just minutes from the cabin for inexpensive shopping options. We stocked up on snacks and dinner supplies and found more pots, pans, and dishes than we could possibly use in our cabin’s kitchen. But if stepping foot in the kitchen isn’t your idea of a vacation, a private Traveling Chef (740/332-4501) can come right to your cabin for private meals.
If you want the ultimate in relaxation, private, couple, and group spa services can be arranged through Hollie at Blue Valley Massage (888/74-PEACE). Linda and Heather came right to our cabin for Burt’s Bee’s facials and a luxurious couples massage. On warm weather days, you can schedule a massage outside on your deck and enjoy the view. Blue Valley even travels to local campsites and sets up directly on the grounds.
You can also splurge on a private spa service without the added expense of a babysitter. Choose the ‘Baby Shuffle’ for a massage while the other parent entertains the children. Then switch so the other can enjoy their own indulgence. Kids are also welcome with Blue Valley, and teenagers will gravitate towards manicures and pedicures, chocolate wraps, and facials for an afternoon with Mom or a group spa day with girlfriends. While there is no age limit for kids looking for their own pampering massage, parents are legally required to be present for children under 18.
Rates at Deer Mountain Retreat’s selection of cabins runs anywhere from $119 to $549 depending the season and cabin. Check their website for ongoing discounts, specials, calendar of events, and third night free offers. The management was also very helpful with suggestions on nearby activities, services, and restaurants, even leaving us a book full of information, brochures, and maps of the area.
Other lodging options in Hocking Hills include camping, cottages, and cabin rentals at Hocking Hills State Park, reserved by calling 866/644-6727. But for a modern hotel option, contact the Holiday Inn Express (740-385770; 12916 Grey Street, Logan, OH 43138), convenient to shopping, outdoor recreation, and restaurants.
And there are lots of great restaurants. Head into Logan to the Spotted Owl Cafe (740/380-9670) at 53 W. Main Street, Logan, OH 43138 for an eclectic menu and all-day breakfast options. Selections range from pastries, paninis, sandwiches, salads, loaded waff”owls,” omelets, tea, cappuccinos, and coffees. Picky eaters should be able to find something without much difficulty on their varied menu. We stopped in for breakfast twice and found the staff to be very personable with plenty of suggestions on activities in the area.
The ever-popular Etta’s Lunchbox Cafe (740/380-0736; 35960 St. Rt. 56, New Plymouth, OH 45654) is a good choice after a day of hiking at Ash Cave. This Mom and Pop shop offers a simple menu with meals around $10 or under and famed homemade pie. The real draw to this staple of Hocking Hills is the collection of over 500 vintage and modern lunchboxes on display.
For an evening indulgence, try the upscale Rhapsody’s (740/753-5741; 18 Public Sq, Nelsonville, OH 45764) for a unique dining and entertainment experience. The restaurant is run by Hocking College’s Culinary and Hospitality Students and has won numerous awards and international recognition. Seasonal menus range from Marmalade Glazed Pork Tenderloin or Batter-Fried Lobster Tail to Angus New York Strip Steak, and an array of appetizers, entrees and desserts. Rhapsody’s is only open Wednesdays through Saturday and advanced reservations are required.
With over 9,000 acres of state park, we never made a dent exploring surrounding attractions including Conkle’s Hollow and Cedar Falls, cycling, fishing, rappelling, and horseback riding. Equestrian enthusiasts can contact The Spotted Horse Ranch (877/992-RIDE; 17325 Deffenbaugh Road, Laurelville, Ohio 43135) for trail rides starting at $25, youth camps, family rides, and evening entertainment including barrel racing. Although I had already explored nearby Columbus, Ohio on a previous trip, I missed out on visiting Athens, Ohio, home of the University of Ohio and July’s anticipated Ohio Brew Week.
You’ll discover there’s more recreation than you’ll ever have time for in Hocking Hills, so a second visit might be in order. Kids who are “plugged-in” may find their cell phones won’t work in all areas, that iPods aren’t always conducive for hiking, and WiFi isn’t available at Deer Mountain Retreat’s Lodge and surrounding cabins. So if you’re looking for more than a nature-inspired family vacation, turn Hocking Hills into a day of hiking while visiting nearby cities.
For more information or ideas on activities and lodging in Hocking Hills, please visit www.hockinghills.com or call 800-Hocking.
Photos by Drew Padrutt
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