Hocking Hills in Hocking County is the geological crowning jewel of Ohio and is fantastic to visit regardless of the season.
The park comprises five separate areas: Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls, Ash Cave, Rock House and Cantwell Cliffs. Old Man’s Cave is the most popular destination of the five, and located in the Upper Falls section is one of the best falls at the park.
Unique features at each of the five sites makes Hocking Hills State Park the most popular travel destination in Ohio for hikers and nature lovers.
Why Hocking Hills is so special
Hundreds of millions of years ago, Hocking Hills was submerged beneath the Atlantic Ocean, the currents of which deposited vast amounts of sand and gravel. When the ocean receded, the sand and gravel bonded with silica and iron oxide to form a unique kind of sandstone found only in this part of the world. The middle layer of this Blackhand sandstone (named for a non-extant large black hand that American Indians painted out of soot on the side of a cliff) was very soft, and about 10,000 years ago glacial meltwaters carved out deep gorges.
Old Man’s Cave
Located off State Route 664, Old Man’s Cave isn’t a cave, but rather a large recess in a 150-foot-deep gorge, its name inspired by a hermit who lived here more than 100 years ago and whose remains are believed to be buried beneath the ledge.
The site is divided into five major sections: Upper Falls, Upper Gorge, Middle Falls, Lower Falls and Lower Gorge. If you take your time to look around, you’ll see it’s all fantastically beautiful — and don’t be surprised to see what resemble human-like faces peering out of many of the rock formations.
Near the Upper Falls is a don’t-miss natural whirlpool called The Devil’s Bathtub. Water flows down a tiered waterfall into a round basin.
The Lower Gorge Trail from Old Man’s Cave will take you to Cedar Falls. Despite its name, there are no cedars, but plenty of hemlocks, which early Europeans mistook for cedar. The largest and most spectacular waterfall at Hocking Hills State Park is here, where the Queer Creek tumbles into the chasm.
A mile or so from Cedar Falls, after turning right on State Route 56, you won’t find any ashes in Ash Cave, and just like Old Man’s Cave, it isn’t even a real cave.
But when you reach the 700-foot-long horseshoe-shaped recess, you may feel like you’re on the set of a science fiction movie that takes place on Mars or some other desolate planet. The enormous size of the recess, its peculiar quality of light, the sand and boulders, and the unauthorized modern-day hieroglyphics give Ash Cave a funky vibe.
Ash Cave has a seasonal waterfall created by the East Fork of the Queer Creek. Sometimes the pool of water below the waterfall shaped like a heart. Ash Cave is a popular site for weddings and a permit must be obtained from the park office (740-385- 6842).
The only true cave at Hocking Hills State Park, Rock House is midway down a 150-foot cliff. It’s 200 feet long and features seven Gothic-like “windows.” American Indians used it for shelter and built ovens in some of the recesses. After European settlers arrived, it became a hiding place for outlaws and was nicknamed Robbers’ Roost.
Not for the faint of heart, Cantwell Cliffs is both figuratively and literally a breath-taking experience. Located on State Route 374, it is the remotest of the five park sites, 17 miles away from Old Man’s Cave.
It’s a rugged trail that offers a heart-pumping descent through extremely narrow passageways to get to the bottom of the gorge. The ascent out of the gorge is very steep, and I’m always convinced that gravity here is denser by the time I make it back to the parking lot.
Directions to Hocking Hills State Park
From Dayton, take U.S. Route 35 East through Xenia. As you approach Chillicothe, take the State Route 159/Bridge Street exit toward U.S. Route 23 North. Turn left on North Bridge Street/State Route 159. Follow State Route 159. Turn right on State Route 180. Turn right on State Route 56 East/State Route 180. Follow State Route 56. Stay straight to go on State Route 664.
For more information, go to parks.ohiodnr.gov/hockinghills or call (740) 385-6842.
- Carry a backpack with plenty of water and opt for serious waterproof hiking.
- Ash Cave has two trails, an upper and a lower. The lower trail is paved, flat and wheelchair accessible.
Where to eat
Hocking Hills Dining Lodge, also about a mile from Old Man’s Cave. The lodge has an extensive food menu and oodles of beer. 20020 Hocking Hills State Park Cabins. 740-380-0400, hockinglodge.com
After a day of hiking, a special treat is a double scoop of ice cream at Grandma Faye’s grocery and general store on State Route 664 about 1 mile west of Old Man’s Cave. The store also has a grill and offers pizzas and sandwiches. 740-385-9466.