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Situated between Columbus and Athens, the hills and valleys that flank the Hocking River are a place apart. Although the great glaciers never covered what is now the southeast corner of the Buckeye State, they still exerted a mighty influence, especially in the fall.
Lake Logan in the Fall
October is by far the busiest month in the park, which naturalist Patrick Quackenbush calls, "Ohio's worst-kept secret." The foliage typically peaks in mid-October.
"These woodlands are a special place, where the southern Appalachian species merge with those normally found much further to the north," he said. "That results in an extraordinarily diverse population, with more than 150 species of trees. Yes, you could say the glaciers make our foliage so varied."
The best road for leaf-peeping is the 40-mile drive along Ohio State Route 56, between Laurelville and New Plymouth. The best hike is the 3-mile rim trail at Conkles Hollow, with a long stretch along 200-foot-high cliffs that offer a sweeping view of the valley.
Conkles Hollow cliffs offer a sweeping view of the valley
"There's nothing better than that," Mr. Quackenbush said.
Laid down more than 350 million years ago as a delta in the warm shallow sea, the Black Hand sandstone that underlies these Appalachian foothills was neither ground flat by the advancing ice sheets nor buried by the debris left in their retreat. But the thick, hard stony strata were cleft and sculpted by centuries of torrential meltwater into tight gorges and myriad waterfalls that make today's hills more reminiscent of the tumbled hollows of West Virginia than the leveled landscape of the rest of Ohio.
That ancient icy mantle also still influences contemporary autumns as well. The cool, moist climate of the retreating glaciers persisted in these deep gorges, giving rise to towering stands of eastern hemlocks and Canada yew found in more northern climates, while warmer deciduous species such as oak, cherry, hickory and walnut spread across the higher elevations. So in this season, the Hocking Hills present themselves wrapped in cloaks of green with caps of riotous color.
Ancient Adena Indians hunted these dense forests 7,000 years ago and sheltered in rocky recesses in the ravines, as did the Wyandot, Delaware and Shawnee who followed many millennia later. In the late 18th century, as European civilization advanced down the Ohio River Valley to the south and across the more flat and fertile expanses to the north, these dark valleys were late to be settled.
With the discovery of coal seams, easily mined iron ore and abundant sandstone, the Hocking Hills became a center of industry. By 1850, the area's 46 iron furnaces provided rails and, during the Civil War, cannon balls for the Union Army, and the surrounding forests were clear cut to provide charcoal to fuel them.
When the local iron seams ran thin, the industry moved west, and the last furnace shut down in 1865. Gradually, the forests re-generated.
Who would have guessed that tourism would replace it? The park now draws 3 million visitors a year.
Although long considered Ohio's backwoods, the Hocking Hills' dramatic caves and cliffs were long recognized as scenic attractions. The first parcels of land around those special points were set aside by the state in 1924. In 1949, Hocking Hills State Park was created to include six areas, each with its own primary feature.
The areas range from Cedar Falls, a gorgeous gorge with Ohio's most photographed cataract, to Rock House, a huge 200-foot-long cavern halfway up a sheer cliff where ancient Americans once dwelt. Ash Cave, a massive horseshoe-shaped cleft measuring 700 feet end to end, is a natural amphitheater. It and nearby Old Man's Cave are recess caves, side cut into the sandstone strata, while the park's other two areas, Conkles Hollow and Cantwell Cliffs, are deep wooded valleys with precipitous geological formations that make for excellent hiking, rock climbing and rappelling.
The area's rough, sylvan charms have seen something of a tourism boom in recent decades. Many stay in one of the hundreds of cabins, cottages, chalets and woodland retreats that have sprouted on hollows and hilltops. The area features numerous campsites, but no large hotels nor name-brand resorts, and only a handful of small motels along the highway corridor or in Logan, the county seat and primary population center.
Two fine candidates have evolved in recent decades. The Glenlaurel Inn (14949 Mount Olive Road, Rockbridge; www.glenlaurel.com) with its manor house and a clutch of cozy cottages and crofts, styles itself as a Scottish retreat, complete with all the amenities of a Perthshire estate, from bagpipers and readings of Robert Burns poetry to seven-course dinners.
The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls (21190 State Route 374, Logan; www.innatcedarfalls.com) offers a less formal setting on what was a humble farmstead. Started as a labor of love in 1987 by a Columbus woman, Anne Castle, and her family, the Inn has evolved into a charming retreat now lovingly and personally managed by Anne's daughter, Ellen Grinsfelder, and her husband, Terry Longo. With a rough hewn but delightful gourmet restaurant, barn-like building with nine guest rooms, four beautifully restored 1840s log cabins, and 12 cozy, cedar-sided cabins situated on private woodland lots, this low-key getaway features evening bonfires and a first-rate spa, but no TV, telephones or Internet, which enhances the sense of retreat and relaxation.
The area's other attractions also are low key and somewhat quirky.
The Columbus Washboard Co. (14 Gallagher Ave., Logan; www.columbuswashboard.com) is another oddball entry. Started in 1895, it is the country's only continuously operating washboard company. Moved a decade ago to an old factory, it still manufactures a wide variety of washboards and ships them around the world, where they are used both for utilitarian purposes and to make music. In addition to free tours of the working plant/washboard museum, the company hosts a Washboard Music Festival each June that attracts thousands for two days of music and fun.
All in all, the Hocking Hills are a realm of understated offerings, a place apart, a comfortable expanse of unique and beautiful woodlands, especially in this leafy season. Anyone who comes to the Hocking Hills for a fall visit will also fall for its fabled falls.
For information on Hocking Hills: www.hockinghills.com.
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