From dormancy of winter we approach the re-genesis of spring when the whole world seems to wait to awaken from an ice age. With the first thaw the clinging icicles will again become the cascading falls. As the snow melts we again find the lesser trails we knew before the freeze. The deep stone gorges of Hocking Hills are quiet now, almost silent, save the trickle of small streams of water at the tiniest of melts between the rocks. It’s a moment of rest before the arrival of the wild flowers, mushroom hunting hikers, weekend tourists and spring brides. Soon these quiet snow blanketed hills will feature the peculiar contrast of girls in flowing white gowns perched precariously on rock formations in front of blooming trees and cascading water falls while a photographer below gives direction like Cecil B. DeMill to people whose names he can’t remember as they climb like mountain goats in formal wear among the rocks. “OK now, Mom and Dad move in behind the bride. Careful!”
The Naturalist will tell you this is where the cool Canadian climate and all its forested species of the north meets the southern Appalachian hills, and the earth splits wide open between them. Old Man’s Cave and its meandering trails and gorges are the central aspect of the Hocking Hills. According to one poll last year, this is the nation’s number one camping hotspot with Yosemite National park running second. But in February, the joint is almost deserted.
Scenic overlooks like Conkle’s Hollow lose much of the appeal they had dressed in the brilliant colors of autumn. The athletic climbs into stony formations like the famous Rock House shelter lose some of their allure when the casual tourist is faced with slippery surfaces and sheer drops that present real danger to those who are not so sure footed. However, there is one place here whose beauty invites all levels of mobility in all kinds of weather.
Ash Cave is as easy as cave exploration gets. It’s a quarter-mile walk on a hardened, level, and wheelchair accessible trail through a gorge of towering hemlock trees and tall sheer rock facets rising above. At the back of the trail are trickling brooks and sandy soil leading into one of the largest open clam shell rock formations you will ever see, anywhere. At the very top of the cave wall, the Queer Creek showers down its waters almost a hundred feet to a sandy pool and a gentle brook. If you are in the right time of year with just the right temperatures it forms a gargantuan icicle and ice column rising from the ground and dangling from the cliff, reaching out as if trying to touch. It’s easy to imagine Native Americans using this natural amphitheater for dramatic ceremonies and council fires. In fact the name Ash Cave comes from the excavations of fire places archeologists did of this treasure trove of Ohio’s pre – historic heritage. You can imagine Shawnee taking refuge from the storm in Ohio’s largest recessed cave as they stopped to overnight here on the rough trail across the Northwest Territory.
In the winter, the Hocking Hills area is a photographer’s dream land; history, geology, nature, solitude and romance all come together, and don’t think the locals haven’t noticed. Dozens of cabins, most featuring the decadence of hot tubs on the veranda dot the hills throughout the valley. While family campers populate the summer months, the winter surely belongs to couples.
And I say these hills are deserted with a caveat. If you happen to hit the trails on the weekend of the park’s organized “Winter Hike” you’ll share the space with a few other folks; usually between three and four thousand of them! The mid-January outing is an unofficial rally call of the cabin-fevered and holiday – indulger who endeavor to cleanse their guilt-ridden souls with the crisp air and a thirteen mile hike around the rim of Old Man’s cave.
But on most other days of the winter you’ll mostly see the occasional hiking tourist, small groups of bird watchers, and “power walkers” who know that this, Nature’s Cathedral, is a far better track than any shopping mall. There’s no more preparation needed than spraying a quick coat of water repellent on your boots, grabbing your hiking stick and a bottle of water. Winter in the Hocking Hills is like walking around the set of “Last of the Mohicans” and once you go, you’ll be back again and again. If you need to sell your “Better Half” on the idea, sneak in a mention of the hot tub. Get Outdoors!