Monday, September 19, 2011

Ups and Downs at Hocking Hills

Campers at Ash Cave

Dear George,

Katja and I are recently back from a four-day camping trip to Hocking Hills State Park in southeastern Ohio. The trip had particular significance because Katja, a Philadelphia city girl, is less enthralled about camping than I am, so I’ve been mostly going out by myself with the sheepdogs. Many of our acquaintances don’t realize it, but it’s rumored that Katja is actually the lost daughter of the King and Queen of Romania, and, having been attended to by doting handmaidens throughout her childhood, the idea of roughing it in the wilds of Ohio doesn’t come easily to her. I was able to lure her to Hocking Hills because of the region’s reputation for beauty and splendor. My secret intent was to make this the perfect trip – flawless, comfortable, just like staying in a five-star hotel. However, things turned out more like that old Chevy Chase movie, National Lampoon’s Vacation, in which Clark Griswold takes his wife and kids across the country to visit Wally World. Like the Griswolds, we had lots of excitement, though not all of it was what we planned.

Hocking Hills is located in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills, about two and a half hours east of Cincinnati. We arrived about 1 p.m. on Monday, our SUV packed to the gills. The state parks are quiet on September weekdays, so we got our pick of campsites. Campsite #163 was an obvious pick because there were three deer standing on it as we drove by. Except for the ground being wet and dirty, it was an excellent location. We’d bought a large 9’ by 15’ dome tent for a U.P. trip several years ago, but we hadn’t put it up since then. For some reason, we got entirely befuddled in the process, with tent poles pointing every which way and nothing fitting together properly. After an hour of frustration Katja voiced her concern that we wouldn’t get the tent set up by sunset. I was privately thinking that we would never get it set up and would have to sleep in the car. However, after many missteps, we did finally succeed (by accident). Here’s our put-together campsite with handsome sheepdogs and all.

Hocking Hills is a huge park with a number of scenic destinations. A couple at a nearby Welcome Center suggested we go to Ash Cave first, since it had the most navigable of the hiking trails. Hocking Hills is so attractive because of its deep gorges which are lined by massive Blackhand sandstone walls and filled in with hemlock and beech forests. The bedrock is 350 million years old and was once covered by a warm shallow sea. The cliffs have been eroded by water and weather over millions of years to form natural caves underneath them. Ash Cave, which is 700 feet from end to end, is the largest of these. The cave got its name from an immense pile of ashes believed to have been generated by Native Americans’ campfires over hundreds of years. Here are a few views of Ash Cave and the gorge trail leading to and from it.

Monday night I wasn’t able to get our campfire started (probably because our wood had come from the wet forest floor), so we turned in before 9 p.m. I gave Katja my sturdiest air mattress. Naturally, all the air leaked out in the first few hours, and Katja wound up sleeping fitfully on the cold, hard ground. We did get up for breakfast, which Katja graciously cooked with her eyes half-closed, but then she went back to sleep while I took the dogs out on a forest hike on a trail along the upper rim of the gorge heading toward Old Man’s Cave. The views were pretty, though I was nervous about the dogs falling off the 150-foot vertical cliff and kept a short grip on their leash.

Katja got up after lunchtime, and the four of us set out for Old Man’s Cave. It’s a beautiful hike along the lower part of the gorge, but much more arduous, with a lot of steep up and down climbs. Katja, with a gimpy knee, gritted her teeth and gradually made her way, while I was busy trying to keep control over the sheepdogs who delighted in racing down the stone steps while pulling their master behind them. Old Man’s Cave was as gorgeous as billed. The cave is named after hermit Richard Rowe who made it his home around 1796. His grave is believed to be under the main ledge.

Another trail led off to the Lower Falls. It required a strenuous climb up the gorge, so Katja decided to take a rest with the dogs while I explored it. It was a beautiful view.

As we were leaving Old Man’s Cave, Katja tripped over an upraised rock on the trail and jammed her right leg into her hip bone, causing intense pain. Though she was near tears, there were no options except to hike back a half mile over the hilly terrain. Katja was pretty brave though she was worried that she might have broken something. When we finally got back, she took four Advil, lay back on a reclining lounge chair, and immersed herself in a murder mystery.

Unfortunately, that was the end of Katja’s hiking adventures for the trip, though it did make for lots of rest and relaxation. The next day we took it easy and checked out a nearby town. Katja had seen an advertising brochure that suggested it was a shopper’s paradise, but, aside from a neatly organized Goodwill and a tourist trap antique mall with 1950’s knick knacks there wasn’t too much of interest. Disappointed with that venture, we consoled ourselves by having Dairy Queen sundaes for lunch. Back at the campground, Katja resumed her mystery novel. I did the rest of the hiking stuff, taking the doggies along. Here’s the Old Mans Cave trail that led to the Upper Falls.

Here is Cedar Falls. It’s one of the park’s most stunning waterfalls.

Conkles Hollow didn’t allow pets, but I was glad that I went ahead and did it on my own. It’s one of the deepest gorges in the state with 200-foot cliffs on each side of the trail.

Wednesday night was our most memorable night at the campground. There was a heavy rainstorm, and a large puddle formed on our dome tent roof, then leaked through right on top of my head. I was already chilly because my lightweight summer sleeping bag wasn’t suited for the cold front that had moved in, and all the air had gone out of what was now my air mattress. I slept on and off. By morning, our tent was soaked on the outside, wet on the inside, and the campsite was a sea of mud. Pretty grumpy, we loaded our gear in the car, skipped breakfast, and departed before 9 a.m. We both were happy to have seen Hocking Hills, though we agreed that our trip could have been smoother. Katja, to her credit, said she was willing to try camping again sometime, though “not in the same manner.” She was a little sketchy about what manner she has in mind, but I’m sure we’ll find out. She might mean camping in the manner which they offer at the Best Western.



G-mail Comments

Hi David and Katja, I had no idea you had such exquisite natural wonders in your area. Good for you that you took on such an adventure. I've done yearly camping at a site with lovely canoeing and peaceful views but without bathrooms, rocky terrain, uncertain weather (including lightning and thunder storms, wind and smoke from wildfires). I guess that's what makes it all an 'adventure'. But I have to empathize with you, Katja, there does come a time when sleeping on hard ground, having your joints ground together on steep passes or having cold rain pour on your head doesn't really appeal! Recently, I'm more taken with finding a comfortable cabin on a lake with some cooking facilities and doing day hikes (haven't found that yet). I will say that my air mattress is 'deluxe' (about 18" thick and very comfortable). We used to pump it up with a foot pedal air pump (endless, arduous aerobis) - now, nothing less than an electric pump will do. George and I camped for years in a 30+ yr old canvas tent we adored, which we purchased in England. If I embark in future camping activities, it'll have to be with some sort of dome tent that pops up when I push a button and never, ever leaks. Ah..changing times. You're good sports. Hope that knee/hip insult has resolved itself. Love, Vicki

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