Winter Hike offers picturesque view of Hocking Hills

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

LOGAN, Ohio (AP) -- Sheer rock cliffs ascend both sides of a narrow path winding among the tall stands of hemlocks and evergreens.

Every 100 feet or so, ice formations sparkle in the bright winter sun. While waterfalls are not completely frozen, enough are, making a Currier and Ives print.

Less than 100 miles from Columbus lies a geological engorgement of natural features, including deep ravines cut in limestone cliffs, caves carved into hillsides, waterfalls tumbling hundreds of feet down hillsides and other vistas of scenery leaving first-time visitors wondering if they are in Ohio.

The 2,331-acre Hocking Hills State Park, including Old Man's Cave, Cedar Falls and Ash Cave are scheduled to be on display Jan. 19 when the 36th annual Winter Hike takes place. Depending on the weather, up to 5,000 folks are expected to participate in the free event, according to Park Manager Steve Bennett.

State park guides along with students from nearby Hocking Technical College begin accompanying hikers starting at 9 a.m., leaving continuously until 11 a.m.

A flash flood three years ago sent unexpected cascades of water through the area, wiping out carved stairs, steps and 13 bridges, and closing the popular park area for most of the spring and summer.

Rather then just repair the damage, the park system decided to make improvements to the trails. Last year's hike went on a temporary trail following the rim of Old Man's Cave. This year, all construction is done and the park is ready to show off.

''We have a new suspension foot bridge over Cedar Falls and all the trails are looking good at this point,'' Bennett said.

The hike began in 1965 when Norv Hall, then chief naturalist for the department, saw a chance to show off the park system and to encourage use of the facilities during the winter.

The third Saturday in January was established as the date for the walk so that a tradition would develop and allow for planning by participants.

To cover the entire six-mile route takes up to three hours.

At the halfway point, Cedar Falls, a free shuttle bus is available to return anyone back to the starting point. At the end, Ash Cave, shuttle buses return hikers back to their vehicles.

Hot soup is served at the halfway point and coffee, hot chocolate and doughnuts are available at the end, all provided free by area groups, but donations are sought.

Pets on leashes are allowed on the trails and the nearby Old Man's Cave campground.

Shuttle buses transport hikers from the campground to the starting point as early as 7 a.m.

Other accommodations available in the area are cabins at the park, which tend to fill fast, and private owned cabins and motels.

As Hall envisioned almost four decades ago, this one-day jaunt has become the showcase of the Ohio State Parks system.

''For 36 years, the park's Annual Winter Hike has drawn thousands of outdoor enthusiasts from near and far,'' said Dan West, chief of Ohio State Parks. ''We expect this year will not be any exception.''

West advises dressing warmly and wearing sturdy hiking boots.

''We hike, whether it rains, snows or shines,'' West said.

''Even during the blizzard year of 1978, over 1,000 hikers participated,'' Bennett said.

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