Monday, March 17, 2003

Hike Hocking Hills

Getaway offers trails for all fitness levels with bonus of cliffs, caves and wildlife

By Llee Sivitz
Enquirer contributor

[photo] Scenic views reward hikers on the Old Man's Cave trail.
(Photos provided)
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Nothing boosts enthusiasm for exercise like a "fitness destination." Day trip and workout rolled into one, these "getaways" are guaranteed to knock boredom out of your fitness routine.

One fitness destination is Hocking Hills State Park near Logan in southeastern Ohio. Park naturalist Pat Quackenbush, a former Cincinnatian, estimates 2 million visitors tromp through the park each year.

"Which puts us somewhere in the top 15 (state parks) in the country for visitation," he says. Only Columbus and Cleveland residents visit the park more than Greater Cincinnatians.

Besides its gorgeous caves, cliffs and wildlife, Hocking Hills offers 11 hiking trails - from a 1/4-mile paved course that's stroller- and wheelchair-accessible (Ash Cave) to a 10-mile circuit of rugged trails that takes all day (Grandma Gatewood Trail) and a 2 1/2-mile rim trail 200 feet in the air and 6 inches from the cliff's edge (Conkles Hollow).

[photo] Steps and rocks (above) make a 3-mile hike in the park seem like what would be a 7-mile walk back home.
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Trails are rated "easy," "moderate" or "difficult." Trail maps are online or at the Visitor Center.

Quackenbush suggests Old Man's Cave (rated moderate) as a good place to start if you want to judge your comfort level for the other trails.

"A 3-mile walk at Hocking Hills seems like 6 or 7 miles (in Cincinnati)," Quackenbush says. "There's a lot of scrambling down rock and up steps, things like that."

Which season is best? According to Quackenbush, it depends on what you want to see (or photograph). Forty species of wildflowers can be observed at Ash Cave in April and May. October is the busiest month for weekends, where 160 species of trees, including hemlock and birch, show off their fall colors.

Plan ahead. Familiarize yourself with the area you are going to hike, study trail maps.
File a game plan. Let someone know where you plan to hike.
Take plenty to drink, even in winter.
Carry a small first-aid kit.
Wear sturdy boots with good tread.
A whistle is handy for calling for help.
Be aware that cell phones do not work well in this terrain.
Bring a camera - you'll kick yourself if you don't.
Fitness note: A person weighing 160 pounds and hiking for one hour will burn 442 calories. Find calorie counts for more fitness activities at Web site.
"But snow can bring out more people because they want to see the winter wonderland," he adds.

In summer, Hocking Hills is an oasis with cool temperatures and no mosquitoes.

Of course, some people will want to challenge themselves by running the trails. This is permitted on designated trails only and runners should check with the Visitor Center first.

Every September is the Hocking Hills Indian Run. The 5K, 10K, 20K and 60K course combines paved, gravel and forested roads, trails and campgrounds (basically a loop around the south end of the 10,000-acre park).

It is illegal to leave the marked trails because of safety reasons and because Hocking Hills is home to a variety of endangered plants, insects and animals.

"If seven people go off the trail in the same spot it can create an outlaw (unwanted) trail," Quackenbush says. "So, if we catch you off trail, we will chase you back on."

The park is open for day hiking only - dawn to dusk.

Part of Quackenbush's job is to find hikers lost in the woods.

"It doesn't happen often," he says, "And it's usually due to someone leaving the marked trails."

If you get lost, stop where you are and sit down, he says. Every 10 minutes or so make a loud sound, such as a whistle or yell. If it's after dusk and your car is still in the parking lot, know that someone will come looking for you.

Want to stay overnight? The region has nearly 150 campgrounds, cabins, chalets and inns. A note for those who overdo it: Old Man's Cave Chalets has an on-call masseuse.

For a free visitors guide, call (800) 462-5464; Web site.

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