GUCI Nature Exploration Series: Part Three (Hiking In Ohio)

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Ohio is huge! And if you live in Ohio you know that no two parts of the state are the same. From the waters of Lake Erie in the north to the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky in the south, Ohio has every landscape in the Midwest.  This variety in landforms provides many different types of hiking opportunities. Let’s begin up north!

Cuyahoga Falls National Park

Cuyahoga Falls National Park is located 30 minutes south of downtown Cleveland. It is an amazing park that mixes a bit of history with nature. The park follows the path of the Cuyahoga River as it flows north to Lake Erie. The Ohio and Erie Canal ran through this area, before it was shut down in 1913, but we’ll talk about that a little later.  The most popular attraction here is Brandywine Falls and there is an excellent loop trail that takes you around the top of the falls and the river below. However, my favorite trail at Cuyahoga is the Ledges Loop Trail.

The best time to go on this hike is in the late afternoon about two hours before sunset. I begin the loop at the overlook on the south western corner and head east into the woods. The trail turns north and descends below huge moss covered rock formations. You will pass Ice Box Cave, but this is closed to hikers to protect the bats that live inside. At the northern end of the loop there is a stone staircase built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The western side of the loop is long and takes you past more unique cliff faces and passes underneath the overlook. Climbing back up to the overlook at the end can be tiring. But your reward is to watch the sun set over the valley! This hike is strenuous and will take one to two hours. But most of the trail is easy enough for new hikers and because the parking lot is in the center, if you get to tired you can just take a side trail back up to the car. 

Hocking Hills State Park

Hocking Hills State Park is a section of the Hocking Hills State Forest located in the southeastern corner of Ohio. Some people call this park the cave and falls section of the forest. People travel great distances to come camp and hike at Hocking Hills and it is one of the most popular state parks in Ohio. Because of its popularity, the park rangers have implemented many safety precautions during quarantine. Masks are required inside all structures and several trails are now one way loops. Almost every area where you can normally wade or swim is roped off to ensure social distancing. But don’t let this discourage you! There is still tons of fun to be had at Hocking Hills State Park!

My favorite trail here is the Grandma Gatewood Trail / Gorge Overlook Trail loop. It is about six miles total and takes you past most of the caves and waterfalls in the park. I highly recommend hiking this loop in the fall. The trail is beautiful all year, but with autumn rains swelling the falls and the leaves exploding with rainbows of color, this hike is hard to top. It begins at the park office. Follow the boot prints painted on the sidewalk and they lead to the first of many staircases and waterfalls. The trail narrows as it enters the woods and begins to descend down into the gorge. You will pass by Old Man’s Cave and follow the edge of the river to guidepost E.

Here the one-way trail turns and heads back up to Old Man’s Cave, don’t follow the crowds. Instead, turn south and continue to follow the water’s edge through the forest. Blue blazes clearly mark the trail down into the valley. At OO guide post the trail turns east and becomes much rockier. In many places along this stretch the trail splits providing a low easy path or a high rock scramble. I recommend the latter. At Guidepost G the trail splits again, follow the signs for the Cedar Falls trail. After you pass under Cedar falls there is a series of switchbacks and staircases that will lead you up to the rim of the gorge. There is a unique metal suspension bridge to cross from one side of the gorge to the other. Stretch your calves after the bridge because they are about to get a workout!

You are now on the Gorge Overlook trail and it takes you up, down, and sideways all over the park. You can smell the cedar trees that grow close to the trail here. And every type of bird that lives in Ohio can be heard singing. You even get to walk across the top of the dam where Rose Lake is on your right and the spillway is on your left. The trail winds through the trees and along the rim of the gorge all the way back around to the parking area at the park office. This six-mile loop is strenuous but rewarding. Allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy the different stops along the way. And be sure to sanitize your hands often when scrambling over rock faces and using the handrails on stairs and bridges.

John Bryan State Park

John Bryan State Park is a wonderful family friendly recreational area located about 30 minutes east of Dayton. John Bryan offers tons of activities that family members of all ages can enjoy. The park connects to two other parks, Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve and Glen Helen Ecology Institute. Unfortunately, they are both closed during the quarantine. But John Bryan is open and the hiking trails are calling. Like Hocking Hills, this is a very popular park. I highly recommend you bring masks and hand sanitizer with you.

My favorite trail here is the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati Trail/ Poplar Trail loop. The trail is about a two-mile loop and you will get to see some of the best parts of the park. Be prepared to get muddy and wet because this loop follows the Little Miami River up and back. Drainage from the rim of the gorge crosses the trail in many places making it slick and muddy. The river itself is slow flowing and crystal clear. You are allowed to wade in the water and I guarantee you will see trout swimming. Either end of the loop is marked by plank wood bridges that cross the river providing an elevated view of the water. The elevation changes along this trail give your legs a great workout, and the shade of the trees and breeze over the water keeps these lower trails much cooler than the rim trails at the top of the gorge. The trail winds around large rock formations that are trademarks of hiking in Southern Ohio and West Virginia. The Pittsburgh-Cincinnati / Poplar loop truly has everything you could desire in a southern Ohio hike!

Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath

The Ohio & Erie Canal was built between 1825 and 1832 and provided a connection between Lake Erie and the Ohio River. It was a lock system canal, like the Panama Canal, where a series of concrete locks could be flooded and drained to allow ships to travel over elevation changes that just wouldn’t be possible on a free flowing river. It revolutionized business and travel in the Ohio wilderness, and lead to the development of cities like Cleveland, Akron, and Portsmouth. In 1861 the expansion of railroads caused the canal to close to shipping traffic. The Great Flood of 1913 put stress on the aging lock systems and they finally broke forcing the use of the canal to be abandoned.

The good news is that about 1/3 of the old canal path has been turned into a 110 mile long hiking and biking trail! There are many activities you can do on the “Towpath.” And if you’re looking for a rewarding backpacking experience in Northeastern Ohio this is a great challenge. When I say backpacking think Europe not Montana. The Towpath does pass through several wilderness areas including Cuyahoga National Park. But since it follows the waterway that connected most major cities and towns in eastern Ohio, you do pass through a lot of urban landscape. To simply walk the towpath takes about 3-7 days depending on your foot speed and how heavy you pack. But I recommend giving yourself 10-14 days so that you can really explore the cities, towns, and wilderness you encounter. And it is always nice to stay in a hotel or hostel every few days to clean up and recharge. There is a great resource for trip planning for the Towpath that can be found here.

I hope that this inspires you to get out and hike Ohio. There are so many great places it was hard to narrow down my favorites. If you have amazing hiking locations that you want to share with me, you can email them to Until next time, I hope to see you out on the trails!

Matthew Hastings