Editor’s Note

The next couple of weeks are a great time to visit Hocking Hills State Park, but if you can’t make it to Logan, there are plenty of places to see fall foliage in Richland County. Do you have a great picture of Richland County in the fall? Email it to news@richlandsource.com to share it in an upcoming community photo gallery.

LOGAN — Autumn in Ohio manages to take my breath away every year. The brilliant yellow of ginkgos and golden maples, the scarlets popping against the stubborn spring green foliage and darker hues of pine needles, the oranges that most watercolor artists could only hope to replicate.

So when I saw photos of Hocking Hills State Park in the fall, I knew I had to go. 

My husband and I set off for Hocking Hills Saturday morning, hitching a ride with our friends Aaron, Bekah and their 1-year-old daughter Hazel. I was the least athletic person on this journey (Hazel included) but I was excited nonetheless.

If there’s one guaranteed way to trick me into exercising, it’s a hike through the woods.

We arrived at Hocking Hills around 10:45 a.m. A long line of vehicles snaked around the parking lot, but we managed to snag a spot after about 20 minutes. After a quick stop to the visitor center, Aaron and Bekah unfolded a hiking backpack with a special carrier and buckled Hazel in for the long trek ahead.

We decided to start with Old Man’s Cave, perhaps the most famous of the seven main trails at Hocking Hills State Park. The trail starts with a set of stone steps descending into the gorge, then winds through the woods before circling back to a massive sandstone overhang.

Locals nicknamed this stunning geological feature Old Man’s Cave for an actual old man, Richard Retzler (sometimes called Richard Rowe).

According to local legend, Retzler was a recluse who migrated with his family from the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee to modern-day Ohio in the 1790s. He lived in the cave periodically beginning in 1796 and eventually settled in the area. His remains are reportedly still buried in the cave.

Signage at the park states that two brothers, Nathanial and Pat Rayon, may have arrived a year earlier and built a cabin near Old Man’s Cave. Rumor has it they were also buried in the region.

Long before European settlers arrived at Hocking Hills, Native American tribes inhabited the area. Archaeologists say the Adena Tribe may have visited the cave as early as 5,000 B.C.

By the mid 18th century, Shawnee, Wyandot and Lenape tribes had also lived near the cave. The name Hocking comes from a Wyandot word ‘hockhocking,’ which means bottle river — a reference to the bottleneck shape of the gorge.

An Ohio Department of Natural Resources webpage dedicated to the park lists Old Man’s Cave as a moderate, 1-mile trail that should take about an hour to complete. The path we chose had a couple of offshoots, making it feel less like a linear path and more like a ‘choose your own adventure’ hike.

We chose to take a detour down to Cedar Falls. I’d love to tell you which path it was, but journalistic integrity compels me toward honesty — I had no idea where I was going.

I can tell you it was a refreshing change of pace from Old Man’s Cave. As soon as we turned a corner and headed down the road less traveled by, the atmosphere changed. It was quiet enough to hear the rustling of the leaves, the dripping of water from the clifftops and Hazel’s occasional gurgling.

Cedar Falls took us deeper into an ancient chasm filled with hemlock trees and breathtaking rock walls soaring above the forest floor. Old Man’s Creek has run through the park’s sandstone layers for millions of years, carving the caverns, caves and overhangs that attract nature enthusiasts from around the state and beyond.

We passed a few waterfalls that were mere trickles, but their height gave them an air of majesty anyway. Without the rush of melting snow and spring rains, you can watch each individual droplet plummet towards the earth in slow motion. If you’re willing to get your shoes muddy, you can creep off the path, hold out your hand and feel the cool, refreshing drops permeate your skin.

We followed the path along the sandstone shelf, over boulders and around bends to reach Cedar Falls. It was not at its peak flow, but still lovely. After a break and a picnic lunch, we headed back the way we came to Old Man’s Cave.

According to ODNR’s fall color progress map, nearly all of Ohio’s fall foliage was near peak color on Saturday. Hocking Hills still had plenty of green leaves, but I didn’t mind. They only accentuated the fleeting beauty of the fall hues around them.

Sunlight through the yellow leaves gave them the backlit brilliance like a stained glass window. The typical smell of fall leaves hung in the air. Ferns blanketed shady stretches deep in the gorge, punctuated by light purple asters and tiny pine cones.

By the time we finally reached the cave, I was breathing heavy and a little envious of Hazel’s free ride in the baby carrier backpack. Our exit would not be a leisurely chance to cool down. The last leg of the trail was the steepest.

We made our way up the cavern wall layer by layer. There were lots of steps, but th

e view was well worth it. Look to one side and we got a squirrel’s eye view of the forest — not quite above the trees like the birds, but far above the roots and underbrush. Look to the other side and we saw the browns and blacks of ancient sandstone all around us, carved by centuries of wind, rain and glacial melt — still solid under our feet and towering high above.

Old Man's Cave Hocking hills

If you need a reminder of how small you truly are and how big and beautiful the world really is, go to the forest.

Hocking Hills has been on my bucket list for years. Quite frankly, it still is.

One day is not enough to see it all.

The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.

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