Great Seal Sate Park Part 2: Signs of Spring

Wiggs and I were so impressed by our first visit to Great Seal on March 5 that when another Friday rolled around we decided to make a second visit. This time, on March 19, it was exactly two weeks later. In the spring, two weeks can make a big difference. The first time we went it was a frigid late-winter day and we didn’t see anything green. This time, the earth was showing clear signs of life, and I was very excited to watch the world waking up.

Mossy rocks on the Shawnee Ridge Trail

Seeing Red

Last year I became interested in (read: obsessed with) foraging mushrooms after reading Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone. It was the perfect year for it, with working from home during the beginning of the pandemic allowing me to spend more time than usual out among the trees. One of the first mushrooms I found when I started going to the woods was the scarlet cup, or Sarcoscypha mushroom. Since then, the Sarcoscypha has had a special place in my heart.

I was hoping to find some of these bright red beauties on this trip to Great Seal, since I hadn’t found any two weeks earlier. I had even made a crocheted version of the mushroom that morning, and I brought it to the woods with me just in case I found a real one to compare it to. (You know. For science.)

I started the hike as I usually do in the spring: With my eyes glued to the ground, hoping to catch a spot of bright red on the forest floor. I saw no mushrooms for the first few miles, but Wiggs spotted trout lily, with its characteristic mottled leaves and graceful, droopy white flowers. I remember finding and learning that plant last year on my first forays, and seeing them again made me smile.

White trout lily, Erythronium albidum

We climbed the steep slope to the summit of Sugarloaf once again, and again, I marveled at how hard of a climb it was, especially for Ohio. We came down the other side, took the correct turn this time, and continued on the Shawnee Ridge trail. At this point I had not seen any mushrooms, and I had given up trying to find one, working on the assumption that it was still too early.

Then, out of nowhere, as we were cresting the ridge on Bald Hill, I spotted one: a bright red scarlet cup partially hidden beneath a leaf. I gasped dramatically and dropped to my knees in front of the fungus. I was delighted. I took out my crocheted version and compared it to the real one: the outside of my handmade one is slightly too pink, but it’s pretty close.

Wiggs found another cluster nearby, and the more we saw, the more we kept finding. I love the vivid blood red of the inside of the cup and how starkly it contrasts with the earth tones of the woods, how tiny they are and how they tend to cluster together. To me the scarlet cup is a welcome sign of all the life that is to come, a harbinger of morels, pheasant back, mayapple, ramps, and flowers. I have so many fond memories of last year’s spring, and I can’t wait for another one traipsing in the woods.

Cluster of Sarcoscypha sp. mushrooms, also known as “scarlet cups” or “red elf cups.”

Rock On

Since we started slightly earlier this week than we did the last time, and since we now have an extra hour of daylight, we had more time to go farther on the trails on this second visit. Instead of turning around at the top of Bald Hill, this time we continued down the ridge, into the valley, and up another hill.

We found another couple of tiny Sarcoscypha and plenty more trout lily. There were a few rusting pieces of abandoned cars and a little pond that will probably be a mosquito paradise in a few months. The trail made a few steep switchbacks up another hill, and then meandered for a while down in a valley, before coasting upwards.

The path grew rockier, with boulders strewn here and there. Wiggs commented that he remembered a friend telling him about a “rock garden” around here somewhere, and soon enough, we were at the top of another hill and sauntering among a jumble of mossy sandstone boulders.

The Great Seal boulders

It quickly became clear that these were great boulders – bouldering boulders, the kind loved by climbers. Evidence of this fact was everywhere: chalk dust was smeared on slopers, crimps, and comfy jugs all around the area. I was thrown back to my climbing days in college and grad school, and the feeling in this place was not unlike that of Rocktown, a beautiful bouldering area in northwest Georgia.

We dropped our packs and sampled the climbing. I walked to the top of the hill, where an abandoned foundation of an old building was buried among a field of grasses and soon-to-be-blooming wildflowers. It was sunny and crisp, and the air smelled like leaves, and like memories, and like the spring life that was about to burst forth.

The light started getting that evening slant, and we realized that it was becoming late. We bid farewell to the boulders, promising to return with someone who owned a crash pad, and headed back the way we came.

Wiggs sampling the sandstone

Spring Peepers

I’ve experienced spring differently in the past two years than I ever have before. In 2019, I was on the Appalachian Trail, and I got to watch the world waking up slowly as I walked north. I didn’t know much about mushrooms or plants then (and I still have a lot to learn), but it was a joy to watch the world become green. In 2020, like most people, I was working from home, and I observed one piece of the earth gradually sliding into bloom. This was a closer, more systematic observation than on my thru-hike, as my eyes were more trained on the minute details of a place, over and over scanning the dirt for a hint of mushroom; scanning the trees and plants for recognition.

There’s no way to pinpoint the exact time when one season tips into the next, but this hike felt like the line between cold and warm, dead and alive, the not-yet and the already-here. I love Great Seal. It’s one of those places that just has something. I’m sure I’ll be back soon to look for the little details of spring.

My crocheted Sarcoscypha
The tiniest pair of scarlet cups you ever did see

Great Seal State Park: March 5

Ah, early March. Glorious, hope-filled, golden early March. The world hangs on the edge between melting winter and waiting spring. The days–crisp, but no longer frigid–grow steadily longer, stepping ever more quickly towards flowers. My eyes are pulled downwards for the first time since October, searching the forest floor for mushrooms that I know aren’t there yet, but aren’t far away now, either. Winter has its perks but spring–spring makes everything worth it.

It’s the time of year when staying inside begins to feel pointless. I was craving a hike, despite growing piles of essays to grade, and so on Friday, March 5, Wiggs and I decided to check out a new hiking location. We settled on Great Seal State Park near Chillicothe, about an hour due south of Columbus. We only had time for a short hike, but it was a perfect afternoon and a satisfying hike on surprisingly steep terrain. We both highly recommend a visit, and I think it’s likely that we will be there again soon.

Wiggs among the trees

Getting There

As usual, it took us a long time to hit the road. Wiggs had some assignments to finish and I was working on a cover letter. Eventually, we got enough of our respective work done that we felt good about going. We headed south out of Columbus, and, after a few mishaps with directions, construction, and the ever-infuriating challenge of figuring out which way to go on I-270, we were well on our way, following route 52 straight down to Chillicothe. It’s an easy, straightforward drive, and the entrance to the park is right off an easily accessible main road – no gravel or Forest Service roads to contend with this time.

There are two parking lots at Great Seal, and we realized very quickly that we had parked in the wrong one: the disc golf and picnic area lot. So we drove back towards the main entrance and parked where we wanted to be: the campground. There was no one there that afternoon, but the sheer number of pull-in spots suggests that the place could get quite crowded on a non-pandemic summer evening.

A dead elm, we think.

The Hike

Our plan was to take the Sugarloaf trail to the Shawnee Ridge trail. We found the trailhead right by the campground entrance, and upon entering the woods, I felt that familiar sense of settling and relief that comes with being among the trees. I knew it was too early for mushrooms to be popping out, but I kept finding myself with my eyes glued to the ground, searching for the bright red of Sarcoscypha sp or, even less likely this early, a morel. Nothing mycological showed itself to me on this day, but we did spot a number of auspicious trees that may prove fruitful come April.

Very excited to be outside

We took the trail to Sugarloaf Mountain, which meandered towards the north side of the slope and then steeply up to the summit. By non-Ohio standards, this was really just a hill. But compared to the flat, glaciated center of the state, it was a pretty impressive climb. It shot straight up the mountain, Appalachian Trail-style, gaining almost 500 feet in less than a quarter of a mile. I was genuinely working to get to the top, and it felt extremely invigorating.

There isn’t much of a view from the summit, but since the trees were still bare, we could see fairly clearly down towards the plains and north to Columbus. We could also see other wooded ridges to the south and west. We took it all in for a moment, and then continued down the equally steep downhill on the other side.

Not a ton of sweeping views at this summit, but it was satisfying to get to the top!

At a fork we took a right turn, which ended up putting us back at the campground. We turned around, realizing our mistake, and continued past the fork up to the Shawnee Ridge trail. The path wound its way around the sides of the ridge, then down into the valley and across creeks, before climbing Bald Hill. It still felt like winter here, and no green leaves were peeking out yet. We did, however, see a large herd of whitetail dear and, adorably, a chipmunk poking its little head out from a hole in a log.

We both felt great and could have kept going, but it was soon around 6:00 PM and the sun was starting to set. We stopped for a quick snack on a log, got cold very quickly, and meandered back towards the car. Before we left we were treated to a lovely sunset over the ridge by the parking lot. Neither of us was ready to stop hiking, but it was still so nice to have visited a new place, climbed a legitimate hill, and been in the woods again.

Sunset from the parking lot

About the Park

Even though I know that the name “Great Seal” refers to the Great Seal of the State of Ohio, I couldn’t stop picturing it as the animal. Like, the kind that lives in the ocean. This is not the meaning, unfortunately. Supposedly, the first governor and the first secretary of state once saw the sun rising over the hills at what is now Great Seal State Park after an all-night meeting in Chillicothe. This sunrise is said to have inspired the image that is now seen on the Great Seal of the State of Ohio.

Nearby Chillicothe was once the original capital of Ohio, and before that, it was the site of multiple Shawnee settlements in the shadow of the hills of what is now the state park. The Scioto river was utilized extensively by the Shawnee people for transportation from town to town. Tecumseh was born near what is now Circleville, and not far from Great Seal is the location of Chief Logan’s impassioned speech swearing revenge on the white settlers who murdered his people – now memorialized at the Logan Elm Memorial.

The park features an extensive network of trails, a campground, a disc golf course, and a pleasant picnic shelter. It is an hour south of Columbus, and makes a fine, satisfying day hike in Central Ohio. For the former Appalachian Trail hiker, it will take you right back to early spring in Georgia. In other words, you will feel right at home.

The extensive trail system at Great Seal State Park

Mishaps Make an Adventure: Paint Creek State Park, January 5, 2021

I always think about hiking, but I think about hiking the most when it is winter. Ohio has been covered in over a foot of snow for the past few weeks. Just about when I was recovered from COVID-19, the world turned frigid and the sidewalks froze over. Every run becomes a perilous oscillation between running on the street and jumping out of the way of cars and back into the snowbank. When I get home, inevitably cranky and annoyed at the current frozen state of the outdoors, I stare at photos of trails in the summer with longing.

It’s been a while since I went on a proper day hike, but there is one that stands out from recent months. On January 5, Wiggs and I met up in the middle of nowhere in Ohio, deep in Amish country, meaning to go for a hike at Fort Hill Earthworks and Nature Preserve. That did not pan out, but we did find another place to hike, which had surprisingly nice trails. Here’s how it went.

Nothing like a good puffball cloud

The Drive to Fort Hill

I was still at home in Kentucky in early January, while Wiggs was working in Columbus. He had a day off on January 5, so we agreed to meet about halfway for a visit at Fort Hill Earthworks and Nature Preserve. This revered hiking area has 1300 acres of old-growth forest and a Hopewell hilltop enclosure, built about 2,000 years ago. This is an Ohio History Passport site, so in addition to experiencing a new hiking area, I was also excited to get another stamp.

I made the hour and 45 minute drive from Cincinnati in the dreary weather, which hovered somewhere between light snow and a drizzle. I took a wrong turn, and was rerouted down a smaller county road. Soon, I was passing white farm houses with black buggies parked out front, clotheslines running from windows to trees, and signs that read “Handmade Baskets for sale – No Sun. Sale.” I only ever seem to wind up in Amish country when I don’t mean to. I take a turn, find myself deep in the smooth country hills of Ohio, and end up in another era.

When I finally arrived at Fort Hill, the first thing I saw was Wiggs waiting in his car. The next thing I saw was a locked gate where the entrance should be. I pulled up next to Wiggs, who looked dejected. As it turns out, there was a deer management hunt on this day, and so the grounds and hiking trails were closed. We had driven too far to just turn around and go home, so we decided to drive up the road until we found service, and navigate to another hiking location in the area. We soon found service, pulled into the tiny gravel parking lot of a tiny country church, and searched on Google Maps. The nearest place was Paint Creek State Park, so we navigated there.

Trail closure sign at Fort Hill

Paint Creek State Park

When we pulled into the park, it was totally deserted. We drove down to the lake, which was low enough to have created a sandbar. We walked on the sand, noting freshwater clam shells and great blue heron tracks. There was driftwood, and something oddly peaceful about this dreary day by the side of a lake.

We drove back up the hill and parked by a sign for a mountain bike trail. The map on the sign showed a large network of trails that looped down towards the water, then back on themselves, then outward again. Taken together, they would make a decent day hike – maybe 15 miles. We headed into the woods, opting for the trail closest to the lake.

Clams and rocks along the lake

It was easy walking, alternating between flat grassy paths through underbrush and thinner, forested trails. At first, the views and the trees were unimpressive, but the trail gave way to clear views down to the lake and became populated with all kinds of trees, including ideal mushroom trees: tulip poplar, elm, oak, sycamore. We found a tree covered in oyster mushrooms, just past their prime – otherwise they would have made a great harvest. Given the density of the elms and tulip poplars, we decided to come back during morel season.

Oyster mushrooms growing on a tree next to the trail

We took a lunch break on a large log overlooking the water. It was cold, though, so we didn’t stop for long. After lunch we continued up and over hills, around small ridges, and across creek beds, until it began to get dark and we decided to call it a day. Before heading home we drove north to the town of Greenfield, where we found a little coffee shop called The Grindhouse Café. We got pastries and coffees, and drove to a park to eat them. Considering that it was gray and drizzling, we sat in my car rather than getting out. And considering that this was not a particularly nice park, and was mostly just a parking lot, this was probably preferable anyway. My cappuccino was warm and the pastry was sweet, and even though the day didn’t go quite as planned, we were still glad for the time outside and together.

The map at the trailhead of Paint Creek State Park

Make it Work

I was disappointed not to be able to see Fort Hill that day, but we made an adventure out of it anyway. Paint Creek may not be a world-class hiking destination, but it was fun, it was a new experience, and it might just be our next great mushroom hunting destination. Yet again, hiking provided a life lesson: Frequently, things will not go the way you want them to, or the way you expect. You can be upset, you can drive home in a huff, you can be mad that it didn’t go the way you envisioned it. Or, you can make it work. You can drive to a new destination and see what happens. I’m glad we made it work.

Winter Hike in Hocking Hills

A week and a half ago I started feeling the beginnings of a sore throat, and then the next day I woke up with a fever. I decided to get a Covid-19 test, and it was positive. I have been in self-isolation for the past nine days with persistent fatigue, lack of taste and smell, and now, a powerful cough. On the bright side, it’s cold out, so it doesn’t feel like too much of an inconvenience to be cozy in my apartment. But I am beginning to get a bit antsy, and my mind inevitably wanders to the thought of being outside and with other people.

I was fortunate to be able to go on a number of smaller hikes before Christmas. One of them, on December 18, was a lovely little trip to Hocking Hills State Park with Wiggs and his brother, Collin. Although I grew up in Northern Kentucky and currently live in Columbus, I had never been to this beautiful place before, so we decided to make the trip as a last hurrah to the fall semester. Here are a few highlights from this day.

In the gorge at Hocking Hills State Park

Getting Started

December 18 was one of my last days in town before heading home for Christmas. As a college writing teacher, I was also in the thick of grading final papers and managing a flurry of panicked emails before grades were due. I was stressed out. We debated the merits of going when Wiggs and I both had so much to do, but we ultimately decided that one never regrets spending time outside. So, although we got a late start, we still made the trip, and I am so happy we did. Wiggs drove, I stress-crocheted, and Collin sat in the back peacefully consuming a tray of cinnamon bites from Taco Bell on the hour and a half drive to Hocking Hills.

It wasn’t a particularly sunny day, but it had just snowed, and a graceful dusting of white covered the trees and grass. The highway ended and we made our way down a winding road, stopping at the Hocking Hills Coffee Emporium for a cozy cappuccino and snacks. When we got to the state park it was nearly empty, considering that it was winter and a weekday. It felt like we had the place almost to ourselves.

Wiggs at Upper Falls

Hocking Hills: A Brief History

Hocking Hills has a fascinating natural and cultural history. Its now-famous natural rock formations were created by millions of years of erosion into the soft Black Hand Sandstone that characterizes the area. Because this erosion formed an uncharacteristically cool and moist environment, certain species of trees, such as hemlocks and yews, are able to grow here, although they are not typically found anywhere else in Ohio.

The Adena people – the same people who built many of the mounds in Ohio – are thought to have lived in the area, followed by the Shawnee, Delaware, and Wyandot peoples. Hocking Hills derives its name from the Shawnee word “Hockhocking,” meaning, roughly, “bottleneck river,” due to the shape of the gorge and the narrow channels of rock that the river flows through.

One of the most famous areas of Hocking Hills, and one that we visited, is Old Man’s Cave. This formation is so named because of the hermit Richard Rowe, who was said to have lived in the cave after moving to Ohio from Tennessee in the late 1700s. Supposedly, Rowe is buried in the cave.

Stepping into the gorge at Hocking Hills is like entering another universe. On this day, it was a peaceful, cool, fragrant, snow-covered universe, one that I was enormously happy to visit.

Inside Old Man’s Cave

Hiking in the Gorge

We started the hike by descending the staircase on the Grandma Gatewood Trail towards the Upper Falls. We admired the deep, clear pool and the cascading stream of water, mercifully free of any other visitors. We continued down the gorge, passing the Devil’s Bathtub, and enjoying the rock formations, caves, and meandering trail crossing over and back over the creek. We walked up towards Old Man’s Cave, admiring its vastness, then down further into the valley to the Lower Falls.

The Lower Falls, in particular, struck me as extraordinarily beautiful. The hemlocks on the cliffs above and the boulders below were dusted with a fine layer of snow. The chilly air brushed against my face. It smelled fresh and clear, and I was so glad to be outside in this beautiful place instead of staring at a computer screen.

Lower Falls

We continued down the trail towards Cedar Falls. The path followed a flat, pleasant walk through the valley. We meandered first towards the creek, then along the side of the pocketed sandstone cliffs, and then back down again. I couldn’t get over the smell. It was so clean and fresh, with the water and the snow and the hemlocks. It didn’t feel like Ohio, or anywhere else I’d been. It was just beautiful, quiet, and serene.

We stopped for lunch at Cedar Falls. Here there were more tourists, including one who decided to sit on a rock right in front of the waterfall for a considerable length of time, thereby subjecting everyone’s lovely nature photographs to the addition of a strange man vaping on a rock. Everyone should be able to enjoy the beauty of a natural area, but friends, please be self-aware, and don’t be that guy. Inconsiderate visitors aside, it was a lovely location for a sandwich and a cup of hot tea, brewed by Collin, who is just beginning to get into backpacking and who brought along his stove. I was grateful for the warmth of the drink in the chilly winter day.

Cedar Falls (strategically photographed to avoid the vaper on the rock)

Hiking Along the Rim

I didn’t want to leave the waterfall. It was so beautiful and serene. But it was getting late, so we climbed the stairs to the top of the falls and made a loop back around on the Ash Rim Trail overlooking the gorge.

This trail is smooth, flat, and wide, and since it is in the woods above the creek rather than down among the rocks, we covered the distance more quickly. Though it is arguably not as scenic as the trail down in the gorge, it is still beautiful, and it was especially beautiful in the snow. There was an overlook out towards the hills on the other side of the valley, and the pines and hemlocks were dusted with a light, frothy layer of snow.

The trail makes its way past the south shore of Rose Lake. We stood looking at the snowy trees on the other side of the water. Wiggs found a large stick that made a fun whooshing noise, so he and Collin had a fun time playing with it on the edge of the lake. Classic antics.

We continued through the forest, eventually arriving at the A-frame suspension bridge over the gorge that leads back to the Old Man’s Cave visitor center. It was by now almost dark, considering that it was winter and that we’d gotten quite a late start, so we loaded back up in the car, calmer and happier, and made our way back to Columbus.

Fun time at Rose Lake with a stick

You Never Regret a Hike

Although going for a hike didn’t make any of my work disappear or magically make me more motivated to grade thirty argument essays, it restored me and refreshed me and put me back into a positive mindset. I am the kind of person who lives and breathes by to-do lists, measuring the value of my day against how much I got done. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how, in the long run, tasks and minute daily accomplishments don’t really matter. There’s a balance to be had between getting one’s work done and doing what has meaning. I have a feeling that managing this balance is a lifelong lesson, and one I look forward to learning.

What I’m really trying to say is, just go for a hike. If you have a lot to do but you want to go outside, just go outside. If you have papers to grade but your soul is begging you for a day in the woods, go to the woods. Smell the waterfalls and the hemlocks and play with a stick in the snow. Be with your friends and love the world. You never, ever, regret a hike.

The suspension bridge over the gorge, leading back to the Visitor Center

Wildcat Hollow: December 9, 2020

Keeping my writing up-to-date is one of my numerous New Year’s resolutions. I struggle to write as often as I’d like, despite the fact that, if I’m honest with myself, I really do have the time. But instead of updating my blog I sometimes decide to do things like binging all of The Queen’s Gambit in one night. I justify this by telling myself that I can crochet while watching TV, so it’s not a waste of time. But in reality, I only get half of a cactus done because my eyes end up glued to the screen. Ah, well. It’s something to work on.

Anyway, let’s talk about hiking! Back in December Wiggs and I took a day to explore a new (to us) hiking area in Ohio called Wildcat Hollow. It was a beautiful day, a fun ride, and a great place to hike.

Puffballs and their spores

To The Trail

We got a somewhat decently early start on the morning of December 9, packing lunch and snacks and heading east out of Columbus. The drive was easy at first, following I-70 before an exit onto OH-33 and then a series of smaller county routes. The road grew smaller and narrower, until it was a gravel path passing small towns and abandoned houses and leading into Wayne National Forest. Finally we located the trailhead, parked, and began our day.

I don’t know why we didn’t think to bring overnight gear. There are several great-looking campsites right by the parking lot, and there is a Forest Service privy right at the trailhead. Dispersed camping is also allowed, and we passed numerous sites throughout the day, though the water quality might be doubtful considering the heavy agricultural activity in the area. We kicked ourselves for this oversight all day. We passed up a chance to sleep in the woods! But now we know, and we will be back.

Wiggs and the carnivorous sign-eating tree

The Hike

It was a glorious day. Everything was bathed in a warm, golden light as we began the hike in the muddy valley. The trail forked right, and climbed a small hill to a ridge line. Though it was winter and the woods were lacking in color, the sunlight and blue sky made up for the absence of foliage. As I breathed in I was thrown back to Georgia in March on the Appalachian Trail: no green, no shade, but crisp chilly sunlight, fresh air, and the excitement of everything that lay ahead.

The trail at Wildcat Hollow is well maintained for the most part, and the hiking was fairly easy. We followed the ridge for a while, then dipped down into a valley. This pattern repeated for a while: ridgeline cruising, valley creek crossing. Ridge, valley, creek. We also stumbled upon a beaver bog, punctuated by gnawed-down trees. I crouched quietly behind a stump for a few moments, hoping to see the creators of the wetland. None appeared, but I always love seeing the evidence of their engineering.

We also found a large fallen tree riddled with moss and puffballs. Wiggs poked them, coaxing a cloud of spores out into the forest. There was also, less beautifully but no less interesting, a slowly deteriorating TV with its magic board of switches and sensors strewn about the forest floor. How did this TV get here? And how many mushroom spores have brushed against its forever-lasting plastic and metal?

Natural intricacies

I felt good on this hike, almost as good as I did on the AT. I’ve been running a lot over the past few months, as I want to run a half-marathon in 2021. I felt better than I remembered on any recent day hike, like the climbs barely affected me and like I could go on and on. Wiggs and I meandered in and out of conversation, sometimes about what was around us, other times about what was not. We always orbit back to the Appalachian Trail, reminiscing, then fly away again to other worlds. Until I hike another long trail, this will be the gravity around which I stake my life.

We had a quick lunch after about five miles, and then we headed back the way we came. I cut my hand on a branch and nearly fell into a creek, but such are the usual casualties of a good day of hiking. We finished the loop we had started, passing first an RV and then a small house before heading back into the woods, around another ridge, and downhill to the valley where we started. We bade the mushrooms and trees and sunlight adieu, and got into the car.

I wished we’d thought to look up camping before we left, but it was still nice to spend a day outside. It was a bit of a trek from Columbus, but I’d still be more than happy to go back for a campfire and a clear spring morning among the trees.

Go beavers!

Location and Information

Go see it for yourself! Wildcat Hollow is located in Wayne National Forest, about 40 minutes north of Athens and 1 hour and 45 minutes southeast of Columbus. There is a five-mile day hike loop and a 17.1-mile backpacking loop. The hiking is mild and it is possible to complete a long day hike fairly quickly. A USFS vault toilet and several excellent campsites await at the parking lot, and dispersed camping is also allowed on the trails. I might suggest bringing enough water for the whole trip, however, as the area sees a lot of agricultural activity and the water in the creeks may be iffy.

More information about the area can be found at the Forest Service website.

A printable trail map is also available.

Enjoy!

A wild Wiggs at the Wildcat Hollow sign

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 2

Thursday, October 29

I awake to rain on the roof of the tent. It’s a steady patter, decidedly not a drizzle, and it looks like the weather prediction came true. Though it was forecasted to be a downpour today, last night in my optimistic mind there was a chance that maybe it wouldn’t actually happen. But it did––it rained all day, in a thick, steady curtain of plopping drops. It wasn’t too bad when we were moving, but the moment we stopped for lunch or a snack, the cold smacked us hard and we didn’t want to stay still for long.

We got a pretty late start. I don’t think I even got up until after 9:00. We had coffee and breakfast in the tent and procrastinated getting moving as long as we possibly could, until about 10:30. Once we got going, it was actually a lovely day. What is it about hiking that makes even the dreariest of days an adventure? How can I be happier in the gray Ohio woods than inside, under blankets and with a hot cup of tea? (Don’t get me wrong, though. I wanted those all day too.)

Chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulphureus

Zaleski looks similar to Shawnee. That’s probably not surprising, considering that both are in southern Ohio, which in late fall is characterized by rolling hills, wet rocks, and deciduous trees in the last throes of autumn colors. But there are fewer ups and downs, and it didn’t really feel all that difficult for the most part. There were numerous caves, waterfalls, rock formations, pretty creeks, and cliffs with views across valleys. We also found a large flush of chicken of the woods growing on a dead tree. It turned out to be past its prime, but I was glad to have finally found some after looking for it all fall.

We stopped for lunch on a log under a couple of young beech trees. It was still drizzling, so we made a little canopy for ourselves by tying the corners of my polycryo ground sheet to the branches. Within moments of stopping, the chilly air bit through our wet clothes and my feet stared to go numb. But we brewed some hot lunchtime coffee and it tasted like the warmest, most comforting thing in the world. Immediately after we started walking again after lunch, we found a cave with a massive overhanging rock over a dry fire ring. It would have made a perfect lunch or camping spot. We considered stopping there for the day, but it was only 3:00 and we had so many miles left in us. Ah, well. Such is backpacking.

Our lunch setup. We felt so clever!… And then it stopped raining five minutes later.

Considering that there are fewer ups and downs here than we’re used to, we made it to camp in pretty good time even with the rain. In total, we did about 11.5 miles today to camp 3. When we got to camp it had just stopped raining, but it soon started up again just as I headed down to the spigot to get water. We had a cramped in-tent dinner and finished off our wine boxes. The setup was not ideal, and I really missed having a fire, but such is life. This was followed by assorted camp chores, and finally, we lay down and settled in for the night.

Wiggs remarked to me today that I seem more comfortable out here, more like the person he met and fell in love with a year ago. I can agree. On the trail I know what I’m about. It may be raining, I may smell like garbage, and all of my gear may be soaked to the core, but I am comfortable here. I know how to handle things and carry myself. I know how to use my gear and how to get through. How do I harness that version of myself the moment I step out of the woods? I’ve been wondering over that question for a while now.

A Satisfying Hike in Clear Creek Metro Park

In the height of morel season, my visits with Wiggs were energetic, even frenetic: Each day we would go on at least one walk in a different park to inspect the bases of elms and poplars and comb the woods for mushrooms. It seems to me that since then, and since finding our first morels, we’ve calmed down a bit. Maybe it’s the warmer weather, or the gleam of quarantine rubbing off, or my sadness that I’m not in Europe right now, exploring Ireland and hiking the Camino with my mom like I was supposed to. Or maybe in the wake of the George Floyd protests and the wave of increased worldwide awareness of the insidiousness of white supremacy, I feel a sense of overwhelmed urgency, a worrying that at any given time I’m not doing enough.

Whatever the case, I didn’t spend as much time in the woods in late May and early June as I did in April, and I was missing it. So on my most recent visit to Columbus, Wiggs and I decided it was time to get back on the trail. He had visited Clear Creek Metro Park with his family a couple of months before, and he thought I would enjoy a long day hike there. So we got up early, packed a lunch, and headed south.

Trail map of Clear Creek Metro Park, Ohio

The Park

Clear Creek is located about 40 minutes southeast of Columbus, just off OH-33 near the town of Rockbridge. It is located on the stolen ancestral lands of the Shawnee, Osage, Hopewell, and Adena people.

The drive to Clear Creek is very pleasant. The roadwork and hubbub of the metro area fades and gently rolls into green hills that from a distance bear a striking resemblance to the landscape in Virginia along the Appalachian Trail. This is the part of Ohio where the glaciers didn’t flatten the land; the unglaciated Appalachian plateau where hills still abound and cornfields give way to forest. Driving there felt like breathing again. Ohio isn’t all corn and fields and Confederate flag-painted barns and threatening “hell is real” billboards after all. This landscape exists too, and it is a blessing to be a visitor here.

Clear Creek Metro Park features over 5,300 acres of woodland interspersed with blackhand sandstone cliffs, ravines and creeks and is home to more than 2,200 species of plants and animals. Forested areas range from Canadian hemlocks and ferns, to oak and hickory, to Ohio’s last remaining colonies of rhododendron. Home to Ohio’s largest state nature preserve.

-Clear Creek Metro Park Website

All in all, there are about 12 miles of trails in the park, though many of them loop and reconnect in various ways, and it would be easier to make a longer or shorter day depending on your preference. On this particular day, we selected a combination of trails that enabled us to hike about 8 miles overall, each one of which was verdant, quiet, and precisely what we needed.

Wiggs walking on the Cemetery Ridge Trail

The Hike

We began our hike at the Creekside Meadows picnic area. True to the name, the trail first meanders into a meadow, with the creek on one side and tall grasses full of buzzing insects on the other. After rounding a curve the Creekside Meadows trail turns into the Cemetery Ridge Trail, which crosses the road and heads sharply uphill.

Though this first hill caught me off guard, the trail was very well maintained and I never felt like the grade was unbearable. A few pitstops for breath-catching and water-drinking and we were at the top of the ridge, which the trail followed for most of the rest of the day.

One of the first landmarks we arrived at was an old barn dating back to the 1800s. It is open for exploration, though we didn’t find much inside besides some fallen boards, an adorable toad, and an owl that took off as soon as we approached. As it was sprinkling a bit by this point, we decided to stop here for lunch, which we enjoyed while listening to the light patter of rain on the old roof.

The old barn on the Cemetery Ridge Trail where we had lunch, scared an owl, and saw a very cute toad

We continued on the Cemetery Ridge Trail until it met an open meadow dotted here and there with daisies. We continued straight onto the Chestnut Trail, which was a bit hillier and dipped into valleys, crossed small creeks, and came back up onto the ridge several times. It was on this section of the trail that we saw the most people, including a hiker with a full, large backpacking pack. Wiggs asked him if there was camping around here and he said no, he was training for the Colorado Trail. We were both instantly jealous, smiling wide and imagining all the mountains. We wished him luck and he kept on hiking the other way.

We took a break for water and snacks, then turned back the way we came and headed once more for the Cemetery Ridge Trail, noticing as we walked back the other way that there were Monotropa uniflora, Indian pipe plants, everywhere on the forest floor. These parasitic, mycoheterotrophic plants take in nutrients from mycorrhizal fungus and grow only in the perfect conditions. They were all over the Appalachian Trail, and though they are a bit creepy, it was nice to see them again, like someone you recognize from a different time.

Monotropa uniflora, the mycoheterotroph “Indian pipe” plant

Meeting back up with the junction, we turned right, continuing the loop, and hiked back down to the road and the meadows by the creek. It was late afternoon by now, and we had made good time, so we found a bench by the wide, peacefully flowing creek and sat down. I enjoyed the way my limbs felt tired and worked, though this distance was nothing compared to an average day on the AT. In a weird way I love the pulsing in my heels, the tightness in my calves, the slight shortness of breath that tells me I walked here. I sat eating sriracha peas, enjoying the creek, enjoying being with my partner, kind and adventurous and full of life, whom I met by chance because we both walked really far in the same direction in the same year. How lucky. How right.

We completed the flat mile and a half along a combination of the road and a dirt path right next to the creek, eventually ending up at the back of the parking lot where we had started. I stretched, took a last sip of water, and got in the car.

Love to Ohio

Without Wiggs, I never would have given central Ohio much thought, much less given thought to the idea of moving there. I think there’s an Ohio-shaped space in the brain of every American, and that space is full of boring rows of corn and small towns on the edge of a flat plateau surrounded by Amish farms. I should have known there was more; after all, I was raised in Kentucky, and what’s the stereotypical Kentucky-shaped space in the mind? Hillbillies and soda? Horses and coal? When there’s a whole nuanced world of beauty here: Sandstone so beautiful you can’t help but breathe it in, and fields of flowers by wide wandering creeks, and towns with heart, and waterfalls and caves tumbling into forever. No place is ever fully what it seems.

There were interesting rock formations along the road to the park and along the Cemetery Ridge Trail, including this pocketed standstone intermingling with tree roots.

I’d like to go back to Clear Creek and do a longer day hike. There is no camping there, but if you get an early start you might be able to walk every trail and feel satisfyingly tired by dinner time. There are several picnic areas and parking lots with well-maintained privies, in addition to areas where you can fish in the creek. There are flat trails to walk in the valley if long hilly rambles aren’t your thing, and there are wide possibilities for big days if you don’t do small hikes. The day we went it was pleasantly quiet and uncrowded; it was also a weekday, however, so this may not be the case all the time.

After the hike, we left the rolling hills and slowly meandered back through the highways and buildings and intersections, back to Wiggs’s house and showers and beer. It’s nice to know that there’s a place nearby that feels like the AT, where there are conifers and plants I know and quiet woods.

Daisies in the field at the junction of the Cemetery Ridge and Chestnut trails

Exploring at Home

For someone who likes distance, this year has been hard. At first I was going to Scotland; that was obviously cancelled a while ago. Then I thought about hiking the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota. That no longer seems feasible or responsible, as much of the state is still shut down, and a three-plus week thru hike would render it difficult to get supplies without potentially exposing small towns to the virus.

So I’ve made the decision to do neither of these things, and instead stay closer to home. Now sections of the Sheltowee Trace or the Buckeye Trail are on the table as summer plans. At first I resisted something so close, but the more I learned about the trails, the more I opened up. Why is it that I resist an experience just because it is close to home? How did I not know how beautiful a semi-local trail could be? Why is something only sexy when it is foreign or exotic or new?

There are amazing things everywhere, including Ohio and Kentucky. Over the past few months I’ve begun to scratch the surface of places nearby I’d never been to before. Here are a few of them.

Middle Creek Park, Burlington, KY

My mom and I stumbled upon Middle Creek by accident. We were trying to go to Boone Cliffs Nature Preserve one evening for a walk in place other than our familiar haunts in Villa Hills and Fort Mitchell. But when we got to Boone Cliffs, we discovered that it was closed, the parking lot gated shut. Noticing a sign back on KY-18 for Middle Creek Park, we followed the arrow to the left, past Dinsmore Homestead, and discovered a massive parking lot at the Middle Creek Park trailhead.

Intrigued, we parked and began walking, descending a steep hill to follow the creek. What struck me first was two things: the omnipresent fungi on logs and beneath trees, and the fields of Blue-Eyed Mary everywhere beneath the shagbark hickory, honey locust, elm, and sycamore trees dotting the low-lying plain by the creek. Morel country, my brain whispered to me. I found Flammulina velipites, the edible enokitake mushroom; Cerioporus squamosus, pheasant back, and a variety of other mushrooms. I was elated.

The park contains over five miles of trail, including a large loop that crosses the creek on a bridge and winds its way over flat forest floor and up and over hills on the southeast side of the park. Numerous smaller trails connect to them main loop, providing for an easy way to cut the large 3-mile route shorter, if you so wish.

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The trails at Middle Creek park

That first night, my mom and I made it over the Trail 1 bridge and a bit past it, before we realized that it was late and we ought to be heading home. A week later, I took Wiggs back to Middle Creek and we completed the whole loop. It gets more difficult after the bridge, becoming a more classically hilly Kentucky hike, but there are fewer visitors farther east and south in the park, providing for a quiet, relaxing walk in the trees.

Middle Creek Park is located on KY-18 past Burlington and across the street from Dinsmore Homestead and Dinsmore Woods.

Wolsing Woods Trails, Independence, KY

In our manic quest to find morels, Wiggs and I searched several parks in Ohio and Kentucky in March and April. Though we didn’t find any mushrooms at all at Wolsing, this small park between housing developments was a pleasant surprise on a warm, sunny afternoon.

It’s a bit odd getting to Wolsing Woods. Approaching the park, the road takes a large dip and across a crowded railroad track. I almost got backed into by a large flatbed truck. I crossed the tracks quickly and, recovering, parked in the small lot at the edge of the trail.

These trails aren’t exactly quiet or wild; you can see the houses through the young woods at the tops of nearby hills, and a train line runs right past it. Nevertheless, there are some cool features. Many of the trees are labeled, so that walkers can learn how to identify honey locust, white ash, sycamore, maple, and American elms. The trail follows Bancklick Creek, a large tributary of the Licking River. When we were there, the whole area was covered in blooming Virginia Bluebells.

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Fields of Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebell, at Wolsing Woods

At one end of the trail, we followed the path all the way down to the water. It was here that Wiggs spotted a tiny baby snapping turtle, smaller than the palm of his hand! We held and observed the reptile for a while, admiring the prehistoric look of him and his wet shell glinting in the sunlight, before continuing on.

The Wolsing Trails are completely flat, and would make a nice easy stroll if you’re looking for a mild afternoon walk in the area. This park can be reached from Turkeyfoot road or KY-536. For more information, visit the Wolsing Trails website.

Three Creeks Metro Park, Columbus, OH

This park isn’t exactly local if you live in Northern Kentucky or Cincinnati, I realize. But Columbus has become a bit of an adopted home for me, as that’s where Wiggs lives at the moment. We haven’t done as much exploring here as we have done in Kentucky, but this was one of the parks that we have recently visited, and I found it to be impressive for a city park.

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Map of trails and amenities at Three Creeks Metro Park, Columbus

Though Three Creeks is more of a bike-friendly park than a hiker haven, it is impressively large and beautiful for being right in the Columbus metro area. We started our walk at a parking lot near a pond where many people were fishing. We connected to the Alum Creek Greenway Trail, a paved bike path, and crossed Big Walnut Creek on a footbridge, following the path past numerous ponds, marshes, and even a large grove of pine trees. Along the way we happened to run into Wiggs’s friend Steve, whom we chatted with for a bit before continuing on the trail towards Heron Pond, another massive pond around which numerous fishers were gathered.

We followed a trail around this pond, returning to the main trail, and headed back towards the car. On the way we found a trail that leaves the bike path and enters the woods along Alum Creek to the Confluence, where Alum, Big Walnut, and Blackclick creeks meet. This path was quieter, softer, and flanked by massive sycamore and elm trees. Had it been earlier in the season, this may have been a nice morel hunting spot.

All in all, it was a pleasant day for a flat four-mile walk. I was envious of the bikers; I sold my bike a couple of years ago when I was leaving Flagstaff, and the prospect of such lovely paths made me miss it.

Middle Creek Park can be reached from numerous locations in southeast Columbus. For more information, visit the Columbus Metro Parks website.

Local Park Appreciation

Sometimes, as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail, I would find myself developing a large ego about the fact that I had been on the AT for so long, forgetting that the vast majority of trail users are day hikers and section hikers, not thru-hikers. After a thru-hike, a hike that lasts less than several days can feel too short, or not good enough.

But I don’t think this mentality is healthy. Being able to go on a thru-hike is an enormous privilege, and most people do not have the time or resources required to do it. But the outdoors is a critical part of life. Becoming more aware of local parks and green spaces has made me understand this even more. We need trees and creeks and paths like we need food. Until this is all over, and even after that, we need to appreciate the nature that is close by.