Tar Hollow State Park: April-May 2021

The semester is winding to a close, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to go out for some really great hikes recently. April is prime morel time, and though between Wiggs and me we only found a handful this year, it felt like a victory for our second-ever foraging season. We have been spending a lot of time at Columbus Metro Parks, especially Battelle Darby, and we have also gotten out of the city for some longer hikes.

Last Monday I had plans to go hiking with some friends, which ended up falling through. I still had the whole Monday free, though, so I made a day of it by going to Tar Hollow State Park. I loved it so much that Wiggs and I returned there this past weekend for a two-day backpacking trip. It’s classic Ohio hiking, with woody, humid trails along ridges and through lush green valleys. Though we woke up in a literal puddle (which seems to be a regular occurrence on our backpacking overnights), it was a fantastic few days at a beautiful state park.

Trillium grandiflorum, great white trillium

My First Exploration: Monday, April 26

I made the decision to go to Tar Hollow somewhat late in the day, since my friends and I had been planning to do a local hike in Columbus. Because of this, I didn’t have a ton of time to hike on this afternoon. But still, I made the lovely hour and fifteen minute drive south towards Circleville and enjoyed a few hours in the sunshine.

I elected to first hike a short loop along a creek at the southern edge of the park. The reasoning was twofold: I wanted to walk through the massive pine trees that line the entrance road, and I wanted to see if I could find any mushrooms. There were gobs of tulip poplars and sycamores along the banks, and and as the forest transitioned into the coniferous zone, the smell of pine trees mingled with the faint scent of flowers. It was intoxicating. It’s not terribly common, at least in my experience, to find such massive pine trees in Ohio, and I was elated.

I was not successful in my morel hunt, but I did find a colony of mica caps about to emerge from the ground, as well as the most perfect cluster of devil’s urn, Urnula craterium, I’ve ever seen. There were mosses and ferns galore on the west side of the loop, and I stopped at nearly every tulip poplar to prowl the ground underneath. I officially gave up trying to find any Morchella. It didn’t really matter, since I was outside, in a beautiful forest, among the wildflowers.

Urnula craterium, devil’s urn mushroom

I decided to take a break before doing part of the north backpacking loop. I found a nice spot by the creek with a sycamore tree. I got out my little groundsheet and was about to sit down when my eye slid to the ground to the left of my foot. It was old, a little crumbly, and definitely past its prime, but there it was all the same: undeniably, a morel.

I couldn’t help laughing out loud. The only time I’ve ever found them was when I expressly told the forest that I had given up. Mushrooms feel like little tricksters the more I look for them. They are the spirits of the forest, the little Ghibli characters of the woods. They live by their own rules, and I love them for it.

After the snack, I headed up the hill to do a mile or so on the north loop. It was getting pretty late, so I didn’t have a lot of time, but I still enjoyed the satisfying climb and the lush, green woods. Before I left I came back down the hill and sat by the lake for a few moments, enjoying the peaceful evening and watching the birds dart back and forth over the water.

Iris cristata, dwarf crested iris

Overnight Trip: May 2-3

Wiggs and I both had two consecutive days off for once, and we had originally planned to go to Wildcat Hollow for an overnight. However, after my trip to Tar Hollow earlier in the week, we decided to go back and see more of this park.

As usual, we didn’t get the early start that we wanted to on the 2nd. We also didn’t plan out our route as well as we could have, so our mileage that day was not terribly impressive. That being said, it was still a beautiful day, and we enjoyed a few miles on the Buckeye Trail and the north portion of the Logan Trail. We visited the fire tower and continued down a very large hill to a rerouted section. As we were unable to find any stealth sites (the AT definitely spoiled us on this front), we decided to set up camp at the backpackers’ campground by the fire tower.

The fire tower near the backpacker’s campground

We decided to stop early for the day, and I set up the hammock I’d brought between two perfect white oaks. We listened to music, wrote, and talked. This time of year, it feels so pointless to be inside. I feel stifled and uninspired between the walls. Under the trees, swinging in a hammock, a person feels more infinite.

We ended the day with a campfire and a good ol’ cup of ramen cooked over a camp stove. It started to rain a bit, and we decided to call it a night.

On Monday the 3rd, we woke up to the steady patter of rain on silnylon and a puddle surrounding our sleeping pads. As usual, we had chosen the worst possible tent site at the camp: a miniature lake started at the head of the tent and continued right through it. Though it was early, we decided to use the break in the rain to make breakfast and get out of the sopping shelter.

Womp, womp. Wiggs and the very soaked tent.

It was supposed to rain steadily all day, but we sat there for an hour drinking coffee and it held off. We figured it would be a good chance to get at least a few miles in, so we packed up our disgusting, dripping gear and started on the north loop the way we’d come the day before.

A few miles in, the rain had still not come. We followed the Logan Trail east and north, past the campground and across a few roads. We had initially planned to turn around at point G, but by the time we got there the weather was pleasant and we were both feeling good, so we decided to keep going and finish the whole north loop.

This loop isn’t particularly scenic, as in, there are no real views apart from a brief break in the trees which provides a vista of another hill in the distance. It is very lovely, though, especially the parts that wind through vibrant green valleys with the trail following a creek. There were some decent climbs as well—not Appalachian Trail level, but certainly on par with Shawnee State Forest.

Trail marker for the Logan Trail at point G on the north loop

Apart from a few brief sprinkles, the rain held off all morning. I actually prefer hiking in cloudy weather to hiking in the sun, and between the gloom and the cool temperature, and apart from my wet socks, it was a surprisingly perfect day for a hike.

Towards the end of the loop, the trail enters another valley full of ferns, sycamores, and ivy. My mood turned quiet and peaceful in this place, in the cool early afternoon. I wasn’t expecting to have such a lovely hike today, and the forest felt like a gift.

By the time we returned to the fire tower, Wiggs and I were both weak with hunger. We had just enough food left for an enjoyable lunch: he cooked up a pot of ramen, while I enjoyed a packet of pink salmon in olive oil and Babybel cheese on an everything bagel. An overnight hike is nothing compared to a thru, but it does have its gustatory benefits.

We returned to the car and calculated our distance for the day: about 11.5 miles in total. Not bad for a day when we were planning to do a rainy 4. We traded in our soaked, muddy hiking shoes for sandals, put our nasty gear in the trunk, and started the drive back to Columbus—just in time, too, as it immediately began to rain in earnest.

Walking through one of the lush valleys on the north loop

Location and Information

Directions: I was surprised to learn how close Tar Hollow is to Columbus: a mere hour and fifteen minutes, depending on which part of the city you’re starting from. From Columbus, take US-23 south to Circleville, then take a left on OH-56 towards Adelphi, and then turn right on OH-180, which turns into OH-327 S. In about 8 miles, you’ll see the sign for Tar Hollow State Park. Turn right at the sign. The Logan Trailhead parking is the first parking lot on the left, down a big hill towards a campground.

The Trail: The Logan Trail is the main trail we hiked during our trip. It forms a figure 8 shape, with two major loops: north and south, which total at about 21 miles. The north loop is described as the harder of the two loops.

A section of the Buckeye Trail runs concurrent with sections of the Logan Trail. In my experience, the parts of the BT that are shared with the Logan Trail are fairly well maintained, but I did hike on a section of the BT in the park that was not shared with the loop, and this section was a bit overgrown. I’d stick to the Logan Trail in the park if you can, to mitigate the tick risk (I found one on my knee at camp).

In addition to the Logan Trail, there are several shorter hikes in the park. These include the 2.5-mile Homestead Trail and the 3.5-mile Ross Hollow trail. A trail map is available at this link, as well as at the general store in the park.

Camping: There are several car/RV campgrounds at the park, as well as “primitive” campgrounds for backpackers. We stayed at the campground by the fire tower, which costs $4 per person per night, though we were not aware of this until we got there, oops. The other campground is on a portion of the south loop called the Dulen Loop. There is no cost to stay at Camp Dulen.

The blue-blazed Buckeye Trail

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 3

Friday, October 30

The first thing I notice when I wake up is the silence. No rain drops pattering on the roof. No splashing of puddles. The next thing I notice is that it is cold. Inside the tent, my sleeping bag and camp clothes are dry, but all of my other gear, including the clothes I have to hike in, are still soaked. It’s going to be miserable when I have to put those on. But that’s not a right-now problem. There is silence, and the slight suggestion of the sun appearing through the trees, and I am grateful.

We still eat an in-tent breakfast, though, because it is genuinely chilly. But because it is not raining finally, we can open our doors and poke our heads out into the world. I savor my coffee and peanut butter tortillas and burrow down one last time into my sleeping bag, cuddling around my damp hiking clothes in a feeble attempt to warm them up before I have to put them on. It doesn’t do much, and I shudder and wail my way through putting the wet clothing back on my body. From the sound of it, Wiggs is experiencing the same unique misery.

Ridge walking in the morning

We warm up quickly, though, once we get going. It doesn’t take as long today since the weather is better. We backtrack the way we came last night, down to a ridge with tall old trees, their leaves mostly fallen. We can see out into the valleys below and hills beyond. I stop for a second and breathe it in.

It’s so good. It smells like fresh rain and crisp shoulder season mornings. Like March in Georgia, after the first rainstorm, when the world is calm again and the trail stretches so far on. I love this. I love this forest, I love Ohio, I love whatever this is that a trail, any trail, makes me feel.

We follow the ridge and descend the steep hill we came up last night. Instead of going back across the same creek we consult the map and decide to take a different part of the loop, adding a bit of distance to the hike. We’re ahead of schedule and we have hit our stride. We ascend the short hills easily and coast across the ridges.

We wind up in a wet valley where the trail repeatedly crosses a creek with no discernible pattern. The rain has made it difficult to tell what is normal waterway and what is seasonal puddle, and we hop across sandbars, rocks, and fallen trees. There are more caves and exposed rock walls here. It feels like a tamer iteration of the Red River Gorge. I feel regret at the prospect that this hike is coming to an end. I’d take another three rainy days in the woods if it meant that I didn’t have to leave.

Wiggs, a cave, and a touch of blue sky

We reach the road, which has been flooded in parts due to yesterday’s downpour, and walk along the pavement back to the car. I change into the dry clothes I left in the trunk, trade my trail runners for my camp shoes, and stretch.

Three days in the woods and I feel calmer. Three wet days in the woods and I am more myself. Hiking never magically solves problems. It doesn’t pay my rent or resolve my dilemmas or do my work for me. But it does make me ready, remind me what I’m made of, and show me why it’s worth it.

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.

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 1

It has been beautiful lately, both in Ohio and in Kentucky. For the last ten days the sun has been shining, and while the temperatures took a dip towards winter today, it is still bright and crisp. Naturally, considering this, Wiggs and I chose the only three rainy days in the past few weeks to go for a backpacking trip.

In our defense, it’s hard to arrange for a three-day jaunt in the woods when we have to navigate between our bizarre work and school schedules. He reserved the day off weeks in advance, and I finagled my at-home grading schedule to get (somewhat) caught up. We chose Zaleski State Forest for our trip because we had been to Shawnee numerous times. We wanted to experience the cozy chill of late fall Ohio backpacking while being somewhere new. It’s not a far drive from Columbus, and it felt like a good choice for a three-day trip.

Yr two favorite stinky hikers at the backpacking loop trailhead on State Route 278

We checked the weather beforehand. We knew what we were getting into: 90% chance of rain all day, beginning late in the evening our first night out. We went anyway. Maybe it was the idea that we are thru-hikers and therefore made of tougher stuff, or maybe it was a semi-manic desire to get away from the infuriating COVID-19 at-home routine. Maybe–and I think this is the most likely reason–we needed to be reminded of who and what we are. Whatever the reason, we went. We got rained on, but I would take a rainy fall day in the woods over almost anything else.

Here are some thoughts I wrote on my phone while we were out on the trail.

Day 1: Wednesday, October 28

We got a late start today, of course. My friend Monica was in town for a few days and she left this morning, and I had some work to finish up, so Wiggs and I didn’t hit the road until close to 4. By the time we got to the Zaleski trailhead we only had an hour of daylight left to hike. I hate that about this time of year. Nevertheless, we laced up our shoes, buckled our packs, and headed through the woods for a quick two miles.

Zaleski already feels easier than Shawnee. There are hills, but they are short and manageable. The trail first winds around the side of a hill overlooking some wetlands, then meanders towards a cave. We considered the idea of sleeping in the cave tonight, but I though the rain could make that experience hit or miss. So we kept walking through the quickly-descending darkness.

Zaleski is more visually interesting than other hikes I’ve done in southern and central Ohio. For one, there are really cool caves!

We made it to the camp near point C on the backpacking loop. It’s sort of a gravelly ridge, with a long area for tents. The problem is that gravel means that we had a few issues getting our tent stakes in the ground. Wiggs’s headlamp is running out of battery, so we shared mine as we set up. We tried desperately to get the stakes hammered into the rock-hard ground, and eventually, after much frustration, we were successful. We had an enjoyable camp dinner, complete with small boxes of wine (also known as adult juice boxes, or AJB’s).

About a year ago, Wiggs and I went on our first backpacking trip together at Shawnee. It was rainy and dreary then, too, another classic Ohio October. But that weekend is, in my memory, nothing but comfortable rightness. A month removed from my finish of the Appalachian Trail, I settled back into the routine of wake up, eat breakfast, walk, camp, sleep. I felt so at home with Wiggs immediately. So perhaps it is unsurprising that a year later we are back in the woods.

Though we haven’t technically seen much of Zaleski yet, I am impressed so far. The trail meanders over easy hills, next to wetlands, and up to elevated campsites with fresh water sources. There are mushrooms and dramatic caves below trees shedding the last of their autumn yellows. Despite the gravel issues the campsite is nearly-ideal, with a fire ring and perfect sitting logs. It’s supposed to rain steadily all day tomorrow, but somehow I think it will still be good.

Rainy, dreary, and cozy

I have been struggling. This week has been hard, between the massive amounts of work-related stress, uncertainty about the near and far future, and endless worrying about money. I feel pulled in so many directions at once, and I don’t know where to start first. It’s so hard to be present. It’s so hard to realize that the way I feel now is not the way I will feel forever. Sometimes I feel like I have it together, but other times I feel bumbling and lost, with no real direction. I can’t see around the corners, and I don’t know how I’ll handle the winter and spring. But if the AT taught me anything, it’s that one way or another, things work out. Every morning, rain or shine, I will stand up, tighten my pack straps, and address the day one task and one step at a time.

Note to self: I am alive. Smell the leaves and feel the fire. Listen to the music and be grateful for the love that holds you. Here. Here. Here.