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

A Little Hike in Yellow Springs

The pandemic has changed a lot of things: plans, travels, work, social life. One of the hardest things for me has been the inability to plan for the summer or for hikes. When our trip to Scotland was cancelled, Wiggs and I were pretty bummed. We intended to hike the West Highland Way, a 100-mile trail through the Scottish Highlands, and to visit with a couple of our friends from the Appalachian Trail. Though we’re working on alternate hike plans, and though other people are struggling with much bigger worries right now, it’s still a bit tough.

On the bright side, one of the things that I have enjoyed about the current situation is that it is making me appreciate the natural spaces available to me closer to home. Ohio has a reputation for being flat, boring, and uninteresting, but the truth is that there are lovely trails and parks all over the state. One of my favorite places is the area around Yellow Springs, particularly Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve and John Bryan State Park. Wiggs and I made a little day trip to the Gorge last week, and it was a perfectly sunny retreat from the news cycle and working at home.

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Yours truly and Wiggs on the bank of the Little Miami, in John Bryan State Park

Walking Through the Gorge

We met at the trailhead on OH-343 in the morning to begin our day. There were a lot of cars in the parking lot, and we soon realized that the main part of the trail was rather crowded. We did our best to leave enough distance between ourselves and the folks we passed on the trail as we began the walk down into the gorge.

After a flat section above the Little Miami River, the trail takes a rocky descent to walk right by the water. The path smooths out again once it is down in the gorge, where it is noticeably cooler than at the top. The river is narrow and gushing at the beginning of the hike, running between steep rock formations, before flattening out and becoming broad, slow, and peaceful at the Blue Hole.

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The Blue Hole. The Little Miami gets really wide, slow, and deep here, and it’s a lovely spot.

As we walked, Wiggs and I fell into our usual easy conversation, much of which frequently falls back to hiking, the Appalachian Trail, and future travels. We have learned that being on a trail, any trail, often reminds us in small ways of our thru-hike: the repetitive rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, the feeling of the wind through the trees, the sound of water next to the path. After the initial excitement at the beginning of a day hike wears off, the instinct of walking takes over and the trail, any trail, feels like home.

Enjoying the Day

We followed the main gorge trail on the north side of the river until we reached the South Gorge Bridge. This footbridge was closed for repairs the last time we were here, but it was open this time, and we crossed it to the middle, slowly, avoiding the groups of other hikers and looking out at the river, now slow-flowing and glittering in the late-morning sunlight.

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Wiggs on the South Gorge Bridge

Deciding that we’d like to continue through the park to Glen Helen preserve, we crossed back to the north side of the river and walked on, as the Little Miami became smaller, rounding a bend. After this point there were few to no other hikers. We emerged from the woods at the Grinnell Mill, a restored grist mill and bed and breakfast. We planned to continue to the covered bridge at Glen Helen to have our lunch, but there was a team of workers putting up a barrier where the trail crossed the road and continued, so we turned around.

We found a lovely elm by the side of the Little Miami, where we sat and had our packed lunch. Wiggs also noticed a catfish in the river right near our spot, keeping us company as we munched on our turkey sandwiches. Shortly after we started walking once we finished our lunch, we found a flat, pebbly, sunny spot by the river. We stopped, I lay down and basked in the afternoon sun, and Wiggs skipped rocks across the water.

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The Little Miami from the footbridge

I’m not very good at staying in the present. That’s one thing that this pandemic has really shown me. For once, I can’t plan ahead or map out what the next period of my life is going to look like. This is difficult for me, but in a way, I  see it as a gift of the pandemic. In a culture that is obsessed with growth and consumption and future planning, being forced to remain in the current moment is a healthy reminder that life occurs not in the future tense, but in the now. I thought about this as I lay on the pebbly ground next to the Little Miami, feeling the sun on my skin and appreciating being with Wiggs. We’re trail people. We know how to enjoy the little things. Sometimes we just forget, and we need to be reminded.

Ending the Day in Yellow Springs

We finished up the hike by exploring some of the caves in the cliffs on the south side of the river, finding some lovely young pheasant back mushrooms, then finally crossing back over and heading to our cars. As none of the restaurants in Yellow Springs are open for dine-in right now, obviously, we couldn’t go to Peach’s Grill, our usual post-hike Yellow Springs hangout. Instead, we opted to order carry-out gyros from Bentino’s, which we ate with relish in the park by the community center.

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Wiggs and the Gyro

They were satisfying and hearty, and after we had finished we lay on a blanket, listening to the Grateful Dead and watching the evening clouds sail across the sky. Corny, I know. As if we belonged right in this crunchy, hippie hamlet right on the Buckeye Trail. Eventually we sighed, realizing that night was coming, and packed up the blankets and picked up our trash, and headed to our cars to return to our respective cities.

I looked at the windows of businesses as I drove out of Yellow Springs. There are shops, restaurants, and breweries that we love in this little town, and I hope they will survive the closures so that soon, people can come again and walk the streets and enjoy live music and buy books and drink local beer. But now, things are still, and birds dart across the sky in lazy loops, and the world is quiet. It will end soon, like all things do, and there will be noise and celebration again. But not yet. Not yet.

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A young pheasant back mushroom growing at the base of a tree right near the trail. We’ve been getting into foraging this year, and these make delightful dishes when you catch them young enough!

Shawnee State Park: The Sequel

Amid all the hubbub and weirdness of quarantine-land, my brain has started to wander to trails and a desire to be on them (as it always inevitably does, but now more than ever). I’m reading Wild, finally, and I can’t stop thinking about the Pacific Crest Trail. When can I do it? When can I be walking again? And I wonder how much longer we’ll be allowed to go to state and local parks. Will they close the cemetery trails? Will Zaleski State Park stay open so Wiggs and I can do the backpacking trip we planned on? Is it irresponsible of me to go to my favorite trails and prowl the hills for morels?

In the scheme of things, I know none of that really matters. I hold so much privilege in this world, and having a house, an income, and enough food to eat during the pandemic demonstrate that. I shouldn’t be worried about hiking while people are struggling to pay rent and feed their families.

But I’m a hiker, and for all the falling-apart madness in the world, I really miss hiking. I’m also a writer, so the closest I can get to being on a long-distance trail is writing about it.

Shawnee Trip #2: March 7-9, 2020

In early March Wiggs and I returned to Shawnee State Park, where we had met up last fall and started our relationship. This time we did much more of the loop, skipping just a couple of miles in favor of making it back to our cars in time to grab a beer in Portsmouth. It was a rare window of three perfectly sunny days, and now looking back on what happened just a few days later, I am so happy we went.

Here’s a bit about it, with photos, to take you out of your head and into the woods.

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Yours truly at the start of the backpacking loop at Shawnee State Forest. March 7, 2020

Spring Begins

Winter in southern Ohio isn’t necessarily cold, but it is depressing. Clouds hang low in the sky like soggy gray cotton. It rains—constant, thick drizzly rain—for days at a time. When we scheduled this trip we knew we were rolling the dice.

When I got out of my car at the trailhead on that Saturday morning, I was so glad to see that it was a warmish, hesitantly sunny day. In contrast to the torrential downpour that flooded our tents when we hiked this loop back in October, this weekend would turn out to be miraculously dry.

The first night was cold. We had to sleep with our water filters to keep them from freezing. The next morning our shoes were covered in a fine layer of frost. It was hard to get going, but when we eventually did, it warmed up. The sun blazed down on the still-brown trees and leaf-strewn paths, and I found myself actually warm outside for the first time since the fall.

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A lovely lake scene on the southern half of the Shawnee Backpacking Loop. March 9, 2020

The Hike

Back in October, the rain prevented us from doing as much of the backpacking loop as we had planned. This time, though we didn’t technically get through the whole loop since we took an alternate and slightly quicker trail, we got much farther.

The northern half—from the backpacker’s trailhead, past the Copperhead Fire Tower and down to Camp Oyo—was just as hard as I remembered from the fall. The hills are steeper than one would expect from a state as notoriously flat as Ohio. I had to pace myself on the steep inclines and pause at the top to let my lungs and joints rest. In a way it felt good to be this challenged. I hadn’t done any properly difficult hiking since doing this same route in the fall, and it felt in a way like being back on the AT again.

The southern half of the loop, which we did not get to do in October, was gorgeous. There were more views and longer ridges. It was still hilly, though not as bad as the northern half. On the second night, we ended up at a campsite on a ridge that juts out from the main trail. The temperature was slightly warmer, and we set up camp next to a tree and had a little fire. We sat and chatted, cooked dinner, and drank wine as we watched the sunset from the other side of the ridge.

There are a lot of things I like about hiking: the freedom, the untetheredness of living out of a pack, the sense of distance, the people. But the feeling of being content next to a campfire at sunset is pretty high up on the list. Especially when you’re calm and happy, and with someone you love.

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Wiggs and me, enjoying the early March sunlight. March 7, 2020

Home

Eventually, the three days passed and the hike ended, like all hikes do. We spent the last day zooming along a ridge, playing 20 Questions and fantasizing about cheeseburgers. I didn’t pack enough food for the weekend, having overpacked the last time, so I ate the last of my snacks for lunch and we sped back to the parking lot. We spent a few moments at the lake, watching the geese again and enjoying the feeling of spring about to bloom.

Then we went back to our cars, changed into sandals, and drove to Portsmouth Brewery for beers, burgers, and a massive plate of fries. It was shocking how fast the hiker hunger came back to me, and I was struck by how natural it felt to go from the trail and into a town. It felt so much like the AT, like hitching into Manchester Center and descending upon a restaurant. Soon, the meal ended too, and Wiggs and I said goodbye and headed home to our respective cities.

I thought about the woods as I was on my way home. I thought about how right it felt to be at Shawnee and how comfortable it feels to be there, and anywhere, with Wiggs. I feel confident in the woods. I feel strong and capable, despite a hill destroying me or the persistent pain in my ankle. I feel like I know what I’m about and what I can do. I feel home.

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Wiggs, enjoying sunset from camp. March 8, 2020

And Now

So it’s April now, a month since that three-day trip. If you had told me then that soon after I’d be teaching from home while a pandemic ripped through the world, I might not have believed you. Though the coronavirus was known at that point, it wasn’t yet clear to me how serious a situation it was about to become.

I feel so bad for all of the prospective thru-hikers who quit their jobs and sold their possessions in anticipation of a 2020 thru-hike. It is not easy to give up on plans, especially when they involve hiking. I know this intimately now: yesterday our flight to Scotland was cancelled. We won’t be hiking the West Highland Way this year, as we had planned.

Other hikes are being called off too. As of last week the Appalachian Trail Conservancy requested a formal closure of the Appalachian Trail in its entirety to ensure that people stayed off it and away from each other, in hopes of containing the virus. While many hikers have made the difficult decision to stop, postpone, or cancel their hike, there are still some people out there, despite the warnings.

As a hiker I know how hard it is to stay in one place. I miss the trail all the time, but I miss it more than usual now. Though giving up plans for a hike is nowhere near as difficult as the situation many people in oppressed communities are going through, it is still very difficult. At the same time, the last month has been an exercise—like the Appalachian Trail was an exercise—in accepting the present and learning to be adaptable. Hikers, let’s stay home now so that we can hike later.

To anyone reading, I hope you are well. Dream of trails, wash your hands, and hang in there.

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Part of the southern half of the Shawnee backpacking loop shares a route with the Buckeye Trail and the North Country Trail. We might not be going abroad to hike this year, but it’s good to remember that there are trails everywhere, even close to home.