Awhile back, glaciers laid silt across most of Ohio and created the type of terrain that's ideal for farms and high school football fields. But the grinding blue ice didn't touch a place the locals call "the Little Smokies of Ohio." Here, gentle stream erosion carved lush ridgelines in the Appalachian Plateau, yielding undulating ground that today holds oak, hickory, and pine forests as well as the Shawnee Backpack Trail.
The route meanders through Shawnee State Forest's 63,000 acres of second-growth timber, which is Ohio's largest public land holding. The trail strains up 1,200-foot mini-mountains, passes along wooded ridges, plunges hundreds of feet into emerald hollows, and runs beside big-boulder washes. At some points, if you close your eyes, you can imagine you're deep in the Smokies. When you open them, you might spot wild turkey, deer, or a black bear.
The Backpack Trail contains a 40.9-mile main loop, with about 15 more miles of connecting side trails, including one that carries you into Ohio's Shawnee Wilderness Area.
Here the land is slowly returning to the way it was during frontier days, when Shawnee Indians roamed the hills.
For a good weekend trip, park at the trailhead parking lot on OH 125 and hike 7 miles north on the main loop to Camp 1, a site deep in the forest and big enough for seclusion even if other backpackers arrive behind you. The next day you can backtrack, or bushwhack south to Rock Lick Horse Trail, then south on Forest Service Road 1 to Camp Oyo, then west on the side trail to your car.
So let's see: relatively short drives from three major cities, eight large campsites spaced 2 to 7 miles apart, and a nice mix of scrambles and breath-catching ridge walks. Is it any wonder the Cincinnati Sierra Club uses this spot each October for its backpacking school's graduation trip?
QUICK TAKE: Shawnee State Forest, OH
DRIVE TIME: The Shawnee Backpack Trail self-registration kiosk is on OH 125, 90 miles east of Cincinnati (2 hours), 120 miles southeast of Columbus (21/2 hours), and 100 miles northeast of Lexington, Kentucky (2 hours).
THE WAY: From Cincinnati, take OH 125 east to the Backpack Trail parking lot. From Columbus, take US 23 south to Portsmouth, US 52 west, then OH 125 west to the parking lot.
TRAILS: Shawnee Backpack Trail (orange blazes) has a 40.9-mile main loop and 15.1 miles of connected side trails (white blazes). About 14.5 miles of the Buckeye Trail (blue blazes) and the North Country National Scenic Trail (marked with the trail's emblem) jointly overlay the Backpack Trail.
ELEVATION: The high point is a dizzying 1,286 feet (okay, but this is Ohio) at Twin Creek Fire Tower; the low spot is 525 feet at Pond Run.
CROWD CONTROL: Ohio's most rugged trail and its campsites are often empty.
MAPS: A map with topo features is available from the Shawnee State Forest headquarters, (740) 858-6685. Or download (slowly) maps from www.hcs.ohio-state.edu/ODNR/Forests/stateforests/Shawnee.htm.
PIT STOP: Stop at Mikey's Restaurant in West Union, Ohio for home-style food and local gossip.
WALK SOFTLY: Watch where you step, to reduce impact and avoid snakes (there are rattlers here). Fires are permitted and downed wood is plentiful.
MORE INFORMATION: Shawnee State Forest, 13291 US 52, W. Portsmouth, OH 45663-8906; (740) 858-6685.