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Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

Lose yourself in the past on part of the Buckeye, America's longest loop trail.

Little-Known Fact: Emma Gatewood, who began her hiking career at age 67 and completed the Appalachian Trail three times, favored the Hocking Hills section of the 1,250-mile Buckeye Trail.

I reach the camp check-in station ready for my annual spring pilgrimage to Old Man’s Cave and my walk through history. Of the six dispersed areas making up south central Ohio’s 2,000-acre Hocking Hills State Park, this is my favorite. Even though I’ve made the journey for several years now, I’m still awed by the mystery and stories contained in the orange sand that cakes my boots.

More than 250 million years ago the ocean carved deep gullies, rock formations, and waterfalls out of the Blackhand sandstone common to the area. The first humans in the region were Native Americans who inhabited the hollows of Old Man’s Cave 7,000 years ago. The Wyandot, Shawnee, and Delaware hunted and foraged along these trails through the mid-1700s. The main river that flowed beside the footpaths they used was given the name “Hockhocking,” or “bottle river,” by the early tribes. Eventually it was shortened to “Hocking,” a name that crops up frequently in this region.

I begin my journey on one of the lower paths at Upper Falls. This 5-mile trail, which connects Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls, and the handicapped-accessible Ash Cave, also happens to be the “Grandma Gatewood” section of the Buckeye Trail. Emma Gatewood, who began her hiking career at age 67, completed the Appalachian Trail three times and favored this section of the 1,250-mile Buckeye Trail.

Like many Ohio parks, Hocking Hills is a conglomerate of smaller, noncontinuous units named for their landmarks: Cantwell Cliffs, Rock House, Conkles Hollow, Cedar Falls, and Ash Cave. None offer more than dayhikes within their borders, but by hopping on the Buckeye, you can extend your trip around the state.

I continue my hike south in search of the cave of the “old man,” a Civil War refugee from West Virginia named Richard Rowe. The cave is a huge 200-foot-long recess, a large cavity guarded by an imposing shelf of overhanging sandstone. Supposedly Rowe is buried under the rocks of the cave floor, the victim of a stray shot from his own rifle.

I crawl into the cave. The walls are wet and the air is musty with age. Here a fugitive, a man who lived as a recluse in this cave a long time ago, went unnoticed for years and years. I sit and rest, happy to be alone and unnoticed for just a short while.

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