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?