Some of the most beguiling natural beauty in the state can be found in the Hocking Hills region, just a three-hour drive south of Cleveland near the town of Logan.
Hidden in a dense forest dominated by shaggy hemlock, rivulets of water swell to become majestic waterfalls that tumble over steep cliffs and caves, then carve a path through deep gorges filled with lush, green foliage.
“This place belongs in some kind of fantasy film,” says my friend, Jennifer, as we make our way along the hiking trail at the bottom of Conkle’s Hollow. “It’s otherworldly.”
The fern- and wildflower-laden gorge would make a suitable habitat for Star Wars’ Ewoks, or even nymphs. My first visit to Hocking Hills resides in my memory as if it were a dream. As I approached Old Man’s Cave on foot, I was greeted by the sounds of a flute bouncing off the rock walls. Unable to pinpoint its source, my eyes fell on a fellow visitor who twirled barefoot while swishing her skirt to the music.
The scene lent a mystical touch to the captivating vistas I was experiencing. Several years and many visits later, the setting is just as enchanting, even if I haven’t encountered anything quite as memorable.
With more than four million visitors each year, Hocking Hills State Park is anything but a hidden gem. The secret is knowing where to go and when to visit this year-round destination. Spring is a truly special time. Swollen from melting snow, the volume of the park’s Cedar Falls goes from a trickle to a torrent.
My favorite hike follows a 3-mile section of the Grandma Gatewood Trail downstream between Upper Falls and Cedar Falls, then loops back to the starting point for a total of six miles. Within the first five minutes of the hike, the route crosses a bridge over the top of Upper Falls. It then descends to one of the park’s most iconic views — a turquoise pool glistening at the base of the waterfall flowing under the bridge’s stone arch.
The section between Upper and Lower Falls can be busy with other hikers, but there’s a chance to see wildlife during the early morning, especially in the spring when many nocturnal creatures are out during the day.
“Coyotes and foxes may be out hunting for rabbits and rodents for their new pups,” explains Hocking Hills naturalist Jeff Large. “Skunks will be out and about gathering as much food as they can to make up for the dormant days of winter.”
Luckily, I do not cross paths with any harbingers of foul odor during my hike. Instead, my visit is accompanied by a joyful chorus of flitting birds overhead. I spot an abundance of spring flora, including fiddleheads unfurling their fronds and colorful blooms peeking from beneath the undergrowth.
I am not quick at identifying wildflowers, with the exception of the three-pronged trilliums that emerge from shady spots on the trail, but Large tells me that Jack-in-the-pulpit, Dutchman’s breeches, dwarf ginseng and pink lady's slippers are common finds.
Spring also signals the arrival of culinary delicacies, such as ramps and morels between April and May. It’s legal to pick morels in Hocking Hills State Park, so long as you don’t leave the trail to do it — and, of course, amateurs should not be deciding between poisonous and safe mushrooms.
Kindred Spirits at Cedar Falls has a taste of the real deal without the worry or work. The restaurant, spa and inn is a boutique bed-and-breakfast property notched out of Hocking Hills State Park’s eastern border.
When available, chef Matt Rapposelli uses foraged ingredients, including morels from the property. Unlike the earthy taste of many mushrooms, morels have a nutty, buttery flavor, which tastes more like pine nuts or cashews. Sauteed in butter, onion and garlic, they’re even better.
After a day of hiking the Hills, I’ve earned every bite of my delicious dish, served in a cozy and intimate 1840s cabin. I can’t pass up a bourbon, either, since my bed is less than 200 feet away. Accommodations range from yurts and geodesic domes to cabins and off-property vacation homes.
I’ve stayed in all of the inn’s room categories, but there’s something special about the new domes. Mine is a spacious den of luxury that opens over a tree-lined hill, ideal for spotting wildlife wandering through.
And when the giant curtain closes, I’m enveloped in a quiet cocoon of tranquility until I’m ready to emerge for my next spring awakening.