hen it comes to scenic beauty, Ohio's greatest claim to fame is the spectacular change of seasons, as the lush green blanket of vegetation over forests and fields turns crimson and gold. Most natives of the Buckeye State, along with visiting leaf-peepers, have a deep appreciation for Ohio's colorful patchwork landscape filled with the gentle shapes of sweeping plains, rippling hills, and winding streams. Many of those who travel the trails and byways expecting to get an eyeful of the splendid blanket of fall foliage will be delighted at the surprise bonus that lies beneath.
Here and there, nature yanks off that comfortable blanket of leaves to reveal a glimpse of the stark and imposing bedrock foundation. With stunning suddenness, the soft beauty of the forest gives way to magnificent sculptures in solid rock.
Ohio State Parks harbor a surprising array of awe-inspiring geologic features, from yawning recess caves to rock shelters hanging perilously from hillsides at Hocking Hills, Malabar Farm, Mohican, Lake Hope and Salt Fork. These geologic wonders stand in such stark contrast to the surrounding land that it might appear as though they were placed there by some momentous event. Jolting shifts in the Earth's crust have indeed played a part in molding the Ohio landscape in the ancient past.
But a more subtle force than the sudden violence of earthquakes has transformed solid blocks of rock into monumental landforms. The steady flow of water has shaped delicately arching roofs, carved out passageways, hollowed out alcoves and precisely balanced boulders.
The Hocking Hills region boasts the state's greatest legacy of geologic marvels including Old Man's Cave, Ash Cave, Rock House, Cedar Falls and Cantwell Cliffs. The natural wonders so abundant in the Hocking Hills region as well as Mohican and Malabar are etched into the Black Hand sandstone. This remarkable rock layer extends in a crooked band from the Ohio River into east-central Ohio with branches stretching into the northeast.
The Black Hand sandstone gets its intriguing name from a huge image of a human hand sketched in soot on the face of a cliff in the gorge of the Licking River near Newark. The enigmatic black hand, destroyed by construction work on the Ohio and Erie Canal in the late 1820s, was believed to have been drawn by prehistoric Indians to show the way to the great flint deposits at Flint Ridge. The Black Hand sandstone was formed in the middle of the Mississippian period, about 330 million years ago, when the climate was balmy and much of Ohio was covered by a shallow sea. At that time, distant mountaintops to the east and southeast were whipped by wind and water, eroding coarse sand and pebbles from their lofty peaks. These particles tumbled through large mountain streams flowing northward into Ohio's sea, and collected in a long narrow delta with finger-like branches.
At first, the delta deposits were smooth and uniform, but as the sediments accumulated over time, changes in the stream flow and sea currents dumped piles of coarse sand and concentrated larger pebbles in some places. For a while, the sand and pebbles were deposited at an angle to the lower layers, creating "cross-bedding", but quieter seas returned and laid down relatively level, horizontal layers.
Eventually, finer sand and mud washed down from the mountains, accumulated over the top of the delta, and buried the coarse sand. This process continued for nearly 85 million years, and the weight of this heavy burden pressed down the delta sediments. Specks of silica along with iron oxide carried in the ground water (dissolved and then precipitated out) helped cement the sand grains and pebbles into a solid rock formation 80 to 250 feet thick.
As shifts in the Earth's crust uplifted the area and the sea drained away, rainfall began collecting in rivers and streams, gradually cutting channels over the landscape. The same slow process that formed the sandstone bedrock millions of years before began to slowly dismantle it.
During the Pleistocene Epoch, two million years ago, temperatures plummeted and great ice sheets from Canadian highlands crept south into Ohio. Glaciers advanced and retreated at least four times, plowing through 56 of Ohio's 88 counties, until the final retreat of the Wisconsinan glacier 13,000 years ago.
Near the edges of the glaciers, huge volumes of meltwater gushed through the stream channels, speeding up the erosion process. Over thousands of years, the constant drip of percolating groundwater through tiny pores in the bedrock began to wash away the cement, while the steady stream and occasional torrent raging over the top loosened the grains and carried them away. Where the streams crossed narrow but deep cracks in the rock known as joints, water easily penetrated and erosion gained a foothold, slicing through entire layers of rock millions of years in the making.
Because the middle of the Black Hand sandstone formation is cross-bedded and less firmly cemented than the top and bottom layers, the middle zone proves more vulnerable to erosion. Thus, the hollowed out recesses and rock shelters are formed in the "softer" middle zone, while the very resistant upper and lower zones remained intact as the roof and floor, respectively.
The sandstone caves in Ohio State Parks are not considered true caves or caverns, but are classified as recess caves or rock shelters, since they were formed above ground and are wide open to fresh air and sunshine. Some of these are noteworthy for their size or unique attributes, while others are legendary for the eccentric characters who lived in or near them.
Ash Cave is Ohio's largest and most impressive recess cave, 100 feet deep and over 500 feet long, crowned by a delicate strand of a waterfall splashing 90 feet from the rim of the cave to a plunge pool at the foot of the cave entrance. The waterfall illustrates geology in action, harkening back to a time when foaming spray and backwash from a heftier cascade wore away at the core of a solid wall of sandstone, leaving behind the huge span of the arching roof and the sandy floor. For thousands of years Ash Cave has served as a unique gathering place for humans seeking shelter, inspiration, and commerce.
The cave gets its name from the enormous piles of ashes accumulated over many generations and finally removed in the late 1800s. The ashes were the remnants of countless fires burned on the cave floor by diverse cultures of cave visitors, certainly for warmth and to prepare food, and perhaps for smelting silver or lead, manufacturing gunpowder, or refining saltpeter. Ash Cave provided a convenient resting place for travelers on the main Indian trail connecting the Shawnee town along the Scioto River at Chillicothe with the Shawnee villages of the Kanawha River region of West Virginia. Today, State Route 56 traces this historic trail. Native American orators were the first to take advantage of the superb acoustics of Ash Cave. The cave features whispering galleries that amplify sound, and a speaker standing on a large slump block outside the cave's entrance can easily be heard by throngs gathered inside the cave. In modern times, this ideal natural bandshell has hosted camp and township meetings, Sunday worship services, and most recently, a choral concert.
Along the gorge of Old Man's Creek, the stream splashes through a gallery of natural attractions, from the 40-foot plunge of Upper Falls into the swirling Devil's Bathtub, through the rapids of Middle Falls, past the mysterious Sphinx Head to the 40- foot cascade of Lower Falls. Along the half-mile length of the gorge trail, the stream dips and dives over 100 feet in elevation, revealing the entire profile of the Black Hand sandstone formation.
Perched high and dry atop Old Man's Creek, the centerpiece of the gorge is Old Man's Cave, a supersized rock shelter tucked in the gorge wall above today's stream channel. At 200 feet long, 50 feet high and 75 feet deep, Old Man's Cave provided a cozy home for its namesake, the hermit Richard Rowe, who settled here in the late 1790s. Rowe is said to be buried beneath the ledge of the cave. Two brothers who lived in a cabin near the cave entrance, Pat and Nathaniel Rayon, are also believed to be buried in the cave.
Rock House owes its unique architecture to the local pattern of perpendicular joints in the neighborhood. Abundant water during the cool and moist Pleistocene served as the builder, with percolating ground water slowly excavating sand grains, and flowing springs whisking them away. The interior of the "house" is a wide tunnel, 200 feet long and 25 feet high, that runs parallel to the cliff face. This passageway was chiseled by erosion of the middle zone of the Black Hand sandstone along a major joint in the solid rock. The "doorway" and "windows" formed where a series of smaller cross joints intersected with the main joint.
Native Americans crafted innovative renovations and took advantage of natural features to make Rock House even more inviting as a place to gather and seek shelter. Small recesses in the rear wall known as hominy holes served as energyefficient baking ovens. Fires were built in the small recesses, heating the surrounding rock on all sides to evenly bake bread. Troughs were dug in the floor to collect spring water that gushed from the porous sandstone walls onto the floor during times of heavy rainfall. Rock House has always attracted tourists of all stripes. In Ohio's wild frontier days, it was reputed to serve as a hideout for robbers, horse thieves, murderers and bootleggers, earning it the name "Robbers Roost". In 1835, a local entrepreneur built a 16-room hotel nearby, featuring a ballroom, livery stable and U.S. Post Office. The hotel is gone today, and a popular picnic shelter stands in its place.
Lyon's Cave at Mohican State Park is as notable for its colorful legends as it is for its beauty. Like Ash Cave, Lyon's Cave is a majestic high-roofed recess cave witha scenic waterfall trickling over its rim. Local folklore attributes the name of the falls and the cave to two historic characters, both named Lyons, but unrelated to each other. One story names the falls after Paul Lyons, a reclusive pioneer who met his demise one dark and stormy night while retrieving his lost cow. Trusting that his sure-footed bovine companion would lead him safely along the rim trail that miserable night, Lyons tumbled 80 feet over the falls, grasping his lantern in one hand and the tail of the unlucky cow in the other. Legend has it that the dim light of the lantern can still be seen and the tinkle of the cow bell can be heard near the cave on certain dark nights.
The other folktale paints a gruesome picture of Thomas Lyons, a dreaded renegade reputed to be the ugliest man alive. Lyons was infamous for his legendary necklace of 99 human tongues, and his boast to make it an even 100 before he died. Before he could achieve this grisly feat, Lyons was ambushed and killed on the old stagecoach road passing through the forest near the cave.
The Rock City Cave at Malabar Farm State Park is unique in Ohio. Unlike other Ohio recess caves, this feature was carved from the Black Hand sandstone by the glacier itself, rather than by water erosion over thousands of years. Malabar's rock city is a series of interconnected passageways with sheer walls that wind through a massive block of sandstone.
The geologic evidence suggests that glacial ice filled in narrow joints in the solid rock, acting like a wedge to widen and deepen the cracks all the way to the base of the huge sandstone block. A second cave nearby is a rock overhang sculpted over time by the persistent force of water. In his book "Pleasant Valley", Louis Bromfield describes these two caves that were favorite haunts of his family. At the head of the ravine a little brook trickles over the face of a great cave weathered out of the sandstone rock. All the ledges and the great overhanging shelf of rock drip moisture and are covered with ferns and wild columbine. Beneath, inside the damp cool cave, one goes back to the beginnings of time, for in the damp ooze of decaying sandstone grow primitive forms of algae and ferns that have survived there somehow from the days when all the world was a steaming swamp.
The other cave is of a different formation, much bigger and deeper and higher, a great narrow fissure created when the sandstone cracked and fell apart beneath the weight of the glacier. It is so well hidden, even today, that you can pass within a few feet of its mouth without discovering it. Now and then the children come home with an arrow or spearhead dropped there long ago by some wandering Delaware or Miami. The same basic processes that created the spectacular formations in the Black Hand sandstone created captivating recesses and rock shelters on a smaller scale in other sedimentary bedrock formations.
The back country of Lake Hope State Park and remote areas of neighboring Zaleski State Forest are peppered with rock shelters and overhangs. From prehistory to the time of Ohio's frontier days, these rock havens must have been a welcome sight to weary travelers seeking shelter on a long journey.
A short hike from the Hope School House, Buzzard's Cave is a snug and serene rock overhang that once served as a "dormitory" for roosting turkey vultures. Salt Fork State Park's Hosak's Cave is a scenic and roomy rock shelter that has no doubt protected passers-by from rainy weather for thousands of years. Confederate General John Hunt Morgan is reputed to be one of those passers-by. During Morgan's celebrated raid through Ohio at the height of the Civil War, he engaged federal troops in a skirmish near the park. Local accounts of the raid claim that Morgan's cavalry holed up in Hosak's Cave during a driving thunderstorm.
Today's faithful visitors to Hosak's Cave can attest that the geologic processes that formed this ancient structure, and others like it, are indeed ongoing. Though there were no eyewitnesses to the event, about two decades ago a huge chunk of the ceiling gave way and crashed to the floor, changing forever the face of Hosak's Cave. In one dramatic instant, the exceedingly simple and gradual force of trickling ground water over thousands of years demonstrated its power to reclaim the very rock it created and transform its own masterpiece.
The ancient rock monuments we marvel at today seem both timeless and eternal. As we lift our eyes to admire them and step inside to explore, we share an experience with Ohio's very first human inhabitants. We have preserved them in our parks and natural areas to pass them along as a legacy to future generations.
But these natural wonders are not permanent. Even the resistant rock layers atop our beloved recess caves and rock shelters must eventually yield to the unstoppable force of erosion. Meanwhile, as long as we have them to inspire us and feed our imaginations, they have the power to transport us back thousands of years in time to the days of Ohio's untamed wilderness.
Jean Backs, Editor