It’s not easy to improve on the finest nature has to offer, but at Hocking Hills, the park staff, friends group and local community are teaming up to make the best even better. Hocking Hills is home to the premier hiking trail system in Ohio State Parks, boasting spectacular cliffs and caves, magnificent waterfalls and scenic streams and gorges. For generations, the 1930s-era stone staircases carved into the colossal rock formations and stone bridges spanning the meandering streams stood as monuments to the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Since a devastating flash flood in 1998 damaged the historic stone bridges and erased the trail in the Old Man’s Cave gorge, Hocking Hills has been the focus of a steady stream of projects to rebuild and enhance visitor facilities. Each project has been carefully designed and built to preserve the CCC tradition of handcrafted quality. The architectural designs feature shapes and materials that blend with the surroundings to preserve the aesthetics, character and significance of the landscape. The construction work has been painstakingly planned and executed to meet the extraordinary challenges of building in areas that are difficult to access, while protecting the sensitive ecosystem. The gorge trail has been restored to its former glory, and the attractive stone entryway and graceful new suspension bridge at Cedar Falls let visitors know that they are about to see something really special.
Form and function blend beautifully in the spacious new Campground Welcome Center, which provides a convenient single location for park guests to register for a campsite or cottage, get park information, purchase camping supplies, and get assistance from the park’s business office. The welcome center design is a fresh interpretation of the earthy and nostalgiac “national park” look of sturdy stone facades and massive timbers, with stylish accents including a turret and cupola, airy cathedral ceiling, large paned windows, and tin roof. The result is a building that is eye-catching, yet the perfect complement to the scenic natural surroundings.
As part of the welcome center project, the campground entrance road, which dipped through a swiftly flowing stream, was re-routed to eliminate the stream crossing. The modifications to the campground entrance allow more room for vehicles standing by as campers enter the building to register, improving safety for park visitors as well as for motorists on State Route 664. Trail improvements in the vicinity of the welcome center improve pedestrian access to the facility and adjoining park areas.
The finishing touch is the formal visitor plaza, which provides a fitting entrance to the grandeur of Upper Falls. The attractive stone patio is rimmed with stone walls featuring built-in benches. The plaza is practical as well as pretty, providing a safer approach to the perimeter trails above the falls, and directing traffic to the Old Man’s Cave gorge trail.
The neighboring natural area also got a boost during the plaza project. A paved, wheelchair accessible trail was built in the picturesque valley floor of Conkles Hollow. The half-mile linear trail gives visitors an intimate look at the cool hemlock gorge, as well as views of the towering rock edifice above.
Over the years, nearly $6.5 million in capital improvement funds have been devoted to these legacy projects-including $2.3 million from the NatureWorks program, which was approved by Ohio voters in 1993 for park improvements like these. For the two million visitors who flock to these destinations each year, the investment is worth every penny.
In the midst of this parade of high profile projects, the park staff also keeps pace with the demands of daily operation and maintenance of this large and complex park. Hocking Hills State Park sprawls across 2,356 acres that weave around more than 9,000 acres of Hocking State Forest land. The six major geologic attractions-Rock House, Old Man’s Cave, Cantwell Cliffs, Ash Cave, Cedar Falls and Conkles Hollow Natural Area-encompass ten miles of tremendously popular hiking tails, plus parking areas, picnic facilities and restrooms at each location. Additional visitor facilities at the Old Man’s Cave area include the rustic naturalist cabin and the more refined visitor center, which houses a nature store, snack bar, information booth and educational displays. The Old Man’s Cave family campground has 169 campsites for transient campers, plus three camper cabins, and modern campground amenities including electrical hookups, flush restrooms, hot showers, laundry facilities and a swimming pool. For campers who prefer to rough it, there is a secluded 30-site primitive walk-in campground off State Route 374, along with a two primitive group camps.
The park’s dining lodge and cottage complex is perched atop a scenic ridge a short drive from Old Man’s Cave. The dining lodge serves up satisfying meals and gorgeous views, in addition to hosting business meetings and festive private functions. A second swimming pool located next to the dining lodge is available to all park guests for a small fee. Forty two-bedroom cottages are available year-round for family vacations or weekend getaways.
Through a combination of smart planning, efficient management, innovative thinking and pure talent, the entire park staff has made the most of the modest operating budget to take good care of park facilities and make a few improvements along the way. The park maintenance crew has kept the spirit of the CCC alive with their recent renovations to the vintage shelterhouse at the Old Man’s Cave group camp. One by one, they are remodeling the cottage living rooms and kitchens to give them an updated look. The park secretary initiated an exciting new project to create a 3D archery range with some help from the ODNR Division of Wildlife, the Archery Trade Association and Hocking College. The archery range makes its debut this fall, and will be available year-round.
The Friends of Hocking Hills are adding to the park’s extraordinary natural legacy with a few projects of their own. First, they are helping take care of Hocking’s wild side with a new raptor cage for injured birds of prey that need a safe place to recuperate. They are also constructing a wildlife viewing shelter and feeding station at Rose Lake so park visitors can admire wild critters without disturbing them.
An exciting and ambitious project on the drawing board is an astronomical observatory to give park visitors a better view of the star-studded night sky. The Friends of Hocking Hills is partnering with the Columbus Astronomical Society (CAS) to build an observatory facility. The CAS has donated a telescope with a powerful lens, and has committed to help with the design and construction of the observatory building to house the telescope. The circular stone structure will feature an open courtyard configured to track the planets in our solar system.