When “bouquet” and “beer” appear in the same sentence, you know these aren’t the hills of hillbillies.
Something in the Hocking Hills gives folks crazy dreams and the energy to achieve them. Maybe it’s the water. Or the caves. Or the air crisp enough to buff your face to a childhood glow.
One native quit a Hollywood career to come home and brew sipping beers presented in corked wine bottles. A couple built an inn from reclaimed country cabins and junked materials. A Native American storyteller performs his stagecraft in caves. Instead of waiting for balmy days, the locals mass for frozen waterfall hikes and rainy-day romps around cliffs and gorges. Want to make washboards and dedicate a museum to them? That’ll work. And where else can a moonshine festival — with hooch-making demonstrations using an authentic still — an annual five-day family event?
Here in the hills and hollows of southeastern Ohio, the dreamers are doers and what’s done is worth savoring.
In the spring, after the waterfalls thaw, the region gears up for wildflower hikes, ghost talks, Flaming Torchlight canoe rides, New Moon Glow float trips, May’s Moonshine Festival and the Washboard Music Festival in June.
The vistas throughout sprawling Hocking Hills State Park would have wowed hobbits. Rolling Appalachian foothills ensconce cliffs, waterfalls, massive slump blocks that cracked off cliffs, bubbling creeks, and caves where Indians performed rituals and loners dwelled.
Blackhand sandstone fortifies the cliffs, and honeycomb weathering pocks the huge rocks; we’re seeing a cross-section of an ancient sandbar once covered by an ocean. Now the landscape’s fed by the Hocking River and populated by owls, deer and wild turkeys. The gorge’s microclimate nurtures plants and animals uncommon in this part of America, such as the yellow-crowned Kinglet, a sociable bird. Hikers appreciate the natural air-conditioning provided by the sandstone’s fissures and caverns. The caves, called recess caves, are not underground caverns but above-ground openings in cliff walls carved by centuries of erosion.
Tagging along on one of naturalist Pat Quackenbush’s free guided hikes to Old Man’s Cave, I imagine the namesake hermit drifting to sleep, warmed by his hound dogs. This shelter, carved by nature, runs 200 feet wide, 50 feet tall and 75 feet deep; it’s recessed in a cliff rising 85 feet above a stream. The hermit lived here for years in the early 1800s until one wintry day, cracking ice with his rifle, he accidentally shot himself in the head.
Grandma Gatewood Trail, named for a more fortunate Appalachian Mountains wayfarer, connects Old Man’s Cave with show-stopping Cedar Falls and Ash Cave, an even larger cave, in a 10-mile loop.
Old Man’s Creek cascades over ledges, then plunges 40 feet over the Upper Falls. Downstream, the flow swirls around Devil’s Bathtub. The cool, misty atmosphere suits the slender, proud hemlocks for which Cedar Falls would have been named had the namers not confused tree species.
The great outdoors is counterbalanced by indoor allure. The Inn at Cedar Falls sprouted from the imagination of Ellen Grinsfelder’s mother and the resourcefulness of Ellen and husband Terry Lingo. The innkeepers reclaimed and remodeled cabins and farm structures for their buildings, renovating and expanding them using recycled materials. Newspaper insulated walls, scrap wood became chairs, old pallets undergirded floors, fiber remnants turned into carpets. “Bootstrap green,” Ellen calls it.