More than 8 million people visit one of the 19 Metro Parks every year.

2018 not only marks the Year of the Trails, it's also the 70th anniversary of the opening of Blacklick Woods, the first park in what would later become the Columbus & Franklin County Metro Parks.

Let's face it—if you're a fan of walking, hiking, rollerblading or bicycling, the Metro Parks are among your favorite destinations in Central Ohio. According to a 2016 analysis of park usage, more than 8 million people visit one of the 19 Metro Parks every year.

The Metro Parks consist of more than 27,500 acres of land in seven counties—90 percent of which is preserved in its natural state—and include more than 200 miles of trails. More than 180,000 people participate in about 3,600 free educational and recreations programs throughout the year.

And it all started with the acquisition of three properties, on March 30, 1948. Two parcels were purchased for $160 apiece, while the third sold for $144. For decades, the properties had been known as Ashton Woods because most of the tract had been owned by pioneer settler William Ashton. It was also the site of the prehistoric Blacklick swamp.

In 1948, the board of park commissioners—organized three years earlier, on Aug. 14, 1945—issued the following statement about its purchase and future acquisitions: “They are not intended to be city parks. ... Areas under consideration ... must be so outstandingly superior in quality and beauty as to make imperative their preservation for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of all people. ... Proposed park areas must be of importance to all the people of the county. ... Areas of purely local or neighborhood interest do not warrant becoming part of the metropolitan park system.”

When the first park opened on Oct. 24, 1948, it had a well and a gravel road and no other amenities. Open grasslands and meadows were preserved, and only picnic areas were mowed. A tree-planting program was initiated to restore the woodland nature of the property.

Camp Fire Girls began using the park for day camps in 1949. There later was a small zoo on the site with deer, raccoons and bobcats. By 1959, George Jenny, a full-time teacher and naturalist with Columbus Public Schools, was leading 9,000 fifth-graders each year through Blacklick park.

Today it's one of the busiest parks in the Metro system, with more than 800,000 visitors annually.

Metro Parks is planning a 70th anniversary celebration Oct. 20–21. More details will come later. metroparks.net

The Best of the Metro Parks

Parks staffers give their list of favorites.

Peg Hanley, Metro Parks' public information manager, polled park managers and staff for some of their favorite hikes.

Best Hike for Geology

The 2.5-mile Dripping Rock Trail, which starts at the nature center at Highbanks Metro Park. As you hike the moderate to difficult trail, look for concretions in the ravine below. Concretions are often orange and brown due to their high iron content but can include other minerals like calcite, dolomite, silica and pyrite. They may be small, like a bowling ball, or they could be the size of a truck. Check them out in the nature center before you head out.

Best Spot for Fishing

Prairie Oaks Metro Park. From the lot at the Darby Bend Lakes area off Amity Road, haul your fishing tackle and waders toward the big bridge. Jump into Big Darby Creek and wade up or downstream to fish for smallmouth, rock bass, bluegill and—if you're lucky—largemouth bass. Fish tend to hide under rocks and downed trees in the water.

Best View

Chestnut Ridge is the first ridge in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The ridge spans about 4,500 feet and rises to about 1,116 feet. Follow the Ridge Trail for about a mile. Fair warning: It's steep. The trail takes you to the top of Chestnut Ridge and, on a clear day, gives you a view of the Downtown Columbus skyline about 20 miles away. Continue up the ridge and cross over to the Homesite Trail to get a great view of the surrounding countryside.

Best Hike to See a Bobcat or a Bear

While sightings of either one are unlikely, as neither has been spotted, both apparently cohabitate at Clear Creek Metro Park. Hike the Cemetery Ridge and Hemlock trails and look for the elusive bobcat (tracks have been found) or black bear (park staff found claw scrapes on a tree). The Cemetery Ridge trail is 2.5 miles of moderate to difficult dirt and gravel that begins with a steep zigzagging ascent through woods, peaking at about 700 feet. At the top of the ridge, the trail alternates between forest and meadow. The more difficult Hemlock Trail is 1.5 miles of dirt and gravel that ascends and descends steeply through shady hemlock groves, sandstone outcroppings, a carpet of ferns and ridges topped with hardwood trees.

Best Hike for History—20th-Century Edition

Park in the lot at Cedar Ridge picnic area at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park and start down the 4.7-mile paved trail. If you're lucky, you'll first encounter one of the seven bison grazing in the pasture. Continue on and you'll come to a horse track and barn that once belonged to millionaire John W. Galbreath, former owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and owner of Darby Dan Farm, where many champion horses were bred and trained, including Chateaugay, the 1963 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner, and Little Current, the 1974 Preakness and Belmont winner. Celebrities, a president and even a princess have visited Darby Dan Farm. Metro Parks has restored the grandstand and placed historic markers and photos telling some of the history of the Galbreath family.

Best Hike for History—19th-Century Edition

Pack a picnic and spend the afternoon at Slate Run Living Historical Farm, a working re-enactment of an 1880s-era Ohio farm. Period-dressed staff tend to livestock, bake, make cider, plow the earth with a team of horses, cob the corn and pound iron on the anvil.