Locals share new ways to be surprised and delighted by the Hocking Hills this winter

Located just an hour's drive southeast of the city, the Hocking Hills is the go-to destination for Columbusites looking for a quick weekend escape. You might think you've seen it all-the wooded trails, the waterfalls, the rustic cabins. But it all looks a little different in the winter. "It's actually my favorite season," says Columbus restaurateur and semi-permanent Hocking Hills resident Liz Lessner. Aside from breathtaking scenery-snow-covered trees, sparkling gorges and glistening frozen waterfalls-the year's coldest season also offers lower lodging rates, fewer crowds and more visible wildlife. We asked the locals to share the best places to eat, sleep and play in this winter wonderland. - Michelle Sullivan

Where to stay

With more than 700 cottages, cabins and lodges in the region, choosing one can be overwhelming. Use the lodging search on explorehockinghills.com and visit the "hot deals" page to capitalize on the season's low rates. Off-season rates at the Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls, a 75-acre resort in Logan with 26 cabins nestled against Hocking Hills State Park, are up to 20 percent lower than during the months between April and November, says co-owner Ellen Grinsfelder. The only time this might not be the case is around Valentine's Day, a popular travel weekend for couples. "Just the idea of being secluded in a cozy cabin in the woods lends itself to romance," says Karen Raymore, executive director of the Hocking Hills Tourism Association.

Venture outside the traditional cabin-in-the-woods box with an overnight stay at Ravenwood Castle in New Plymouth. The medieval-themed resort offers castled rooms, a great hall for dinner and a pub that serves craft beers on draft. They've also got itty-bitty cabins styled as "gypsy" wagons on site for those looking to really rough it.

Where to eat

The Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls restaurant has a reputation in the region for its scratch cooking and use of local ingredients. One item not to miss: the triple-berry cobbler, Grinsfelder says.

The restaurant at Scottish country inn Glenlaurel, in Rockbridge, serves one extravagant six- and seven-course dinner on Saturday and Sunday evenings, respectively. Anyone is welcome with a reservation, says innkeeper Sabrina McCartt.

Hidden near Ash Cave is a restaurant that serves American fare, like good old-fashioned comfort food and a New York strip steak. The Grouse Nest is where Lessner and her husband grub after their traditional Valentine's Day hike. "The food is fantastic," she says, adding part of the appeal is its laid-back atmosphere. For a fresh-cooked meal in the comfort of a secluded cabin, make a date with the Grouse Nest's traveling chef, who'll supply the ingredients and prepare them for you, too.

What to do

Though the annual winter hike through Hocking Hills State Park has already taken place, park manager Curt Partee says those who missed it can still follow the 6-mile scenic trail from Old Man's Cave to Ash Cave on their own.

The region has plenty of lesser-known spots hidden both in and out of the state park. The remote Cantwell Cliffs with its towering rock formations has some of the best hiking in the area, McCartt says. Lessner advises asking a local to locate her favorite best-kept secret, Rock Stull, because "you're not going to find it on a map," she says of this trove of frozen waterfalls. Head anywhere in the park in the winter and you'll see a multitude of wildlife, from white-tailed deer to birds of prey, more inclined to roam freely without hoards of people scaring them away, Lessner adds.

You'll see plenty of wildlife while riding the snowy trails at The Spotted Horse Ranch, says owner Mike Solt. The 500-acre ranch in Laurelville has 25 miles of wooded trails and offers horseback riding year-round. Call beforehand in the case of inclement weather, he advises.

Snowshoeing through the parks is another popular wintertime activity-just be sure to bring your own shoes, because there are no public rental facilities (but it may be worth checking with your cabin owner or innkeeper).

To uncover more insider tips and to hear live music from not-yet-discovered bands, share a cold one with the locals at Home Tavern in Logan, a no-frills watering hole that's open nearly all day, every day.