Visitors can immerse themselves in the winter splendors of the Hocking Hills by staying in one of the region's 900 rental cabins, joining in the largest winter hiking event in the country and more.

A Hideaway in the Woods

Visitors can immerse themselves in the winter splendors of the Hocking Hills by staying in one of the region's 900 rental cabins.

An organized winter hike through the Hocking Hills with a group of like-minded adventurers is a wonderful way to experience the beauty of Ohio's most-visited natural region. There's also much to be said for getting away for a weekend of solitude with your significant other, enjoying winter in the hills at your own pace and returning for a cozy night in a rental cabin with a roaring fire or relaxing in hot tub as the snow gently falls around you.

Lodging in the Hocking Hills generates about $25 million annually, says Jim Stephan, communications director for the Hocking Hills Tourism Association. But finding an available cabin to rent is getting harder and harder, even though about 300 different owners have some 900 cabins available. "It's getting to the point where you can't rent a cabin on the spur of the moment anymore," Stephan says. "Some of the most popular rental facilities, with the most sought-after amenities, are booked three and four months out for peak season."

But finding a cabin in the winter is a little easier during what's considered the off-season in the Hocking Hills. "Are summers packed? Yes. Are the falls packed? Yes. Everybody wants to come in the fall when the leaves are changing. But you kind of pay the price," Stephan says.

But the winter and the spring have charms all their own. "Each season offers a different experience-the flowers blossoming and the waterfalls flowing from the snow melting in the spring, or the snow and the stillness and the big, beautiful icicles hanging from the rocks in the winter. Not only that, but prices may be lower and the crowds smaller in those so-called off-seasons."

Finding your cabin is made easy by a couple of websites-hockinghills.com and explorehockinghills.com. The latter is the official site of the Hocking Hills Tourism Association, while the former is privately owned. Both are member-supported and offer a wealth of information about the area's sites, events and amenities, as well as detailed descriptions of the cabins for rent, including rates, specials and availability.

Before you make that reservation, however, know exactly what it is that you want. Are you OK without a TV, a hot tub or even cellphone service? Do you want to take Fido? Not all cabins are pet-friendly. "Hocking Hills not only offers activities for everyone, but there are accommodations for everyone," Stephan says. "You might find a small cabin for $125 special, or pay up to $400 or $500 a night for a big lodge that sleeps 15. Most probably fall in the $180 to $200 range."

Romancing the Stone

The Sweethearts Hike is an Ash Cave Valentine's tradition.

Nobody's ever mistaken me for Don Juan. But I do have one romantic tradition with my wife-if romantic means bundling up in so many layers that only our eyes are showing. Every year for a decade or so, my wife Cindy and I have headed south to the Hocking Hills on the Saturday closest to Valentine's Day for the Sweethearts Hike at Ash Cave. Even calling it a hike is a bit of a stretch, as it's just an easy quarter-mile walk along a flat handicapped-accessible trail.

And though it may be the shortest and easiest of all of the trails in the Hocking Hills, it also may be the most dramatic. But little evidence of the magnificence that soon will be revealed is apparent from the park entrance, just off Route 56, where Pat Quackenbush awaits arrivals, greeting bundled-up couples-many, like us, repeat Sweethearts Hikers-as they trickle in from around the state for the 5 p.m. start. Quackenbush, the state naturalist for Hocking Hills State Park, is the star of the show. Middle-aged and somewhat slight in stature, a knit toboggan-style cap balancing precariously on his head, he has an animated quick-talking enthusiasm that makes him eminently and immediately likeable. He narrates the short hike for the 100 or so who typically accompany him as dusk turns darker and the temperatures drop in the gorge.

He stops periodically along the way to point out significant geological features-a stately beech that has stood guard just outside of the gorge since man first arrived. Quickly, the massive icicle-covered sandstone walls begin to close in and evergreen hemlocks ("the favorite food of the mastodon," he tells us) overtake the landscape. The trail gently takes a slight curve to the right and suddenly, the magnificent Ash Cave-100 feet tall, 100 feet deep and 700 feet across-spreads out before us, a two-story waterfall icicle hanging from the far cliff still trickling down onto a Quonset-sized mound of ice underneath. The frozen earth underfoot curiously gives way to what can only be described as an inland beach, loose and sandy, mixed with the ashes of thousands of fires built over the thousands of years under the shelter of the cave. We add to the heritage with a roaring fire of our own, hot chocolate and cookies, too. Then the real stories begin.

Quackenbush bribes the crowd with a fistful of chocolate roses, coaxing us to tell the stories of how we met. Slowly, the more bold among us begin to tell our tales. "We've had first dates there. We've had proposals there. We had one couple who came on their first date, then came as newlyweds and came again with their first kid," says Quackenbush. "I remember one lady said she and her husband were born and raised as children in India. There, they separate boys and girls in school, and she said she basically tortured him throughout their youth, throwing things at him across the aisle. 'It worked,' she said. 'He married me.' "

This year's Sweethearts Hike takes place on Feb. 13, and no matter how many times I've heard them, I still look forward to the story of the old beech and the hemlock and being warmed beside my wife by a blazing fire and a cup of hot chocolate and listening to tales of love inside the natural beauty of Ash Cave. Maybe I do have a touch of Don Juan.explorehockinghills.com

Join the country's largest winter hike

If a quick hike on Valentine's Day isn't your thing, the Hocking Hills area offers a couple of other winter hikes of note.

The big one is the generically named Hocking Hills Winter Hike. But that's the only thing generic about this Ohio tradition. Hocking Hills State Park naturalist Pat Quackenbush says this annual 6-mile jaunt is the largest winter hiking event in the country. Last year, the hike's 50th anniversary, set a record with more than 5,600 people taking part. That's both the good part and the bad. If the weather hovers around freezing or above, 5,000 people can stomp the trail into a muddy mess pretty quickly. But if the weather stays in the 20s or below, it remains frozen. "Even though it's huge, it's a unique chance to see the Hocking Hills when some feel it's at its most beautiful," Quackenbush says. "And it's unique, in that you get this crowd of people who love to do the same thing you do. It's like spending a day with 5,000 of your closest buddies."

The hike, from Old Man's Cave to Cedar Falls (the state buses hikers back to the starting point), annually takes place on the third Saturday of January, which, in 2016, is Jan. 16, beginning at 9 a.m. and ending around 2 p.m.

If 6 miles seems like a haul, there's the kid-friendly Christmas in Ash Cave event on Dec. 12, from 5-7 p.m. Candle-lit luminaries line the quarter-mile trail to the massive cupped cave, where Santa awaits to greet kids young and old. Live music is performed in the natural amphitheater to entertain adults while the kids make crafts, such as the stalwart pine cone rolled in peanut butter and bird seed, which can then be hung on a small Christmas hemlock tree on the way out.