Everyone Loves the Hocking Hills. Maybe too Much.

A pandemic boom threatens one of the state's most beloved natural areas.

Steve Wartenberg
Park visitors crowd Hocking Hills State Park on Saturday, April 23, 2022, during the first 80-plus degree day of the year.

Big crowds are nothing new to the Hocking Hills. In October 1966, the Logan Daily News reported the area “attracted a steady flow of sightseers over the weekend. ... 5,434 Saturday and 11,814 Sunday.” In fact, the area got so crowded, the paper revealed, that “the sheriff’s department directed traffic for over two hours at routes 33 and 664.”

If you’ve ever visited Hocking Hills State Park, you understand why it’s so popular. “There’s nothing else like it in Ohio,” says Jeffrey Large, the naturalist supervisor at the park. “The caves, the waterfalls, the geology and sandstone make for a really great hike.” As a result, its trails bustle with traffic in the spring and summer, and then grow even more crowded in the fall, when the leaves burst into a rainbow of colors and the parking lots fill early and often.

This popularity got an additional boost during the pandemic. Seeking a respite from lockdowns and indoor isolation, visitors poured into the Hocking Hills, creating traffic jams on the most popular trails and bottlenecks on the stairs at either end of Old Man’s Cave, one of the park’s most beloved attractions. “Although the area was absolutely wonderful, I have NEVER been on a trail that had so many people. If you want peace and quiet, don’t go on a beautiful weekend in the summer,” Merrilyn from Indiana recently wrote on Tripadvisor.

It’s hard to know exactly how many people visit Hocking Hills every year, as admission is free. The park “is widely regarded as the most popular of Ohio’s state parks,” says ODNR spokesperson Stephanie O’Grady. The Hocking Hills Tourism Association estimates up to 5 million visitors come to the area surrounding the state park each year. All these visitors, and the tens of millions of steps they take through the fragile, sandstone-filled microclimate, can impact and harm the environment.

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Large doesn’t think the word “overcrowded” is appropriate. “It does get very busy, but there’s still space,” he says, adding that changes have been made to protect the flora and fauna, including the institution of one-way trails in the summer of 2020.

“The trails are 6 feet wide, but they became 8 to 10 feet wide when crowds of people were going by in each direction,” Large says. “[The one-way trails] allowed some of the plant life to grow back, and it’s also an added safety feature, as this keeps people further from the edges of the cliffs.”

The one-way-trail plan had been on the drawing board for a few years, says Patrick Quackenbush, the park’s previous naturalist supervisor. He retired from ODNR in 2021 and is currently the program manager for Hocking College’s Parks and Museums Education program.

Preservation was the initial, pre-COVID reason for the one-way trails. The sandstone “is easily damaged by people touching it with their hands and can crumble,” Quackenbush says. There are also delicate species of plants along the edges of the trails: the white flowers of the sullivantia, the bright red flowers of the roundleaf catchflys, the mosslike liverworts that cling to the sides of caves. “It can take 20 years [for a liverwort] to grow a foot and a half, and one scrape on the rock from someone can set it back 20 years,” Quackenbush says.

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To avoid the crowds, Large recommends visiting the park early in the week, on Mondays or Tuesdays, when there are fewer visitors and open spots in the parking lots. Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls and Ash Cave are the park’s most popular sites, and are all located on the Grandma Gatewood Trail loop, with a parking lot (often filled on weekends) near the visitor’s center. An alternative is to head farther north and hike the Cantwell Cliffs and Rock House trails. “They’re not as busy and are great hikes,” Large says. If the weekend is the only option for a visit, he recommends coming “later in the day on Sunday.”

Jennifer Dicken lives just north of Hocking Hills State Park and loves to hike its trails. In the midst of the pandemic, she started a Facebook group, Hocking Hills Hiking Club, to connect with other hikers. “I never started a club before, and I’m amazed how many people requested to join, and a lot of them aren’t even from Ohio.”

The club offers regular hikes, and Dicken has noticed growing crowds on the trails. “You can’t hike at your own pace; you have to wait for the people ahead of you,” she says, adding that she avoids the park on the weekends and seeks out the less-popular paths.

The crowds have pluses and minuses for local residents. “I have friends who run cabin businesses, and they’re growing,” Dicken says. “I have heard some concern [from locals] who say they went to Walmart on a Sunday, and there was no bread left.”

Despite these obstacles and the crowds, Dicken will continue to hike Hocking Hills. “It’s such a great place to meditate and pray and spend time with Mother Nature,” she says.

This story is from the June 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.