Venture: Zaleski State Forest

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Planning a backpacking trip always involves a trade-off: great views for flat terrain, summer heat for spring rain, frosty nights in November for bugs in June. In Ohio, even when you think you've bartered accordingly, things don't always cooperate.

So it was this weekend along Zaleski State Forest's 23.5-mile backpacking loop, one of Ohio's most popular outdoor excursions and a great trail for beginners looking for overnight practice.

On Saturday, with temperatures in the mid 90s, a rolling forest yet to sprout a canopy became a shade-free sauna that smelled of roasting leaves during peak sun. Planning instead for cool nights and rain, I brought no shorts, limited water storage and all clothes packed in Ziploc bags.

Even in the toughest, weirdest conditions, though, Zaleski has you covered. It's easily adaptable for trips between one and four days, and fresh water is trucked into three convenient locations. Campsites are expansive and offer pit toilets (bring toilet paper!) and fire pits.

Zaleski is sometimes confused with the backpack trail in nearby Shawnee State Forest, but Shawnee is far more grueling, a popular place to train for the mountainous Appalachian Trail. Zaleski is a popular destination for Boy Scout groups, bachelor parties and church outings that must accommodate a range of experience levels.

It's kinda like backpacking with training wheels.

"You can get three days in, but it's probably the easiest backpack trail in the state," said Jonathan Barth, co-owner of Clintonville Outfitters, the local outdoor shop that organized this weekend's three-day trip. "It's great for beginners and people who just want to get out."

From the trailhead, our group of four hiked about six miles a day, camping at points D (Friday) and L (Saturday). Campsites are spaced well, with fairly diverse terrain within each segment. On Saturday, we shared camp with friendly groups tossing a Frisbee and stoking an evening fire.

The Hocking Hills never disappoint, and the main trail passes atop long, picturesque ridges, along streams and beneath giant sandstone overhangs. You'll climb some steep hills, cross streams and have plenty of time to catch your breath and enjoy prime wildlife viewing.

Much of the main loop is home to deer, wild turkey and coyote, a pack of which bellowed harmoniously through the night. Early-morning birding is worth schlepping in binoculars, and a Boy Scout troop reported seeing scat from the elusive bobcat near point J. (No one knows scat like the Boy Scouts.)

"I had a long winter, and this trail was a good re-entry for me," said Chrissy Cooley, a Victorian Village resident who has backpacked tougher trails in Montana and North Carolina. "There were parts where you could push yourself, but nowhere you'd get into trouble."

For a slideshow of Zaleski State Park, click to The Riot Act blog at ColumbusAlive.com.

Day tripper: Zaleski State Forest

Location: Zaleski

Size: 26,827 acres

Distance from Columbus: 70 miles

Web: ohiodnr.com

In short: A great place for backpackers to stretch their legs after winter.

Day trip: Zaleski offers two different day loops. The more popular south loop is 10 miles of moderate terrain with several tough climbs and two water spigots. The nine-mile west loop offers hills and some nice creek crossings, but no fresh water.

While you're there: Beautiful Lake Hope State Park is located across the street from Zaleski's trailhead and offers electric and non-electric camping, 66 rustic cottages, swimming, and canoe and kayak rental. There's also a birding trail and 14 miles for mountain bikers. It's a perfect place to relax after a few days roughing it on the trail. For info and reservations, call 740-596-5253 or click to ohiodnr.com.