Nature Notes: Zaleski State Forest

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

My trip last weekend to Zaleski State Forest was long overdue. It's likely the most popular -- and one of the easiest -- backpack trails in the state. For those who want to try out the joys and pains of sleeping self-efficiently in the woods, this is a great place to start.

[Forest homepage] [Backpack map]

First, some basics: The entire trail system is 23.5 miles, but you can hike a day loop as short as 10 miles. There are several opportunities for day hikes, overnight excursions and two-night trips like I took. Except during winter months, Division of Forestry workers truck in fresh water to three spigots near three campsites, which are spaced well along the main trail.

Zaleski is often confused with the backpack trail at nearby Shawnee State Forest, but that one is far more grueling, one way people train for the mountainous Appalachian Trail. The terrain at Zaleski involves some steep climbs, creek crossings and a lot of ridge-running with small elevation changes. You're never more than a few miles from a road, but this well-marked, well-worn path feels like a good wilderness experience.

As far as itinerary goes, here are suggestions starting from the trailhead on state route 278...

If you have one day: Take the south loop, about 10 miles total. It has some steep climbs, but most is only moderately difficult. Taking this section will give you access to two water spigots, keeping your day pack light. Loop: ABCDEFA.

If you have two days: Take the short side trail to the main trail and head to the northernmost campsite. Once you're there, more advanced hikers can set up camp, then walk an upper loop during the afternoon. On the second day, you'll be taking the easy way out on the western side. Main loop: AFGLHLGMNOPQA (10.2 miles). Optional day loop: HJKH (5.5 miles).

If you have three days: Your first day will be most of the south loop, camping at point D. You'll continue north on your second day, camping at point H. You can also do the optional 5.5-mile day trip. Your third day is the easier western loop. Main loop: ABCDEFGLHLGMNOPQA (17.9 miles). Optional day loop: HJKH (5.5 miles).

After the jump, you'll a complete field guide to the three-day trip with tons of pictures.