Looking to take advantage of the last great day of fall weather and relieve some election anxiety, I decided to to check out a few new trails and the leaves at Great Seal State Park. I hiked 12 miles of mostly the northern section with a 50 lb. backpack in August in preparation for my John Muir Trail hike, so I decided to concentrate on the southern portion for this hike.
For those not familiar with the park near Chilicothe, you should. It is named after the seal of the state of Ohio:
for most of the hills depicted in the image are what is encompassed within the park.
It is quite the under-the-radar park, probably due to the location near Hocking Hills and the limited amenities (no big-time camping, lodge, playground, lake,…) of the park. What it does have is probably the most challenging terrain for hiking in Ohio (although I haven’t been to Shawnee State Park, yet), with 23 miles of trails and endless loop-hiking opportunities up, over and down the hills. Many of the trails are shared with mountain bikers, but it has not posed an issue for me. If you are a serious Ohio hiker that describes your hikes in terms of distance and elevation gained, Great Seal SP is the best I have encountered in Ohio, so far.
Since I didn’t get to hike the Bunker Hill trail during my last visit, I plotted out a route that would give me 8-10 miles looping around the various trails in the southern portion. The park is separated into two sections by a spine along the Shawnee Ridge trail that has several radio/cell towers on it, so it makes it optimum to spend a day on either side (and a long day if you try to cover both and backtrack). Ahcuah has a great site dedicated to Southeastern Ohio hiking, and has a really neat tool for calculating mileage along the various trails. There is also a good selection of maps and topo maps for Great Seal.
I reached the parking lot at 10am on a beautiful, near-cloudless day that was going to reach the mid-60’s. I knew it was going to provide a similar fall foliage experience as my Tar Hollow hike the week prior give the color I was noticing at the top of the hills. And I wasn’t disappointed.
I started from the south parking area toward the Bunker Hill trail. It was pretty easy at the beginning, and didn’t really climb much until you made it around the hill and took the Bunker Hill Ridge trail. You could tell the leaves were going to be fantastic as you climbed. There are a lot of intersections throughout the trails, which can be a little confusing. Fortunately, there are enough of these fantastic trail signs throughout the park to keep you honest:
Shortly after reaching the end of the initial climb up Bunker Hill, you are greeted with a four-person patio table and chairs, as well as a wooden swing!
I can see this being a great place for a picnic given someone lugged those all the way to the top.
It became quickly apparent that I was on one of my favorite Ohio trails. The forest was beautiful, even without the leaf color. There was enough clearing to provide more of a “vista” than Tar Hollow or Zaleski. The only downfall of this trail was that it was on the southwest corner of the park, the closet to Rt. 23 and the other artery intersections in Chillicothe (Rts 35 an 50) which resulted in a little too much traffic noise. Still, the forest and views make this trail a must-visit.
The leaves had to be as close to peak as possible. Despite ODNR calling for peak season a few weeks prior (IMO, a false statement made in order to promote October fall events at state parks), the true peak has been the last week or so.
After heading down from Bunker Hill, I took the Lick Run trail around the south side of Mt. Ives, enjoying a nice trail with ravine and forest views. I traversed the very steep Mt. Ives ridge connector up to the Mt. Ives ridge (trekking poles are recommended for Great Seal) to another beautiful ridge view.
At this point, you are still exposed to the southwest, so you are still hearing the road noise. Also, to the southwest is Mt. Logan, which I believe might be the tallest hill in the area, but outside the park. The hike along the Mt. Ives ridge is excellent, with some views off to the adjacent hills. After a short while, you head down, reconnecting with the Lick Run trail to return (through a beautiful forest) to the valley floor of the parking area.
I crossed the road continuing on the Mt. Ives trail and hooked up with the Rocky Knob trail. I didn’t look at the top map close enough, expecting (or hoping) this would take me back up to another ridge, however it ended up being a rolling hike around ravines with a hollow below. Not what I expected, but still a very scenic trail providing a nice diversity to the overall hike.
When I returned to the Shawnee Ridge trail, I was going to head up to the Rock Garden Loop, but noticed on the trail placard “Annie’s Trail” a short distance away (it isn’t on the maps I brought with me). The trail (and several other benches in the park) are named after Annie Rooney, an avid mountain biker and supporter of the sport in Great Seal that passed away too early due to a drunk driver. The trail was very nice as it switchbacked up the side of the hill to the ridge top.
The trail connected with Shawnee Ridge just before Rock Garden Loop, which is the next section I wanted to hike. This trail lived up to it’s name due to the rock outcroppings at the turn in the trail, which provided a great background to the fallen leaves and beautiful color on the trees.
In order to make the return to the car and finish my survey of the southern portion of Great Seal, I took the Grouse Rock trail down from the ridge and back to the valley floor. I wondered if I would lose the leaves coming off the ridge, but I was very surprised to maintain the beautiful fall color down the trail for quite a ways.
I reconnected with the Shawnee Ridge trail parallel to the road and ended up back at the car for a round trip of 11 miles and 1169′ of elevation gain. It was a wonderful hike amongst the beautiful yellow-orange hues of the late foliage season. I need to bring Ann back for the Bunker Hill/Mt. Ives portion next year and try to hit the leaves at the same time of the season.
Notes from my August hike:
- While Sugarloaf Mountain is the highest hill in the park, there are no vistas from the top and the trail is quite a straight-uphill slog. IMO, it is not worth making the trek, especially if you are going to try to include both the north and south sections in one day.
- Bald Hill and Sand Hill are really neat, and should be tackled. One of them (I think Sand Hill) has really neat rock formations at the top.
- The hike along the ridge by the radio/cell towers is an eye sore and not appealing, but necessary to connect the two sections.
- Bunker Hill is my favorite
- I have only been to Great Seal twice, mid-week, so I have only seen one mountain biker. I can imagine it being more of a nuisance/conflict on weekends, and it sounds like there are occasional events/races.