One of the crown jewels in Ohio hiking is the Grandma Gatewood Trail in Hocking Hills that connects three of the top ten natural destinations in the state: Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls and Ash Cave. Hocking Hills is the best that Ohio has to offer for natural beauty, IMO, and a frequent destination for our family. Being only 90 minutes from our home in Columbus, I have probably spent over 100 days in the area over the last 24 years and know the highlights well. I will document a few on this blog as I experience them, again.
If you are not familiar with Grandma Gatewood, you should. She is likely the most famous Ohio hiker, lived in Southeast Ohio, and is most notable for being the first woman to thru hike the Appalachian Trail. Her first thru hike was at age 67, and she repeated the feat at age 75! This trail is named after her, in part because of her frequent hikes on it and listing it as one of her favorite trails.
The trail is approximately 6 miles between the parking lots of Old Man’s Cave and Ash Cave, so it can be a nice, 12-mile out-and-back trip. I hiked the blue trail on the picture below (the Grandma Gatewood Trail, which also is a section of the Buckeye Trail, North Country Trail and American Discovery Trail) to Ash Cave and back to Cedar Falls, and then took the red Gorge Overlook Trail from Cedar Falls back to Old Man’s Cave since I haven’t hiked that leg before. There are plenty of map placards along the trail to keep you from getting lost (and the trail is very easy to follow), and a decent amount of interpretive signs to help explain the geology and history of the area.
Word of caution: These destinations are very popular and are getting more crowded every year. You can tell by the size of the parking at Old Man’s Cave, and especially with the pre- and post-hike pictures below.
I hiked it on the Thursday before Easter in April, which I thought would be a good, slow period, however I must have underestimated how many kids would be on Spring Break, for there were big crowds the rest of the day once I reached Ash Cave just before Noon. I would recommend doing this trail early in the morning (starting at Old Man’s Cave), and preferably during a time period when kids are in school. It is also a hike to experience in all different seasons, for the winter experience with the ice formations are as wonderful as the fall color.
I started out from the top of the Old Man’s Cave area at 9am with only one other hiker getting ready after me. If you can do the gorge in this area alone, you are in for a treat. The gorge trail drops down immediately to the area with the picturesque Upper Falls. It is a wonderful bowl with a large pool of water surrounded by sandstone cliffs.
Making your way down the trail, it criss-crosses the creek through a tight (40-50’ at times) gorge with really neat rock walls, hemlock trees and, of course, the water flowing through cascades, pools and periods of short, steep descents. This gorge experienced a destructive flood in the mid-90s the swept away many of the original bridges and trail works, and the state did a really nice job rebuilding the trail and water crossings to incorporate more sturdy foundations that actually fit into the surroundings quite well.
There is one entrance back up to the visitors center/parking lot about halfway down the gorge to the Old Man’s Cave, and on this day, the water flowing down the cliffs next to it was at a pretty good level and provided a nice view. Another fascinating aspect of the first few miles of this hike is how the hemlock trees have adapted to the environment and the preponderance of sandstone slabs, sometimes even growing completely on top of a slab with the roots encompassing the rock.
After you descend through a rock tunnel and first glimpse Old Man’s Cave, stop and take a look back up the gorge at the cascade tumbling down. This is one of my favorite views in the area (and unfortunately one I didn’t get a picture on this hike due to lighting). Here is a picture from a previous hike:
The trail at this point is across from Old Man’s Cave and you can get an excellent overview of the “cave” (it is actually just a recess in the sandstone), especially if there are other people inside the cave dwarfed by it. The cave is very difficult to capture in a photo for an amateur like me, but the best spot seems to be from the bridge that takes you to the cave.
The main trail for the Old Man’s Cave area is not done, as you continue down the gorge, actually rising up a bit and then dropping down the area of the Lower Falls, another picturesque waterfall with a beautiful surrounding. This is the most likely extent an Old Man’s Cave visitor will go, with trails leading back up to the parking lot/visitors center on the other side of the gorge.
To continue on to Cedar Falls, take the trail to the left and continue down the creek through beautiful hemlock trees bordered by sandstone cliffs. I did not see another hiker for the next couple miles, so this was my favorite portion of the hike this day. There are so many neat views during this section between the water, the cliffs and especially the hemlock trees growing on rocks.
About a mile into this portion of the trail, there is a clearing as the creek you are following meets the creek from Cedar Falls and the confluence results in Queer Creek. There were a few workers at this area completing a swinging bridge over the creek, telling me they are completing a trail to a new cave below the Lodge that they are opening in May. Given this and a few other trails that I noticed were “Under Construction”, it appears to me that Ohio has decided to continue to expand the offerings in this most beautiful area. It makes sense to promote the natural features of the area, but I am conflicted between enjoying the new offerings and the crowds it will bring. I think the key will be to avoid at all costs the popular times.
Another half mile and there is another clearing around where Rose Creek, coming from Rose Lake Dam, enters the gorge. It appears the trail up to Rose Lake is closed as they use it for a construction path for the new bridge/trail. After this area, the trail just keeps getting better and better. There were several small waterfalls on the trail side of the gorge coming over the cliffs which provided really nice scenes. There was more runoff than I expected, and I can imagine that doing this hike immediately after a large rain, while muddy, would be very interesting.
In this portion of the hike, there are a few climbs/scrambles the trail takes along and over rocks which are the most challenging of the entire hike. They are not impossible, but those that are unsure of their footing will take pause, and it could be a bit slippery when it is more wet. In a short while, you come to a bridge that enters the Cedar Falls area. A short walk continuing along the creek will bring you close to tall cliffs and eventually to Cedar Falls, a beautiful, flowing waterfall down a rock cliff that has a lot of character. There is a large area where you can walk up to the pool and fairly close to the falls, so getting a good picture can be difficult without people being in the frame. The combination of rock, water, and hemlocks growing on ledges is quite a setting.
I circled back down the creek to the steps that lead up to the Cedar Falls parking lot and continues the Grandma Gatewood Trail to Ash Cave. Once up to the lot, you need to walk to the back of the picnic area to a Forest Service Road for the trail to Ash Cave. The first half mile or so is along this service road, and you start to leave the predominantly hemlock forest to a deciduous forest. This portion of the trail would be best for the fall colors.
After a mile from Cedar Falls, you cross Chapel Ridge Road and the trail passes the area Fire Tower. I climbed up it on the way back, but found the views to be unspectacular, probably best viewed in the fall. I personally like the view from the Tar Hollow Fire Tower better since you get to see more elevation change and areas like Great Seal State Park.
After the Fire Tower, the trail is back on a Forest Service Road of awhile. Once you are back on a “normal” trail, after you start your descent down to Ash Cave, the trail goes through a dense stand of hemlocks for a really nice setting. Interestingly, I encountered many hikers on the section between Cedar Falls and Ash Cave, but none prior to Cedar Falls. I will assume it is due to being later in the day. After the hemlock forest, the trail flattens out through a mixed forest as it follows the creek that feeds the waterfall at Ash Cave. Once I reached the top of the waterfall (and more people), I bypassed the rope blocking off the rim trail to the right and took that leg down to the parking area. One of the neat sights was a large, fallen tree that split in half along the trunk and was over the trail.
Ash Cave is a very popular area, not only due to how amazing it is, but also that it is a short, paved walk to the cave from the parking area. Still, it is a very nice gorge with the cliffs and forest surrounding it. Every time I visit the cave, I am amazed by its enormity (90’ high by 200’+ wide) of Ash Cave and the picturesque setting. Again, a very difficult scene for me to photograph, but here is a couple attempts and a short video I made from within the “cave”.
I mentioned the need to hike this area in the winter. Here is the ice mountain formed from the Ash Cave waterfall in the winter of 2014:
Unfortunately, Ash Cave was very crowded with a couple dozen people, and more unfortunate, a few dogs. One owner had a large German Shepherd that was barking almost the entire time and he could not control very well. (I saw the same guy/dog at Cedar Falls on my way back causing the same problems.) I wish people with dogs like that would just return to their car instead of lingering an ruining it for so many others. I hiked around to the outcropping on the other side of the cave and had my lunch and really enjoyed the view.
I returned to Cedar Falls along the same trail, climbing the Fire Tower and returning to Cedar Falls just before 1pm, startled to see it at a crowd level you would experience in the summer:
I climbed up the stairs to the Gorge Overlook Trail to return to Old Man’s Cave. The section along the creek above Cedar Falls was really neat, and if I hadn’t already hiked almost 10 miles, I would have explored more by the creek and the area above the waterfall. The Gorge Overlook Trail is a fairly serene trail, a wide, groomed path mostly through a hemlock forest. There are some neat points where you can explore out to the edge of the cliff above the trail I walked in the morning, but otherwise it is a fairly boring trail. Personally, I might not ever do it again.
About halfway to Old Man’s Cave, you do come to Rose Lake and walk across it’s dam. This would be a beautiful view in the fall, and is also accessible from the Rose Lake Trail off of 374.
I returned to the Old Man’s Cave area shortly before 2pm to many people exploring the area. I went to the Visitors Center hoping to find out more about the trail and destination expansion, however it was surprisingly closed. A great day of hiking, and probably a hike I will make many times in the future.
GPS Track of the 12.7 mile hike.