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Ohio’s Hocking Hills: Winding Through Town and Country

OPENER_HockingHills-WaterfallThe landscape surrounding Columbus is what you’d expect of central Ohio: flat fertile fields stretching for miles and punctuated by the occasional stand of trees. Head an hour southeast of the city, however, and the landscape changes in an unexpected way. About the time you reach the towns of Lancaster and Logan, the trees and brush thicken, and the road winds along in seemingly impossible S-curves, ribboning up and down hills that, time after time, give you the flutters as you crest them.

You’ve reached the Hocking Hills, where sandstone deposited by glaciers has eroded through the eons to create a forest-scape of hollows, gorges, and caverns. It’s not just the topography that differs from the surrounding Appalachian foothills—the flora and fauna do, too. The area is home to several state parks and forests as well as some quintessentially American and very charming small towns. Read on to find out more. And be sure to check out our new Ohio’s Hocking Hills Road Trip, which loops you through the region and has even more recommendations for places to eat, stay, and play.

Small Town Americana

Logan makes a great base for exploring the Hocking Hills. Just outside town is the locally owned Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, with a variety of rooms, cottages, and cabins—some dating from the 1800s—on its 75 wooded acres. Even if you don’t stay here, consider booking a spa treatment or stopping by for lunch or (with reservations) dinner featuring seasonal local fare and a dose of pioneer spirit. Logan itself also has two very cool roadside Americana attractions. After taking a photo of the world’s largest washboard (24 feet), head inside the Columbus Washboard Factory to see how washboards are assembled (by hand in less than 45 seconds) and hear how they’re still used as laundry tools, decorative accessories, and musical instruments. Logan is also home to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum, the world’s largest such collection.

 Small Town Industry and Art

If you needed a film location featuring a quintessential American town, Nelsonville would be perfect. Although it was settled in the early 1800s, it came into its own in the Industrial Age, thanks to rich deposits of coal and clay in the surrounding hills. Today, streets along and off the main square—which is on the National Register of Historic Places—are lined with trim, tidy Victorians. Many now house crafts stores and galleries as art is one of modern Nelsonville’s biggest industries. The square itself has the town’s signature “star bricks”—artistic and durable paving stones once made here. Also in town is the outdoors-gear outlet store for Rocky Boots, a local company that has been making footwear since 1932. Another great stop is Rhapsody, a restaurant where the farm to table dishes are made and served by students in the hospitality program at Hocking College.

Small Town History and Art

Nelsonville isn’t the only Hocking Hills town with a district that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The same is true of Lancaster’s original city blocks, bounded by Wheeling, High, Main, and Broad streets. Along them about 30 structures represent a variety of 18th- and 19th-century architectural styles, including Federal, Georgian, Italianate, Greek Revival, and Romanesque. The Sherman House Museum, birthplace of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, is just one of the highlights here. Lancaster has also traditionally been a hub for the glass-making industry, making it the appropriate place for the Ohio Glass Museum, with beautiful creations of all types and resident master glassblowers.

Into the Countryside

The winding roads and small towns of the Hocking Hills are wrapped by state parks and forests, which are, in turn laced with trails. The year-round roster of guided hikes and other educational offerings is particularly robust in Hocking Hills State Park. On the entertaining naturalist-led tours here you’ll hear about the “magic tree” and discover why Canadian hemlocks thrive in the forest. You’ll see waterfalls and recess caves and learn how they were formed. You might even convince the naturalist to do a couple bird calls. Birds are also a draw over at Lake Hope State Park, especially between early July and late August. During these months, be sure to head over to the park’s nature center for a chance to hand-feed the hummingbirds.

Other Ways into the Countryside

Driving and hiking aren’t the only ways to enjoy the scenery of the Hocking Hills. Just as thrilling as the white-knuckle rides along state routes like 33 and 56 are the flights offered by Hocking Hills Scenic Air Tours, which will take you on breathtaking 20- to 60-minute trips over the region throughout the year out. Don’t forget your camera. For still more thrills, you can zoom from treetop to treetop with Hocking Hills Canopy Tours, just one of several area zip-line operations. On the more relaxing end of the scale are one of the weekend sojourns on the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway or one of the kayaking trips offered by Touch the Earth Adventures on Lake Hope and other area waterways.