Featured Adventure: Symmes Creek/Morgan Sisters’ Backpacking Trail

Lake on Symmes Creek

Lake on Symmes Creek

The Trail

Symmes Creek & Morgan Sisters is actually a combination of two different trails with four separate loops that interconnect. It is located in Southern Ohio near the town of Rio Grande. Because of the different loops, there are multiple options for distance as well as trail heads. To do all of the trail is just over 14 miles.

Official Trail Map

Official Trail Map

Getting There

Kevin and I have both been battling nagging knee injuries. So we decided to make this trip just an overnighter. It was late October 2016 and we were prepared for cold weather. The trail provided multiple options for distance should either of us find ourselves in too much pain to continue. We met early Saturday morning at Kevin’s house and drove the hour and a half down to the trail head. The trail head is off of a non-descript gravel road in the middle of nowhere. We were the only vehicle there, but there was evidence that locals use the trail head parking lot often as a bonfire/drinking spot. There were also ATV/4-Wheeler tracks setting out in all different directions from the trail head even though they are illegal in this area of Wayne National Forest.

Rock Formations on the Trail

Rock Formations on the Trail

Day 1 on the Trail

We grabbed our gear and quickly set out on the trail. We noticed very quickly that this would be a challenging trail. The trail immediately started with a steep climb up a hill with the trail badly washed out and rutted from the illegal 4-wheeling. This was my third attempt to complete this trail. Twice before I had taken friends that were new to backpacking on this trail and had been rained out. So I had only completed the first loop. I was hoping this adventure would be different. Despite the poor trail conditions, Kevin and I made good time. We reached some caves by lunch time and decided to take  a break. I was starting to develop some blisters (I’ve been away from hiking too long!) and we were both hungry.

Our pre-lunch hike

Our pre-lunch hike

After a quick bite and me putting on two pairs of socks, we set off again. We quickly made it to the connector trail that led from Symmes Creek trail to the School House loop. This was officially new trail for me. Despite it being  late fall (and us having packed for cold) we found ourselves sweating in 77 degree weather.

Our second half of the hike for the first day

Our second half of the hike for the first day

The second half of the hike had even more elevation change and was very difficult. The autumn leaves covered the ground and the seldom used hiking path was very difficult to see. We lost the trail multiple times and found ourselves trailblazing through thorns. Furthermore, the crisscrossing ATV paths often made us question our bearings and more than once we accidentally followed an incorrect offshoot. We followed the North section of the School House Loop to the North section of the Ridge Loop and finally to the Coal Branch Loop. We stopped to admire a beautiful lake as a family was setting up tents along the shore.

Symmes Creek Lake

Symmes Creek Lake

It was clear that few people used the Coal Branch Loop trail and we soon found out why. It started with a steep 500+ foot climb with no switchbacks. After completing this loop we were exhausted (especially after climbing back to the top of the South section of the Ridge Loop). So we found a nice flat spot on top of the ridge with massive ravines on either side of us. We cleared the sticks and leaves away and setup camp. While clearing the site Kevin found a large machete buried in the leaves (luckily he noticed it before his foot found it). We quickly set about coming up with creepy stories about how the machete came to be there. That night we had a lovely fire and enjoyed the unusually warm night as we stayed up talking.

Rock Formations on the Trail

Rock Formations on the Trail

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast in camp. Although, we did use the little water we had left to make coffee. We underestimated the amount of water that we would need due to the warm weather (lots of sweating). Luckily, we eventually crossed Symmes Creek again and were able to filter and refill some of our water bottles. Throughout the morning, we continually lost the trail. It was covered in leaves and we could not find regular blazes. The main trail was crisscrossed with ATV trails, hunting trails, and logging roads. When we found ourselves a mile down an ATV trail and clearly no longer on the main path, we were both nursing painful knees and unwilling to hike all the way back to try to find the trail. Instead, we followed the ATV path out to Symmes Creek road and just walked the road back to the trail head. The trail was challenging and beautiful. Had it been blazed better it would not have been as difficult to follow. We lost too much time trying to figure out where the trail was supposed to go and following offshoots. I would not recommend this trail to beginners, but for experienced hikers willing to do some navigation, it is beautiful.

Kevin looking beautiful

Kevin looking beautiful

 

More information on the trail:

http://www.backpackohio.com/trails/symmes-creek-morgan-sisters-trails/

https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/wayne/recarea/?recid=6237

http://www.neohbackpackingclub.com/mapLib/Morgan.pdf

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Featured Adventure: Wildcat Hollow Backpacking Trail – Part 2

Shot up Sign

Day 2

I awoke around 7:45am the next morning to Ruby tilting her head, staring at the tent wall trying to figure out what the noise outside was. That noise was my brother’s snoring from the other tent. I laughed to myself and unzipped the tent to let Ruby out. Then I got dressed and followed her. For a weekend in June, the night had gotten pretty chilly and the morning chill nipped at me when I emerged.  I put on a fleece and went about my morning routine. When I had a nice pot of coffee ready, I used this information to entice Caleb and Kevin from their tent. We ate a leisurely breakfast of Pop Tarts © and oatmeal and then broke camp.

Setting out Day 2 Selfie

Setting out Day 2

On the trail

We set out on the trail at about 11 am. Had I been able to see the future, I would have gotten us onto the trail earlier. Given the pace we had been keeping the night before, I naively expected us to be able to keep a similar pace throughout our day of hiking.

We hiked through the lush trails in the forest enjoying the fresh air and overcast skies. The trail dipped and climbed repeatedly and soon took us briefly along a back-country road. As we followed the blazes to head back into the woods, we passed an abandoned, one-room schoolhouse.

Abandoned One Room Schoolhouse

Abandoned Schoolhouse

After we finished exploring the schoolhouse, we headed back into the woods. We encountered some volunteers from the Buckeye Trail working on maintaining the trail. They had cut a a nice path through all the tall grass and we profusely thanked them as we continued on.

We hiked for a couple more hours until my brother started to complain that his feet were starting to blister. The trail was overgrown where we were. So there wasn’t a very good place to stop to rest. He sat for a moment on a log and adjusted his socks. We then hiked for maybe another 20 minutes and found a great campsite to rest at about 1:30pm.

Resting on a log

Resting on a log

At the campsite, Caleb tended to his feet by creating moleskin bandages while Kevin and I prepared lunch. We snacked on Caleb’s amazing trail mix and ate tuna and crackers. By this time, we were all starting to run out of water. It was hot out and every stream we had crossed was bone dry. We were just past the halfway point on the trail so we had a significant amount of trail left to cover. Our pace wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. So we really needed to find water soon.

We didn’t rest long after lunch. The trail headed into some really steep ups and downs and after a couple miles, we were all getting tired again. The sun came out and made everything even hotter. Caleb was the first to run out of water since we were using his water jug for most of the cooking in camp the previous night. I refilled his water bottle from my Camelbak so we could keep going.

Ruby looking back at Caleb

We covered continuous steep ups and downs

As the trail continued, it opened into a pine grove and the trail widened. The path here was pretty open and we enjoyed the slightly easier passing. Through the trees, Caleb spotted a pond and went running towards it screaming something incoherent about water. Ruby seemed to have the same idea and was the first to get close. As soon as she approached the shore however, she immediately sank completely into the mud. Luckily, she was able to free herself and jump back out. The pond was a stagnant bog and we decided that it would not be in our best interest to try to drink this water. We continued on as I thought about how I was going to have to spend the night in a tent with my very muddy companion.

Caleb Kevin and Ruby Smiling on the Trail

Taking a quick break on the trail.

We continued on, hot and thirsty, hoping to find water before we made camp for the night. When we were about 10 miles into the trail, we were hiking around a large incline and all just sat down to rest on the side of the hill exhausted. Kevin, Caleb, and even Ruby all fell asleep for a bit.

Ruby napping on the trail

Ruby napping on the trail

They awoke feeling reinvigorated and we made great time. We covered the next mile very quickly. As we came down around a bend we spotted what we thought might be water in a creek through the trees. The overgrowth was so thick that we couldn’t see clearly and we couldn’t find a good way to get through. According to the map, we were going to cross this creek in less than a mile. With this in mind, we picked up our pace even more, praying that the creek would not be dry.

Enjoying the creek

Enjoying the creek

To everyone’s delight, the creek was not dry! Caleb quickly started soaking his blistered feet. Ruby ran up and down the middle of the creek drinking water the entire time. Kevin and I took turns filtering water to refill our supplies. Back on the trail, we headed from the low point of the creek up a very steep 350 foot climb. At the top we were all exhausted and decided to look at the map. There were still another two visits to the low point and two more 350 foot climbs.

Caleb was visibly exhausted and was unsure if he could do two more climbs. We encouraged him with the prospect that he would not have to do these climbs in the morning. He reluctantly agreed. By the midpoint of the last hill, he was stopping repeatedly and we were all exhausted. When we finally made it to the top of the hill, we found a beautiful campsite in a pine grove. Caleb collapsed on the ground happy to have made it.

Caleb exhausted at the top of the hill

Caleb exhausted at the top of the hill

After we setup camp, we had an awesome dinner of Dinty Moore beef stew. We stayed up cooking S’mores around the fire and feeling triumphant.

The next morning, the hike out was only a little over a mile. It didn’t take us long to be back at the trailhead. We piled into the Jeep, cranked the A/C as high as it could go, and headed for home.

Finished the trail selfie

Finished the trail selfie

Featured Adventure: Wildcat Hollow Backpacking Trail – Part 1

Wildcat Hollow Trail Sign

The Trail

Wildcat Hollow Backpacking Trail is a moderately challenging 15 mile loop trail in Wayne National Forest. The trail head is in Southern Ohio near the town of Corning. It is also close to Burr Oak State Park and shares many of the same beautiful features that have made that park so popular. Elevation on the trail ranges from around 750 feet to about 1,100 feet. Most of the streams on the trail are dry during the summer and water can be difficult to find.

Group picture before we hit the road

Group picture before we hit the road

Getting There

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon when we all met at my house to get ready to go. Kevin was ready to get back out on the trail. I think he’s been bitten by the backpacking bug! My brother, Caleb, and my dog, Ruby, were also joining us on this trip. It was about 1:30 pm when everyone arrived and, as usual, it took us much longer to pack up and get ready than we anticipated. We ate an amazing lunch, posed for our group picture, and hit the road around 3:30 pm. Wildcat Hollow is about a 1.5 hour drive from Columbus, Ohio and we made good time. The trail head is well off the beaten path and can be difficult to find. Caleb and Kevin were helping me navigate the back-country, gravel roads.

We were about a mile away from the trail head when, suddenly, warning lights started flashing in the dash of my Jeep. I watched as my front, passenger tire PSI went steadily from 40 down to 10. There wasn’t anywhere to pull over and I needed new tires anyway, so I just drove the last mile on the flat.

When we pulled into the trail head parking lot it was packed. Some locals had turned the large trail head area into a drive-in camp site and were busy setting up huge tents.

Kevin and I got to work on the flat tire. As if on auto-pilot, we jacked up the frame and removed the flat. As soon as we did this, the suspension released and the axle housing dropped almost all the way to the ground. Now we were in a pickle. We had the jack up as high as it could go, but we couldn’t even get the flat tire back on. So we decided to check the vehicle manual. Apparently, this Jeep was equipped with auto-leveling suspension and the jack is intended to be placed under the suspension to keep it from releasing. OOPS!

We headed over to some of the other campers to ask if they had another jack we could borrow. A tall, wiry woman piped up that she had one. She led me over to the back of her fully packed minivan and began tossing things out onto the ground. Finally, she reached in and pulled out a huge two-ton shop jack. Kevin and I both laughed in surprise. It was exactly what we needed. We jacked the entire Jeep up and were able to get the new tire on.

Day 1 on the Trail

By now it was much later than we had planned to be on the trail and the party at the entrance meant that all of the close campsites were full. We put on our gear and hurried onto the trail to make up for lost time. Just a half mile into the trail, we found open campsites again and the area was no longer crowded. We assumed that most of the other campers weren’t planning on backpacking the trail. With the fast pace, we quickly covered another mile or so and decided to take a quick break. It was hot out and we needed to adjust our packs. My brother broke out huge, gallon bags of a trail mix that he had made himself. It was spectacular. Kevin and I downed enough for a full meal while we were resting.

It was already getting dark so we decided to head up the next hill and start looking for a campsite. It didn’t take us long to find one and we started setting up the tents. We had covered less than three miles the first day, far less than I had planned. That was going to leave more tomorrow than expected and my brother had already told us he was feeling out of shape.

Ruby in camp

Ruby in camp

We finished setting up camp and Caleb got a great fire going as Kevin and I cooked dinner. Late into the night we sat around the fire catching up, playing with Ruby, and laughing together. We finally decided that we had better get some rest before our long hike the next day.

Dinner and a fire on Wildcat Hollow Trail

Dinner and a fire on Wildcat Hollow Trail

Featured Adventure: Archer’s Fork Backpacking Trail – Part 3

A Beautiful Tree in the Rain

We stopped to enjoy nature’s beauty even in the rain

*This is the third entry in a series.
Part 1 can be found here.
Part 2 can be found here.

Thoughts of a Wet Zombie

I am thoroughly convinced that the human body is not designed to be wet for extended periods of time. For ages, mothers have told their children that they will catch a cold or get pneumonia from being in the rain. We build houses and garages to keep the elements out. We carry umbrellas and wear raincoats to keep it off of our bodies, but in this situation the rain found its way in. Our bodies were completely saturated. Our skin was soaked causing our fingers and toes to become pruny, shriveled blobs. It’s also extremely taxing on the mind. The trail was still beautiful, but we longed to be dry. It seemed like all I could think about. I was also fretting that everything in my pack would be wet and I would spend the whole night in wetness. Was I doomed to be wet forever? We plodded along the trail wondering how much more we could take…

Rainy Path

Our rainy path

Refuge

As we passed campsites that had turned into ponds, my mind started to wonder how we would get dry tonight. How would we put up our tent in the rain? How would we keep our gear dry with mud and standing water everywhere? Was there a dry change of clothes waiting for me in my pack? Was my sleeping bag wet? Were we going to be able to build a fire in this rain? Would we even want to, since it would mean staying outside? Just as the last bit of our strength started to fade, we spotted a sign for the “Great Cave.” It was exactly the morale boost we needed. Kevin almost sprinted down the large hill we were on. About fifteen minutes later, we spotted the cave. It had three waterfalls running over it and a creek below. Never in our lives had we been so happy to see a cave. We rushed down to it and threw off our wet gear.

View from the cave

View from the cave of the saturated earth

Dry

Inside the cave, previous visitors had built us a firepit (complete with a dry cardboard box) and had pulled in a large pine tree to sit on. We rejoiced at being blessed with dry firewood. Thankfully, we both did have a dry change of clothes in our bags. We changed and had never before been so happy about putting on a dry shirt. I used the conveniently leftover box to get a fire started as Kevin broke out my saw and started cutting up the tree into logs.

Wet, but safe in a cave

Exhausted, wet, and blurry, but safe in a cave

Grateful

The rain continued to fall outside, but nothing could dampen our spirits. We had a fire crackling, warm, dry clothes on our bodies, and were getting ready to prepare dinner. Upon unpacking my bag, I found that my sleeping bag was indeed wet. I set it on a rock near the fire and went back about my work preparing dinner. For dinner we had a feast! Dinty Moore© Beef Stew is one of the most amazing meals a backpacker could possibly enjoy. It’s such a treat, but because it comes in a can and is heavy, most people skip it. This time, it was totally worth it (especially since Kevin carried it the whole time). As we sat in front of the fire eating our stew and drying our socks, we both realized how happy we were. In that moment, there was nothing else we wanted out of life. It didn’t matter what kind of cars we owned, how nice our houses were, what bills needed to be paid, or the sizes of our bank accounts. All that mattered was that we were warm and dry. We were beyond satisfied; beyond content; beyond just happy. We were grateful. It was a good night.

Drying our feet around the fire

Drying our feet around the fire

Day 3

The night before, we had not set up the tent and opted instead just to sleep around the fire. We each took turns throughout the night adding logs and tending to the fire. So it was still burning in the morning.

Waking up in a cave

Waking up in a cave

That morning, I woke up to the sound of waterfalls, birds singing, and the wind in the trees. The bright sun lit up the cave. It was one of the most spectacular things to wake up to. We took our time getting up; still so grateful at being warm and dry. The warmth of the sun felt foreign to us.

My view upon waking up

My view upon waking up

Breakfast

We finally did get up and started making breakfast. More coffee, oatmeal, and Poptarts© were on the menu today. In my adventures, this is the first time I have woken up in a cave. It’s also the first time I spent all morning in a cave pondering life while sipping fresh coffee. As usual, the breakfast tasted amazing. At first, we talked loudly and laughed about our adventures from the day before. Our favorite saying became, “Remember when we were wet?” As we ate, we both grew quiet and introspective.

Cooking in a cave

Cooking in a cave

The sound of the waterfalls provided the perfect amount of white noise for us to get lost in our thoughts. Kevin found a nice thinking spot in between the three waterfalls. He sipped his coffee as he watched the water fall from the waterfalls and meander down the ravine until it twisted around a bend and went out of sight.

Kevin pondering life

Kevin pondering life

I sat by the fire feeling its warmth combined with the warmth of the sun. It felt as if we had been on the trail for weeks and that this life was normal now. It would feel weird to be back in society with modern amenities again soon. We spent about an hour in silence, alone with our thoughts. When we finally started to pack up it was after 11am.

Bros in a cave with coffee

Bros in a cave with coffee

Saying Goodbye

The cave felt like home after just one night. It had been our refuge from the storm and we were both reluctant to leave. We procrastinated by making another pot of coffee. Then, to pay it forward, we pulled sticks and logs out of the dead-fall in the pool into the cave. If any future hikers ever ended up in this predicament, maybe this cave and these logs could provide them the amazing relief that we had experienced.

Waterfall pool with dead-fall

Waterfall pool with dead-fall

Kevin went back to his thinking spot to soak in the view a little bit more. I sat in the cave and journaled about some of the things that I wanted to remember. We would soon be back in “normal” society and in the fast-paced buzz of life, it’s easy to forget what it feels like to be truly grateful.

Alex journaling in a cave

Alex journaling in a cave

On the Trail Day 3

The hike out was very steep, but it wasn’t long. We stopped above the cave to take a few pictures and say our goodbyes. I am always fascinated by nature, but it’s not often that I feel the level of gratitude towards a piece of nature that I felt towards that cave. By the names etched onto the walls, I know that we were just two of the many people that had been there and we would not be the last, but it would always be a special place to us.

The cave that was our home

The cave that was our home

Heading “Home”

It didn’t even take us a full half-hour to reach the trailhead. The truck was just as we had left it except the bed was full of water; a reminder of the rain the day before. We took pictures with the trailhead sign and climbed into the truck. As the truck pulled away from the trailhead, we knew that this would not be an experience that either of us would soon forget.

Completed Archer's Fork TrailThank you for joining me on this adventure. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and refer your friends to http://www.AtlasAlex.com

Featured Adventure: Archer’s Fork Backpacking Trail – Part 2

Purple trees in the woods

*This is a continuation of a previous article which can be found here.

Day 2

The next morning I naturally woke up around 7am. The tent was chilly and I could hear rain lightly tapping against the rainfly. Today’s forecast had a 65% chance of rain and only called for light, intermittent rain until the early evening. I rolled over and went back to sleep, opting to wait out the early morning rain rather than try to get an earlier start on the trail. At around 9:45 am the rain eased up and I could just hear drops falling from the trees above us. I waited for most of it to stop before waking Kevin. We made a delicious breakfast of instant oatmeal and Poptarts © complete with hot coffee. True to my style of always carrying too much gear, I had a backpacker’s French Press coffee maker with me. The delicious coffee was worth it.

Breakfast

On the Trail Day 2

We had a pretty leisurely breakfast and then decided to break camp. Kevin cleaned up the breakfast dishes while I cleaned up camp and starting packing up our gear. We disassembled the tent and finished packing all of our gear. The temperature was still only in the upper 30s. So we had on most of our warmer gear. This freed up a lot of space in our packs. It wasn’t until almost noon that we finally got on the trail (one of the latest starts I’ve ever had on a backpacking trip). I wasn’t concerned though, since we only had about 10 miles of hiking to do today and we didn’t need to leave until Sunday.

The Creek

For this being his first trip, Kevin continued to surprise me with his quick pace, especially with his large pack on. Soon we reached Archer’s Fork Creek and needed to cross. The frequent rain had caused the water level to average between two and three feet deep and it was about fourteen feet wide.

Archer's Fork Creek

Archer’s Fork Creek

I found a small island and hopped out to it. From there, I was able to walk through a couple shallow points and utilize some larger rocks to help me get across. Kevin didn’t trust the waterproofing on his boots quite as much as I did. So he spent some time traveling up and down the creek looking for a place to cross. Meanwhile, I sat on the other side of the creek and relaxed while I snapped pictures of the creek and Kevin’s dilemma. We lost a bit of time with this creek crossing, but still weren’t concerned. Finally, he was convinced that I had found the best place to cross. I tossed him a large stick that I had found to help him vault from the island to the other side.

Kevin vaulting the creek

Kevin vaulting the creek

Once he made it across, we had to backtrack along the creek to find the trail again. We located the blazes after fighting our way through a thicket of thorn bushes. The trail quickly climbed from the lowest point on the trail to almost the highest. It was about a 500 foot climb and we had to take a few breaks on the way up. Of course I claimed that it was to take pictures, but my quads were on fire and my fifty pound pack felt like a hundred.

Kevin Hiking on Archer's Fork

Rain

We made it to the top of the hill and thankfully, the trail leveled out for a bit. Kevin opened a bag of beef jerky and we enjoyed it as we walked along a wider than usual path side-by-side. Our discussion turned to growing up and how we both had similar backgrounds as very hyper children. The path soon turned and headed back down into the woods. Just about this time a light rain started. We decided to press on without stopping to put on rain gear since the trees now mostly protected us from the rain. Once we reached the bottom of the hill that we had just struggled to climb, we found a nice camping spot and decided to stop for lunch. We sat under some pine trees and feasted on the most amazing tuna and crackers we had ever tasted (everything tastes better on the trail).

Lunch on Archer's Fork

Lunch on Archer’s Fork Trail

More Rain

At this camp site, we took the time to put our rain covers over our bags and don our rain jackets. The rain didn’t look like it was letting up so we wanted to be prepared. With the temperature in the low 40s, getting wet could quickly mean hypothermia.

Rain Gear

The path quickly took us back into an uphill climb as the rain continued to come down. It grew in strength and there didn’t seem to be an end in sight (so much for light, intermittent showers). We trudged on through the rain in steep elevation. The rain made the paths muddy and slippery. It also sapped our strength, but even so, there were still some great sights to see and we kept our spirits high.

The trail winding around a cliff

The trail winding around a cliff

Wet

Although, the weather was still cold, our added rain gear and constant movement caused us to sweat. Rain continued to come down and soon we were completely soaked. The trail continued with multiple PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs) leaving us completely exhausted. We had been on the trail for about three hours since lunch and the rain still had no end in sight. We stopped to refill some of our water bottles from a creek for dinner. If we ever found a good campsite, we would want hot meals. An hour later found us at the top of yet another peak huffing and puffing for air while every inch of our body was saturated by a combination of rain and sweat. I was wearing premium rain gear, but even it could not stand up to the hours of steady wetness. Our bodies cried out for rest and we both collapsed on a log without taking our packs off. Kevin leaned forward onto his hands and promptly fell asleep despite the continued rain. I stared at my soaked, pruny fingers and wanted nothing more than a towel to dry them off with. I leaned back against my pack for support and let the rain fall against my face. My mind pondered the events that had led us here and everything we had been through. Never had I been so completely saturated on a backpacking trip and I silently wondered if Kevin was regretting being talked into this. Despite the conditions, I had no regrets (except maybe not upgrading my rain gear). I was happy in the moment with nothing else on my mind.

Alex and Kevin Wet

Wet

Wet Zombies

After about a half hour, Kevin woke up and I urged us to continue on to prevent hypothermia and to try to find a suitable campsite. The nap must have done him wonders, because he continued down the path with renewed speed. Even so, it was still slow going with the trail conditions combined with the elevation changes. We passed a couple possible campsites, but due to their locations, most of them had standing water. It was almost 6:30pm. Our strength had faded; sapped by the pouring rain, the hills, our packs, and the fact that we hadn’t stopped again for food. We didn’t want to risk our packs getting even more wet. I’m sure we would have looked like a sorry bunch if there had been anyone around to see us. As we trudged on we entered a state that I’d refer to as “zombie-mode.” There were no thoughts going on in our heads. We weren’t looking around. We weren’t talking. We were simply putting one foot in front of the other… over and over and over again. If any thoughts did cross our minds, it was usually us wondering if we would ever be dry again…

Featured Adventure: Archer’s Fork Backpacking Trail – Part 1

Us ready for the trip

Ready for the 2.5 Hour drive to the trailhead

The Trail

Archer’s Fork Trail is a beautiful and moderately challenging loop trail in Southeastern Ohio, deep within Wayne National Forest. It is located near the Ohio River and the West Virginia border in between Marietta, Ohio and Wheeling, West Virginia. The challenge of the trail comes in the elevation change, which is somewhat unusual for Ohio trails. This is due to the trail being near the Appalachian Mountains. Elevation on the trail ranges from around 700 feet to about 1,200 feet. These elevation changes occur frequently taking adventurers from river beds to high hilltops and back again. The trail itself is between 11 and 12 miles, but has many side trails and sites to see that can extend the trip. These include a Covered Bridge Trail and connectors to the North Country Trail as well as a small diversions to see the Natural Bridge and the Great Cave.

Path the to Archer's Fork Trail

Day 1

The trail head is a little over a two and a half hour drive from Columbus and even the drive can be a bit of an adventure. While most of the trip is on the highway, the last half hour is through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on back country roads. The twists, turns, and hills were so intense that they had me wishing for my motorcycle. My friend Kevin accompanied me on this trip and was kind enough to drive. He had quite a fun time maneuvering his 5-Speed, 1998 Ford F-150 with it’s 8-foot bed through the curvaceous hills. The challenging roads made the time pass quickly as I white-knuckled the passenger handle and pumped my imaginary brake pedal. Finally, we arrived at the trailhead, safe and sound

Getting geared up at the trailhead

Getting geared up at the trailhead

The trailhead is located near a small, well-kept cemetery at the top of a hill. It was about 5:30 pm when we set out on the trail for the day and we immediately were heading back downhill into the woods. This trip was actually Kevin’s first experience with backpacking. So my plan was to take the first day very easy. We would hike in about a mile or two and find a nice camp. This would give us some time to setup and allow for Kevin to learn the basics of camp and my equipment. The fact that both of our packs weighed in at over 50 pounds also influenced the decision to take the first day a little easy.

Day 1 at the Trail Head

Day 1 at the Trail Head

There were a couple dayhikers heading back to the trailhead, but it looked like we would be the only backpackers in the woods tonight (unless more were to arrive later). Since this was actually my second time on the trail, I decided to hike the loop in the opposite direction that I had hiked it previously.

Natural Bridge

We kept a good pace and quickly arrived at the first site to see: a natural bridge that had been formed by a waterfall flowing through the weaker portions of the rock. It was a fascinating site to see and we explored the area for a few minutes. Mayflowers covered the hill and surrounding areas and the setting sun gave everything a beautiful glow.

Kevin on the Natural Bridge

Kevin on the Natural Bridge

We set back out on the trail and headed through some large rock formations. We continued to keep a good pace and covered a little under a mile from the Natural Bridge before we found our first potential campsite. The sun was still shining and the site was not cleared very well. So we decided to press on. The trail wound down the large hill we were on and eventually crossed a stream. There was an old, abandoned shed and pumping station along the creek that we quickly explored before moving on.

Hiking through the forest and rocks

Hiking through the forest and rocks

The trail twisted up a slight slope about ten feet above the creek bed and then followed parallel to the creek into a pine forest. Shortly after passing into the pine forest, we found an excellent campsite. It was already cleared and had some rocks that formed a firepit as well as a few pieces of firewood. It was close to 7:30pm so we decided to camp there for the night.

 Night 1

It was a cool evening with almost no wind as I taught Kevin how to setup our backpacking tent. It had been a couple years since I had used this specific tent and it was a different setup than my others. Even I had to think for a few minutes to remind myself how to set it up.

Archer's Fork Day 1 CampWe finished that up and I started building a fire as Kevin scavenged for additional firewood. Soon, a beautiful fire was roaring and we unpacked our backpacking stove to boil some water for dinner. Our delicious freeze-dried meals consisted of Mesquite BBQ chicken and a lamb vindaloo. Both were delicious for freeze-dried trail meals.

Kevin and I sat around the fire on our camp mats relaxing and letting our meals settle. With absolutely no social pressure, no worries, and no further responsibilities for the night, we were able to completely let loose and talk about anything and everything. Before we knew it, my watch showed 1am. We turned in for the night and quickly fell asleep as temperatures plunged into the 20s.

Relaxing around the fire

Relaxing around the fire

Featured Adventure: Hocking Hills

Gorge Overlook Sign and Waterfall

A sign and waterfall on the trail

An Ohio Treasure

Named after a shortened version of the Hockhocking River, Hocking Hills is a spectacular outdoors experience. The State Park is located in Southern Ohio near Logan (in between Chillicothe and Athens). The park consists of five primary areas Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave, Cedar Falls, Rockhouse, and Cantwell Cliffs, as well as Conkle’s Hollow, a Nature Preserve. The trails are extremely well-kept, well-marked, and well-traveled. There is parking near each area and the main attractions can all be viewed with just a short hike. These trails can be completed by those of any skill level. For hikers looking for more of a challenge, many of the trails can be linked together to form longer, loop hikes.

Posing with my hiking dog

Posing with my hiking dog

 My Trip

I spent three days hiking all of the major trails in Hocking Hills. Sure, it could have been done in much less time, but I enjoyed taking in the sites, taking long breaks on the trail, and soaking up the sun on some of the nicest days so far this year. It was a leisurely vacation in which we stayed in a modern cabin rather than a tent.

Some people may consider Hocking Hills to be “touristy,” but to skip this adventure because of that would be a mistake. Hocking Hills has something to offer everyone. It can be a great family adventure for the young and old. Because the trails are shorter and well-kept, it’s easily accessible to almost everyone. The Conkle’s Hollow Nature Preserve and a couple other areas of the park are even wheel chair accessible. Venturing down the path in the gorge, you may feel as if you have walked into another world (Middle Earth maybe?)

Moss Covered Rocks

A trip to Middle Earth?

The Experience

I carried a small day pack (loaded with far more gear, water, and snacks than necessary, per my usual style). The trails are typically not strenuous although there can be a lot of elevation change, roots, and rocks along the way. We had quite a bit of rain in the weeks leading up to the trip which made the paths pretty muddy, but it also made the creeks and waterfalls spectacular. My dog, Ruby, absolutely loved the trails. She can typically be somewhat prissy with water, but was so excited  on the trail that she happily charged right through the mud puddles and creeks. I’m convinced she walked twice as many miles as I did, because she kept going on ahead and then coming back to see what was taking me so long; essentially walking each segment of the trail twice.

Hiking with my dog

On the trail with my faithful companion

My favorite hike of the trip was a 6.2 mile loop that we did. We started at Old Man’s Cave then headed down into the gorge and followed the path to Cedar Falls. From there, we climbed stairs out of the gorge and crossed a suspension bridge (that Ruby was not fond of at all) to a rim trail above the gorge. This trail winds around the gorge until it comes to Rose Lake, a beautiful lake with boating, fishing, and additional hiking trails. It then returns to the visitor center at Old Man’s Cave.

Rose Lake

Rose Lake

Conclusion

I had a wonderful trip and was blessed with amazing weather. There is no other way to say it, if you have never been to Hocking Hills, you need to go. It is a great experience and some of the most beautiful scenery that Ohio has to offer. It’s close enough for a day trip from most places in Ohio. If you do plan to stay, there are plenty of great accommodations whether you prefer a lodge, a cabin, or camping. So get out and have your own adventure!

To find out more about Hocking Hills check out: http://www.thehockinghills.org/