Sunday, October 17, 2010

Field Trip Friday: Hocking Hills

Once again, I break the rules. I'm a rebel that way.

This wasn't a field trip. This was a mini-vacation. But, it's an awesome area, and its my blog, and I think Mrs Prater will forgive me.

We left late on Friday morning for a weekend trip to Hocking Hills. We made a stop at church, because the Jedi needed to do some work on a church computer, and I needed to check the food pantry and pack up some more bags to be given out. On our way out of town, we stopped and grabbed two large pizzas from LaRosa's. (The pizza, by the way, made it to Toa of Boy's top three favorite things about the weekend.)

We ate pizza in the van, turning the middle seats around and putting in the little table in the back. We got to Hocking County around three and got checked into our cabin. There were two cabins at this location, run by a family on their own land. They were reached by a long gravel drive through the woods, and each cabin had a separate pull-off to park the car. The cabins themselves were then reached by a separate foot path, and were very secluded, nestled into a thickly wooded hillside. (Demonstrated in my sadly overexposed photos.)

We stayed in the second of the two cabins, which had two bedrooms, a large central living area, and a covered back deck, complete with hot tub, which jutted out onto the forest slope.

One of the bedrooms had two double beds, and one had a double bed and a set of bunk beds, which the kids gleefully claimed. (The beds in the cabin were on Sweetling's list of top three favorite things from the weekend.) After getting checked in and unpacked, we headed out to the trails, hoping to beat the weekend crowd.

We went to Old Man's Cave first, knowing from tips and from past experience that this place can get pretty crowded. Luckily, it was after four by the time we got there, and most people were beginning to leave to head to dinner. Because the summer has been so very dry, none of the falls were going.

We started our hike at the Upper Falls.... (all my photos are overexposed. I'm so upset about this. I had the camera on its default 'landscape' setting for the most part, and it just let in way too much light. Rather than whine about it before each picture, I'm just getting my whining out of the way now.)

And followed the trail down the gorge. Not only was it so dry no water was spilling over any of the falls, but it was so dry the wide stream/small river which runs through this gorge was practically non-existent, having been reduced to a few small pools here and there.

On the plus side, that meant that the kids had full access to small caves and recesses in the rock face which in the spring are unreachable, unless you want to go wading in cold knee deep water. Great fun was had climbing in and exploring all these little caves.
In fact, great fun was had climbing in general.

Though, we were careful to keep our climbing to just the large boulders on the path, and not any of the oh-so-tempting climbs off the path. On our way down the trail there was a photographer who does a lot of work in the park and he was saying that the park has really gotten strict about maintaining a no-tolerance policy for off-path climbing. He said the park will issue a $200 dollar fine if a ranger catches you climbing somewhere off the trail. He also said that since they have instituted that policy, they are down to "just" one fatality every year or every two years. But the Jedi and I were quick to hear the word "fatality" and impress on Toa of Boy how important it was to stay with us and not go off running, and climbing, and jumping.

 We hiked back out of the gorge through Old Man's Cave (which for some reason, I don't have any pictures of at all, overexposed or not). The Cave itself is a large recess carved in the face of the sandstone cliff. It is some 250 feet long and around 50 feet high. To me, the most striking part about it is how abrupt the transition is from green and gold forest with dark rock walls to this large, other-worldly place of sand and tan rocks where nothing at all grows.

From Old Man's Cave, we hopped in the van and drove to Rock House. By now, it was nearing dusk. Which meant that we had the trail nearly to ourselves. It also meant that we had little light for photos and the entire of the Rock House, which is rather dark even in the middle of the day, was very, very dark, and hard to see where one was walking. Nevertheless, Rock House made it to Toa's top three favorite things about the weekend. Once again, he loved crawling up into the recesses in the back wall of the rock. We talked about how native peoples used to inhabit this large cave, and he picked out the recess which would be his bedroom if we lived in the cave. The trail on the way back goes on top of the cliff which holds the cave. The Jedi was commenting on how invisible that huge cave is as soon as the trail makes one little turn around the bend. Coming towards the cave from either side of the cliff, you'd never know such a large feature was there.

(And now I'm cheating, because of the light, we didn't snap many pictures of the rock house this visit, so I'm putting up one of my favorite pictures looking out of the "window" of the rock house which I took during a visit in 2004. Go ahead and tell me that it's under-exposed. I double-dog dare you to).

We hiked back to our car in the fading light, hit Wal-mart for milk and other perishibles, and got back to our cabin after 8. We made a quick dinner of cheddarwursts, then bundled up and headed outside with the telescope.

Visible in the sky that night were supposed to be Jupiter and a comet. The Jedi focused the telescope on the craters of the moon, which was pretty cool.....and then we set about trying to figure out which of the thousands of bright objects in the sky might be Jupiter. I thought we might be in trouble when Sweetling and I couldn't even find the Dippers and Polaris. But, the Jedi has picked up Saturn and its rings from our back patio in the middle of city glare AND he talked me through pointing out stars, constellations and planets over the phone when I was at an AHG campout with a bunch of little girls and I didn't even know which direction was which,  so I had confidence in his ability to eventually work everything out.

Sweetling and I stared at the Milky Way, which she had never really seen before, and we found a little cluster of faint stars near the horizon. Frankly, I was pretty overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars. Even the few constellations that I'm occasionally able to recognize, like Cassiopeia, looked  entirely different because of all the little stars, invisible near Cincinnati, which were shining through and around the constellations. Eventually, the 40 degree night tried the children's patience, and we headed for the hot tub instead. (The hot tub was number three on Toa of Boy's list of favorites.)

On Saturday, the Jedi was judging in a BBQ festival in nearby Nelsonville. We popped on-line from one of the two netbooks we had brought (really roughing it we were), to check out activities for the kids and I to do while the Jedi was at the festival. I was hoping for a Junior Ranger Badge from one of the State Parks, or some educational program at one of the parks, but our internet connection was really slow and spotty (see I told you we were roughing it.) After a little while of searching, we didn't find anything nearby that was appealing, plus, it was still pretty chilly out. The kids opted instead to hang out at the cabin, play card games, eat pizza, and watch a movie for the first part of the day.

After the Jedi was finished at the contest, it was late afternoon. We grabbed smoothies from McDonalds and headed out for another hike. This time, we headed to Conkle's Hollow. The temperatures had warmed considerably during the afternoon. It was still a little cool, but certainly not cold like the morning had been. The scenery was beautiful. (Scenery being another item on Sweetling's 'top three' list.)

When we arrived, there was a historic camp set up in a field near the parking lot, so we spent some time wandering around that, watching a demonstration on how writing quills were made, and chatting with the re-enacters (who said they woke up this morning, in their little cloth tents, to a frost covered field.)

Once again, we hit the trail late in the day, as everyone else was leaving to go to dinner. At the entrance to the hollow, there was a trail map, which we skipped, and then two signs at a fork in the trail. The gorge trail went strait ahead. It runs down the center of the gorge and is 0.5 miles, and the Jedi and I have walked it on previous visits. To our right was a large, large flight of wooden stairs, which, the sign told us, was the rim trail. The rim trail was 2.5 miles long, and we had never hiked it before. Since this would be our only hike of the day, we opted for the longer path.

On the way up, we passed a couple of warning signs, which we had Toa read aloud, all about not becoming a fatality. The signs said that the trail ran near the rim, and that the path could be very uneven, so please exercise caution. Check. Can do.

Now understand, the Jedi and I have traveled to Hocking Hills on several occasions. We've hiked along Cantwell Cliffs and taken the rim trail along the edge of the Rock House cliff, so we were pretty confident we knew what to expect from a rim trail. The other rim trails are about ten to fifteen feet or so from the actual edge, and give lovely glimpses into the valleys below from a safe distance away on a wide smooth path.

The rim trail at Conkle's Hollow was meant for mountain goats. Any living creature who is not a mountain goat has no business being on that rim trail. At 200 to 270 feet above the canyon floor, for large stretches of its length, this rim trail was two or three feet of rock, tree roots, and crevices RIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF. Got that? RIGHT AT THE EDGE. The Jedi walked in front of Sweetling, reaching behind him to hold onto her hand. I kept a death grip on Toa of Boy's wrist and marched him in front of me. Oh, and did I mention the rock would often have step ups and step downs of one to two feet? The Jedi would cross these, help Sweetling down, walk her a few feet away, double back and help Toa down, walk him over to Sweetling, and then come back and help me down. Cause, one misstep? One trip? One lost of balance? Game over. We crawled along that cliff edge like ants.

Why didn't we turn back? Because at first we thought, surely its just this one little patch that's like this.  Since the path was zigging and zagging to follow the uneven edge of the canyon, we couldn't really see much of it at once. At first we thought, it would get back to being a sane trail after this one little scary stretch. When we reached the first outcropping, I thought the danger was over, and we paused for a photo op. The top of the outcropping was a large, open space with a few spindly evergreens of some sort, and the view was breathtaking. We sat down, I snapped some photos, and we traveled on.

We left the outcropping, and the path went back to its mountain goat self, but I thought, it's just because we are on the other side of the out cropping. I don't know when it occurred to us that no, no, this death trap really is the trail, and this is really how it is....but at that point the thought was, surely this scary portion will end soon, and we'd be better off going forward than going back over all that dangerous stretch again.

Did I mention that Sweetling and the Jedi are both terrified of heights?

At points, we stepped over crevices in the trail just a foot or so wide, but looking down which one could see the tops of the trees in the valley far below.

And always, we'd reach little sections where the trail would widen some, and we'd think, ah, we're finished with this. Here's one of those points. A scenic overlook, which I at least thought was towards the end of the fatal portion of the rim trail. See those two black sandstone cliff faces? At the time we paused to snap this photo, we had no idea that the trail would wind around both those out croppings.....we hit the one on the right on the east rim of the trail....and the one on the left on the west end of the trail.

You will also notice the deep shadows that both those cliffs are in. That's because the sun is very low in the western sky. Remember how there was a trail marker with the distance of the trail at the beginning of the trail? We hike fairly regularly, regularly enough to know how long a trail of a given length might take us. But, we hadn't counted on the crawling pace this particular trail would reduce us too.

We reached a point, at long last, where the trail left the sheer cliff face and meandered back into the forest a bit. The five to ten feet of buffer between us and the cliff seemed like fathoms after what we had just hiked. And then, mercifully, we reached a set of wooden steps going down. Now, I knew we hadn't traveled back towards the entrance to the gorge yet, but when we reached the stairs, I thought we were done with the rim section of the trail. We all bounded down the stairs with great relief. And we followed the trail past little hollows.....

.....and then we got to a trail map. The map was conveniently located at, you guessed it, the halfway point of the trail. And, it clearly depicted that the west rim trail was in fact, just like the east rim trail. I checked out the 150 feet of dried up waterfall ledges, seriously contemplating whether we could pick our way down that. The Jedi and I discussed backtracking, because it looked like the eastern rim edge was slightly, ever so slightly, shorter than the western rim. But in the end, I just couldn't drag the kids back over the eastern rim again, and I was still clinging foolishly to the thought that the rest of the trail couldn't possibly be like what we just went over.

However, I was really worried about the fast fading light. Away from the rim, deep in the evergreen forest, the daylight was quickly disappearing. The thought of taking another rim trail in the dusk was terrifying. I remembered how blindly we had felt our way along inside of Rock House, and doing that 200 feet up was not a pleasant thought. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have opted for the eastern rim in hopes that it would catch more of the last light of the day than the western rim would in the shadows of the great pines.

But, we went on. I think the Jedi didn't want to face the eastern rim trail any more than I did. And in the end, I am so glad that we did. The western rim was actually the pleasant hike we had been anticipating. It had a couple of tricky spots, but nothing like the terror of the eastern rim. We walked through a section of autumn trees, all aglow with the indirect light of sunset. Toa named it the "Golden Garden". We found large caves invisible from the valley far below. We made the hike of the rim and out of the forest in plenty of time before it got dangerously dark.

In fact, the western rim hike was so successful, that at the bottom of the trail, the Jedi suggested we do the .5 gorge valley hike we had passed over before. The kids, however, were done with hiking and were ready for dinner. So we headed back to the cabin and I worked on dinner while the Jedi and the kids went out to the hot tub. (The cabin's range didn't boil water, only heated it, and the cabin didn't have a stove, so I did dinner in sections in the small microwave oven, then kept things warm on the range top. It wasn't that bad, cause the Jedi had brought home lots of leftovers from his bbq judging earlier, so other than cooking a side dish of noodles, I was just heating things up.)

 After dinner, we had a family game night. (Family time together was the third item on Sweetling's favorites list.)  On Sunday morning, we grabbed breakfast at the cabin, packed up, and headed home.

My three favorite things about the weekend were--

  • Time with the Jedi.
  • Stargazing on Friday night
  • The Rim Trail. (yes, I know that doesn't make much sense, but since when have you started expecting logic from me? After we were all down, and safe, I really appreciated the beauty of the trail, the adventure of the trail, and the teamwork we needed to move everyone safely along the trail.)
Check out more adventures on Field Trip Fridays.

1 comment:

Tonya @ Live the Adventure said...

I'll let you in on a secret....some of our field trips also occuried on mini-vacations. Since we homeschool and homeschooling is all about the lifestyle, field trips can take place at anytime! :)

Everytime we are back in Ohio I HOPE that we'll somehow be able to fit in a stop at Hocking Hills, if only for a day. We've not made it once. Your post certainly brought back memories though. We loved Old Man's Cave and Rock House. My husband and children actually crawled all through the crevices of Rock House. Your description of Conkle's Hollow was hilarious! I sooo understand! I'd read a review that said you absolutely didn't want to walk the trail after it had rained and that parent's should only take well-behaved children that won't wander. Like you, we also found out why this was so. I was so thankful that my kids were older when we were there. I would have been an absolute nervous wreck had the been a few years younger- not to say that I still didn't have a few of those moments. We did enjoy the scenery though, and the fact that we had that trail all to ourselves. Hmmm....wonder why?

Anyway, glad to hear that you ordered that guide for Kansas- I found it incredibly useful. Happy planning! :)