Ohio’s Hocking Hills region is an hour southeast of Columbus, where houses need generators and farmers’ fields double as bluegrass amphitheaters. Arrive with a car, as public transport is not an option, and if you’re bringing along queasy passengers, slip them a sedative for the roller-coaster hills over which single-lane roads wind.
Take a scenic flight out of Vinton County Airport with pilot Harry Sowers. He’ll try to charm you with his Daffy Duck and Ronald Reagan impersonations, but grin through the cheesy jokes as he also explains the history and lay of the land. He takes three people in his Cessna for 25 minutes for around $100. If you happen to have more than 24 hours, he also gives flying lessons.
Once back on the ground, follow the sound of motorbikes towards South Bloomingville and popular weekend lunch spot Jimbo’s. The small-town streets are lined with Victorian-style homes, each with an American flag hanging from its white porch. With the fruit trees growing in the front yards and kids riding their bikes on the side streets, it almost seems like a movie set.
Until you reach the masses of Harleys and burly bikers. Yes, Jimbo’s is a biker bar — but they also take customers in cardigans.
The building is similar to a storage container, with blank walls enclosing hordes of bikers dining at plastic picnic tables talking about their next destination or the 2nd Amendment. Burgers or beers are the choices from the chalkboard menu at the standing-room-only ordering bar. Bring an appetite as the burgers are the size of your head.
You’ll know it’s time to leave when your pants start unbuttoning themselves and you’re debating which leather vest best brings out your eyes.
Once you waddle out of Jimbo’s, re-button the pants, and make it back to the car, head to Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park. The Ohio sunshine can be strong in summer, and the thick canopy provides good relief. In fall, the forest colors look like a painting with red maples, golden birches, and green fir trees contrasting one another.
The Buckeye Trail is a 6-mile route that hits Hocking Hills’ scenic spots. Old Man’s Cave, a recess cave named for a hermit who died after falling from the cliff edge beside his home, is the first stop. Following the tree-lined gorge further will take you to Cedar Falls, named mistakenly when settlers couldn’t tell that the “cedars” were actually hemlocks. Finally, the trail passes through Ash Cave, where piles of ancient Indian campsite ashes were found. Approached by a narrow gorge with massive hardwood trees, the recess cave is the largest in the area.
If 6 miles feels like too much walking, hop in the car and drive from site to site. You’ll walk less than a mile from parking spot to viewpoint each time.
A few hours before sunset, start making your way to Lake Hope, and grab a hickory-smoked beef brisket snack at Lake Hope Dining Lodge. Arrange a kayaking tour with Touch the Earth Adventures to go beaver watching along the buttery smooth lake. Paddle between the lilypads and check out the deciduous forests the beavers tear apart to make their dens, keeping your eye out for their brown heads skimming across the water. Try not to jump when they slap their tails beside your boat.
As the sun sets, pause to watch the fireflies glowing along the shoreline and keep your arms down as bats start to circle overhead. Turn on your flashlight and don’t get lost — it may be a small lake, but when it gets dark, it gets real dark.
Treat yourself to a farm-to-table dinner at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls. Grab a plaid-covered seat in the 1800s log cabin, or sit on the outdoor terrace and watch the staff pick fresh herbs and fruit from the garden. Order a pawpaw cocktail, and try to decipher if it tastes more like mango, banana, or cantaloupe. Try several to support whatever fruit you decide on.
When the food’s gone, take a one-nighter (mini-growler) of Buckeye Lake Brewery American Wheat and head out to the rocking chairs by the inn. The grass in the fields will resemble a neon meteor shower as the fireflies glow in the surrounding fields.
Home for the night could be a campsite at Old Man’s Cave, a comfy cottage at the inn, or your own party cabin with a hot tub at Buffalo Lodging Company. But before you go to sleep, look up, above the fireflies, at the Milky Way. You don’t get stars like this in the city.
* Rachel was a guest of Hocking Hills Tourism.