Whispering Cave is one of the new and exciting areas open for exploration in Hocking Hills State Park. After spending much of its life as a secret off-trail destination, hikers now have the opportunity to hike the 1.5 mile Hemlock Bridge Trail to see this iconic landmark. Stretching 300 feet wide, this cave recess also contains a 100 foot waterfall that rivals that of Ash Cave. The journey to this area of the park is made even more adventurous by the crossing of an “Indiana Jones-style” rope bridge known as the Hemlock Bridge. With much to see within this secluded valley, including the Sphinx Head and Broken Falls, there will be plenty to keep you inspired along this strenuous 5 mile journey.
Whispering Cave Spur Trail | 0.2 Miles
Hemlock Bridge Trail | 1 Mile
Loop From Old Mans Cave Entrance | 5 miles
Old Mans Cave Visitors Center Location | Google Map
Welcome to another article exploring the trails of Hocking Hills State Park! To start things off I have some bad news, which to the hardcore adventurers out there, might also turn out to be some good news. The north trailhead for the Hemlock Bridge Trail is officially closed without an opening date in sight. Due to the Dinning Hall burning down, which is in the process of being rebuilt, and changes to the parks trail system, visitors are no longer able to access this trailhead from its north entrance. What this means is that instead of trekking along an easy 0.75 mile stroll to see Whispering Cave, hikers must now travel 5 miles to reach the cave along a strenuous one way loop. By my own personal account the real distance is closer to 6 miles and took 2.5 hours to complete, hiking at a moderate pace.
To begin your journey, head on over to the Old Mans Visitors Center and jump on the Old Mans Cave Gorge Trail as it heads down through the cave and reconnects with the Grandma Gatewood Trail. This will all look familiar to those whom have already hiked to Old Mans Cave from the Upper Falls trailhead. Once on the Grandma Gatewood Trail, head south to the Lower Falls area where you will find a tiny sign pointing south through the gorge to Whispering Cave. Most people fail to notice that anything lies further south from the Lower Falls and end their trip here, but this is just the beginning of our own adventure.
Tucked into the cliffs a mere several 100 feet south from the Lower Falls is yet another rarely visited waterfall, Broken Falls. It’s reached via a cliff trail that travels just below the rim of the canyon past another natural landmark, known as the Sphinx’s Head. Alternatively I chose to travel the Grandma Gatewood Trail as if heading to Whispering Cave and when I reached the hidden cove containing the falls I merely walked across the creek and onto a well marked trail. Standing at the bottom of this ravine, one can look up to the winding stone staircase maneuvering up to the top of the cliffs and the base of the falls. There are smaller waterfalls cascading over several steep drop-offs on the way up and it reminds me a lot of something you might encounter hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Managing the steep trail and climbing over several large trees, I finally reach the falls to find an even bigger spectacle. Emanating from the wooded ridge above, this waterfall travels through a large crevice in the rock that looks as if the cliff has literally broken apart, hence the name Broken Falls. The falls enters this crevice and exits out into a large pool at the bottom of a cavern with a stone bridge connecting one end of the ridge to the other. It’s shocking to think that so many people are unaware this landmark exists, just a short distance from another popular destination.
Jumping back on our path to Whispering Cave, we get a chance to travel through one of the least developed sections of Hocking Hills State Park. The trails here are nothing but dirt, unlike some of the mostly paved paths found throughout the park. It’s roughly a 1 mile hike from the Lower Falls to the Hemlock Bridge Trail junction. One of the best aspects of this trail is that off-trail exploration is allowed and there is tons to explore. Lining both sides of the gorge are numerous caves and towering rock shelters that you are free to venture into, including a three tiered cave complex requiring a 100 foot ascent to reach. Several of them even have small waterfalls streaming over their entrance. It’s a bit of a throwback to how earlier visitors to the park might have experienced it.
After navigating a few boulder scrambles and walking over the boardwalk through a wetland marsh, I finally reached the southern entrance to the Hemlock Bridge Trail. Those that are interested in an equally long day hike could also chose to continue along the Grandma Gatewood Trail, past Whispering Falls, all the way to Cedar Falls or go even further to the end of the gorge at Ash Cave. Once on the Hemlock Bridge Trail, one gets an opportunity to traverse a jungle style rope bridge like those seen on adventure movies such as Indiana Jones.
Due to its remote location work crews struggled for years trying to figure out how to build a safe passage that would connect the two ends of this canyon. Through much trial and error the park came up with the plan to build this deceptively simple bridge to span the 15 foot wide seasonal creek. Requiring very little mechanized equipment to complete, it caused only minor disturbances to the natural landscape while providing a safe method of passage to Whispering Cave.
The Hemlock Bridge Trail is the only path in the entire park that explores the western half of Queer Creek. Unlike the tamed eastern half where Cedar Falls and Ash Cave are located, this particular section remains somewhat of a true wilderness. The path along the creek is overgrown and left to its own devices. A rare sight in this part of the Midwest can be found along this hike if you spot some of the big leaf magnolia that call this place home. This deep and sheltered gorge supports a whole hosts of plants that should otherwise not exist here such as Canadian Hemlocks and Yews. Near the halfway point, this trail begins a series of climbs up some seriously steep switchbacks that come to a dead end at the bottom of a shear rock bluff.
A LEFT TURN at this “T” intersections puts you on the 0.2 mile Whispering Cave Trail. Not having done much research before this hike, I failed to look up an image of what Whispering Cave looked like. To my disbelief, there are at least a half dozen shallow caves and rock shelters along this trail that I had to constantly ask other hikers if “this is it?” Most people would pleasantly laugh me off and inform me to keep walking just a little further.
Within a few short minutes all of my questions were answered when I rounded a bend in the trail and came up upon the dark entrance to Whispering Cave. At 300 feet wide, it’s only about half the size of Ash Cave, but its presence is non the less striking. Located just below the mid section of a horseshoe shaped ridge its opening is long and slender, appearing as if a lumberjack had taken a wedge out of the rock with an axe.
A winding staircase takes visitors from the wooded ridge down into the cavern and past another marvelous wet weather waterfall measuring nearly 100 feet tall. The path from the entrance is quite narrow until it reaches the main body of the cavern at the opposite end. Large boulders from a previous rockfall line the floor here, acting like seating for an outdoor amphitheater. According to geologists this sandstone gorge is relatively young compared to Old Mans Cave and Ash Cave.
The ridge just above us is lined with thickets of rhododendrons, found only in four counties within the state, and a few sightings of the rare “flame” azalea. Ohio is home to four indigenous species of rhododendron, with all of them listed as rare and endangered. If you pay a visit to this area in late June to early July, you’ll be treated with their intoxicating perfume as they put on a gorgeous display of brightly colored blooms.
To leave Whispering Cave, you have the option of either retracing your steps back through the gorge of Old Mans Cave to the Visitors Center or continuing along the Hemlock Bridge Trail. I chose to finish out the Hemlock Bridge Trail for the remainder of the journey as it traversed the dry ridges above the canyon, past the Dining Hall, and eventually connecting to the paved walking path that circles the Visitors Center parking lot. It was one heck of a hike, which is why I saved it for last. Whispering Cave marks the end of my time in Hocking Hills State Park, but not of my time in the region. Up next I’ll be visiting one of the newest additions to the conservation properties of Hocking Hills, Bison Hollow Nature Preserve. This enchanting gorge, known for its waterfalls, grottos, and wildflowers, is also believed to have housed the last wild herd of woodland bison in Ohio before going extinct. Stay tuned for our upcoming article and as always, see y’all on the trails!