Ash Cave is by far the most visited of all the iconic sites within Hocking Hills State Park. Measuring 700 feet from end to end, 100 feet deep, and 90 feet high, it is thought to be the largest cave recess in the state of Ohio. The 0.50 mile loop to Ash Cave takes visitors through one of the many deep gorges in the park, along an ancient system of trails once used by Native Americans for thousands of years. Home to one of the tallest seasonal waterfalls in the state as well as a majestic spring and fall wildflower display, this trail belongs on every bucket list trip to the Hocking Hills Region. Located on the far southern point of the park, Ash Cave is a convenient destination for those leaving the Cedar Falls area, as it is just a short 10 minute drive south along State Road 374.
Ash Gorge Trail | 0.25 Mile
Ash Rim Trail | 0.25 Mile
Ash Cave Location | Google Maps
Ash Cave is a quintessential stop during any trip to Hocking Hills State Park and one of the places I was looking forward to visiting the most. I began my journey in the region by working my way from north to south via Rockbridge State Nature Preserve, Cantwell Cliffs, Rock House, Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve, and Cedar Falls.
Following my departure from Cedar Falls, the Ash Cave Trailhead is located just a short 10 minute drive south along State Road 374 as it intersects Route 56. The parking lot for this trail is located directly across the street in an expansive recreation area fitted with a picnic shelter and restrooms. To start your journey, walk directly across Route 56 and onto the paved sidewalk leading to the trailhead.
It’s impossible to talk about the different areas of Hocking Hills State Park without in some way, shape, or form, mentioning the people that once inhabited this region. Stepping inside this deep gorge surrounded by sheer cliffs, one would think this is a wild and untouched place, but truth be told people have been coming here for thousands of years.
The earliest recorded history surrounding Ash Cave doesn’t appear until the mid 1700’s when the first explorers into the then Northwest Territory, stumbled upon a series of massive ash piles underneath this cave overhang. The largest of these piles, thought to have accumulated over several hundred years, was recorded to be 3 feet deep, by 100 feet long, and 30 feet wide, prompting early settlers to coin the name “Ash Cave”.
Subsequent archeological excavations done in the 1870’s, revealed countless artifacts among the ashes including deer and bear bones, arrow heads, and pottery shards. Most of these are thought to stretch far back to when Hurons from southern Ontario migrated across the Great Lakes to settle parts of Ohio, then taking on their more common name of Wyandots. Though it’s known that Wyandots made up the majority of the inhabitants in recent history, Ash Cave is actually located along an ancient trail used by Fort Ancient people between ca.900-1600 CE that spanned the lower half of Ohio, Kentucky, and West
Its thought that this shelter was one of many stops along an early interstate highway that stretched from distant Shawnee villages along the Kanawha River in West Virginia to the earthen mound city of Chillicothe. Much of this original trail was paved over and turned into the road that brings guests to the entrance of this gorge, Route 56.
All around the start of this trail, one can spot smaller caves and rock shelters along the base of the gorge that were once in regular use. Unfortunately, off-trail travel is prohibited in this area due to the sensitive nature of the plant habitats within the caverns, so you’ll have to look on from a distance. At only a 0.25 mile in length, it’s not long before visitors enter the start of the 700 foot long Ash Cave. It’s truly difficult to explain just how larger than life this natural formation is. By some estimates, not only is this the largest cave recess in the state, it’s also believed to be the largest east of the Mississippi River. A large island of moss covered boulders surrounded by a shallow creek blocks the back half of the cave from view until one steps forward into the heart of it.
At the very center of Ash Cave is a 100 foot seasonal waterfall splashing down into a small natural pool filled with visitors taking a dip to cool off from the intense heat of a steamy July afternoon. It might stun people to know that this is unofficially the tallest waterfall in Ohio, but since it only runs seasonally, it lacks the consistency to have that official title. A visit during winter will treat guests to an ice cone formation that can often connect the top and bottom of the falls into one giant icicle. The caves horseshoe shape gives it an incredible acoustic quality, giving rise to its use as a place for gatherings and meeting during pioneer days. Pulpit Rock, a large flat boulder near the entrance to Ash Cave, even served as a podium for Sunday worship services until one of the first local churches could be built.
By far the best view of the formation is atop the wood staircase leading to the upper level of the cave. From here, one can get a shot of the waterfall splashing down into the pool as people enter the recess from behind. Watching various other hikers unpacking their gear, having conversations while children run around playing in the creek and it’s not hard to imagine what this scene might have looked like several hundred years back.
Ash Cave, with its source of fresh water and natural shelter provided our ancestors with an advantage of freeing up extra time in an era where every moment was spent gathering essential resources to survive. It’s no wonder why this destination continues to be a place where people gather even after our modern age of convenience makes it so we don’t ever need to leave our homes. Its a truly magnificent place and one that I’m sure you’ll come to love.
Up next, we’ll be venturing to the most popular destination in the Hockings Region, Old Mans Cave. Known as the heart of Hocking Hills State Park, this 0.50 mile trail traverses a narrow gorge, through four distinct sections with Old Mans Cave at the center of it all. This is the main site to visit within the park and its sure to be packed with tons to see. Stay tuned and until next time, see y’all on the trails!