No trip to Hocking Hills State Park would be complete without a hike to visit Old Mans Cave. The cave derives its name from its former resident, hermit Richard Rowe, who lived, worked, and died within this large cave recess. This quintessential hiking trail is located within the heart of the state park along a 1.5 mile loop through some of the regions most iconic landmarks. Commonly though of as just one particular area, Old Mans Cave is actually consisted of five distinct sections: Upper Falls, Upper Gorge, Middle Falls, Lower Falls, and Lower Gorge. With so much to see and do on this terrific 1.5 hour hike, it’s no wonder that this is one of the most popular trails in all of the Hocking Hills Region.
Grandma Gatewood Trail - Exit 1 | 1 Mile (Old Mans Cave)
Grandma Gatewood Trail - Exit 2 | 1.5 Miles (Lower Falls)
Old Mans Cave Location | Google Maps
If you have ever looked up pictures of Hocking Hills State Park, chances are most of those images were taken along the trail to Old Mans Cave. While this particular area was once made up of several different trails, recent changes within the parks trail system have turned this into a ONE WAY Loop that ends at the Lower Falls. The main path through the gorge is the Grandma Gatewood Trail, which if followed its full length, will eventually take you to most of the state parks main attractions such as Whispering Cave, Cedar Falls, and Ash Cave. For the purpose of this article, we will focus mainly on the five distinct sections of the gorge surrounding Old Mans Cave and end our hike at the Lower Falls near Exit 2. This is a moderate 1.5 mile loop that generally takes visitors 1.5 hours to complete. Though mostly a flat walk, both exits near Old Mans Cave and the Lower Falls require a strenuous stair climb that might make this hike difficult for anyone with mobility issues.
As one of the most popular areas in Hocking Hills State Park, this trail becomes jam packed with visitors throughout the middle of the day. The best time to hike to Old Mans Cave is either shortly after sunrise or later in the evening before sunset. We got an early start to the day by arriving at the Old Mans Cave parking area shortly after sunrise to begin our adventure. Even with a head start, the massive lot was already a quarter full as like-minded hikers tried to beat the mid day rush. This trail begins at the north end of the parking lot along a narrow wooded path that crosses over the first major landmark of our hike, the Upper Falls. This bridge crossing is one of the most photographed spots in all of Hocking Hills.
If there was one spot considered the most dangerous along this route, it would have to be the 30 feet of trail between this bridge and the stairs leading down to the falls. There are no barriers along the rim of the gorge here and people often crowd the exposed ledges to vie for the unique perspective of the falls. Heading down the stone cut staircase, we reach the bottom of the longest gorge in Hocking Hills State Park, underneath the shade of its stately hemlock trees. Straight ahead is the sprawling sandy beach surrounding the natural pool of the Lower Falls. Besides Cedar Falls, the Upper and Lower Falls of Old Mans Creek are the second and third largest waterfalls in terms of volume found within the park boundary.
Turning back towards the trail, we walk over the 2nd of 9 bridge crossings throughout the valley of Old Mans Creek. Surrounding this trail are numerous rock shelters and shallow cave recesses that have been carved out from the cliffs over centuries as the creek has eroded the soft backhand sandstone. The caves on the opposite side of the creek are easily accessible when the water level is low enough to cross on foot. As we near the 3rd bridge crossing we stumble upon another of this trails iconic landmarks, the Devils Bathtub. This fascinating natural formation is actually a tiered waterfall. The top of the falls, known as the bathtub, was created by glacial erratics and rock debris caught in a swirling backwash that eventually eroded the creek bed into its iconic bowl shape. After rushing through the whirlpool, the waterfall cascades through a narrow gauge gorge and finally splashes down into a natural pool at the bottom of another descent.
The beautiful stone cut staircase leading down into yet another deeper level of the gorge, winds its way around several rock outcroppings jutting out from the side of a cliff, creating a small natural tunnel. This rustic work of engineering is still holding strong eighty years after its initial construction by the Civilian Conservation Corps. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, the C.C.C. initiated a lot of the original trail work in the area surrounding Old Mans Cave. Today their work is juxtaposed by the sleeker and more modern, bright green pedestrian bridges spanning the bottom and top of this gorge.
As we walk towards bridge 4 and 5, set just a few feet apart, we encounter one of the many wet weather waterfalls streaming down the cliffs just below the Visitors Center. The small stream hides a shallow cave recess surrounded by an expansive community of woodland wildflowers thriving in the dappled shade of towering hemlocks, birches, and oaks. A trail leading up to the upper rim of this waterfall is actually the newest and shortest entrance into the Grandma Gatewood Trail of Old Mans Cave just below the Visitors Center. Continuing along the base of the cliffs, admiring the lush and wet hanging gardens of the upper gorge, I spot a large dark cavity off in the distance in front of bridge number 6.
Extending down into the banks of Old Mans Creek is yet another cavernous rock shelter that seems larger than life. Due to the periodic flooding and drying of the creek, much of the rock shelters floor is smooth rock devoid of any debris, making it a popular place for visitors to lay out and enjoy a picnic. Even at 9 a.m. people were sitting out on blankets under this overhang taking in the sights. It might stun those visitors to know that several hundred years ago, a bear and her cubs could have been spotted here doing the same. Black bears were once plentiful in the region and these rock shelters provided a natural den for many different species of animals. Till this day, wild turkey can occasionally be heard gobbling through the gorge in the early morning dawn hours. Just past this is one of the quirkiest and most playful art instillations in any state park I’ve ever visited, bridge number 7.
This pedestrian bridge is more than just a way to get from one side of the creek to the other, its design was meant to purposefully transport even the grumpiest of visitors to their earliest childhood memories of skipping rocks over a creek. Even though there are gaps in between each of the concrete steps, threatening to drop you down into the creek below, they’re spaced out in a way that is comfortable and pleasant to walk over at a moderate stride. Up above our heads, crossing horizontally from rim to rim, is another feat of artful engineering. This bridge, named the A Frame, connects the Old Mans Cave Campground via the Camp Access Trail to the Visitors Center and the gorge below.
As we enter the middle falls section of the area, the gorge takes a sudden plunge, forcing the trail to hug the bottom of the cliff as we descend into the narrow shaft known as Old Mans Tunnel. Looking at it from above, its rustic moss covered archway looks like the entrance into a long forgotten fairyland. It’s not until you step into the hand carved tunnel and come out the other end that one realizes they have just entered into the foreground of Old Mans Cave. Filled with cascading waterfalls, a lush natural garden, and expansive caves, this is easily the most stunning area of the trail.
A series of overlooks here offer convenient perches from which to take some incredible pictures of all the iconic landmarks here. Adjusting my gaze from bottom to top, I stare out at the flowing stream of Middle Falls surrounded by a stunning fern glade covered in beams of dappled sunlight. One can even see a light mist floating through the air from the falls as if someone were running a fog machine at an amusement park. Above the falls is the imposing entrance to Old Mans Cave, reached by a series of steep stair climbs that maneuver over several smaller cave overhangs that make up the entire complex.
The lush look of this valley is partly due to reforesting projects commenced in the 1950’s by the C.C.C. and another lesser known group of workers, members of the Hocking Honor Camp. This group of inmates from the town of Logan, were hired to help the Forestry Department with planting, cleaning, and pruning plantings all throughout the park, earning $0.05 cents per hour for their work.
For those not interested in going all the way to the Lower Falls, taking the bridge across the creek into Old Mans Cave is the route to Exit 1. While I was not interested in leaving the trail yet, I ventured up there just to get a closer look at the cave and explore a few different passages. The view from the highest ledge of the entire sprawling natural landscape below is just awe inspiring. Its hard not to be enchanted by the beauty of this place. Legend has it that just before the arrival of Richard Rowe, for whom the cave is known for, two brothers named Nathaniel and Pat Rayon built a cabin near the caves entrance. Not much is known about their lives, but rumor has it that both of them are buried in a secluded part of this cave.
Heading down from the bluffs of Old Mans Cave, we retrace our steps back across the creek into another towering rock shelter along the Grandma Gatewood Trail. This last stretch of the trail is the most physically taxing as were forced to take a steep stair climb to link up with the upper rim of the gorge. The drastic change in elevation is due to the fact that we are having to maneuver over and around the side of a large waterfall. As soon as one reaches the top of the stairs, you’re immediately forced to begin descending back down to the valley floor. Our hard work is totally worth it once we reach the bottom landing and catch our first sight of the Lower Falls.
Though not as widely visited as the Upper Falls at the start of this hike, the 30 foot tall Lower Falls is even more scenic in my opinion. Its shape resembles that of Cedar Falls as it tumbles down a crescent shaped ledge before cascading over a large rock shelter below. The heavily shaded beach and natural pool below the falls is an inviting place where you’ll easily forget all the hardships of your journey to reach it. The stone pedestrian bridge leading to the falls area is also the end of this particular hike as it enters Exit 2. There is so much more to see along the Grandma Gatewood Trail only a quarter mile past the Lower Falls such as the little known Sphinx Head and Broken Falls.
I will be including those in our next journey to travel Hocking Hills newest hiking trail to Whispering Cave. Having always been an off the path landmark that those “in the know” would visit, the state park recently decided to open this area to the public. By constructing the Hemlock Bridge in the lower half of the gorge, it effectively connected the main Grandma Gatewood Trail to this distant cave. This new 6 mile loop, starting and ending at the Old Mans Cave Visitors Center is the most rugged hike in the park and one I can’t wait to tackle. Stay tuned and until next time, see y’all on the trails!