As the only true cave found within Hocking Hills State Park, the 0.50 mile trail to see Rock House is one of the most popular destinations in the entire state park. With a main corridor spanning 200 feet long by 30 feet wide, it’s been home to various groups of people over the several thousand years that this corner of Ohio has been inhabited. Archeological evidence at the site shows that prehistoric Native Americans ingeniously utilized shallow openings in the rock walls as ovens to cook their meals. In more recent times, the cave was used by outlaws as a secret hideaway, giving rise to its unofficial nickname, Robbers Roost. Tucked between Cantwell Cliffs and Conkles Hollow Nature Preserve, a visit to this idyllic woodland sanctuary can be fit into any itinerary exploring Ohios’ best hiking destination.
Rock House Trail | 0.50 Mile
Rock House Location | Google Maps
Continuing our adventures in Hocking Hills State Park, we left Cantwell Cliffs and drove 15 mins south to the recreation area containing Rock House. As far as getting your biggest bang for your buck, this is the deal of the century. The trail to Rock House is only 0.50 miles long and leads to one of the most stunning areas in the whole state park. Caves, waterfalls, and lush hanging gardens are bountiful in this hidden cove.
This hike does require a climb up a winding 50 foot long staircase if you start from the west parking lot, which might be difficult for people with mobility issues. If this is the case, start this trail from the east end parking lot, at the back end of the recreation area, as it contains a more gradual ascent back out of the valley.
As with most of Hocking Hills in the middle of summer, this trailhead was packed to the brim when we arrived, forcing us to park at the farther west end lot. Naturally, we chose to begin our hike from this direction. Most maps show two distinct trails to Rock House, with a Rim Trail traveling the upper ridge above the cave and a Valley Trail which is the only entry point into it. Following the woodland path from the trailhead, we worked our way down a few dry pine ridges until reaching the stairs leading down into the hidden cove of Rock House. The stairs here have been cut straight through the soft “black hand” sandstone that has given this county its most famous rock formations. This Early Mississippian Age stone is composed mainly of pure quartz sand and pebbles with soft centers which weather faster compared to its top and bottom layers, leading it to easily form recesses or rock shelter caves.
After maneuvering down into the valley, one is treated to a magical landscape of sheer cliffs and wet weather waterfalls that feed the countless hanging gardens on every exposed cliff. It’s like a scene out of the “Fern Gully” movies. Following the base of the cliffs for about a hundred yards, I can start to see people ducking from within dark gaps in the rocks just up ahead. It’s really hard to tell where Rock House is until you are literally standing right in front of it. The front end of the tunnel points slightly away from the trail so the first thing visitors normally encounter are the large window openings just past it.
As you work your way down another set of stone steps and boulders, the trail drops you off in front of massive stone pillars, known as the Columns, that mark the main entrance to Rock House. There are people crowded all over the place, sitting on every flat ledge of the pillars and dangling out of every window, giving me a glimpse at what this cave might have looked like when it was regularly inhabited. Not really sure how to get inside, I slip my body through one of the large gaps in the cliff and walked straight into the dark cavern. One can’t help but let out an involuntary “Woaahhh” as they first set eyes inside of this massive tunnel.
Running 200 feet long from end to end and with a width of 30 feet, this space could easily fit several hundred people. The inside of the tunnel also has an interesting shape, with the 25 foot high ceilings tapering off into a point, almost resembling a tear drop. One of the most fascinating parts of this cave are how its early inhabitants utilized the space to make it more livable. All throughout the length of the tunnel are shallow cavities that at first appear to look like sleeping quarters. In fact, early peoples would light fires on one end of the space in order to create a modern day outdoor oven.
Meats that required faster cooking at high heat would be placed closest to the open flames, while foods that needed longer to cook would be stewed in earthen pots farther away from the open heat source. More evidence that early peoples had an eye for engineering was found during archeological excavations which uncovered small man-made troughs in the cave floor, that were dug to create a freshwater supply that was easily accessible.
If you turn left after entering the cave, it’ll lead you to the large window opening facing the direction you came, before reaching the columns. The ledges here are moist from water trickling down from the sloping ridge above, feeding the sedges, ferns, and orbs adorning a beautiful hanging garden. Walking the length of the cave in the opposite direction, you’ll pass a half dozen more windows of various shapes and sizes. Most of them are large enough for people to squeeze in and out of as I did to enter and exit the cave, or to just sit and dangle their feet from. At the far end of the cave is a man-made wall, roughly waist high, closing off the largest window to thru traffic.
On the other end of this wall is a sheer drop into a maze of boulders and ledges that some visitors opt to use as a scrambling course. Looking straight out through the opening is a view of a small waterfall cascading over a cliff face covered in rock shelters from top to bottom. To reach this area, we step out from Rock House through one of the many openings and head down the lengthy stone staircase descending into the valley below. If you were coming from the west end parking lot, this is the 50 foot long staircase you would have to climb to reach the cave. At the bottom of the trail is a foot bridge spanning the waterfall fed creek. From here you get an expansive view of the back of Rock House, as well as a good show of visitors attempting the scramble down the backside of it.
Across from the bridge are several rock shelters hidden behind a lush wall of vegetation dangling from every nook and cranny. The easiest opening to reach is via a small dirt path traversing the edge of the cliff that becomes visible once you cross the footbridge. From this vantage point you get an unparalleled view of the landscape below and the approach to Rock House just off in the distance. The other cave openings above me require some rappelling to reach, as climbing the slippery wet ledge is totally out of the question. If you were to take the Rim Trail that spans the ridges above Rock House, you would be standing directly above this area looking down in the cove.
Leaving this area, the Valley Trail begins winding back up the hillside for the short trip back to the west parking lot. The steep climb ends near the picnic shelter overlooking the trailhead. Once upon a time in the mid 1800’s, a businessman by the name of F.F. Rempel built a 16 room hotel near this site as part of a tourist attraction showcasing the natural wonders of Rock House. It would take another 100 years before the Ohio Department of Natural Resources would official take possession of all the properties within Hocking Hills State Park and begin running them as one unit.
Up next, I’ll be driving just down the road to check out the trails of Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve. Though its own separate unit, Conkles Hollow is a must see destination within Hocking Hills and a popular destination during any visit to Hocking Hills State Park. The most popular trail within the nature preserve, the Gorge Trail, travels through a pristinely rehabilitated forest adorned with large cave overhangs and a stunning box canyon with a plunge waterfall at the very end of it. Stay tuned and until next time, see ya’ll on the trails!