Gorge\Yellow Trail | 1 Mile Loop
Rim\Red Trail 1 Mile Loop
Cantwell Cliffs Location | Google Maps
If you’re reaching Hocking Hills State Park from the town of Logan, Ohio or are just looking to work your way from the outside in, then visiting Cantwell Cliffs first is the way to go. Upon reaching the parking area, travel towards the far end of the lot to the picnic area in order to reach the trailhead. Just past the large picnic shelter, the mulch path descends through the heavily wooded hillside until reaching the rim of the cliffs overlooking Bucks Run. The only way down into the deeply shaded hemlock gorge is to pass through a passage known as Fat Woman’s Squeeze. Descending over 150 feet into the bottom of the gorge, the path is one of the quirkiest parts of this area.
The toughest squeeze is along the first 15 feet of the narrow passage, where I was forced to scoot sideways in order to get through. Most people are usually able to walk straight through this rock fissure that was created through thousands of years of natural erosion. Midway down, an opening in the cliffs on the right hand side leads out to an overlook and the start of the Rim\Red Trail. One of the more interesting aspects of the trails in Hocking Hills is the fact that they are marked every several hundred feet with waypoints. Labeled in alphabetical order, the small signs let you know exactly where you are along the path at any given point and the distance between the next waypoint.
This 1 mile trail forms a figure eight “double loop”, as it travels across several cliff line passages, dotted with large rock shelters, until reaching the upper rim of the canyon. Due to changes made to the trail system within Hocking Hills State Park, most of the trails have been turned into one way lanes, with a singular entrance and exit point. You could chose to veer off onto this trail, doing the lower portion and looping back down from the upper rim to this very point if time is not an issue. If you continue down onto the bottom of the canyon along the Gorge Trail, it’ll eventually meet up with the Rim Trail on its way out of the park, allowing us to hit two birds with one stone.
The path through Fat Woman’s Squeeze continues 150 feet down this slot canyon, ending at another overlook of one of the largest rock shelters in the area. A small wood railing guards against falling into the deep pit at the bottom of a wet weather waterfall that flows from over the top of this cliff. The structure is so massive that the people navigating the slippery ledges look like small dots even from my vantage point. I would later come to find out that this is one of the few areas in all of Hocking Hills State Park where off trail exploration is allowed. Due to the higher volume of visitation and the disturbance caused by high volume traffic, most of the rock shelters, caves, and cliff overhangs throughout the rest of the park are off limits in an effort to revitalize them.
Following the Gorge|Yellow Trail, we descend onto the flats of Bucks Run, discovered by one of the first pioneers to settle in the Hocking Hills, Joseph Cantwell, whom the trail is named after. It’s a calming scene and one you wouldn’t expect in the heart of Ohio. Due to the cooler temps and moist conditions of the lower canyon, many northern species of plants thrive here, giving it an aura of walking through a forest in the Pacific Northwest. The deep shade cast by the towering stands of hemlock and black birch trees allow just enough dappled light to filter through, encouraging the growth of ferns knee high and as far as the eye can see. Known for its wildflower display during early spring, this trail is lined with the foliage of dormant white trilliums, smooth phlox, may-apple, and native hydrangea bushes as big as a grown man.
A two plank boardwalk takes us across a wetland marsh at the deepest portion of the ravine as the trail turns into another slot canyon with a massive rock shelter up ahead. Making my way up at the narrow dirt path, I step through the lush vegetation and into the opening of another deep cave overhang with a trickling waterfall. Its really hard to tell just how enormous the formation is until you step into it. While not as wide as the rock shelter near Fat Woman’s Squeeze, this one is much, much deeper. Near the front of it is a steep staircase carved out of solid stone from the side of the cliff. This is the continuation of the Gorge\Yellow Loop.
The path along the back of the rock shelter is a part of the “double figure-eight loop” of the Rim\ Red Trail. If you were to walk through the cavern and come out the other side, a series of stairs would take you to the upper Rim Trail, past another smaller rock shelter, and on towards the parking lot. Wanting to get the full experience, we chose to take the long way and finish out the Gorge Trail. Traveling back and forth over several steep switchbacks, you land on the Rim Trail and the last leg of the journey. About a hundred feet away is a small wood and stone trail shelter fitted with a bench. After the challenging climb, it was a welcome sight to be able to sit and take the load off our feet for just a few moments.
Looking down the trail we could see the small bridge and creek crossing that we spotted earlier from the bottom of the Gorge Trail. This is in fact the creek that cascades over the last rock shelter we encountered. The view down into the gorge gave us an entirely different perspective of the area we had just visited. If you were just a casual observer walking along the rim of Cantwell Cliffs, it might be completely lost on you that a stadium sized cave overhang lay right beneath your feet. We could see loads of people traveling from different directions on the left hand side along the Rim Trail as it traveled up to the point we were standing on. Simultaneously, there were people coming out from the cavern underneath us, to make their way up the solid stone stairs we traveled to finish the Gorge Trail.
I’m always fascinated to see how depending on which way you’re traveling down a trail, your entire perspective of the area changes. Looking over to me left, I spot a sprawling colony of bright orange mushrooms dangling from the side of the cliff. Upon further inspection, they appear to either be the edible Chanterelles used in gourmet kitchens. On the other hand, they could also be false chanterelles known as Jack O’ Lanterns, which are mildly poisonous. The foraging skills needed to safely determine a wild plants edibility takes years of practice and I simply lack the knowledge to make a safe assumption. Plus if the mushrooms don’t kill me, then a nasty fall off the sheer cliff next to the mushrooms might.
A few feet ahead is another small overlook of the Rim Trail below as it weaves up through the canyon past another rock shelter. This shallow cave opening hangs suspended over the valley in the cliff below us. A series of small ledges allows climbers to make their way into it, but most people just admire it from the trails and move on. The upper portion of the Rim Trail ends in about 100 yards as it rises out of the forest into a grassy meadow beside the parking lot. Although Cantwell Cliffs has one of the shortest trails in Hocking Hills State Park, it is jam packed with plenty of things to see to keep you occupied for several hours.
Up next, I’ll be heading over to see what many consider to be the largest arch in Ohio and the only true cave in Hocking Hills, Rockhouse. Carved out of solid rock at the base of a sheer cliff, Rockhouse is a 200 foot long natural tunnel with windows spanning the entire length of it. With a colorful history spanning prehistoric times all the way to the bootlegging era, Rockhouse is one of the most popular areas to visit in Hocking Hills. Stay tuned and until next time, see ya’ll on the trails!