The Hocking Hills are settled into the edge of the Appalachian hillsides, a small treasure of rugged cliff edges, huge recess caves and miles of forestland seemingly untouched by man. People come here to hike. They come here to bask long hours away at places like The Spa at Cedar Falls, a rustic country inn offering a destination spa, cabins and cottages. They come to get a hands-on feel of the many programs at Hocking Hills State Park. And they come here to simply get married beneath a waterfall, find respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life or just to spend a little time with the kids.
The millions of visitors traveling from all over the world to see these treasures nearly rivals Yellowstone Park even in the frigid months of an Ohio Winter. And yet, there are times when I still have to wonder why. . . why are so many people fascinated with the Hocking Hills? Perhaps my last visit to the park in January will explain just why. A hiker steps gingerly along the uneven sandstone steps leading to a small, sheltered plateau about 1/4 mile into Old Man's Cave. It is about seventy feet high, a long stone's throw above a canopy of deep green hemlock trees and a rushing stream of clear bubbling water. It is a rocky cove of sandstone, a light brown rock with hints of maroon mingling within. Cliff edges surround this smaller recess cave dug into the larger one of Old Man's Cave. It is not unlike a huge fist had been angrily slugged deep into the rock face, digging around a bit before disappearing into thin air. There are no trees in this little cubby, only huge brown boulders and a rock wall to keep hikers from falling into the abyss below. I see the hiker coming from my perch on the trail above him at what has been aptly nicknamed “The Overlook". It has snowed during the night and I had scrambled out of bed early to try to get some photos of the cliff faces along Old Man's Cave before the trails were heavy with hikers. I like the thrill of being the first there, of seeing fresh pure snow not trudged and browned by boots. And taking in the forest before the tranquil air is noisy with others curious to see the hills wearing their Winter whites.
But maybe I had arrived later than I thought because the world around Old Man's Cave seemed to be already awakening with the reverberation of other visitors. The hiker ambles closer. Snow sticks to the bottom of the hiker's boots and makes a soft crunching sound when he walks. But I can't hear it, those boots leaving a size 10 print in the snow. In tow, he has eleven or so boys of various shapes and sizes clambering along the trail tossing snowballs, laughing loudly, discussing how they could shove one unsuspecting boy's face into a particularly large snow bank. The group looks chaotic, a tiny ball of commotion rolling through the hemlock-lined trails deep within Old Man's Cave. They burst the peaceful air of the recess cave with the same ferocity of a baseball-size snowball crashing through a stained glass window. What was once a tranquil walkway now bears a significant resemblance to a junior high school hallway during class change.
It's 20 degrees and while the lead hiker stops to catch his breath, tiny puffs of white clouds slip from his lips. He pauses long enough to turn and look out into the sweeping basin below and takes in a sharp breath, pointing toward the group below him, “Hey guys, stop for a minute. Look. " For a moment, it appears the boys will pass him by continuing to wrestle one smaller boy to the ground. But they stop, turn and for a moment, all is quiet. You expect a groan or roll of eyes from the group. But there is only silence as each looks out over the blanket of fresh snow covering the landscape below and to a huge mound of ice formed from a waterfall. Silence. Only the cool whistle of wind through the sandstone nook where the lead hiker stands flows through the air. “Hey, I wonder if anybody's ever snowboarded down that thing. " 90 seconds later, the silence is broken. It is one of the boys and he is referring to the frozen waterfall.
For a moment, eleven or so boys’ and one leader's eyes gleam as if they are actually considering the idea. I think about slip-sliding down the waterfall too. But suddenly they come to their senses. One of the boys whines that his little toe is numb and quite possibly falling off. And once again the frenzied ball of boys resume their ear-shattering progression along the trail. I pull out my digital camera and take a shot of the frozen waterfall. I can still hear the echoes of the boys far up the trail and contemplate the awesome view that had kept eleven or so thirteen year old boys silent for an entire 90 seconds. The picture in the view finder doesn't give the scene justice. There is something missing in the image and I realize it is the sounds and scents and even the feel of the cold air smacking at my cheeks. I wish I could have captured the exact moment in time the lead hiker had raised his hand toward the falls below and eleven or so boys had turned their eyes toward the view within. But no camera could have pull that one off. You simply can't capture the whole spirit of the moment even on the most expensive digital camera. I sigh, wondering how many millions of visitors to the park have been completely blown away by this same view and realize my little toe is numb too. Then I shrug and follow the size ten boot trail toward the top of the cave.
The Hocking Hills. They are more than just a place to visit. Few travelers leave without finding a gift shop or places to canoe, horseback ride or simply hike. There are rugged trails to discover and waterfalls to photograph. There are fall hikes and winter hikes and even birds of prey programs at Hocking Hills State Park. But most of all, it is a place where even for just one tiny moment, you can have your breath taken away by the simple scenic beauty.