January 2010 Issue
New outdoor attractions deliver a wonderland of winter fun in the Hocking Hills.
Last year was the coldest January in 15 years for most of Ohio. National Weather Service statistics show that seasonal snowfall ranged from 60 inches around Mansfield and Akron to between 125 and 175 inches in Geauga and Ashtabula counties in the heart of the snow belt.
It’s time to tell Old Man Winter that two can play at that game.
This month, the Hocking Hills region offers four great reasons to meet the cold head on. Get rugged on 10 miles of ATV trails, scale tall trees and stop for lunch with a view in a tree hammock, take an aerial tour of the area’s natural wonders or creep through the forest as you learn the art of nature photography. Plus, January is one of the best months to find travel deals on cabins, restaurants and other area attractions. By the end of the weekend, you just might be humming “Let it Snow.”
The mystic caves and craggy rocks of the Hocking Hills region are spectacular to see up close. But an overhead view of this region is a quick lesson that, in nature, the whole is often far greater than the sum of its parts. “When the leaves are off, you get to see a greater contour of the hills,” says pilot Harry Sowers, whose business, Hocking Hills Scenic Air Tours, offers aerial tours of the Hocking Hills region and the surrounding landscapes of southern Ohio. “You get to see what the glacier did.”
Tours leave from the Vinton County Airport and can last between 20 and 60 minutes. Sowers, who has been flying for more than 40 years, puts you instantly at ease as you climb into his four-seat Cessna 172 Skyhawk II. “I like to ask people if they like roller coasters,” he says. “If they say yes, I know we can have some fun, but if they say no, I make the ride as gentle as possible.”
Whatever your comfort level, Sowers is more than accommodating. Trips can be purely for sightseeing, or can be an educational experience that includes the important points of a preflight inspection and the 101 on how a plane works. As for the route, that’s also your call. “It just depends on how much time you want to be in the air and the attractions you want to see,” he says. On a 30-minute tour, you might fly over Lake Hope State Park and its Italy-shaped eponymous lake, a 10-mile stretch of nothing but trees in Zaleski State Forest and the state parks in the Hocking Hills. Without the leaves, you’ll get a view of the upper and lower falls of Old Man’s Cave (Sowers calls it the “mini Grand Canyon”) and winter’s signature ice formations and snow.
But it’s not just about seeing the rocks and caves of state parks, says Sowers. “The towns become more prevalent,” he says. Also, “It’s easier to spot animals, and on a clear day, you can see about 80 miles.”
Even for this seasoned pilot, no two trips are ever alike; that’s possibly why he likes to fly south in the winter to another natural treasure — the Ohio River. “It’s a different take with the ice,” he says.
In the Tree Top
Whether you’re seeking peace and relaxation or a vertical adventure, Shelly Byrne thinks you can find both in the branches of a tree. “Our motto is challenge by choice,” says Byrne, owner of Earthjoy Recreational Tree Climbing, which has locations in the Hocking Hills and in northern Kentucky. Byrne and her husband, Michael, help climbers of all skill levels connect with
nature by teaching them how to safely climb to heights as high as 100 feet.
Although climbing is both physical and technical, for many, says Byrne, it’s also transformative. “It’s slow travel,” she says. “And that takes your mind off of things.”
Based on skill and comfort levels, Byrne matches climbers with one of five trees on the property, steering adrenaline addicts to Hercules, a 135-foot-tall red oak, and those seeking a gentler journey toward a maple whose horizontal branches take the edge off the trip up. There are incentives along the way. Earthjoy creates a play yard in the treetops, setting up tree chairs and hammocks where climbers can rest and take in the view, and hiding monkeys, rubber spiders and other toys in the tree for mini scavenger hunts.
Like most adventures, this one isn’t for everyone. Climbers must be at least 7 years old and be in decent physical shape — able to hike about a quarter mile on uneven terrain and to climb at least two flights of stairs without stopping. Earthjoy is open year-round, but does not schedule climbs in temperatures below 40 degrees. Plan on about two and a half hours for the experience. Because they live in Northern Kentucky, Byrne says they prefer to have a group of at least eight to climb between January and March, so call ahead.
Even if it’s been a few years since the last time you climbed a tree, Byrne says you might surprise yourself. “We teach people to hang upside down, and some people prefer to come down that way — just like Spiderman,” she says. But don’t let your lack of super-powers stop you from trying something new. “It’s not about getting to the top,” she says. “It’s about enjoying the journey.”
The cost, maintenance and transport of an ATV makes riding one a sport most people never get to try. So we’re not surprised that Hocking Hills Nature Trails — the only place in Ohio that rents ATVs to the public — got off to a high-revving start when it opened its gates last April. “For a lot of our customers, this is the first time they’ve ever been on [an ATV],” says owner Karry Gemmel. “By the time they leave, they can’t wait to come back.”
The trip begins with instruction on the basics like starting, stopping, turning and going up and down hills. Gemmel and his crew have carved out 10 miles of trails ranging from a gentle ride to a rugged romp in the mud. Employees guide every group out to explain the perimeters, and will stay with you if you feel the need, so there’s no chance of getting lost. Trails are clearly marked to indicate their level of difficulty. “You don’t have to get dirty if you don’t want to,” says Gemmel.
In addition to being in a beautiful place, amazingly, there is usually an opportunity for wildlife watching, since most of the deer, squirrels and other animals that live on this property have grown accustomed to the noise and will stay put as you ride by. It’s just one more thrill to add to this thrill ride.
“We’ve had some customers in their 70s who said this was on their ‘bucket list,’ ” he says. “They had a blast.”
Seeing the Light
The best part about adventure travel is learning to see nature in a new light. Professional photographer Eric Hoffman can help you with that, in more ways than one. Hoffman hosts nature photography workshops in the Hocking Hills to help photographers of all levels (lots of people show up with their camera still in the box, he says) become sure shots. “We start out the morning with a Power Point presentation to help people get used to the idea of doing things manually — setting their own aperture and shutter speed — instead of just setting the camera to automatic,” he explains. The morning lesson also covers the principles of composition and the rule of shooting in thirds. After that, says Hoffman, the group heads out into the field to apply what they’ve just learned.
“We generally start around Old Man’s Cave,” he says, which features a big overhang with a small waterfall. “It’s a good place to learn about motion versus stop action in your photo,” he says. And while most people leave with an improved sense of capturing Mother Nature as their subject, Hoffman says one of the biggest secrets to a successful outdoor photo is also one of the easiest to master. “Use a tripod,” he says.