Thursday, October 23, 2014

Autumn Color at Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve

Fall coming to southeast Ohio is a moment I look forward to all year long.  It's a bittersweet moment at its core as another growing season has come to its inevitable end but the brief flux of color across the region's rolling, contiguously forested landscape makes winter's impending return seem not so rough.  Since moving down to the Athens area over five years ago, I've made sure to make the most out of living in such a spectacular part of the state.  In order to accomplish that there is one pilgrimage that must be made each and every October to a particular sandstone gorge in the renowned Hocking Hills region.

Looking into the bottleneck of Conkle's Hollow from the eastern gorge rim trail

If I've visited Conkle's Hollow state nature preserve once, I've visited it a dozen and a half times at just about every time of the year.  Its sheer sandstone cliff faces and bluffs rise precipitously from the cool, lush hemlock hollow below and is rimmed by an acidic mixed oak and pine forest community.  The views from the gorge rim trail are breathtaking no matter the season but let's not kid ourselves, nothing can best autumn's scene.

Incredible autumn color from all direcitons

The exposed layer of bedrock at Conkle's Hollow and the rest of the region is known as Black Hand sandstone and was laid down over 350 million years ago when an immense, warm shallow sea covered what is current-day Ohio.  The fine sand grains and rock particles that settled at the ocean's river deltas compacted under an ever-increasing amount of pressure and weight from the younger layers of sediment on top.  As the tectonic plates continued to shift and move over the Earth's surface, the eastern edge of the North American continent was forced up as the Appalachians formed, leaving Ohio high and dry and exposed to the elements.  Over the following hundreds of millions of years the softer surrounding bedrock material has been weathered away by the forces of water, ice and wind to reveal the resistant Black Hand sandstone.  Despite its heightened resiliency even it is not immune to the forces of time and erosion and has slowly but surely been carved out into the unique and fascinating gorges, promontories and rock houses we see today.

Stunted and gnarled Virginia pine along the very edges of the sandstone cliff edges and rock faces

When delving into the botanical aspect of any habitat or ecosystem it's important to know the geologic history and background for the corresponding area.  Geology and botany are intimately tied together and produce predictable results depending on the conditions present.  Conkle's Hollow's gorge rim is a harsh and acidic environment with very shallow, fast-draining soils and exposed bedrock with plant associations pretty similar to the Dolly Sods heath barrens I blogged about in the post prior to this.  Tree species such as chestnut/white/scarlet/post oaks, hemlock, Virginia pine, sourwood and serviceberry dominate with a shrub/herbaceous layer comprised of xeric acidophiles like mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), hillside blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum), teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and sawbrier (Smilax rotundifolia).

Unbeatable fall colors at Conkle's Hollow

As the story goes, Conkle's Hollow got its name from an inscription once visible on the western wall of the gorge that read -W.J. Conkle 1797-.  I can't imagine trying to rappel my way down the rock faces of the hollow with the technology and advancements of today, let alone over 200 years ago.  Whomever Conkle was, they certainly had more guts and adventure than I do; no way would I have been able to do such a task.  One wrong move and you're leaving your bones behind at the bottom of the hollow instead of your name!

Sheer sandstone cliffs rising nearly 200 feet above the valley floor

The sandstone cliffs look as imposing as they are impressive and boast vertical heights of nearly 200 feet, making it arguably the deepest hollow in the entire state.  The small creek that gently flows on the valley floor will continue to deepen the hollow millimeter by millimeter as time marches on and only add to its impressive physical relief statistics.  The mixture of evergreen hemlocks and bright yellow birch and tulip poplar at the bottom contrast nicely against the scarlet and orange of the oaks above the pale sandstone during the fall season.

Looking south out of the mouth of Conkle's Hollow and across the Hocking Hills

The fall foliage show has been exceptionally good this year with cool temperatures and wet weather sticking around for most of the month.  The leaves were nearing the end of their peak earlier this week during my visit but there's still time to get out there and see the views and scenery for yourself before it's done and gone for another year.  The view above is one I've admired and soaked in on numerous occasions and one that seems to get better upon each renewed visit.  No roads, no buildings, no powerlines, just ridge after ridge of contiguous forest ensconced in autumn's perfection.

Close up of one of Conkle's most prolific sandstone promontories 

I often tend to favor posts that take the reader places they've rarely, if ever been or perhaps never even heard of but sometimes it's hard to resist sharing a location that just about everyone is familiar with.  Conkle's Hollow is well-known, well-loved and certainly well-visited, as I can't recall a time when the parking lot hasn't had a majority of its spaces filled.  I'm thankful such a timeless and quintessential landscape for the region is preserved and protected as a state nature preserve and open for the public's enjoyment.  I highly encourage anyone reading to get out and visit for yourselves before winter clinches its cold and icy grip over Ohio; whether it's just one of a long string of visits or your first time!


  1. Looks like a beautiful place -- with the variety of terrain it must be good botanizing in the spring and summer.

  2. The rim trail is one of my favorite trails in the Old Man's Cave area. We've hiked it 10 or more times in the last 35 years. Only once did we see it in the fall like you captured it here.