Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Winter Wonderland in the Hocking Hills

Earlier this week Southeast Ohio finally received what felt like its first appreciable snow event of the season.  We've had countless dustings and a few passing systems that left an inch or two on the ground but in the end nothing that made you want to throw your snow boots on.  So when a fresh five inches fell overnight and draped the world in a picture perfect winter wonderland, I immediately felt the urge to get out and enjoy it.

Quiet, snow-covered trail along Queer Creek in the Hocking Hills

I decided the best bang for my hiking buck would be to brave the cold and make the short drive to the Hocking Hills for the day. The snow coincided perfectly with a rare day where I had little on the schedule and I was determined to take advantage of it.  The road conditions were poor and air temperatures only in the single digits during the drive out but the crisp blue sky and bright sun really made the landscape pop under all the snow.

Blackhand sandstone is a work of art carved by wind, rain and ice

I passed hardly any cars during the drive and encountered even fewer people on the trails.  In fact, just about everywhere I went my tire and/or foot tracks were the first to tarnish the previously pristine snow.  The Hocking Hills is easily one of the state's most popular and heavily visited attractions year-round but I had it more or less entirely to myself for the day and loved every minute of it.

A frozen solid Cedar Falls

The morning started off with a quick stop by famed Cedar Falls.  With subzero temperatures the night before and daily highs well below freezing for days on end, I knew its typically graceful flow would be locked up in a tremendous display of ice.  I was not disappointed.  The silence of the scene was only broken by a slow trickle of water behind the massive mask of ice.

Wide view of frozen Cedar Falls in the Hocking Hills

One of the reasons the Hocking Hills was an easy choice for a snow-laden hike was its year-round presence of color.  Most of Ohio over-winters in a variety of depressingly drab shades of brown and gray.  The Hocking Hills bucks that trend with a rich display of iron-orange Blackhand sandstone and evergreen hemlocks.  I'm especially partial to the color of the uniquely patterned sandstone. It's deserving of its own color in a Crayola crayon box coming soon.

Appalachian rockcap fern (Polypodium appalachianum) tightly curled in the subfreezing temperatures

Multiple layers of wool and fleece kept your narrator warm and toasty despite hours spent out in the subfreezing temperatures.  The same could not be said for the rest of the plant and animal life trying to survive the winter.  The Appalachian rockcap ferns (Polypodium appalachianum) that grace many slump rocks and boulders throughout the region looked especially cold.  Their evergreen fronds were all tightly curled inward, as if to shiver off the arctic chill.

Snow, sandstone and hemlocks

Leaving Cedar Falls behind, I made for my next stop in a lesser known part of Hocking state forest in Edison Hollow.  It's off the beaten path but contains much of the same beauty and features that make the region so popular.

Mature forest within Edison Hollow

Walking back into the bottleneck of the hollow takes you through an impressive forest with a lofty canopy and mature timber. Hemlock, black and yellow birch, beech, tuliptree, red and white oak, sugar maple, black cherry and basswood were all present and combine to make a locally significant forest community.  The Hocking Hills rugged and rough topography creates a cool, moist micro climate in its deep hollows which allows for the typically more northern assemblage of trees and plants to persist.

80'+ waterfall at the back of Edison Hollow
Once I reached the back of the gorge my eyes were met with an impressive straight plunge waterfall over 80 feet tall.  Much like Cedar Falls, Edison's was nearly frozen solid and only had a small drip of life to it.  The ice pyramid at its base was especially impressive.  It dwarfed me when standing next to it at nearly 20 feet in height and emitted a soft greenish-blue glow through its complex layers of ice crystals.

Snow, wind and light combine for a stunning scene

My visit to Edison Hollow happened to coincide with the sun positioned behind the falls and illuminating the stand of hemlocks at its precipice.  For a few brief moments the wind would pick up and send the hemlock's accumulated snow into the air, creating a heavenly glow of light above the falls.  The sunbeams would stream through the haze of ice and dance in waves and ripples.

Abruptly ending squirrel tracks
Greenshield Lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata)

The winter woods has a silence and beauty all its own, even more so after a fresh snowfall.  Animal activity was sparse with only a few lines of tracks meandering through the trees.  My favorites were the squirrel prints.  Their tracks would abruptly end a few feet from a tree as if it was suddenly snatched up in an alien spaceship's tractor beam...instead of just jumping onto and scurrying up the tree.

Overlooking the Queer Creek valley from atop a sandstone rock outcropping

After experiencing some impressive upward views in the sandstone gorges and hollows, it was high time to gain some elevation.  I chose another secluded and hardly-traveled area in the south-facing ridge line of the Queer Creek valley.  The valley contains a number of nice rock outcroppings that show off their views across the rough terrain.  Once again the dominant presence of the evergreen hemlocks and their snow-covered branches really magnified the charm of the scene.

Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

The hemlocks weren't the only source of seasonal greenery.  Stunted Virginia pines and tangles of mountain laurel grew all along the rocky cliff's edges and perimeter.  They were right at home with the other dry, acidic condition-loving plants of the ridge tops like chestnut, black and scarlet oaks, downy serviceberry, hillside blueberry, black huckleberry and sourwood.

Sandstone rock outcrop above Rooty Hollow along the Queer Creek Valley

This past summer was the first time I'd ever experienced this particular part of the Hocking Hills.  These same rocky outcrops and cliff edges above Queer Creek are home to the state endangered cow-wheat (Melampryum lineare) and were the subject of a day's monitoring and surveying back on a hot and humid day in June.  The views and off-trail seclusion of it all made an instant impression back then and I knew it had to be equally good come winter.

Walking back into the bottleneck of Conkle's Hollow

No trip to the Hocking Hills for me is ever complete without a stop by Conkle's Hollow.  I'm fortunate to have seen and experienced as much of our fine state as I have and even after the years and new places, Conkle's still makes me swoon.  Walking back into its deep gorge or walking the rim trails, I never tire of the feel or atmosphere of the preserve.

Sheer sandstone goodness

Conkle's hollow is one of the deepest in the entire state with depths of over 200 feet.  Many people consider Ohio to be flat and featureless.  It depends on where you're standing when you say that I suppose, but they'd best not be in the Hocking Hills!  Where else in the state do you get sheer walls of rock hundreds of feet tall right in your face?

Yellow birch roots exposed and growing down rock
Hefty hemlock

The predominate bedrock material of the Hocking Hills was laid down some 340 million years ago during the Mississippian Period. During that time the region was under a warm, shallow sea where several prehistoric waterways deposited their sediment loads over a series of deltaic complexes.  Over the eons the sediment layers cemented together to form the Blackhand sandstone we know today. Subsequent geological unrest in the region uplifted and exposed this strata of bedrock to the elements, where millions of years of wind, water and ice has carved out the incredible features we see today.

Frozen ice pillars at the back of Conkle's Hollow

Conkle's Hollow is supremely one of Father time and Mother nature's best works of erosion and patience in the state.  It's fun to think about what the preserve and hollow will look like hundreds of thousands of years into the future.  We live in such a brief flash of geologic time it's hard to comprehend the changes that have happened and will continue happening over the millions and billions of years.

Looking back into the bottleneck of Conkle's Hollow from the east rim trail

As the Blackhand sandstone was laid down, the sediments conglomerated into layers of varying erosion resistance.  The bottom and topmost layers are course-grained and firmly cemented, thus being very resistant to weathering.  These layers make up the basements of the region's hollows and their respective rims and tops of waterfalls.  The middle strata is comprised of a much finer grained sand that was crossbedded and weakly cemented, leaving it vulnerable to erosion.  This layer is where you see your recesses, caves and rock shelters.  Conkle's Hollow and the countless others in the Hocking Hills came to exist when a massive crack or fault in the previously more or less solid block of bedrock occurred and was gradually eaten away until it met more resilient rock.  Over millions of years it's gotten as far as what you see in the photo above.  It all comes back to time and the Earth has had a lot of it to work with.

Looking south out of Conkle's Hollow

This view just never gets old or boring, no matter how many times you've seen it

The afternoon skies had clouded up and a brisk wind was beginning to stir by the time I got to the eastern rim trail.  Temperatures had warmed into the low 20's but that new wind cut like a knife.  Still, it wasn't enough to dull the experience of the rim.  I've soaked in this view dozens of times and taken the same photo dozens more but it never, ever gets even one iota old.

The state-rare resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides)

I capped off my all-day Hocking Hills hiking extravaganza with a quick stop by a particular hunk of rock to see how one of our hardiest ferns was dealing with the harsh winter conditions.  Just as I expected, the state-rare resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides) looked just about dead.  But not to fear, it's just playing possum and will be back good as new with time.  This species gets its common name from its ability to dry and shrivel to a near-crisp during times of cold and/or arid conditions and snap right back to a lush, green state after getting a drink.  A fern that can come back from the "dead".  Resurrection, indeed.

I certainly got my wish for a good snowfall at some point this winter but it could be noted that you should always be careful what you wish for.  Another six-seven inches has fallen today to leave a solid foot of the white stuff on the ground.  That can only mean it's time to get out and do some more winter wonderland exploration, right?

~ ALG ~


  1. Another wonderful post, Andrew! There really is nothing quite like being in the woods in winter. I had the honor of being on a field crew sampling tree plots all winter on one of TNC nicest properties in the Ozarks. Talk about never working a day in your life.....Thanks for sharing another piece of Ohio's splendor.

  2. Great blog post, Andrew! I feel that I was there with you all the way. Your excellent photography and natural writing style made it all the better. I can hardly wait for your sprint posts.

    Jim Fowler, Greenville, SC

  3. Looks like a great place to explore. I don't think we have many sandstone outcrops in southern Ontario, though we have similar cliffs and hollows along the Niagara Escarpment. We do have lots of snow though - all winter long!

  4. Stunningly Beautiful. Nice work Andrew!

  5. What a beautiful area! You caught it on a day that added to the beauty -- congratulations on your great photos.