Hike the Trails & Eat Comfort Food at Hocking Hills This Month
Making the hour drive to Hocking Hills puts into perspective how strange it actually is to be constantly surrounded by 850,000 people. Outside the heavily commuted roads encased by 270, the scenery gradually changes. The pin straight line of the horizon eventually oscillates into taller, longer mounds and hills. Traffic gets sparse. Cities become towns. Towns give way to farms and forest.
From the road it’s all a big homogenous mess of pines and oaks. Only on the miles of trails can the waterfalls, gorges and rock shelters of Appalachian Ohio be seen and appropriately admired.
Deciding which trail to hike is pretty arbitrary — there are no lame gorges or waterfalls. One way to choose, though, would be to follow the food, of which there is plenty. Where there’s a trailhead, comforting fare isn’t far off. With this year’s Comfort Food Cruise happening all month, 12 local restaurants and dining lodges are showcasing their signature dishes, meaning hikers can sample items like prime rib sliders, turkey pot pie, mac and cheese, and chili all weekend.
On Saturday, starting in Downtown Logan, there’s a string of restaurants to check off the list. If the weather holds out, a couple nearby trails can offer a little balance to the day. If not, like last weekend, just make it the day to get some serious eating done. Main Street and its neighboring roads are home to a handful of restaurants participating in the cruise.
M&M Family Diner, offering a mini portion of meatloaf and mashed potatoes made from a 150-year-old recipe, has an atmosphere to suit its name. Covered wall to wall and surface to surface with whimsical knick knacks and Buckeye paraphernalia, it’s kind of like stepping into someone’s grandma’s house. Owner Michelle Cooke is personable, conversing with regulars and newcomers as if they’re close friends — not a bad first stop. Up next is Maya Burrito Co, just a three-minute walk away, and they’re offering churros.
From what the employees say, Maya is a three-store company confined to Logan. Locally owned by Sean and Maria North, it has a menu comparable to Chipotle in its ingredients and service style. The churros are small, saving space for the sizable personal pizza from Pizza Crossing right around the corner.
Halfway through the day’s to-eats is Home Tavern’s chicken salad sandwich and chili. With the wind and rain revving up outside, it’s a pretty perfect meal to stave the chills. A line of locals at the bar might stare, picking up on the out-of-towner uncertainty. Grab a Java the Stout from Athens’ Jackie O’s and try to blend in. Other tourists await at The Olde Dutch, a Cracker Barrel kind of restaurant serving up chicken and noodles.
Pearl’s diner packs it on gently with a small biscuit and gravy. Millstone BBQ’s baked mac and cheese with bacon and brisket puts a cap on the day’s savory meals, leaving the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls’ ultimate chocolate brownie to silence the nagging of a sweet tooth. There’s always room for dessert, right?
Adequately or overly sated, the Comfort Food Cruiser can surrender to the impending food coma by stewing in the hot tub. Cedar Grove Lodging, a roughly three-minute drive from the Inn & Spa, provides a cabin with enough amenities to make “camping” relaxing and stress free, getting just enough nature with the full kitchen, fireplace and TV. A full night’s rest will prepare the body for tomorrow’s carb intake.
Sunday’s forecast was a bit friendlier, meaning the guilt of Saturday’s comfort food bender would soon pass. Only four restaurants are left, and of the offerings, the banana bread french toast seems most appropriate for breakfast, so it’s off to Hocking Hills Diner. On the way out of Logan for the last two Comfort Cruise meals is Jack’s Steak House, an unremarkable building on Hocking Drive. They serve up some cabbage soup to tide over the Comfort Cruiser for the 11-minute trip to the Boot Factory Grill. No brakes.
The Boot Factory Grill is an odd concept, situated between two rooms of shoes and apparel at the Rocky Boots outlet store in Nelsonville. They offer a prime rib slider dressed up with some mustard on the side, but the accompanying french onion soup is the real flavor of the meal. Savory beef broth, swarms of tiny onions and a layer of cheese settle under the two perfectly soggy croutons floating on top, imagery probably best forgotten on the half hour winding, slightly nauseating, scenic drive to Lake Hope Lodge.
For anyone with a weak stomach, several pullovers allow for some fresh air and spontaneous exploration. The Nelsonville brick plant is a neat distraction. A collection of little buildings huddled on the side of State Route 278, it’s easy to miss. Left over from the Nelsonville Brick Company’s booming operation in the late 19th and early 20th century, the brick plant has fallen into a state of disuse and neglect. The industry’s steady annual production of 25 million pavers and blocks has halted, leaving the kiln to function more like a storage unit for the remainders. Still, it’s cool to look at.
More legitimate sights and hiking trails surround Lake Hope. After loading up on the lodge’s turkey pot pie, roam around. Hope Iron Furnace is an interesting historic site. The tall structure, once used to smelt iron ore, has some higher access around the back for those who like to look down on others.
Nearby are dozens of trailheads along the road, including one right across from the furnace. Hike the looping, intersecting paths in Zaleski State Forest, but dress in light layers. The chill of 40 degree weather doesn’t linger long, and once the blood starts flowing, that winter coat is coming off.
If there hasn’t been enough spontaneity for the weekend, maybe decide to stay an extra night. For an “out the door” price, another evening can be spent lounging uselessly around the cabin. Light up the fire pit, pour some drinks, soak in the tub, and get ready for another day of wandering. After all, Old Man’s Cave is just a half mile from the cabin.
It’s the most populated place of the trip so far. While it’s not recommended to go off trail, doing so earns some unique sights. The designated path leads hikers along curves threaded between caves and cliffs, whirlpools and waterfalls. Walking along the route feels similar to a group tour. People can be seen out front and heard shuffling slowly behind, snapping identical photos for their next profile picture. Between that and the periodically posted reminders to keep to the trail, it’s a task to become truly immersed in the surrounding nature. The views are no less stunning, though. The Grandma Gatewood trail connects Old Man’s Cave with the Upper Falls and Ash Cave, Hocking Hills staples.
Several opportunities exist to branch off from the main path, revealing bizarre formations, flora and fauna. Thousands of fungal species populate the forests, turning appreciation of the region’s wildlife into a kind of science experiment. Trees offer surface area for the many potato chip-like mushrooms dotting their bark; gross, poisonous puffball mushrooms clump together on the forest floor. Flattening them releases a green fog, spreading their spores further.
One of these detours is an unpaved trail mostly camouflaged by decaying foliage. Until a tiny bridge pops up around the bend, it’s not even clear that it’s a real path. Hugging the rim of a large drop-off, the trail of pressed leaves passes another waterfall. Rushing heavily from the weekend’s precipitation, it can be heard long before it’s seen. The trail lets out at the top of the falls, an easily traversable creek with incredible views. Down at the bottom, another person is looking up. There’s no such thing as complete isolation.
Heading back, the woods cast shadows, exaggerating the diminishing light of early evening. Muddy, smelly, and already a little too used to the cabin’s comfort, make the short, sad return trip to the city. The skyline back home looks nothing like the towering ridges at Hocking Hills, and there are about 840,000 more people, but that’s okay. The Comfort Food Cruise is going for the next two weekends — plenty of time for another escape.
For more information on the cruise, visit http://www.explorehockinghills.com/comfortfoodcruise.aspx.
All photos by Dana Mealing and Lauren Sega.
Disclaimer / Editor’s Note: Columbus Underground was invited to participate in the Comfort Food Cruise in the Hocking Hills area in January 2017, and utilized the opportunity to send staff writer Lauren Sega on a multi-day experience to hone her skills as a writer. Food and lodging was provided to her free of charge as a part of the media tour event.