Photos and story by Ann Hattes
Sheer cliffs tower above recess caves. Deep gorges lead past massive rock formations to sparkling waterfalls. The Hocking Hills, in southeastern Ohio only 55 miles from Columbus, are the rugged foothills of the Appalachians and home to 9 state parks and 9,000 acres of state forest.
Plan now for a late Fall or early winter getaway to this “Hot Tub Capital of the mid-West” known for its homespun hospitality. Tucked away in hills and hallows are cabins and cottages perfect for romantic intimacy or a family get-together. Get away from the TV, phone and computer. It’s even possible to arrange for a massage right in your room followed by a four-course dinner prepared in your cabin by a traveling chef.
Visitors marvel that the region has remained so primitive and undeveloped as they hike to Old Man’s Cave, named after a Civil War-era hermit, or to Ash Cave, the largest recess cave in Ohio with a span of 700 feet.
Some, instead of hiking, take guided horseback trail rides while others contact Mountain Man Mule Expeditions (740-332-0221) for a carriage ride or mule trek. Guide and owner Ken Wells chose mules over horses for their “strength, endurance, surefootedness” and the fact that they are “notoriously easy keepers.”
Wells, who grew up in Ohio and has lived in Alaska and the West, races mules at the local county fairs. The mules do the quarter-mile race in about 30 seconds. “It’s exhilarating to say the least,” comments Wells.
Wells rattles off the names of his mules, some of which he has raised from babies: “Kitten and Betty; Bob and Bud; Kelly; Casino; Jerry; Cindy; Leo; Henry; Noah; Paint; Mandy and Annie.” Wells has worked with mules for 20 years. When asked if mules are stubborn, Wells responds: “I like to think of it as analytical.”
Mountain Man Wells and his wife Lorrene were married in Ash Cave on a beautiful Fall day, then got on their mules and rode up the trail to a rental cabin in Hocking Hills State Park.
Wells says he’s available to take visitors throughout the year in any weather, reservations strongly advised. “We have access to some 60 miles of trail in the park. We climb about one-half mile just getting out of here but the first 3 hours are a pretty mild ride. There are parts of these trails where the rider has to be physically fit with no fear of the animal. Children can go if they are big enough to reach the stirrups, and can handle the mule alone – steering, stopping, making it go.”
Ladora Ousley, owner of Etta’s General Store and Lunch Box Café (740-380-0736), has the same grit and determination, some call it “Appalachian backbone” as Mountain Man Ken Wells. Ousley, who left the stress of a city job to come back to her family roots, will tell you about the 1920s building she’s slowly renovating, dipping into her retirement fund for expenses. Over time she plans a bunkhouse for backpackers, a luxury cabin by the creek, and a petting zoo for children.
Etta’s is a one-of-a-kind experience where guests are surrounded by a colorful collection of more than 400 vintage lunch boxes. Ousley named the Café after her grandmother Etta, a logger’s wife who taught her how to bake pies and bread and how to cook good country fare.
“People come in and see the lunchboxes they took to school 40 years ago and it puts them back in the 2nd. Grade,” explains Ousley. “They remember their teacher and who they hit on the head with the lunchbox.”
“I carried Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and it’s up there in a sacred spot,” states Ousley.
Awhile back Ellen Grinsfelder’s mom also came to the area with a vision. She purchased a log cabin surrounded on three sides by state park and at first offered rooms and a meal. As the facility expanded with cabins and cottages, daughter Ellen married the Inn contractor Terry Lingo and carried on the business. Today The Inn at Cedar Falls (www.innatcedarfalls.com), on 60 acres of rustic scenery, offers a myriad of outdoor recreational activities as well as fine American cuisine, wine tastings, kitchen classes and visiting guest chef dinners.
Jacqui Barnett, co-owner and factory manager of the Columbus Washboard Company (www.columbuswashboard.com), gives tours of the only washboard company in the U.S. today. She, her husband Bevan Barnett and a small group of investors saved the 1895 company from extinction by purchasing this piece of history from the owners and moving the original equipment to a long abandoned warehouse in Logan in the heart of Hocking Hills country. Visitors are invited to stop in and see this slice of Americana firsthand, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Today five women manufacture about 45,000 washboards a year in three sizes with rubbing surfaces of metal, galvanized steel, brass or glass. Soldiers, students, campers and the Amish use washboards to clean clothes so “about 40% of what we sell is used for actual washboard use,” says Jacqui Barnett. “Today about 40% of the washboards are used for music and 20% for crafts,” she explains.
Accordingly Barnett has been instrumental in founding the International Washboard Festival held each June in Logan. More than a dozen folk bands participate, each featuring a washboard player playing everything from bluegrass to zydeco. Local artists display and sell a variety of folk art and washboard-inspired instruments and crafts.
A diversity and wealth of talented artists call the Hocking Hills region of Ohio home. Working in pottery, paint, wood, glass, printing, fiber, photography, sculpture and other mediums, gifted artists find their inspiration in the natural scenery. A brochure, “Art in the Hocking Hills,” (www.hockinghillsart.com) details the more than 60 retail galleries, individual studios and cultural centers throughout Hocking, Athens and Fairfield Counties.
For more information, call 1-800-HOCKING or visit the web: www.1800hocking.com.